How these seven men will decide the destiny of the Liam MacCarthy Cup

With the destination of the Liam MacCarthy Cup wide open, this could prove to be the All-Ireland series from heaven. Here Enda McEvoy looks at seven individuals — not all of them superstars — who’ll have a say in the outcome of the 2017 hurling championship

Micheál Donoghue

One of the most significant figures of Championship 2017 and, frustratingly, one of the most opaque. We know next to nothing about Donoghue other than that he’s personable and speaks softly. Yet clearly there’s steel behind the skin, as he demonstrated when casting aside a number of big names and long servers at the end of last season. This is his team now and his reputation will stand or fall on how the men in maroon fare. Win their next two games and he will, of course, become a new Galway hero.

Donoghue has been lucky in one regard: losing last year’s All-Ireland semi-final. In doing so he dodged a bullet, for Galway didn’t need yet another September showdown with Kilkenny and particularly not one without the services of Joe Canning.

The intervening 11 months have given him room to put his stamp on the team; picking up National League silverware along the way was a bonus, and an unexpected one after the failure to gain promotion. Donoghue did his time on the club circuit around the county and broadened his horizons with his stint in Tipperary during Eamon O’Shea’s tenure. The recent cameos for Sean Loftus and Thomas Monaghan indicate he’s making a point of building for the future. What his playing philosophy entails is unknown but pragmatism is an obvious feature. Common sense demands that Galway channel quick aerial ball to those monster forwards: that’s exactly what they’ve been doing. If Donoghue chooses to retrain as a pastry chef, nobody will ever accuse him of overegging any of his puddings.

Conor Cooney

Wexford’s game is complicated, the pieces carefully assembled, the moves painstakingly rehearsed. Galway’s game is the direct opposite and in the Leinster final they made the sport look bracingly simple. Cooney was their attacking spearhead and they supplied him with ball after ball after ball, high and low. He finished the afternoon with seven points from play and three different markers bearing scorch marks.

Admittedly Cooney was assisted by the fact that Joseph Cooney, out on the left wing, was also on song and Joe Canning, an injury notwithstanding, was prompting from deep. The upshot was that the St Thomas’s man wasn’t bearing the load by himself. He was certainly due his day in the sun, having been hampered to a ludicrous degree over the past few years by injury. The 2015 championship was a particular write-off, the only action he saw being the concluding 14 minutes of the All-Ireland final.

Galway put up a total of 0-29 at Croke Park last month despite Cathal Mannion being absent and Conor Whelan, so impressive against Tipperary and Offaly, failing to score. It goes without saying that Cooney won’t hit seven points every day. A little more from one or two of the men around him, however, and Galway won’t need him to.

Jamie Barron

Remember the young Tony Browne? An all-action, emphatically unstatuesque midfielder. Up and down the pitch non-stop. Impressive goalscoring record for a non-forward. Well, Barron more and more resembles a throwback to the Browne of the late 90s/early noughties. And he’s no giant either, weighing in at 12 stone and standing 5’9.

Just goes to show that size ain’t everything, not even in contemporary hurling.

Some All Star recipients prove one-hit wonders and are never heard of again. Not so the Fourmilewater man, who has stepped up on his 2016 form. Very good in defeat against Cork, he was outstanding in victory against Kilkenny. The capacity of his engine has long been lauded in west Waterford and at Semple Stadium a fortnight ago it was clear why. Even the most industrious and mobile of midfielders aren’t supposed to go rampaging through the opposition defence in the ninth minute of injury time to hit the match-turning goal. Nor do midfielders customarily finish their evening’s work with a haul of 1-3.

Two elements of Barron’s goal were striking: the whipcrack stroke with which Austin Gleeson put the sliotar through the eye of the needle to pick him out and the advanced position Barron had taken up before he ran on, eschewed the option of a point and planted his shot past Eoin Murphy. Should Waterford win on Sunday a second successive All-Star award can’t be far away.

Patrick Maher

In truth, we could as easily have chosen Dan McCormack here. Tipp have four forwards who are catwalk stars; Maher and McCormack are the carpenters who build the platform for them to strut their stuff. At this stage, the virtues and limitations of the Lorrha man, the Didier Deschamps to Seamus Callanan’s Eric Cantona, are so familiar as to barely require enumeration. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that the league final fiasco occurred with Maher absent for the opening 45 minutes. In view of his UN tour of duty one wondered if his first touch — and Maher’s game is predicated on getting the sliotar up at the first time of asking, taking off and bringing it into contact — might have been compromised. So far this summer, there’s been no indication it has.

If you were being mean-minded or had nothing better to do, you could claim, and with some justification, that Maher’s palette has never broadened in his time as an intercounty player. The counter-argument is that neither he nor Tipperary needed it to. He doesn’t attempt points from impossible angles — he rarely attempts points at all, indeed — and he doesn’t flounce around like a player with exalted notions of himself. Therein lies the secret of his unobtrusive success. Callanan and Padraic Maher have got most of the plaudits on Tipperary’s good days. But none of it would have been possible without Patrick Maher and his selfless toil.

Diarmuid O’Keeffe

Brian Cody has always been definitive: defenders defend. No fancy stuff, no showing off. In Wexford under Davy Fitz, it’s different. Defenders attack.

There’s a good reason for that. With limited materials to hand, Davy is obliged to try and find unusual ways of sourcing scores. Needs must, basically. As a consequence, O’Keeffe is in the improbable position of being one of his county’s leading scorers to date this summer — improbable under normal circumstances because he’s the left-half back. Has made the scoresheet in each of their outings to date, hitting a point against both Laois and Kilkenny and bagging 1-1 in the Leinster final. Unsurprisingly given the identity of their manager, Wexford have been tactically novel, with their approach to a large measure based on getting defenders venturing up the field to shoot from distance. O’Keeffe got so far up the field in the second half of the provincial decider, he ended up poking home the losers’ goal from the edge of the square.

A favourite Wexford trick is to suck in opponents on one side of the field before switching the sliotar to the far side, where a man in purple and gold is steaming out defence to take the switch ball and shoot from 50 metres. Given their accuracy from distance, it’s clear that many hours have been spent on the training field practising long-range shooting. O’Keeffe may not be the talisman Lee Chin is but he still knows where the posts are.

Patrick Horgan

Should Cork make it to Croke Park in September literally every one of their forwards is a potential matchwinner; this is that rare beast, an attack without a designated workhorse, diligently though Seamus Harnedy has always laboured and industrious though Conor Lehane has been of late. The greater recent output from the collective has lessened the pressure on the Glen Rovers man to be the saviour and he’s responded.

While Alan Cadogan was a worthy Munster final man of the match recipient, Horgan, with three points from play and 10 from frees, couldn’t have been too far off on an afternoon when he passed his fellow clubman Christy Ring to move into fifth place on the all-time championship scorers’ list. The county’s resident stylist for the best part of a decade Horgan is one of those types who’d be a better player in a better team — precisely what both he and Cork have been this summer. The upshot is that everyone’s a winner. And not to diss the talents of the men around him, but if Cork’s season comes down to a piece of honey-wristed, tight -cornered, match-turning intuitive magic at some stage in the next few weeks, Horgan will be the man.

Much has been made of the number of players from off-Broadway clubs who’ve wore the red and white in recent years. That’s great. But there’s also something in hurling that stirs the heart on seeing a player from a traditional power, retracing the footsteps of the giants of yesteryear.

As Horgan has been doing of late.

John Conlon

What’s become of the man who terrorised Kilkenny in last year’s league semi-final? Could he possibly be related to the same individual who for much of the Munster final was shuttling up and down the flank covering his half-back line? Unfortunate to report that he sure could. For Clare’s sake, he’d better be more of the former than the latter tomorrow. It would be no surprise, indeed, if Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor give Conlon 20 minutes on the edge of the Tipperary square at some stage. On the evidence of Semple Stadium a fortnight ago, Clare require something — anything — to add a leavening of spices and chilli to a dish that’s in danger of expiring from blandness.

Although Conlon lacks the star wattage of Conor McGrath and Shane O’Donnell, he offers a husky presence that nobody else up front for Clare, bar Aron Shanagher, possesses. Then there’s the bigger picture and the reason why their date with Tipp is such a big game for the county.

After their triumph in 2013 it was all the rage, and with eminent good reason, to predict that they’d win at least two more All-Irelands before the decade was out. Now they’re running out of time to win even one. This cold reality means that tomorrow is not merely potentially the end of the road for Clare this season but also a signpost to their fortunes in 2018 and 2019. If they fail to show much here, can anything better be expected of them in the next couple of years?



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