Sunday 24 September 2017

Vincent Hogan: Relentless Cats just keep rolling on with the same punchline to the same story

Groundhog Day for Galway as new manager cannot change old script

Jonjo Farrell races away from the Galway defence during yesterday's victory in the Leinster SHC final. Photo: Sportsfile
Jonjo Farrell races away from the Galway defence during yesterday's victory in the Leinster SHC final. Photo: Sportsfile
Galway manager Micheál Donoghue during the Leinster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Final match between Galway and Kilkenny. Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

An old story then, retold in language too plain, too colourless to filter any of the sting out of it for Galway.

Their relationship with Kilkenny is acquiring the faint air of a groaning soliloquy, a recurring soundtrack of false hope curdling into the kind of defeat that feels indistinguishable from a dozen others. They tried to make a stand against the stripes, they usually do.

But they could always hear those footsteps.

So Galway were fully conditioned for the cold crack of rifle-fire that any dog in the street could have told them was coming their way. And yet, they were still nailed in the time it takes to lace up a shoe. Three points up after 45 minutes, they were four down after 48. And then? Go fetch the undertaker.

Were Galway braced for it? Of course, they were.

"We knew it was coming," sighed Micheál Donoghue in the media room. "We knew the first few minutes (of the second-half) were going to be crucial. Kilkenny are renowned for coming out..."

So we gathered to discuss Kilkenny's fifteenth Leinster crown under Brian Cody's stewardship, but it felt as if we should have been addressing something bigger, more contentious. Like whether the rest of hurling is just lazily losing ground on Cody and his team. It isn't Kilkenny's fault that hurling needs few things more urgently right now than a mirror.

But they seem to exist in a parallel universe, making the epic feel humdrum, turning the extraordinary into a stifled yawn. True, they operate on different terms to the rest. There is no great proselytising required on Cody's behalf to get the county's finest male specimens into Nowlan Park any evening for a few bone-jarring hours of self-discovery.

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They get drawn to that place as naturally as salmon to the spawning ground.

So all the virtues trumpeted as gifts of their DNA - the humility, the selflessness, the reflexive common sense - all of those things become more easily cultivated in an ecosystem so uncompromised by outside interests.

Hurling isn't, as some declare, a religion in Kilkenny. What they do is never about worship. It is no more than the most profoundly simple expression of self.

So the contaminant of short attention spans never enters the Kilkenny equation because hurling has long since ceased to challenge them in the way it challenges others. Winning is such a natural condition under Cody that, even when stretched by an opponent, worry never ever sends them into a fever.

He was asked about Kilkenny's penchant for second-half murders and tossed no secrets in our direction.

"If there was... maybe we could have a decent first half as well, I'd be interested in finding out," he smiled. "But you don't even need experience not to panic. I mean it's in your make-up I suppose. Your mentality. And, also, it's your belief in each other. And trust in each other.

"That and the realisation that you don't have to do anything fantastic. The fella behind you or the fella in front of you is going to be doing his utmost to be there for you as well. You don't have to do heroics or anything like that. It's a case of keeping going.

"We were three points down at half-time. But eight, nine, ten points even can be whittled down very quickly in hurling. So it's never a case of 'How much is in it?' It's a case of 'How are we going?' And 'What are we going to do?'"

If life could only be so simple for the Galway hurler.

They threw a manager overboard last year and have since failed to deliver a single compelling performance to back up that decision. And the men who fell meekly away after a promising 35 minutes against Kilkenny last September summoned an almost perfect reprise here. Nothing different apart from the man on the line.

And yet any charge of deviancy is probably unfair here.

Kilkenny are better than Galway just now, better than everyone.

Three points down at half-time, they pitched Richie Hogan and John Power into the maelstrom and it was as if the entire team had, suddenly, been plugged into the mains.

So you had to smile at the irony of them spilling out the dressing-room tunnel to the sound of 'Brewing Up a Storm' by Galway band The Stunning when - deep down - pretty much everyone sensed that any lightning looming would have stripey patterns.

Hogan took just 22 seconds to get a score on the board and had four of his five points taken in just 13 minutes. Donoghue said after that he always suspected the first team to score a goal would win and it duly fell Kilkenny's way in the 45th minute.

The excellent Conor Fogarty broke a picket-fence tackle before offloading inside to an unmarked Jonjo Farrell whose finish, whilst not exactly clinical, was still enough to beat Colm Callanan. "I kind of mis-hit it," admitted the Thomastown man. "And that maybe put the 'keeper off.

"But sure it counts the same as a screamer!"

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Kilkenny would win the remainder 0-13 to 0-6 and, long before the end, Donoghue's men found themselves back in that vast, disconnected space between the breadth of their hopes and the narrowest lines of cold reality.

Donoghue found himself back uttering those words he would have dreaded driving East, that mix of drawing-boards and quarter-finals and a need to make good use of the next three weeks.

Maybe the greatest imperative when playing Kilkenny is to trust yourself.

Galway flirted with keeping a three-man full-forward line inside, but never entirely convincingly. Endlessly at least one body got drawn out to the middle third where Kilkenny's traffic always had sirens wailing. In the end, Galway seemed to be neither one thing nor the other.

"Obviously we've huge respect for Kilkenny but look when you come up I suppose you have to try and stay in the game," explained Donoghue. "The disappointing thing was that when they got the goal they obviously tagged on a few points, you know our response wasn't quick enough."

Just beaten by a better team then?

"I think there's a huge element of that, not just today, they're the standard-bearers for the last couple of years" he reflected. "I suppose the fact that Galway got into the All-Ireland twice in the last four years, they're probably one of the teams that have come close to beating them. I suppose when you get to that level and you don't achieve it, you know there's going to be questions asked.

"Kilkenny are a fantastic team, everybody knows that. It's up to everyone else to keep working hard and to aspire to get to their heights."

Trouble is, nobody's making much of a fist of that right now. Barely out of second gear, Cody's men are just two more wins from another three-in-a-row. The rigid boundaries they set themselves fly too high for those chasing their dust.

And there is not the merest whisper of ambition softening.

Asked if he was, perhaps, conscious of his fifteenth provincial crown as manager in the context of a milestone, he shrugged: "I'd no idea to be honest, it doesn't come into it at all. It's not about anything we've done in the past."

Irish Independent

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