The greatest of all time?

WHATEVER doubts there may have been about the outcome up to the time Henry Shefflin converted that penalty, Kilkenny didn’t need to win yesterday’s All-Ireland final to have greatness conferred on them.

But, in becoming only the second team to win four-in-a-row since Cork accomplished it all of 65 years ago, they have guaranteed themselves a privileged place in hurling folklore.

That’s the real significance of their achievement. It ensures their position of honour in the pantheon of great teams to have established supremacy in the championship over a sustained period.

In real terms, they have adorned the game of hurling since winning their first title in 2000 under the inspired management of Brian Cody and in completing the first treble last year since 1978, there was the added distinction of being the first team ever to win six All-Irelands in a decade.

Now, a seventh title lends weight to the view (widely expressed after that dazzling display against Waterford 12 months ago) that no team is more deserving of the accolade of being the best ever.

What establishes their pre-eminence in the game is the absolute consistency of their performances, the quality of their play – characterised by their capacity to suppress opposition teams – and of course, the astute management skills of Cody. And, if Liam Sheedy’s superbly prepared Tipp side pushed them to the absolute limit, it still required something special from the champions to hold on to the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

Older followers can only resort to their memory (or their newspaper cuttings) to pronounce on Cork’s historic achievement in winning the only other four-in-a-row in 1944 (a sequence broken by their defeat in the delayed Munster final of 1941). The same applies to the Limerick team of the 30s, which won five league titles in succession as well as two All-Irelands.

And, Kilkenny supporters can now point to the fact that the Rebels beat Dublin in three of their finals and Antrim in the fourth, whereas they defeated four different Munster counties.!

Any comparison with combinations over the last 50 years has to include the Cork team which recorded a treble in 1952-54 and the Tipp team which won the All-Irelands of 1961, ‘62, ‘64 and ‘65. And they missed out on the opportunity of possibly bettering the Rebels’ winning sequence by losing to Waterford in the Munster final of 1963.

The Cork three-in-a-row team of 1976, 77 and 78 had their winning sequence ended by an unexpected defeat at the hands of Galway in the 1979 semi-final, but it compares favourably to the treble completed by Kilkenny 12 months ago.

That’s because they were predominant in Munster (winning five titles in a row between 1975 and ‘79) and were powered by players like John Horgan, Gerald McCarthy, Jimmy Barry-Murphy, Charlie McCarthy and Ray Cummins, who remain household names to this day.

In the interim period, the twin double-winning Kilkenny teams of 1982 and 83 (both of which included Cody) and 1992-’93, along with the Galway team which triumphed in 1987/’88 came nearest to establishing a lasting reputation.

What sets the current Kilkenny team apart is its longevity, concurrent with Cody’s leadership. And, if you talk about the ‘team’, you have to take account of the fact that it has been constantly evolving since the likes of Philly Larkin, Peter Barry, Andy Comerford, John Power, Charlie Carter and DJ Carey moved on.

More revealing is the statistic that only Michael Kavanagh, Jackie Tyrrell, Tommy Walsh and Eddie Brennan started and finished in all four finals (with Aidan Fogarty among this select group until he was withdrawn yesterday).

Twelve months ago, Kilkenny produced the nearest thing to a perfect display in modern times. And, while it was facilitated by Waterford’s poor showing, nothing could detract from the purity of their hurling and their superb team play.

It’s what sets them apart. Trying to explain why they are so good, why they are so successful, is not easy. But, there’s no doubt that they have an advantage over all the other hurling counties in that the promotion and playing of football very much takes a back seat in the county.

All the emphasis is on producing young hurlers and from the development of talent to its nurturing in St Kieran’s and Kilkenny CBS, the production line seems to be never-ending. Cody always says it, the set-up at schools level is a key factor.

And what of the manager’s role? Quite apart from the way his teams are prepared, he has always demonstrated a canny ability to recognise talent and to utilise it to the maximum. Look at how he started Tommy Walsh at wing-forward before helping him develop into one of the finest wing-backs of his generation and how Cha Fitzpatrick was transformed from being an average corner-forward to a midfielder of substance.

Likewise, the versatility of the likes of JJ Delaney in defence (corner-back, wing-back and now full-back) mirrors the ease with which members of the attack are moved around on a regular basis without limiting their effectiveness. And how selection and dropping of players (such as this weekend with Martin Comerford and Fitzpatrick dropped down to the subs) never seems to upset the team equilibrium.

Eddie Keher, one of the stars of the Kilkenny team which contested the finals of 1972-73-74 and 75 (another one with a strong claim to fame, they lost to Limerick the second year), says that Cody’s ‘fingerprints’ are all over his teams.

“It’s a lot more than the skill level and intensity of their play. It’s the attitude of these players in their preparation for matches and in their execution on the field.’’

Another feature of his make-up is the respect he always shows opposing teams and this attitude permeates his squad. It’s what sustained them through recent weeks when there was so much talk about them being certainties to take their place in history.

And it’s what will help prepare them for the 2010 campaign when a fifth consecutive title would surely remove any doubt about them being classed as THE greatest team of all time.


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