Tipperary reach the highest highs on path to Heaven’s Gate
Free-form hurling gives Liam Sheedy and his side their finest moment against rivals
Tipperary’s Séamus Callanan celebrates scoring their second goal during the All-Ireland SHC semi-final against Kilkenny. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Just like that, this complicated generation of Tipperary hurlers come shouldering into contention as worthy heirs to the ghosts of the 1950s and 1960s, those tough and brill-creamed forefathers against whom they are constantly compared. Forget Hell’s Kitchen. This gang have transported their followers to Heaven’s Gate.
On a strange August day of dark rain and bright passing sunshine, Tipperary touched into their mesmerising free-form hurling against their closest and fiercest rivals and dared anyone not to sit back and be entertained. It finished 3-25 to 0-20. Tipp have won three MacCarthy Cups this decade, in 2010, 2016 and 2019 and came within a disallowed point of claiming a fourth in 2014 in that All-Ireland series for the ages.
For all of their crushing disappointments revolving around their failure to successfuly defend their titles of 2010 and 2016 and the lingering accusations that they lacked true ambition, the decade now stands as testimony to their consistency. They have beaten Kilkenny in three All-Ireland finals now and the fabled 60s team finished with just one more All-Ireland. The difference is that never had to face Cody’s Kilkenny in their absolute prime.
“That means something to us,” said Liam Sheedy as his team sang songs down the corridor, the MacCarthy Cup safely secured.
“Because I think this team has had more people saying what they weren’t over the last 10 years than what they were. When people look back on this decade they will see a Tipperary team that won. We have all sat and honoured the captains of previous teams in Tipperary. But we have a wonderful group of players who have taken the pitch for Tipperary this decade and I am delighted to see them rewarded with another All-Ireland. And maybe rather than going back to the 1960s all the time, maybe we should talk about this decade. Because I think at the moment in this Tipperary squad we have some of the best players to ever wear that blue and gold jersey.”
That seems undeniable now. Certainly, what these Tipp players can to with the ball when they are on song is breathtaking in imagination and clean execution. They fell into a 0-8 to 0-3 hole in the first half here, slow to reach the pitch of Kilkenny’s fast start but relaxed after Niall O’Meara made the most of a rare passage of light in Kilkenny’s half back line to create and finish a brilliant goal.
The red card issued to Richie Hogan for a high challenge of Cathal Barrett sent the game spinning into an unexpected orbit after 33 minutes. For Kilkenny, the task of keeping tabs on Tipperary’s electrifying attacking potential suddenly became all but impossible. Two audacious second half goals early in the second half put this final all but beyond Kilkenny. Seamus Callanan scored the first of those and the vision and speed of thought to pick out John O’Dwyer for the second was sublime. Kilkenny rained ball in on TJ Reid to try and manufacture a goal to kick start a rebellion but in Seamus Kennedy and Ronan Maher, Tipp controlled both ends of the field.
“I thought some of our defensive play was heroic,” said a thrilled Sheedy. “Barry Heffernan was like a man possessed out on that field. I was just thrilled for him … for a guy who people said, could he make it? Well, he showed today the real leader and real man he is. As for the other two: like Cathal and Ronan on the edge of the square: he is a beast. He’s a beast. So I thought defensively is where we built that platform to get such a great score.”
Brian Cody stood impassively on the sideline as his young team thundered into an All-Ireland final that had drifted beyond their reach. It’s easy to understand their relentlessness in those finals where they are right there on the scoreboard and have it all to play for. But on punishing day, young players like Huw Lawlor and John Donnelly and the limitlessly brilliant Reid continued to shine with that rare spirit they possess. If Cody spoke about the sending-off afterwards, it was in response to direct questions.
“It appeared to be that the referee was absolutely not certain what to do and he decided then he would give a red card. And that is what he did. Look, I don’t want the story going from here that I am here whingeing about that incident. I am here as manager of the Kilkenny hurling team that fought magnificently right throughout the year to get here against the expectations of everyone.”
That was fair. 2019 was a year in which expectations within Kilkenny were muted. And in Tipperary, there was no great faith that Tipp’s cast of virtuoso hurlers could knuckle down to mount another All-Ireland tilt. But as the old colours mingled again, it seemed foolish to have forgotten about their respective characters and their know-how- and their habit of showing up whenever the other crowd is in town. So Cody’s 21st season and his 18th final, including replays, has ended in defeat.
He offered no clue as to whether we will see him back here, declaring it irrelevant. “There are hurlers in Kilkenny,” he advised. It was as close as he will come to a promise that there will be other days and that when it comes to All-Irelands and Tipperary and this summer game, nothing is yet finished. But for Tipp, redemption is sweet for a team that has been doubted more than most but has now edged into the realms of greatness.