Tuesday 18 December 2018

Kanturk are crowned kings in Croker

Diarmuid Sheehan reflects on a very special day for hurling and for All Ireland intermediate champions Kanturk

Lorcán McLoughlin celebrates at the final whistle after Kanturk won the All-Ireland Club IHC title at Croke Park. Photo by Sportsfile
Lorcán McLoughlin celebrates at the final whistle after Kanturk won the All-Ireland Club IHC title at Croke Park. Photo by Sportsfile

A few exuberant Kanturk stragglers emerged from the Croke Park hotel at 7.10pm last Sunday night at the same time as I was leaving the ground on Jones' Road. Down the street a 100 yards or more sat a bus, flashers on, full, waiting.

From around the corner came two Garda cars, sirens blaring in full blue-light mode illuminating the darkened evening. Myself and the revellers stopped, waiting to see who was the target of all the lawmen's ire on this particular occasion and as it turned out to all our relief it was the bus and more specifically its occupants.

You see, you don't get to leave Dublin as All Ireland Champions without a visit from the special branch as it would be considered rude and disrespectful to have to have the national champions make your own way to the city limits so a Garda escort is a must and if a bus load of players ever deserved to be shown a clear path to home it was Kanturk's hurlers last Sunday night.

I have in my time had the privilege of being at some wonderful and iconic sporting occasions - from the Grand Slam win in 2009 to Munster's second Heineken Cup in 2008 as well as some of the best All Ireland Finals and Munster's second date with destiny against the All Blacks in Thomand Park on that cold and electrifying November night in 2008 and I feel privileged to have them all firmly secured in my memory bank, but up with those spine tingling occasions for me will forever be Kanturk's miracle on Jones' Road.

With the exception of Kanturk v Ballyragget in the All Ireland Club Intermediate Hurling Final all the previously mentioned events have one thing in common - the demand was so high for tickets that you would have to consider selling your first born to gain entry.

Move on to the latter then and consider last Sunday's fare. 5,500 patrons came from all over the land to see two games and support their local icons. Ardmore took the spoils after extra time in the first game to be crowned Junior Champions with the main event still to come.

Kanturk and St Patricks of Ballyragget was always going to be a tight affair. It was always going to be entertaining and certainly it was always going to be worth the entry fee, but despite knowing all this in advance you still find yourself blown away when it occurs.

This was a brilliant display from two teams that had fought for almost twelve months to get to this point beating the best in their counties, their provinces and now in the land. From a Ballyragget point of view you must feel sympathy.

Probably the best known intermediate club in the country thanks to one infamous night of 'celebration' they came to headquarters desperate to get their slice of a Kilkenny dominance that has seen this title head to the south east four of the last five years.

For Kanturk, stars a plenty, massive local support and something of a local aura about them. This was always going to be good. If this game had been played to a full house in Croke Park there would have been 80,000 on their feet. As it was, a reasonable crowd lost in a vast sporting theatre had an experience that others will just have to accept they missed.

Kanturk looked on their way to victory for the majority of this tie - that said they couldn't shake off the Kilkenny champions who were up for the battle.

The game ebbed and flowed, but Kanturk retained that sense that this was going to be their day. Ryan Walsh solidified that train of thought when he goaled on the stoke of the break and Kanturk led by four.

Ballyragget responded, and how, with a brilliant goal, some sensational points and all of a sudden the trip down the M7/M8 was going to begin without blue flashing lights and outriders, but this Kanturk side are made of stronger stuff than that. They have that intangible attribute known as courage - they have a never say die attitude and they are and were not afraid to show it.

Kanturk's late recovery will become the thing of folklore in Duhallow over the years. I'm sure by the time the dust settles Ian Walsh's injury time point will have come from his own half while surrounded by all 15 Kilkenny men - he will probably have done the deed with one hand in a sling and the other one tied behind his back - but on this occasion the truth is every bit as impressive.

Walsh's heroics deserve to be part of Kanturk folklore. The point was magnificent. The sidestep was immense and his coolness in a time when most would be in the grips of sheer panic was impressive.

Equally as impressive was the point from Lorcán McLoughlin at the same venue, in the same spot, off the same hand and under the same pressure as Joe Canning's miraculous score late last year. McLoughlin is a living legend of the game.

He will never receive the accolades and the air time of the likes of Canning or DJ Carey or any other of the greats but this man's dedication to his craft, his will to win and the grace with which he accepts either outcome in something to behold.

Align all that with huge talent and you have a true hurling great. McLoughlin is of course not the only star for Kanturk. Poor old Aidan Walsh was magnificent on Sunday, but again left the pitch in a sling. Anthony Nash was superb, two long range points and at no fault for a wonder goal - he too left the pitch a bigger player and a bigger man.

All the Walshs, Ian, Paul and Ryan will all be the toast of the town for many weeks and months to come while Captain Lorcan "Figo" O'Neill led his side to the biggest day in their history.

Figo's speech was delivered like an old pro thanking everyone from the living to the dead but all those names identified raised a cheer as his club, his family and his town stood behind him in the famous Hogan Stand.

After leaving the ground, heading for the train, standing on a semi-packed Luas I was struck by the lack of emotion on the faces of passengers. All staring at their phones, all watching Youtube or Snapchat or whatever your having yourself but all oblivious to what had happened just a mile away in Ireland's premier sporting location and I couldn't help, but think that it really was their loss and the saddest thing is that most will never know or even care what they missed.

What puts Kanturk's achievement on the same level as the iconic sporting achievements of the new century for me is that it was done by a band of brothers. A family of players that came together, not for a tournament, not for one roll of the dice and not for money.

They came together in the schools, the Cúl Camps, the GAA fields of Kanturk and its surrounding areas.

This wasn't a hand-picked bunch of players gathered from around the world to represent a place they had no affiliation with.

Kanturk's players all go to the same birthdays, the same communions, the same weddings and the same funerals. The laugh together and they cry together. They are what they are and they are bloody proud of it.

A Garda escort, a huge party and senior hurling is the least that this club deserve. Roll on the 2018 senior hurling championship.