Award-winning writer Eimear Ryan on the visceral feel of an All-Ireland success for Tipperary against Kilkenny.
We arrive hopeful, but braced for the worst. We crawl up the M7, cheek by jowl with the Limerick and Kilkenny traffic, registration plates and window-flags giving us away. We park in the Mater or Parnell Square or wherever there’s room.
We walk north to Drumcondra, all brash banter and braided colours and pint bottles of cider, but doubts niggling underneath.
We remember 2014.
The year Eamon O’Shea’s avuncular, holistic approach to management – his belief in open, attacking, but above all joyful hurling – merges with something like ruthlessness.
Tipp stop worrying about trying to stop Kilkenny. Instead, they accept Kilkenny will perform – it’s just a matter of outperforming them. It’s the approach that worked in 2010.
We come close.
We could point to the near misses, of course. Two saved penalties. Lar’s upright-rattling shot in the second- half. Not to speak of the HawkEye incident.
There are so many positives, but ultimately we come away from the drawn game knowing Tipp’s most dynamic and audacious performance in years still isn’t enough to topple Kilkenny.
We think of that day as we file into the nosebleed seats of the Cusack Stand. Tipp have shown resilience and intent all year; there’s cause for hope.
But Kilkenny has just seen off the most swashbuckling of Waterford teams over the course of two superb matches, without ever really hitting their usual formidable stride. Winning is a habit that’s hard to shake off.
In retrospect, there are good omens for Tipp early on. After the match, Richard Ford – Great American novelist and canny hurling brain – is spotted having a pint in Gill’s Corner. He knew after 10 minutes Tipp would win, he says.
The 10-minute mark – that’s when Seamus Kennedy hits over his first point of the championship, after Bonner Maher recycles the breaking ball from a Brendan Maher block on TJ Reid. Scores like that – where players work together to turn over possession, to punish – are psychologically huge. Kennedy’s point gets a particularly heartfelt roar.
The young players stand up. Both Kennedy and Dan McCormack, 2016’s hardworking young blood, reward Michael Ryan’s faith in them by scoring for the first time in the final.
John McGrath pulls off the unlikeliest of feats – holding his own alongside Seamus Callanan and Bubbles O’Dwyer.
Loose ball is hoovered up by Tipp. Callanan latches onto crossfield ball after ball, making arcing runs into the acres of space his team-mates leave open for him.
There are times when you want him to take on his man – Joey Holden seems a little off his usual pace – but Callanan is enjoying his freedom, and as long as he keeps throwing them over, we’re happy.
He keeps throwing them over.
Maybe the ultimate sign: just before half-time, Bubbles nails a free from the same position HawkEye denied him in 2014. At half-time, we say to each other: maybe this year will be different.
Woe betide anyone who writes off Kilkenny. Living off scraps, they’re still in touching distance. Quarterback Richie Hogan opens up Tipp’s defence with lethal pinpoint passes.
And they have their usual post-break bounce. As we’ve seen them do in game after game, they lash in an early second-half goal while Tipp seem to be only just warming back up.
Tipp, to their credit, don’t panic. Just like the in the dying moments of 2014, they calmly pull back the deficit point by point.
Jason Forde’s first touch levels it. Then Bubbles strikes. What can be said about Bubbles, our most mercurial and wild and unstoppable forward?
Who misses a simple chance from his first ball of the game, but points a sideline soon after.
Who nearly follows up his 50th minute goal with another moments later, beautifully scooped from the endline as he turns his man.
Has anyone made a ‘Champions of Effin Ireland’ t-shirt yet and if so, where can I buy one?
Maybe this is when we really start to believe.
The best moment of the game is still to come, 10 minutes later: John McGrath’s goal, created by a wonderfully sneaky sleight of hand by his brother Noel.
He gets his hurley to a Kilkenny handpass in the smallest of gaps.
A touch on the hurley, and a handpass: as nimble and economical an action as threading a needle.
John, of course, roofs it. Those four or five seconds of joint McGrath genius sum up just why hurling is so beguiling – it requires power and force, yes, but also lightness of touch.
I’m not sure any other Tipp forward could have been so calm in that moment as Noel McGrath, could have done exactly what was needed with such a minimum of fuss.
The other set of brothers do the business in the half-back line. Ronan Maher administers crucial, no- nonsense jostles all day.
Padraic Maher – an established player who never stops trying to better himself, as his formidable guns displayed on the Season of Sundays cover will attest – scores the point of the match from left-wing back halfway through the second-half.
Fan favourite Bonner Maher hits Tipp’s last point at the close of normal time, after a mighty catch and a surge from the crowd.
A rare sight: Kilkenny fans leaving the grounds early.
I’ve been there, I want to tell them.
But I don’t. Relations between Tipp and Kilkenny fans have been fraught for years.
There are, frankly, eejits on both sides. There’s a middle-aged Kilkenny fan near us who turns around to leer at the Tipp supporters behind him whenever the Cats score.
My parents in the Hogan Stand experience the other side of the coin.
The entire family of Kilkenny wing-back Padraig Walsh sit behind them, and couldn’t be more gracious. They stay till the end.
When the final whistle sounds, the overwhelming feeling is relief. We linger for the speeches. Brendan Maher is sincerity itself, so anxious to tip his hat to previous management teams that he forgets to thank the current one.
We look at each other with happy, uncomplicated grins: this is happening, this is real.
We check the players’ instagrams for celebratory dressing room selfies: Liam and the lads. We walk back to our cars. We let Marty and his squad break it down for us. We don’t want to leave the city, don’t want to face the traffic just yet. We head out to the cousins in Rathfarnham for post-match discussion and cold sausages. Mercifully, not a post-mortem – not this time. We leave as they are firing up the SkyPlus to watch the game all over again. This one we’ll savour.
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