One more golden afternoon for greats

In the end it was hard to avoid the feeling that there was something valedictory, something end-of-era, about it all.

A balmy autumn evening and a group of players well into the autumn of their careers — in a couple of cases the post-autumn of their careers — taking a luxuriant, leisurely turn about Croke Park, babies and small children in tow. Yes, babies and small children. These are family men now and, astounding a notion though it sounds, they have lives outside hurling. And some day soon a number of them will be former intercounty players. And that realisation would have made this, if not an All-Ireland that Kilkenny could have afforded to lose, then an All-Ireland where defeat would have entailed no pointing of fingers or effigy-burning.

After the many lands they’d conquered down the years, for this last battle to have proved an Arnhem for the members of Brian Cody’s praetorian guard wouldn’t have been a shock and wouldn’t have remotely been an indictment of them. Yet there was one more golden afternoon left to them. Once more they summoned the spirits from the deep and once more the spirits answered the call. Remarkable. But, knowing these guys as we do, unsurprising.

The great man was right. A settled spirit is more important than a settled team. Kilkenny have never won a more hard-earned All-Ireland (seven matches compared to the four of other years) on his watch and have never looked more uncertain of themselves along the way. The beautification process was ongoing from match to match. A nip here, a tuck there, a new partner for Richie Hogan in midfield. Lo and behold, it comes to rescheduled prom night and the plain-but-sensitive girl turns out to be Molly Ringwald, Goddess, radiant in pink.

One can fairly assume it was an unusually fraught Kilkenny camp behind the curtains. Not fractious, perhaps, but not friction-free either. There was the Shefflin situation, there was the Tommy Walsh situation and it can be taken as read that Lester Ryan, the captain, was less than whelmed about not seeing more game time during the campaign. But a simmering pot was not allowed to bubble over.

“Ar scáth a cheile a mhaireann na daoine,” as Ryan put it in his impressive acceptance speech. No player is an island.

In contrast to the drawn match, with its swoops and swerves and hairpin turns, there was no seesaw moment here, merely a series of visual clues that would add up to something big.

It would take a heart of stone not to bleed for Tipperary. To return to a point made here a while ago, Kilkenny have been blessed to have had Tipp and Tipp absolutely cursed to have had Kilkenny. It’s not overdoing it to argue that Tipperary’s presence has actually prolonged the lifespan of this Kilkenny team and encouraged them to keep their venom warm. Moralists assert it’s the mark of a man to make worthy enemies, and Cody’s Kilkenny have been exalted by their foes. Cork at first, Waterford for a couple of seasons along the way and latterly the men in blue and gold.

Raymond Smith’s Arkle/Mill House metaphor from half a century ago has never seemed more apt in reverse. Kilkenny’s All-Ireland winners of 1963 — the year Mill House won his Gold Cup — might well have gone on to greater things, Smith contended, but for Tipperary, who like Arkle were champions in 1964-65. What heights might Tipp’s champions of 2010 have proceeded to scale but for Kilkenny? And Arkle’s colours were yellow and black...

Tipp had been the better team, slightly, in both the drawn game and the league final. Here they were six or seven points the inferior team. If James Woodlock mislaying his buccaneering spirit was a blow, the handcuffing of Bonner Maher was critical. To paraphrase and invert Yeats: the centre-forward cannot hold, things fall apart.

That said, Tipp’s first-half movement was good, their attacks threatening. They scored one goal and went close twice. Kilkenny, lent poise by the return of Padraig Walsh to wing-back and given a ground-devouring midfield totem by the switch there of Michael Fennelly, hadn’t forced Darren Gleeson into anything more onerous than his normal housekeeping duties, with Colin Fennelly and John Power barely mapped and Eoin Larkin not much more prominent, his early point apart.

While this wasn’t quite an emergency, the moment was approaching to break the glass and reach for the implement known as Shefflin. Upon which the narrative of the evening, told in two voices up to then, took a twist. The Leinster champions restarted with four unanswered points, two of them from Colin Fennelly, switched to full-forward and revelling in the space. (For some reason Kilkenny always seem to end up playing into the Railway End in the second half of All-Ireland finals. And loving it.) Suddenly this was a story with a single narrator.

The younger Power burst into proceedings with a point; he could hardly be taken off now. Larkin landed a beauty from the touchline; he could hardly be taken off either. When Shefflin eventually came on it was for Richie Hogan, and moments later the elder Power pounced to give the winners a grip they’d maintain.

If one man has been the championship-breaker for Kilkenny these past two months it’s been Richie Power. Introduced a minute after Shefflin at the three-quarter stage against Limerick, it was he rather than his more celebrated fellow redhead who turned the issue Kilkenny’s way. He was rightly praised for his second goal three weeks ago but wasn’t given his due for his technically astonishing first goal: a feather-light touch to dink the sliotar over Gleeson and meet it on the other side.

Kilkenny wouldn’t have won the All-Ireland had not Power, the county’s most naturally gifted player since DJ Carey, come into his kingdom at the right moment. They probably wouldn’t have won it either had they not had the good sense to restore Eoin Murphy to the goal-line in time.

There’s one other man without whom the post-2006 glories could not have happened and he doesn’t even hail from Noreside. Mick Dempsey.

Not being a hurling man originally he’s able to see things with a different eye; not being a Kilkenny man he’s not abashed by Cody. We may never know the extent to which Dempsey changed Cody’s thinking about players or training or systems or ball use, but it’s tempting to think of them hashing things out after training at their table in Langton’s, Cody revealing his latest brainwave for the next match — maybe an all-James Stephens full-back line of Jackie Tyrrell, Fan Larkin and himself — and Dempsey politely but firmly supplying the boss with a better alternative. (Joke, obviously, Brian). So let’s leave them there in a shaft of sunlight as they were around 7pm on Saturday, strolling around the ground. Family men now with babies and small children and the cares of adulthood, soon to be former inter-county players, but still the members of Cody’s praetorian guard, now and forever, unconquerable and immortal.

The men they’ll never hang.


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