What have Kieran Joyce, Walter Walsh and Taggy Fogarty all got in common? Answer: they're three players who came in from no-man's-land on Kilkenny panels to play key roles in crucial moments of All-Ireland finals. All three were out in the freezing cold, they were just about surviving in sub-zero temperatures and then all of a sudden they were thrown into the hottest of fires and they sparked like nobody else. All three were awarded man-of-the-match, even though nobody spent one minute talking about them in the build-up.
In 2014, Kieran Joyce sat on the bench for the first All-Ireland final against our arch-enemies Tipperary, as he had all year. For the replay, he was brought in as a trusted and key lieutenant at the pivotal centre back position. He rewarded Brian Cody's faith in him by giving a commanding, swashbuckling display to nullify Bonner Maher, who had caused wreckage in our backline 20 days earlier.
With scoring having gone off the charts ... the game has reached a point where it is too hard to whittle it down to a small number of key components and battles
Walter Walsh came from not even being on the panel for the All-Ireland semi-final in 2012 to playing in the replayed All-Ireland final. He was a major wrecking ball in dismantling a rock-solid Johnny Coen and a sweeper-led Galway defence. He scored 1-3 and found himself shaking Michael Lyster's hand on TV later that evening. Taggy had done the same six years earlier, scoring 1-3 in his first final in his rookie season and stopping Cork's three-in-a-row bid.
My point is, All-Ireland finals are not always about the players we presume are going to be key men. That’s something we forget every year. An All-Ireland final is one game and it can go a million different ways. Some players will thrive, some players will go into their shell. Some big players on either side will simply cancel each other out.
An All-Ireland final can unnerve a player, regardless of how great they are. I still do not know what happened to that great Waterford team in the All-Ireland final in 2008 – and even after listening to Ken McGrath and Dan Shanahan this week revisit the day and try to explain it themselves, I'm none the wiser.
And neither are they – going through it now, 12 years on, they still failed to land on answers. They were an experienced team, had won Munster titles, they were littered with All Stars and hurlers of the year. They had beaten us the year before in a titanic League final battle. However, for some reason, on that day they fell flat.
All-Ireland finals can be spooky events. They do strange things to great players. On the flip side, they make heroes out of lads that nobody ever made a big deal out of before, meaning they will be recalled and spoken about forever more. That’s what happens when so much importance is placed on a single game. Nothing is pre-determined, nothing is inevitable.
When you try to stack up Sunday's event, it's not difficult to make a list of the names that will dominate the build-up. We will spend the next 48 hours talking about Cian Lynch, about Tadhg de Búrca, about the much-vaunted Limerick half-forward line, about Austin Gleeson and Stephen Bennett. These are all key men and crucial battles. Their performances so far and the influences they have had on games deserve to be talked about and focused on.
Am I relaxed? Did I sleep enough? What type of bread will I have for my sandwich at lunchtime?
We should be careful not to ignore the other players on the pitch, however. Especially given what hurling has become. With scoring having gone off the charts in the past few seasons, the game has reached a point where it is too hard to whittle it down to a small number of key components and battles. When Taggy scored his 1-3 in 2006, he was a shoo-in for man-of-the-match in a game that ended 1-16 to 1-13. Fourteen years later, there’s a fair chance that could be the half-time score on Sunday.
The game is too elusive now, too broad, too dynamic. There are too many things going on in too many places. Unexpected events, unexpected heroes. Look at Jack Fagan in the semi-final. At the start of the season, who had a former Meath hurler down as the guy who would dominate the skies in the second half of an All-Ireland semi-final and lead a comeback against Kilkenny? Anyone who had was fairly quiet about it.
So when I look at the final, I think of some of the match-ups that will hardly get a look-in between now and throw-in but that could turn out to be of huge importance. Shane McNulty versus Graeme Mulcahy, for example. Now, it may well be that Peter Casey pips Mulcahy for a starting place – he has been putting pressure on him over the past couple of games when he has been introduced.
Straight away, that’s a complication for McNulty in the build-up. He will be marking one or other of them but he has to prepare for both. He will probably see both of them over the course of the afternoon one way or another so it will be prep time well spent.
He has to get it right, though. Because although pretty much nobody is spending the build-up to this game talking about McNulty, what if he has an off day? What if Mulcahy or Casey has a day of days, when everything they touch turns to gold? What if they do a Shane O’Donnell on it and they bury a hat-trick to the net? Well, right there, that’s your key contribution to the game. That’s what ends up defining the 2020 All-Ireland final.
So when it comes down to it, the cliche is completely true – every match-up matters and every clash is crucial. Every element counts. The middle third. The possession stats. How much sleep Kyle Hayes got this week. The hooks and blocks. The turnover rate. What Darragh Lyons eats for breakfast Thursday morning. Puck-outs.
There's a game of blackjack to be played between the Waterford half-back line and the Limerick half-forwards
Who wins the toss. Who gets to have a word with the referee at half-time. Who adapts their gameplan. What Caroline Currid does this week. Mikey Bevans v Paul Kinnerk. Managing the two water breaks. Who comes off the bench knowing in their bones that today's the day. Who gets what dressingroom. Believe me, the smallest of things can throw you and occupy your headspace when it should not.
I never enjoyed the week leading to the All-Ireland. I would guess and second-guess my way through it, trying to see the game from every angle, all in the few inches between my ears. I drove myself nuts, keeping up this constant mental check-in every hour of every day.
Am I eating the right food? Am I drinking enough? Am I relaxed? Did I sleep enough? What type of bread will I have for my sandwich at lunchtime? Who should I talk to today? Who should I not talk to? How do I avoid running into such and such a person, the one I know has a negative attitude? I can’t let even one per cent of that enter my bubble this week. Can’t do it. Won’t do it.
All-Ireland final week was a battle for me in that way, a state of constant internal strife. I always had a fight on my hands to even just get to Sunday in one piece mentally. That's why I loved training in the week of the final. It was an escape from myself. We would train for an hour on Monday, an hour on Wednesday and an hour on Friday. Once we went into Nowlan Park, I could forget about everything and go about honing my skills for Sunday.
No two people are alike and there are plenty of lads who could sleep for the week and rub their eyes to wake up on the way to the game. My point is that there’s going to be 40 players who play some part on Sunday and every one of them will have an opportunity to affect the outcome. With that amount of variables in play, the heroes come Sunday night are likely to be different to who we think they’ll be.
Winning a final ultimately comes down to being more than the sum of your parts. You can weigh the two panels up on paper but the winning and losing of it comes down to all the parts gelling, management reacting to game situations and subs having their impact.
Given the personalities involved, there's a game of blackjack to be played between the Waterford half-back line and the Limerick half-forwards. Who twists? Who sticks? Will Callum Lyons and Kevin Moran follow Tom Morrissey and Gearóid Hegarty into the Limerick half?
I would imagine Waterford will be more comfortable passing them off and getting Fagan and Kieran Bennett to pick them up when they go back there. It's not easily done but it served Kilkenny well in last year's semi-final and it limited the influence of Hegarty and Morrissey on the game. That handover will need to be tight and communication needs to be perfect – the lack of a crowd will help in this regard.
In the end, I think Limerick have probably got the squad and the experience to come through on Sunday. It’s very rare that they are less than the sum of their parts. You can never tell who the heroes are going to be in an All-Ireland final but if Limerick perform, I expect it to be the ones wearing green capes rather than white.