Tuesday 25 July 2017

History casts a long shadow

W hat do Churchtown Boy, Andreas Kloder, Chris Chataway and Meadowville have in common?

They were all runners-up on historic sporting occasions. In 1977, Churchtown Boy was second when Red Rum became the first horse to win three Grand Nationals. In 2004, Herr Kloder was second when Lance Armstrong became the first ever cyclist to win six Tours de France, Chataway finished behind Roger Bannister in 1954 when his fellow Englishman became the first man to break four minutes for the mile and Meadowville was second in the 1970 St Leger when Nijinsky won the Triple Crown.

That the quartet are little known to the average fan says a lot about the winner-takes-all nature of sport on the days when victors perform a feat for the ages. The two men and two horses involved are merely a footnote to someone else's achievement, a role Tipperary hurlers find themselves cast in this morning. Hardly anyone remembers them.

Here's another five names for you. India Hicks, Sarah Jane Gaselee, Lady Sarah Chatto, Clementine Hambro and Catherine Cameron.

Not, as you might think, members of the Tipperary camogie team, but the bridesmaids at the wedding of the late Lady Diana Spencer to Prince Charles in 1981.

It's doubtful if any of this quintet will be in Croke Park today but they, more than most, will be able to sympathise with the feeling which must have assailed the likes of Lar Corbett, Pádraic Maher and Noel McGrath these last few days. Namely, that while the big day couldn't take place without them, it isn't really their gig. Their purpose is merely to look nice while the real stars of the show strut their regal stuff.

Tipperary could be excused for feeling that they've been treated a bit like those hand-picked opponents of television wrestling stars whose defeat has been scripted before they've even entered the ring. Because the build-up to today's game has centred around just one of the two teams involved to an unprecedented degree. That's because Kilkenny are trying to do something unprecedented and provide us with that most thrilling spectacle in sport, something never seen before.

It scarcely matters that there should be a substantial asterisk beside the name of the Cork team which won four in a row between 1941 and 1944, given that their first All-Ireland came in a championship denuded of Kilkenny and Tipperary, who later defeated the All-Ireland champions in the postponed Munster final, because of a foot and mouth epidemic and required the playing of just two games.

Such quibbles will be rendered irrelevant today should the Cats set a mark unlikely ever to be broken, unless by this Kilkenny team this time next year. So it's understandable that today's final has been presented as less a contest than a coronation or that Henry Shefflin's apparent return from injury at a Kilkenny training session was greeted with roughly the same hype as would have occurred had Jesus Christ risen from the dead live on Sky Television with Max Clifford handling the publicity.

It's almost as though Kilkenny's real opponent today is history. Tipperary have been overshadowed to such an extent it's as though their halting Kilkenny would turn them into the equivalent of the man who shouts "rakes of them" when the priest asks if there are any people present who can see any impediment to the joining of this happy couple in holy matrimony. There's a feeling abroad that it would be bad form if Tipperary get in the way of the latest marriage between Brian Cody and Liam McCarthy, an occurrence which, like the nuptials of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, is not rendered any less beguiling by the fact that it has happened before.

Perhaps no team has been so generally ignored and written off in the build-up to an All-Ireland final as Tipperary. And this despite the fact that everything which can be said about Kilkenny has already been said. To mention that the ferocity of Kilkenny's training sessions is one of the keys to their success, that Brian Cody is always willing to freshen up the team with new faces and that Henry Shefflin is the greatest player of all time is to be like the man who thinks it's a ground-breaking observation to note that when you're waiting a long time for a bus, two of them are likely to arrive together. Been there, praised that.

This night last year it would have seemed impossible that Tipperary would enter the 2010 final so unregarded. Kilkenny's victory looked the last kick of a team finally made mortal by the passage of time. Because, for all the subsequent talk of the champions' invincibility, they should have lost last year's decider. They won because of extraordinary saves by PJ Ryan, a moment of sheer daftness by Benny Dunne and a dubious penalty decision. Kilkenny being Kilkenny, they took advantage of these game-changing moments to scrape through.

Tipperary had been like Ripley in the Alien films, blasting the apparently unstoppable monster with everything they had until it stopped in its tracks. All that was missing was that final scene when the fearsome predator is dispatched through the air lock. Still, in the immediate aftermath of last year's match, the future looked to belong to Tipperary.

There are reasons why this diagnosis has changed drastically. Kilkenny 2010 look more like Kilkenny 2008, when the team seemed to have reached its peak, than Kilkenny 2009, when there was a perceptible decline.

The difference has been apparent in every game. Last year, they laboured to defeat Dublin 2-18 to 0-18, this year they blew them away 4-19 to 0-12. Galway gave them huge trouble last year before succumbing by 2-20 to 3-13; this year's Leinster final was a stroll for the champions, the victory much easier than the scoreline suggests. And there was a world of difference between last year's scrappy 2-23 to 3-15 semi-final victory over Waterford and this year's over-by-half-time 3-22 to 0-19 cruise past Cork.

The return of Noel Hickey has been crucial, providing Kilkenny with not just one but two of the greatest players of all-time in their respective positions, JJ Delaney, uneasy at number three last year, having flourished after being restored to wing-back. And the

arrival of Michael Fennelly as all-conquering athletic midfield beast has also been significant. Kilkenny have looked much sharper this year all over the field. The old unbeatable aura has been restored.

Tipp, on the other hand, have never quite recovered the imperious form which made them so confident going into last year's final. Atrocious against Cork, shaky against Offaly and almost dead and buried against Galway, this year's team paradoxically looks more of a work in progress than last year's. The anticipated great leap forward over the past 12 months does not seem to have materialised. Yet the memory of last year's performance lingers as does that of the 3-17 amassed against Galway and the easy 3-19 against Waterford in this year's championship. Tipperary are the one contemporary team who rival Kilkenny in terms of firepower. They will need goals today, but they have players who can score goals and Noel McGrath's renaissance in the semi-final may yet prove to be hugely significant. Tipp have a puncher's chance. And a puncher always has a chance.

So if you're from the Premier County it may be cheering to think of other great historic spoilsports, the New York Giants team which prevented the New England Patriots from ending an unbeaten season with the Superbowl two years ago, Imperial Commander in this year's Cheltenham Gold Cup beating both Denman and Kauto Star and even Cork's 1941 friend, the foot and mouth virus, which stopped Istabraq making it four Champion Hurdles in a row 60 years later.

And then there's the one much closer to home. Because 28 years ago as Kerry, like Kilkenny, prepared to boldly go where no team had gone before, there was a guy on the Offaly bench who hardly anyone outside the county had heard of. His name was Seamus Darby. We remember him alright.

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