Was last year the start of a new era of hurling glasnost?
Old order shaken by a revolution from within
Published 06/01/2014 | 02:30
A random moment from the hurling year. Waterford minors are closing in on a first All-Ireland final appearance since 1992 and a first title win since 1948. In any other season it would be one of the main headline stories; in this one it has to take its place in the queue. They are hurling Kilkenny in the semi-final in the knowledge that countless failed expeditions precede them.
High stakes situations have turned young Waterford legs to jelly in the past but this is a confident team, coming off a model development squad system and accustomed to success. They are tangling with Kilkenny, winning without any danger of complacency when in the second half one of their players eschews convention and doubles on the ball overhead.
It is a small wonder that some agitated member of the backroom team didn't hare on to the field with a flip chart and begin mouthing obscenities and stark forecasts of the end of the world being nigh. But life went on and Waterford won. And then they defeated Galway to win the final as well.
There is a cavalier strain in the Deise hurling DNA that surfs over the generations. The practitioner of this virtually obsolete art in Croke Park in August might have been influenced by Ken McGrath, who was fond of the opium hit granted by a clean overhead connection and until relatively recently could be seen to execute it. Or it might be one of those recurring traits that is pure Waterford, that resurfaces from time to time like a cycle of nature and is beyond the grip of all coaching expertise and censorship.
Here was that wild spirit revealing itself once more, in a young buck behaving as if he were indulging himself in the back garden with his dad ten years earlier with nobody else paying a blind bit of notice. The possession-conscious would have told him this was not a good idea. But it was good to see.
Waterford's success was one of many novelties in a year that never tired of drama or tales of the unexpected. Even after the inter-county season closed with Clare's scoring extravaganza and coronation there was room for arguably the biggest blow of the lot for the hurling longshot when Mount Leinster Rangers won the Leinster senior club championship. They are managed by a Kilkenny man, one rather more fortunate than the Kilkenny evangelist who crossed over the same border with the best of intentions 20-odd years ago only to find his team end up embroiled in an unholy fracas. This quickly became the talk of Graiguenamanagh and those other hamlets that sit close to the Carlow border but for hurling purposes are as apart as Israel and the Gaza Strip. The failed experiment was being discussed in the pub one night by the hurling elders when a particularly indignant gent sniffed: "The fella who gave them the hurls was worse." Carlow hurling has come a long way; their win was truly historic.
In the end, even with fitness remaining a central part of team preparations, pure sorcery won the day and saw Clare rise to the top. Tony Kelly might have been up one morning at 5am to embark on a character-affirming run but no amount of early mornings or jumping jacks would turn a prosaic hurler into the gifted wristman Kelly already is, his interventions always telling and vital, as he glides in and out of the action with the stealth of the barn owl gracefully swooping on its prey. Kelly, still ridiculously young, operates on a different level like all the great players, with a nonchalance that makes it looks easy when of course it is anything but. Some of his scoring and trickery were a delight to view.
It was a year rich in diveristy and risk-taking. In pulling overhead and rejecting orthodoxy the Waterford minor captured the season at large; rebellious, bold, non-conformist, expressive.
In today's game, with its strength and conditioning moguls, and various 'mind-strengthening' personnel peddling their schtick, control of the process is king. Now and then the players throw off the chains and go helter-skelter and it was refreshing to see that alteration in Clare when they abandoned their sweeper and trusted in their own hurling ability. Granted it was hair-raising and high-wire at times to see them test the belief that whatever Cork would score, they could score more. Nobody factored in Domhnall O'Donovan's outrageous act of salvation but all that bravery deserved some good fortune; had Clare lost the drawn All-Ireland final it would have been a travesty. Many hurling counties found a new vitality and those most was expected of looked heavy-limbed and devoid of creative spark.
Hurling is a team game. But it should never become a subordination of the individual brilliance and idiosyncracies of the players who at some point, whether through nature or nurture of both, take it upon themselves to do something audacious.
Seconds left in Thurles on a baking hot summer's day and Kevin Moran races down the sideline pursued by Eoin Larkin. He's hooked yet somehow finds the energy and will to retrieve the ball, turn and strike over the bar off his left side from close to the sideline. Drawn match and extra-time.
At the All-Star awards when this score was raised and compliments duly served in a chance meeting at the bar, his recollection could have been a mantra for the year. "It was like an out-of-body experience," he stated. The heat that day -- he'd felt nothing like it. He thought he was running on empty when the hook went in. From somewhere in the depths he summoned up enough for that last act of heroism.
That Waterford minor hurler with the streak of audacity is following in Moran's footsteps and will easily remember the 2008 All-Ireland final when Waterford hurling was on the receiving end of a near-Utopian performance from Kilkenny. Time and time again, the value of time itself as a healer is shown to us. Waterford is a case in point.
Hope springs eternal. Kilkenny have been a magnificent force but teams see a fallibility in Kilkenny now and they have gone to great lengths to do all they can to compete. This is usually the product of ten years of work behind the scenes, tending to development squads, knowing there is no summer if there is no spring. Clare had warmly appreciated assistance on that score from Kilkenny but it was something they ultimately could only achieve alone. Laois, brutalised by Cork in 2011 when conceding ten goals in a qualifier, reminded those who had forgotten that they have hurling when they set their minds to it. Offaly went sleeves-up against Kilkenny in Tullamore. Wexford won a Leinster under 21 title and Antrim had a great day in the semi-finals and claimed an historic victory.
And the big hitters fell short. Kilkenny started the year looking to win a third All-Ireland in a row, and a seventh in eight years, but didn't reach Croke Park for the first time since 1951, losing a replay to Dublin, and going out to Cork on a day in which Henry Shefflin saw red.
Shefflin, the most feted hurler in the history of the game, later talked of the prospect of a personal comeback and wondered if with the speed of the hurling in 2013 he would be able for it anymore. He added a wise rider; hurling can look faster and more forbidding to the player or spectator outside the white lines than to those in the middle of it, without time to think. And yet the speed and precision of the hurling looks to have moved on to a new dimension. In Shefflin's absence others stepped in to fill the void. Pat Donnellan's handpass for Shane O'Donnell's first goal in the All-Ireland final replay is one even Shefflin would have been proud of.
Dublin finally convinced the hurling family of their bona fides with a replay win over Kilkenny, demonstrating a resilience and mastery of the essentials. The win in Portlaoise, after they had appeared to have blown their chance in not closing out the drawn match six days earlier, marked their first championship defeat of Kikenny since 1942.
The Leinster final refused admission to both Kilkenny and Wexford for the first time in 23 years. The year ahead offers the most open and interesting Leinster race since the mid-1990s and arguably the most competitive Munster campaign in close on 20 years. Dublin's first provincial senior title since 1961 ended with Jimmy Gray of that vintage proudly handing over the silver to Johnny McCaffrey, the Lucan player a product of the 2005 minor team that won Leinster after a 22-year stretch and underlined the quality of the new breed coming off development squads. They had the winning of the semi-final classic with Cork until they went down to 14 men. Good as the year was -- a return to Division 1 hurling also sealed with a hard-earned win over Limerick in Thurles -- there will be gnawing regret that they did not kick on and seize a wonderful opportunity to win a first All-Ireland since 1938.
Galway, full of promise in 2012, lost their way. They remain an utterly confounding and enigmatic challenger. Nowlan Park staged a frenetic evening of old school knock-out combat when Kilkenny hosted Tipperary, both ailing, Tipp more so. Kilkenny, Tipperary and Galway are ripe for redemptive strikes in the New Year and of the three Kilkenny, still the bookies favourite, carries the greatest promise. But they will need to find a defensive sextet that can cope with the pace and running Clare bring to the game. They have no shortage of options from midfield up and 2005 was the last time they failed to win an All-Ireland two years running. Tipperary need to rediscover what being Tipp once meant. The rest will take care of itself.
In Munster Limerick returned to a place they last visited in 1996 during a decade when hurling saw a rising from the counties outside the traditional belt. The reaction of their supporters, the damburst of joy, was a glorious sight. The pity was that they failed to perform in the All-Ireland semi-final against Clare. Their improving record at minor and under-21 level, and continued good management, makes them a good prospect in the years ahead to close that insane gap since their last All-Ireland.
Which brings us to Clare and Cork and that fireworks finish over two breathtaking games. Anthony Nash's innovation has stirred a debate about rule reform for 20m frees. Even if you are of the view that reform is necessary there is still room to admire Nash's chutzpah. And chutzpah did not prove wanting in Shane O'Donnell, the 19-year-old not named in the original starting line-up who scored 3-1 with his first four touches after 19 minutes played. He is already written into Clare legend alongside Tull Considine and Jimmy Smyth.
The year Nicky Brennan made his -- not unreasonable -- speech about a crisis in hurling, 1994, was the same one in which O'Donnell was born. A year later, improbably, Clare would win their first Munster title in 63 years and their first All-Ireland in 81. After that anything was possible but this triumph has seen Clare champion a hurling brand that is at the high street end. They were flying fit, certainly, and blessed with youthful derring-do but it was their skills range and the quality of their attacking play that finally ruptured Cork's brave and unfeasibly long resistance. Tom Kenny had his last day in Croke Park; Shane O'Donnell will hope this is the first of many.
Is this the start of a fresh spell of hurling glasnost like that seen in the 1990s? That seems safe to assume. Clare have won three of the last five All-Ireland under-21 titles; they've arguably won this senior championshp slightly ahead of time. Winning back-to-back is a tall order but they are setting the standard. Clare's 5-16 winning total in the All-Ireland final replay has only been surpassed twice in the last 100 years, excluding 80-minute games. Cork's losing total of 3-16 has only been bettered twice in the history of the competition, in 1990 by Galway and by Wexford in 1963, again excluding 80-minute contests. Where was the marking, Alan Hansen might say, but 2013 did not claim to be perfect. Merely endlessly entertaining.
Teams are fitter, space is more confined and time more restricted than ever and yet those bountiful score totals were posted in last year's All-Ireland final replay. This, the first All-Ireland senior final played on a Saturday, was a game apart in a year apart. What a privilege to have been there to see it. How thoroughly re-energised hurling has suddenly become.