Limerick banish ghosts amid hurling final bedlam

Keith Duggan: Final minutes reminded the world of hurling’s mysterious powers

Limerick’s Cian Lynch and Pat Ryan celebrate. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Limerick’s Cian Lynch and Pat Ryan celebrate. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

 

This crazy, beautiful game of ghosts. Late on Sunday afternoon in Croke Park and out on the field, Limerick were living their first minutes as All-Ireland hurling champions for the first time in 45 long years.

Dolores O’ Riordan, always Limerick royalty, was singing about dreams. 3-26 to 2-18. Just like that, the emerald green hurlers came screaming out of the 1970s.

Galway, who have just relinquished the title, gathered in a group on the pitch, a maroon tableau of disappointments and regrets. Already, the summer of 2018 had been stamped as the greatest hurling championship in living memory.

But for most of the afternoon, the final looked set to betray the epic nature of the season, with Limerick looking too sharp and quick for the tired champions. And then, just when Limerick supporters had begun to believe that the day would be blissfully and easily theirs – that their young team would stroll to the All-Ireland – everything changed.

The old game reminded the world of its mysterious power to transform fortune and future in an instance. So after a one-sided hour, during which Limerick established their superiority in every sector of the field and Séamus Dowling, their totemic substitute, finished the last of three opportunist goals, mischief flooded through the afternoon.

Crowded goalmouth

A goal from the blue from Galway’s Conor Whelan. A series of points from Joe Canning, suddenly wearing his assassin’s cloak. Then, a 20-metre free which Canning somehow spirits through a crowded goalmouth. Just like that, Limerick’s safe and handsome nine-point lead had been narrowed to just two. 74 minutes gone, four to go. Galway voices flooded the stadium. And for all of Limerick, a sudden plunge into a sickening place. They had been here before; victory prized away from them in the closing minutes of an All-Ireland final. 1994. Their haunted year.

Doubts and torments as Niall Burke sent another score for Galway floating through the muggy air. Just one point between them. Not so much hurling as torture. Some couldn’t look. Others couldn’t not.

Somehow Graeme Mulcahy, a wisp of a hurler who has witnessed some of Limericks’ loneliest afternoons, had the nerve to guide home a point on the run to steady Limerick hearts and nerves. Galway came with one last push and when Canning fired a 100-metre free into the air; into the 78th and last minute of the most extraordinary hurling summer imaginable, Ireland watched the ball.

“They were very calm,” John Kiely, the man who engineered this revival, said of his team. “They were calm all week.” But for those few seconds, bedlam reigned. Nobody wanted this beautiful season to end, until, seconds later, it had its fairytale close. The ball was grasped by Tom Condon, just on the field, another veteran from grimmer years. The whistle went. Oh, my dreams. The 131st All-Ireland hurling final had been won by a single point. Limerick, the county most in need of a championship, soar free.

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