Tribe's quest coloured by brushes with black and amber
THE EXPERIENCE of losing to Galway in those cracking All-Ireland semi-finals of 2001 and 2005 means Kilkenny will always regard the maroon team as something of an incendiary device.
But if Galway have played a part in influencing the way Brian Cody has shaped Kilkenny, then it is just as true that the stripy men have had a huge influence on Galway’s fortunes since their last banner year in 1988.
Put simply, whenever Galway promised to turn a corner in the championship, they found Kilkenny waiting for them more often than not.
It is only five years since Galway hurling fans were treated to the novel sight of watching Brendan Lynskey taking a dive in Croke Park. The Meelick man was a selector then and his despairing flop on to the ground was caused by Eddie Brennan’s larcenous goal in the last 10 minutes of a furious quarter-final which saw the Cats break free in a cagey game to win 3-22 to 1-18.
The Ger Loughnane era arguably revolved around that game: it was as close as the Clare man would come to besting Cody’s Kilkenny.
“That’s why Kilkenny are one of the best teams in the country – and one of the best teams of all time,” Loughnane said admiringly afterwards. “Give them any space, any gap and show any lack of commitment and they will finish you off.”
Many managers have said that before and since and it hasn’t changed the truth of it. Two years later, the teams met again in their first Leinster championship encounter and John McIntyre’s first definitive championship test.
Again, the clash was memorable: a gorgeous summer evening in Tullamore and Damien Joyce setting the tone with an almighty clearance downfield clearance. Galway seemed to have the Kilkenny men on the rack for much of the game, with Joe Canning chipping in with 2-9 before Cody’s side gathered themselves and methodically went about turning a five-point deficit into a five-point advantage.
And it was an honourable, promising show by Galway but with the same result: lights out. When Galway last won the All-Ireland in 1988 to retain the Liam MacCarthy Cup, they were fixated on Tipperary rather than Kilkenny. Galway were in control of their own destiny then and even if the next few seasons were turbulent – the bad blood semi-final against Tipperary in ’89, the goal-rush defeat to Cork in the final of 1990 – there was little to suggest in those seasons they were about to go through 20 years without a senior title.
But by the time they met Kilkenny in 1993, there was a slight anxiety in Galway that they were beginning to lose the knack of winning finals. Kilkenny went into that match as reigning champions and slight favourites and, as often between the counties, it was a close affair.
“We have lived with them on big occasions,” Jarlath Cloonan, manager that day, says now. “If you go back far enough, we beat them in 1987. We always respect Kilkenny very much because of their ability and their commitment to hurling. But we never fear Kilkenny. We were probably complete outsiders at the start of the campaign that year and our league was a total disaster.
“And Tipperary were the dream team and we got the better of them. But that All-Ireland final was a game that I have never looked at. It was too sore. It hinged on one referee’s decision, really. Joe Rabbitte was pulled for catching the ball twice when he didn’t. And Kilkenny came down and got a point. And then they got a goal immediately after. The next day could be the same way.”
The strange thing was both of that year’s All-Ireland finalists were lost in the revolution which flowered in the subsequent years. Kilkenny played second fiddle to Offaly and Wexford. Galway were overshadowed by the coming of Clare in Munster. Both counties went through crises of confidence but when fate conspired to place them together in Thurles in 1997, it was Kilkenny who took the decisive step. Beaten in the Leinster championship, they found themselves in the unknown country of the qualifiers and after falling nine points behind they staged a brilliant second half comeback to win a classic match by 4-15 to 3-16.
But Kilkenny were still seeking their first All-Ireland title since 1993 when the counties met again in the 2000 All-Ireland semi-final. By then, Cloonan was a selector for Mattie Murphy. “We went into that match having won 14 games and drew one. We won the league. And we met a great Kilkenny team as it turned out. And what did we do? We brought a new manager.
“Now, Noel Lane did a great job and we had that brilliant win against Kilkenny in 2001 and we got to the final. But if Galway had stayed with Mattie Murphy as long as Kilkenny stayed with Brian Cody, what would have happened?”
That was the main lesson. Every Galway manager since Cloonan in 1993 has taken the job with an increasing sense of pressure to deliver instantly. For Cloonan, who remains involved at county board level, that has been the big difference since the teams’ last September meeting 19 years ago. Every Galway hurling person knows that even if the team plays an exceptional game tomorrow, it may not be enough to beat Kilkenny. Nonetheless, the old pressure for an instant solution has been replaced by something more meaningful.
“What we have in the county now in the past year – we had a few reviews last year and everyone is singing off the same hymn sheet. Everyone is working together and we are all pulling the same way. There is great unity of purpose within the county. Yes, we do want the All-Ireland very badly in Galway. But the whole ethos has changed in Galway. It is a carbon copy of what has been going on in Kilkenny for the last 15 years.
“The management went in with a three year objective. They won the Leinster title in their first year and that was historic. That was put away the next morning. I think Marty Morrissey had it on the Monday evening for the six o’clock news and it has not been seen since. The next job was to win the semi-final and now we find ourselves in a final.”
And as ever, the black and amber men are there, waiting.