Black and amber mine a golden day
GAELIC GAMES:WHEN DID this season irrevocably turn black and amber? When did the game go the Kilkenny way again? Was it around dusk on Friday when the streetlights came on and Brian Cody gathered his Kilkenny team around him in Nowlan Park and named big Walter Walsh among the starters?
Or was it during the beautiful madness of the first half of yesterday’s hurling final replay when David Burke breached the Kilkenny goal twice in a single minute?
That kind of larceny should have rattled the champions. But they did not blink. TJ Reid struck a point through Galway cheers. Then after Burke’s second strike, Kilkenny attacked the other end and Richie Power was there to sweep home a loose ball past James Skehill.
Abandon all hope!
How often do you begin to despair for a team that has just scored two goals in a minute?
For that was the feeling in Croke Park from minute one. Kilkenny, the team that will not weaken or go away, tapped into the kind of form that saw them lay waste to the aspirations of Waterford and Limerick and Tipperary and Cork and Offaly since this historic reign began. They mapped out the big, manicured field in black and amber, and hooked and blocked and hunted in packs.
Few teams have taken the fight to Kilkenny like Galway did this summer: they have the Leinster title as proof that Brian Cody’s man can be beaten.
And they have the video tape of that riveting drawn match as proof that there is no godly law insisting that Galway teams must fall on these days. Galway have played Kilkenny three times in this championship. They won one drew one and lost one.
Now, winter is coming and Kilkenny are, once again, the All-Ireland champions. Once again, they looked invincible.
Flow on, lovely river.
When news broke on Friday night of Walter Walsh’s sudden elevation from tomorrow’s man to making his championship debut in an All-Ireland final, it raised a few eyebrows.
But by five o’clock yesterday, it was another triumph of judgment for Cody. Young Walter caused havoc and was coached through the big day by Henry Shefflin, who was on hand to prompt and applaud the younger man as he saw fit.
The contest was long over when Walsh, almost inevitably, bagged his goal and, as if anxious that the new man was enjoying the day too much, Brian Cody instantly called him ashore. Walsh trotted happily towards the boss and made to offer a handshake but Cody gazed steadfastly out on to the field of play.
“Brian just said ‘well done’ and asked me was I okay to play Walsh Cup next year. I said I was,” Walsh explained.
Afterwards, Cody shrugged about the call and just said that he thought it was the right thing to do.
“He was very much in the running. Because it is an All-Ireland final, it is a big thing but he hurled himself onto the team. And you could be afraid to do that or go and do what you believe is the right thing to do. And I think he proved his worth.”
That was all the praise he wanted to lavish on the kid. You earn your stripes from Cody through endeavour and persistence and consistency . . . from making the grade season after season.
So it was no coincidence that Eoin Larkin singled out the injured Michael Rice in his captain’s speech or that Cody wanted to emphasise the achievement of Noel Hickey, who came on a substitute yesterday and, amazingly, won his ninth All-Ireland medal.
But so much of the day was dominated by Shefflin, who alone has won nine Celtic Crosses on the field of play. The burning ambition of Shefflin’s for more – for better, for always – shows no sign of dimming. He has come through injuries that have finished other athletes and looked like a man who is ready for future seasons.
“Well, I would be amazed if you don’t,” Cody said.
“I haven’t spoken to Henry about it but the thing a lot of people forget when they talk about hunger. To me it is very simple: Henry Shefflin is just in love with the game of hurling. He loves playing hurling.”
Still. Don’t all players love that? They don’t enjoy the golden autumns that Kilkenny do. Galway fought hard and honourably yesterday and can point to the red card issued to Cyril Donnellan, to the referee’s whistle which cancelled out a goal by the same player and to Joe Canning’s instant of geometric genius in which his low goal shot rapped against the Kilkenny post.
They can say that luck deserted them. And maybe it did but would it have made a difference here? Galway’s forwards have been scoring for fun all year: they had to wait until the 70th minute to register their first point from play.
Anthony Cunningham’s young Galway team have learned a lot this summer and now they have learned something of the pain of the teams who have marched before them.
“Kilkenny brought a severity today to the way they closed out our men in possession and we got very little time in possession, particularly in the middle third,” admitted Tom Helebert, the Galway selector.
“We are under no illusion of where we need to improve.”
The need to improve: it has defined the game since Shefflin came on the scene.
“It is an addictive game and it spreads right through,” Cody explained.
“And Henry and Eoin and those are there to inspire youngsters. It’s the game! The game goes on. And we are privileged and proud to be part of it and we are having a hell of a good time taking part in it. And it is fair hard to beat the feeling that we have today.”
Fair hard. Fourteen years of fair hard and still it flows on.