Tipp versus Limerick. The first match of 2020. The last match of 2019 in an only very slightly parallel dimension, one not populated by Alan Kelly’s umpires.
So: yer man on Eoin Murphy’s right signals for a 65’, Diarmaid Byrnes drains it and for the second year in a row Limerick’s young legs and panel depth carry the day in extra-time in an All-Ireland semi-final.
Limerick and Tipperary on the third Sunday of August in a rerun of the Munster final it is, then. There hasn’t been a more tantalising All-Ireland final that wasn’t since Clare and Wexford didn’t meet in 1997.
Limerick, the bringers of thunder, versus Tipp of the attacking forked lightning. Limerick’s drum ‘n’ bass versus Tipp’s Valhalla of lead guitarists.
The winner of this showdown that never was, a showdown whose hypothetical nature will have been lamented more by Limerick folk than by Tipp folk?
As historians enjoin us against such counterfactuals on the basis that the victor is invariably the party favoured by the writer, let’s take it from the blue and gold side first and imagine an elegant monograph penned by Westside or Shane Brophy in one of the local organs.
“Limerick sold us a non-trying pup in the round robin in Semple Stadium and we bought it. Cathal Barrett and Bonner Maher weren’t there for the Munster final. Beating Wexford would have brought us on a ton. The prospect of revenge would have had us motivated up to the eyeballs. Finding a way of undressing Limerick would have been an intellectual exercise willingly embraced by Liam Sheedy and even more so by Eamon O’Shea.
“Lots of 20m and 30m passes, perhaps, to prevent them settling. Lots of movement up front. We wouldn’t have needed more than 50 per cent possession because we’d have had more good shooters. And there’s no way Noel McGrath would have been taken off like he was in the Munster final.”
Now for the counter-blast from the.
“Beating Kilkenny after the layoff would have brought us on a ton. The prospect of doing another job on Tipp would have had us motivated up to the eyeballs. We’d have coped with their greater intensity and they still wouldn’t have matched our power.
"Our shooting, the one area that needed improvement, would have been more accurate than at the Gaelic Grounds. Paul Kinnerk would probably have come up with some tactical curveball just to keep Sheedy thinking. And there’s no way Noel McGrath would have been man of the match like he was in the All-Ireland final.”
Would have been quite the encounter, huh? Instead it became the stuff of pub arguments because the champions’ profligacy eventually — and, yes, inevitably — undid them.
They drove 20 wides against Galway in the 2018 All-Ireland final and it didn’t matter. They drove 17 wides against Waterford in the league final and it didn’t matter.
They drove 17 wides against Tipperary in the Munster final and it didn’t matter. They drove 15 wides (really 14, of course) against Kilkenny and it did matter.
Would Tipp have driven 15, or even 14, wides against Kilkenny? No, but Tipp aren’t Limerick and Limerick aren’t Tipp. Tipp have their virtues, Limerick have their virtues and never the twain shall meet in a Venn diagram. Given that John Kiely’s men are so good at what they do, one can scarcely criticise them for lacking another JK’s (Jurgen Klopp) forward line.
In the All-Ireland semi-final, they were a little sloppy, a little too primped on their own press cuttings, a little too forgetful of the fact that it was a Brian Cody XV — masters of the bump and grind in any given year regardless of their inherent quality quota — they were facing.
On any other evening, however, these would not have constituted match-losing faults.
Even the favourites’ shooting was far from hideous. Their first four wides — Graeme Mulcahy on the turn on the 14m line in front of the uprights, Diarmaid Byrnes a long-range free, Aaron Gillane from the corner with the kind of effort he’s converted in the past and Cian Lynch from an undaunting angle, admittedly on the right — could fairly be attributed to a lack of sharpness accruing from the post-Munster final break.
A smoother grooving, as was Kilkenny’s given their quarter-final outing a fortnight earlier, and three if not all four shots go over.
Two more of the nine first-half wides resulted from opposition pressure — fair enough— and another arrived when Byrnes, looking down the field and seeing two green shirts to four striped ones, opted to pull the trigger from 70m: also fair enough. Only two of the nine fell into the Bad Miss category.
This is an age where two teams in an All-Ireland final can produce ten wides between them; where two teams in an All Ireland semi-final can hit 1-27 apiece in normal time; and where each half-back line is no longer merely a springboard for scores, as it was for more than a century, but a killing zone in itself. When was the last time you shouted at a player that he was shooting from too far out? Exactly: about 2007.
Bottom line, the MacCarthy Cup holders had one bad day, or rather one bad quarter, and were punished to the full for it.
An honourable failure may be nothing to write home about, especially in view of the vast distances travelled under Kiely, but far too many of Limerick’s failures over the preceding 20 years were abject.
Kiely’s requirement for 2020? Like every other manager bar Sheedy, a new scoring forward. Gearoid Hegarty’s job isn’t to craft points from tight angles; Kyle Hayes will be wearing the number six jersey sooner than later; although Mulcahy is accurate, albeit a terrier rather than a rottweiler, his role as the prototype corner-forward, more ubiquitous than Dermot Bannon, takes him all over the field.
A wing-forward capable of finding the range from 55m from a standing start would be ideal. In doing so he’d also ease the burden on Gillane.
Tipp versus Limerick. The first match of 2020. The last match of 2020..?