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Cats so classy as Galway fail to topple King Henry

ANOTHER September ends and Liam MacCarthy is heading back to Noreside. Another tale of the expected, then, from the most successful team, manager and talisman in the history of hurling?

Not quite, for Kilkenny under Brian Cody have never endured a more testing and frequently troubled season that ended with them at the summit. Once pummelled by Galway, twice pushed to the brink ... a case of third time lucky for the Cats? Not by a long shot.

This may be their first coronation through the 'back door' but that shouldn't detract from yesterday's achievement.

The 11-point winning margin doesn't tell the full story of an absorbing replay with myriad twists, but it still tells you plenty.

When it mattered most, Kilkenny played like champions and that is why yesterday will taste as sweet as any of the eight that preceded it on Cody's watch.

And the one reason why it will taste sweeter still? Because Henry Shefflin is now, officially, the greatest player in history. The first man to win nine Celtic Crosses on the field of play. A living legend who, at 33, still has quite a few chapters to pen before he hangs up his hurl.

It was clear in recent weeks that Kilkenny's dressing-room desperately wanted to win this record-breaking All-Ireland for Shefflin ... but what actually happened in the original deadlock three weeks ago is that Shefflin salvaged this All-Ireland for his team-mates.

He, more than anyone, made this replay possible. He dragged his colleagues back from the abyss on September 9.

Yesterday was a different story: Shefflin was brilliantly supported by an All Star cast in virtually every line but Henry was still the driving force in a pulsating first half that swung one way, then the other, before Kilkenny made their decisive power play.

After 17 minutes, David Burke was celebrating his second goal in a whirlwind 90 seconds that almost took the roof off Croke Park. For the first, he cleverly redirected an Iarla Tannian delivery with Jackie Tyrrell caught out of position. For the second, he provided the cutting edge to incisive approach play by Cyril Donnellan and Damien Hayes.

Thus, the huge maroon army that had travelled east in their masses were daring to dream of a first All-Ireland in 24 years.

In truth, they were flattered by their 2-2 to 0-5 lead. As it transpired, Burke's two-goal salvo merely succeeded in stirring the beast.

Galway had barely time to compose themselves before James Skehill was taking the ball out of his net, courtesy of Richie Power's deft one-handed flick on the rebound after James Skehill had saved from Eoin Larkin.

That 18th-minute goal ignited the holders who hit another six unanswered points in the next eight minutes. The scoring blows were coming from all angles: players who had struggled to leave their mark the first day (Larkin, Power and a relocated Richie Hogan), the king himself (Shefflin) and a rookie making his senior baptism on the biggest stage of all (Walter Walsh).

Trailing by six points, Galway looked in danger of collective meltdown. To their credit, they held Kilkenny scoreless for the 10 minutes before half-time at which point they 'only' trailed by four -- 1-11 to 2-4.

In the circumstances, they could count themselves fortunate. They had gambled on the fitness on Skehill despite his much-publicised shoulder mishap in training on Friday night, but the 'keeper's discomfort was apparent even from the opening minutes.

Would a fully-fit Skehill have dealt more commandingly with the Larkin shot that prefaced Power's goal? Perhaps. Shortly before the break, he was lucky to avoid the concession of a penalty after he saved a Brian Hogan 'point' only to slip as he sought to retrieve the ball, upending Walter Walsh in the process.

Skehill was the last Galway player to leave the field at half-time and it was obvious, from the way he was holding his stricken shoulder, that his day was over. Fergal Flannery duly reappeared for the restart.

The third quarter was dripping with tension as 82,274 rapt witnesses waited for the game's next decisive move.

And for a few fleeting minutes the prospect of the unthinkable -- Kilkenny losing a championship game from a winning position -- reared its head.

The Leinster champions trailed by five when a 44th-minute Cyril Donnellan 'goal' was ruled out by referee James McGrath's earlier whistle. Cruel luck? Perhaps, but there had been a clear foul on Damien Hayes seconds beforehand.

So Galway had to settle for a one instead of three-point gain from the resultant Joe Canning free. Soon after, Canning's exquisite sideline cut arrowed over via a Canal End upright. The gap was three: the Galway comeback was simmering.

It would have reached boiling point but for the vagaries of another upright, the one that denied Canning's sublime daisy-cutter from an almost impossible angle.

Kilkenny countered straight down the field, Shefflin showed supreme resilience to fend off a defender and feed Cillian Buckley; and when his shot flew over, Galway found themselves four adrift instead of level.

If that four-point swing didn't break Galway, Donnellan's red card a minute later definitively did so. The Galway forward may have succumbed to frustration but he can have no complaints for a wild swing of the hurl that precipitated the temporary blood sub departure of JJ Delaney and left 14 colleagues facing the numerical odds.

It was to prove an impossible game of catch-up. From that juncture on, Kilkenny outscored the wilting westerners by 2-8 to 1-4.

Walter Walsh crowned his fairytale debut with a goal from yet another rebound (following the suspicion of a TJ Reid overcarry) and then his immediate replacement, Colin Fennelly, followed Power's earlier lead with another one-handed goal as he fended off the despairing challenges of Johnny Coen and Fergal Moore.

Jonathan Glynn, by far the most influential of Galway's replacements, replied with a pinpoint goal of his own but that 66th-minute riposte came far too late. Ditto with Canning's last two points, his first from open play. Canning has enjoyed more glorious Croke Park afternoons but, even in flashes, he was still Galway's best attacker on a day. Burke never featured after his early goal blast and none of their starting forwards, save Canning, managed a single point.

You can't win All-Irelands that way, especially when Big Joe hadn't brought his Superman cape and when defenders who had excelled all summer were coming under unbearable pressure from a reborn Kilkenny attack, tackling with abrasive intent and eventually scoring at will.

And led, as ever, by King Henry.