Limerick must take their chance, they don’t come around often

Galway, prior to 2017, knew too much what it was like to be close yet a million miles away 

Limerick's William O’Donoghue and Cian Lynch celebrate after their All-Ireland SHC semi-final win over Cork. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Limerick's William O’Donoghue and Cian Lynch celebrate after their All-Ireland SHC semi-final win over Cork. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

Around once a year, maybe twice if the figary takes hold, this column takes Fever Pitch down from the shelves in the spare room and flicks away an idle hour thumbing through it.

Nick Hornby’s book about what it is to be a lifelong football fan gets some unwarranted shade thrown at it, mostly due to the fact that it spawned a world of imitation memoirs that were nowhere near its quality. No matter. The only response to those so inclined must always be pity rather than censure.

The chapter on Arsenal’s title winning season in 1989 – Michael Thomas’s goal at Anfield and all that – is the obvious high point of the book. It ends with a brilliant passage explaining how it’s entirely justified for football fans to describe a goal as the greatest moment of their life which should be required reading for everyone with any half-interest in sport at all.

But it’s the opening paragraph that kept coming to mind over the weekend as the All-Ireland hurling semi-finals bounced around the relentlessly spinning tombola in Croke Park.

“In all the time I have been watching football,” Hornby writes, “23 seasons, only seven teams have won the First Division Championship: Leeds United, Everton, Arsenal, Derby County, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and, a staggering 11 times, Liverpool. Five different teams came top in my first five years, so it seemed to me then that the league was something that came your way every once in a while, even though you might have to wait for it; but as the ’70s came and went, and then the ’80s, it began to dawn on me that Arsenal might never win the league again in my lifetime.

“That isn’t as melodramatic as it sounds. Wolves fans celebrating their third championship in six years in 1959 could hardly have anticipated that their team would spend much of the next 30 years in the Second and Third Divisions; Manchester City supporters in their mid-40s when the Blues last won the league in 1968 are in their early 70s now.”

Cian Lynch fires home his side’s opening goal against Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Cian Lynch fires home his side’s opening goal against Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

You never know when you’re going to be back. Time and again over the weekend that simple and brutal truth rang out as each of the four teams burned their fingers with the hot potato of the chance of making the 2018 final.

At various points on Saturday and Sunday, each one of Galway, Clare and Cork must all have thought they were headed for the decider. Sitting here as the seagulls circle the stadium, only Limerick are.

You never know when you’re going to be back. All the times you danced on the pitch in Croke Park mean nothing when the ball is thrown in the next day and the next day and the day after that.

Best day

When Clare won their All-Ireland in 2013, we one-upped each other in the days and weeks that followed counting up how many they’d add to it in the decade to come. Definitely one, probably two, three didn’t feel like a stretch at all. Instead, they had to wait five years to so much as set foot in Croke Park again.

When they got here, they made it count. Tony Kelly willed himself into a game that Galway had just about filed away. Shane O’Donnell came back on in extra-time to score a blinding point and push them two clear. Colm Galvin made the game jack-knife when he went back in at sweeper. They gave the performances of men who had missed the place.

At the start of the championship, it was hard to know what sort of Galway title defence we would see. Nobody needed to tell them about not knowing when you’re going to be back – the whole mood music around their All-Ireland win in 2017 was the ending of the famine, 29 years waiting and wanting and wailing. Even so, an All-Ireland buys you leeway. You’ve given everyone the best day of their lives already so you have an out if all comes to all.

The five minutes at the end of normal time on Saturday night were precisely the sort of red zone where Galway could have quietly pulled stumps and nobody would have reddened their ears for them. When Peter Duggan’s free drew Clare level, they had scored the last three points on the bounce and had another two minutes to get the winner.

But it was Galway who found more, pushing on to make a chance for Johnny Coen that dropped short. And when Ian Galvin wound up in midfield to take the last shot of normal time, it was a tracking-back Cathal Mannion who threw himself in the way of it. Galway are giving nothing up handily. They can’t. They know too much about what it’s like to be close and a million miles away.

Cork know it too.

They’re getting far too used to it. When Seán Óg Ó hAilpín made his famous speech from the Hogan Stand in 2005, Cork were back-to-back All-Ireland champions. They stood on top of the All-Ireland roll of honour with 30 titles, two ahead of Kilkenny. It would have been inconceivable that night that they would be sitting here in 2018 waiting on title number 31.

Nobody could have imagined they were about to head into the second longest All-Ireland drought in their history. Patrick Horgan has played in seven All-Ireland semi-finals and only been on the winning side once. In 2013, he looked like he had scored the winner against Clare in the final, only for Domhnall O’Donovan to score that point from the ends of the earth to force a replay. In his head, he must have been an All-Ireland winner, at least for a split second.

That’s the killer.

You’re not there until you are there and when you’re there, you never know when you’ll be back. Limerick have three weeks to recognise this for what it is – a chance that comes once, with no guarantee it will come again. How they get their heads around their opportunity will dictate what they do with it.

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