Saturday 25 February 2017

Vincent Hogan: Explosive contest still smoulders

King Henry shuns fairytale moment for greater good as sequel promises to be another epic

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

It was a game with fire ants in its shoes, a wailing, shrieking charge up Magic Mountain that, suddenly, arced into silent free-fall. The old American description of a drawn game being like a kiss from your sister came to mind in Croke Park.

Because stalemate infects grown men with a gaping clumsiness. Within seconds of squaring up like stags in the rutting season, Brian Cody and Anthony Cunningham found themselves shaking hands, decommissioning the bile like panicked drawbridge operators, frantic at the winch.

Where, you had to wonder, was the boom-mike used earlier this summer to court-martial Davy Fitz?

The managers' animation brought to mind that Craggy Island couple intercepted just at the point of a reciprocal throttling, both harmonising "oh hello father" as that kindly curate, Barry Kelly, stepped through the door. Marital bliss in the big house, then. Just keep an eye on the kitchen knives.

It had been a wonderful contest and, if Kilkenny railed against Kelly's late interpretation of a foul by Jackie Tyrrell (and it looked harsh from this precinct), the prospect of a replay felt like a discharge from Purgatory for all us neutrals yearning for the game to run forever.

Kelly's role could hardly be downplayed either. The Westmeath referee struck a perfect balance between permissiveness and intolerance. He let the game breathe without ever facilitating a lawless inclination. The result was a contest that swept us out of our seats.

Galway looked to have the legs of the champions, but then Cody's men reminded us of the universal stupidity of doubting a team in black and amber. Their pride is still a raging force and, five points down at the midpoint, they came surging back with that familiar, stoic fury, King Henry suddenly plucking butterflies from the air.

Shefflin was immense on the '40' during a second half in which Kilkenny found a collaborative solution to subduing the human storm that is Joe Canning. The Portumna kid had owned the opening quarter, his breathtaking ninth-minute goal triggering nuclear sounds in Dublin 3 and, when he instantly followed it by punishing Brian Hogan's weak clearance with a point, thoughts of a Leinster final reprise suddenly didn't seem so fanciful after all.

For, if there was bullying to be done, Galway were the ones doing it. Their backs swarmed in persuasive packs, Andy Smith was bossing Michael Fennelly in the midfield and young Niall Burke plucked two puck-outs from above Brian Hogan's fingers, despatching both over the bar.

Everywhere you looked, Galway were moving faster and with more venom, their strategy of controlled bedlam in the middle third reaping remarkable dividend. Kilkenny, the team that fell to earth in July, looked to be whistling downward again.

But Shefflin brought order to the day. Shefflin and Hogan and Tommy Walsh. These three, especially, with Paul Murphy hurling a storm behind them, began to remind team-mates what those stripes on their backs are intended to confer. Between the 39th and 55th minutes, Kilkenny necklaced six unanswered points over the Canal End bar.

It wasn't so much a statement as an ice-cold declaration.


The sixth was a pointed free from deep in his own half by Shefflin, just minutes after he'd fetched a puck-out and pointed one from play.

Henry wouldn't finish the day with that ninth All-Ireland medal but, for a man whose arm was still in a sling five months after last December's shoulder surgery, this was a soaring redemption song.

Maybe different generations of Galway teams would have folded at this juncture, but we'd caught a glimpse of what Cunningham's team has triggered within the county when the jubilee boys of '87 and '88 found themselves sucked towards a riotous Hill, brandishing clenched fists, during the ordinarily sedate preliminaries. This is a Galway side schooled to be contrary.

Niall Burke's 56th-minute goal drew another earthquake of sound after Kieran Joyce and Brian Hogan collided. Psychologically, this was a tumultuous point of intersection.

Iarla Tannian was now lording midfield and Damien Hayes running murderous, unselfish lines. Kilkenny suddenly seemed in trouble again everywhere we looked.

Richie Power was getting no change out of Fergal Moore, Eoin Larkin was virtually invisible in the shadow of Kevin Hynes and, every move he made, Colin Fennelly had Johnny Coen attached to him like a catheter. For Kilkenny to kick again, these men needed to fire.

Fennelly had his moment 10 minutes from time, Henry's magical set-up giving him a clear run on the Canal End goal. The shot was cleanly struck, but James Skehill stopped it dead before bravely and judiciously dropping on the sliotar like a corpse.

Henry pointed the free and, with two minutes of normal time remaining, the teams were stuck together with God's glue. Then the Aaron Spelling moment. The movie bit. The segment that seemed, at once, ridiculously schmaltzy but entirely irresistible. Murphy's high delivery broke behind the Galway full-back line and Skehill advanced, scything Larkin to the ground.

With two minutes left in his 12th All-Ireland final, Henry Shefflin was handed the ball and invited to nail the penalty. He looked over for guidance from Brian Cody.

"I never tell Henry what to do in those situations," the Kilkenny manager assured us later. "He looked at me and I just shrugged my shoulders." The computer in Henry's head had to be overloading with the possible implications of what might follow. What a way it would be to claim history.

What a way to step clear of Ring and Doyle, taking that ninth medal by being the hero.

The conceited response had to be, don the cape, do the deed and curtsy. Except conceit just isn't Henry's thing. He assessed the percentages and took his point.

"Look, if he had gone for the goal and it had been saved, it would have been a crazy decision in everybody's mind to go for the goal," said Cody. "If he had scored it, he'd have been a genius. He got a point to put us ahead, so that's fair enough."

It seemed so too when Canning pulled a 69th-minute free left and wide of the Hill end goal, the Galway noise sounding like a collective sigh of resignation. But fate has its balances and, seconds later, Davy Glennon seemed to make the most of a jolting Tyrrell tackle right under the noses of the two managers, Kelly signalling a free.

The exchange that followed?

"What I thought about it doesn't really matter at the end of the day," shrugged Cody in that gently laconic way of his. "The referee decides who gets frees and who doesn't, I can't do that. I didn't think it was a free, but that's not the point. I don't have a terrific reputation as a referee."

Cunningham saw a different incident.

"Ah definitely it was a free, he played his hurley," he told us. "You know there's small wins and gains and that definitely was a free. But I'm sure everybody knows that.

"You'll always dispute a free at that stage of the game. But sure Brian Cody's a legend and they're true gentlemen off the pitch, but they fight for their lives when they're there. So do we all."

Joe nailed the opportunity, civility instantly descending upon the congregation. Peace will have a shelf life of just three weeks. Hallelujah.

Irish Independent

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