Jackie Tyrrell: In difficult times the Kilkenny flame burns even stronger

The Kilkenny hurlers have the elevated status as representatives of the people

Kilkenny’s Cilian Buckely runs out before the Leinster SHC final replay against Galway. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Kilkenny’s Cilian Buckely runs out before the Leinster SHC final replay against Galway. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

Last Sunday I was absolutely drained leaving Thurles. I had a sweat mark down the back of my T-shirt as if I had pucked every ball, but I also came away extremely proud to be a Kilkenny man after watching them go the distance against the champions.

For long periods of that game we played second fiddle to a rampant, physical Galway side, thirsty for blood and driven to put us back in our box after the drawn Leinster final. They out-worked us and out-fought us, and implemented a smarter game plan – one to suit their needs and skill sets.

In response, Kilkenny actually played for only 20 odd minutes, yet with 54 minutes gone were somehow just one point down and in the ascendancy, with Kilkenny people finding their feet and voice for the first time that day.

Think about that for a minute: from Ger Aylward’s goal just before half time to the 54th minute the lead was cut from 12 to one in the face of a team that was completely dominant in every sector of the field. How does that happen?

First off, you have to give credit to Galway – so impressive all over the pitch and deserving winners. From the throw-in they bossed this game and established total control, cruising at 11 points up after 19 minutes.

Utterly dominant at the back and hitting a world of ball from midfield, they looked so slick and dangerous in the forwards that they could score at will every time the ball went into them.

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

The mix of the long, direct ball to Johnny Glynn on the square coupled with short diagonal passing was a joy to watch – if you weren’t on the receiving end – and they had nine different scorers. Kilkenny were just trying to fight fires all over the place, and needed nearly as much water as the Thurles pitch after the Munster final.

 

Sometimes when you lose you have to put your hands up and say that you were beaten by a better team on the day, and Kilkenny were.

They were beaten by the best team in the country. It is no shame to be beaten by the defending All-Ireland champions when they are in bullish form and taking no prisoners in sweltering hot conditions.

So what is it that keeps this Kilkenny team going when they are on the ropes with hardly enough oxygen to stay upright but yet somehow battle on?

John Mullane said in his radio commentary that you can never write off Kilkenny no matter the score or who they are playing, and he was right. And not just last Sunday. Remember the first game against Dublin, five points down with as many minutes left, and then Wexford, nine points down at half time in the last round-robin game – yet there was still a feeling around Nowlan Park that they would come good.

Why does this Kilkenny team never die even when last weekend I could not think of one position we were winning on the field at half time?

It’s a combination of factors, but the most important is self-belief, complete and bullet-proof faith in the team and panel; the ability to live on and survive off scraps and keep breathing even when there doesn’t seem enough oxygen to keep a small flame burning.

That consistently enables Kilkenny to adopt the one attitude that really spooks opponents, an almost innate refusal to give up; it’s just not in the Kilkenny DNA.

At half time in the Leinster final in 2012 we were stunned. Galway had blitzed us in the first half. We were all over the place, holes in our defence big enough to sail tankers through.

Galway’s roving forwards had left me personally with a headache. I didn’t even know who I was meant to be marking: Joe Canning one minute, then David Burke! They stifled our attack, and the deep-dropping Damien Hayes had left our game plan in tatters. We had no direction, ideas or even a chink of light that might illuminate a way back into the game.

And the scoreboard wasn’t exactly disguising the trend of the game: Galway 2-12, Kilkenny 0-4.

As Brian addressed us in the warm-up area before we went back out for the second half, his message was simple: “we can still win this, and anyone who thinks we can’t go take a shower now”.

I can’t speak for all of the players but my gaze was nearly flickering involuntarily in the direction of the Lynx gel, but hard as it might have been to credit any positive messages, the words underlined Brian’s belief in his team, in his panel of players.

Galway’s Cathal Mannion and Conor Whelan with Paul Murphy, Paddy Deegan and Enda Morrissey of Kilkenny during the Leinster final replay at Semple Stadium. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Galway’s Cathal Mannion and Conor Whelan with Paul Murphy, Paddy Deegan and Enda Morrissey of Kilkenny during the Leinster final replay at Semple Stadium. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

You hear anecdotes about managers roaring at players in what appear hopeless situations at half time, and the punch-lines revolve around players blurting out their scepticism. Not in a Kilkenny dressing-room if you want to see one again from the inside!

When Brian Cody is telling you that he expects you to make things happen – and believes that you will– it filters down to the players. It might take some of them longer than others to register that belief, but I’ve seen it so many times and it’s infectious.

It is very simple, and it doesn’t vary no matter where the game is played, who the opposition are, who are the favourites, who they have or haven’t. That does not matter; it’s all outside noise for pundits, fans and media – conversation topics for other people, pre-match chat but nothing material.

Kilkenny zone inwards and focus 100 per cent on the 70 minutes, and once you prepare physically and mentally Brian believes his team can win seven days a week and twice on a Sunday for good measure.

When going behind in games, when the other team are on top and in the ascendancy and winning the key battles all over the place, Kilkenny are the best team in the country to hang in, to survive so that when the storm has passed they are still within striking distance of the opposition.

What’s more, the opposition know this, and are almost waiting for the first move to be made.

Sunday was a perfect example but it simply takes its place in a large back-catalogue. Kilkenny make every ball count when that time comes. They get scores they should not – take Ger Aylward’s goal last weekend, a perfect example, Colin Fennelly’s reaction to the ball off the post. Lucky, fortuitous? Maybe on a case by case basis but they still took the scores, and it happens so often that it can’t be always put down to coincidence or misfortune

Last year in the All-Ireland quarter-final Waterford should have had that game out of sight but there came a phase when every Kilkenny ball was used and something got from it.

Sometimes it is just holding the ball in the forwards so the backs can draw their breath and restore some structure or make adjustments to the defence. Time is used wisely. Changes are thought out, implemented efficiently and not just for the sake of it.

The on-field lieutenants take command. Look at how Richie Hogan came off the bench and patrolled his troops around the middle third last week. He ordered James Maher to push up on puck-outs, forcing James Skehill to go long and particularly when Kilkenny began to choke the Galway forwards.

When you pull on a Kilkenny jersey you’re putting on something more than an item of sportswear; it’s a representation of everything it stands for, everything it took to get it on your back, and everyone that wore it before you. You carry that even subconsciously as you play for the county.

For most players in the week of a game you go around carrying on with your life as normal as possible. But in Kilkenny a county hurler’s life in the week of a game is not normal. He has an elevated status as a representative of the people. You mightn’t have been elected but you were chosen.

Ger Aylward celebrates scoring his side’s first goal. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Ger Aylward celebrates scoring his side’s first goal. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

That week, with a game imminent, all the chat is about the hurling, the butcher wishing you best of luck and giving you an extra cut of the “good” steak free of charge. “You’ll need that for them boys at the weekend.”

The local priest wishing you luck that morning of the match, the elderly woman who will be watching at home because she is not able for the crowds anymore – it is an amazing feeling as you walk around the county and feel like you carry these people’s hopes and wishes with you. It was something I always loved.

Saturday evening Mass in St Fiacre’s church before an All-Ireland is the one time of the year that a hymn is not sung. No, the Rose of Mooncoin is belted out as a good luck message to Brian and the team. I always left the church to the echo of it, ready to play there and then before calming down: “hold your powder JT, for another 20-odd hours!”

One woman told me before the All-Ireland semi-final in 2014 that Kilkenny hurlers had kept her alive for the 10 years since her husband passed away. I was emotional leaving her, and really conscious of the opportunity, almost obligation, to continue to lighten that woman’s burden. To some it might be just a game, but no man, beast or human would stop me that Sunday as we took on Limerick.

When I met Eddie Keher in Avoca on the morning of the drawn Leinster final this month we spoke briefly. He shook my hand, but I felt as if he was playing himself. That pride is instilled in him, and you feel that we are all together in this.It was like he was going to war himself!

When you take the field on a Sunday you carry all those encounters and anecdotes with you, there at the back of your mind, and that’s what the DNA of Kilkenny is about. You don’t give up because you’re fighting for more than yourself.

Kilkenny will carry that around with them this weekend and every weekend. They will need it as they face a hard Limerick team who are fresh and have seen their opponents in the flesh over the last two weekends.

It has been a hard few weekends, and this won’t get any easier this Sunday, but those traits will stand Kilkenny in good stead. Coming down the straight, their bodies and minds will be weary and tired, but they will keep going and going because they believe.

Time will tell if it’s enough, but it will be all they have.

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