Champions return to jubilant Kilkenny


GROWN MEN cried and women swooned as Kilkenny’s dashing hurling heroes stepped off a train and into sporting immortality last night.

They emerged, blinking like astronauts from a space capsule, looking slightly shellshocked – and relieved – to be back.

Henry Shefflin, reunited with his 17-month-old daughter Sadhbh, said: “It’s great to be home – back to our own people and families.”

It could have been Groundhog Day – after all, this was their fourth consecutive All-Ireland hurling victory and the pageantry is well-rehearsed – but there were no complaints from a public that knew the script by heart.

Among the tens of thousands of people lining the streets to greet the returning champions was a mother who simply remarked “aren’t they wonderful role models?”

Starry-eyed children waved flags and gazed up in wonder at the athletes who towered like Greek gods aboard an open-top bus bearing the gleaming silver Liam McCarthy cup.

The hurlers smiled and waved – somewhat shyly – and lapped up the affection. The whole event was like a cross between the Oberammergau Passion Play and An Tóstal. This was “Ireland at home” at its simple, glorious, unaffected best. For a few brief hours, all thoughts of Nama and the recession and the misery to come were forgotten. The atmosphere was one of pure joy and pleasure and celebration.

Manager Brian Cody said: “This is one of the real highlights, coming back with the cup, and it will get better as the night goes on”. Across the county border, just 30 miles away in Thurles, the people of Tipperary were greeting their own broken bravehearts at a more low-key event in Semple Stadium. Taoiseach Brian Cowen, who was visiting the southeast yesterday, spoke for many when he described Sunday’s final as “a magnificent game”.

A noted connoisseur of hurling, he had watched in Croke Park as “two excellent teams had created a great spectacle”.

Mr Cowen said: “Kilkenny, on the basis of their win, have proven themselves to be one of the great teams of all time”.

He noted that their vanquished opponents “are a young team on the way up and Tipperary people can look with great optimism to the future”.

But, to the victor – the spoils. The cavalcade, led by a Garda escort and pipe band, wound its way through the Marble City to a civic reception.

The crowd roared its approval as players, manager and support staff were introduced from a podium raised by the banks of the river Nore.

On the streets of Kilkenny last night, an ominous new phrase had entered the hurling lexicon – as talk began of “the five-in-a-row”.