Sunday 16 December 2018

Vincent Hogan: If there was a perfect way to win a provincial title, Galway somehow found it in Thurles

8 July 2018; Galway players celebrate with the Bob O'Keeffe Cup following the Leinster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Final Replay match between Kilkenny and Galway at Semple Stadium in Thurles, Co Tipperary. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
8 July 2018; Galway players celebrate with the Bob O'Keeffe Cup following the Leinster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Final Replay match between Kilkenny and Galway at Semple Stadium in Thurles, Co Tipperary. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Kilkenny make you hear footsteps, that's their gift, their beauty. They are a perpetual study in the art of spookery. So this felt a monumental step for Galway, a recognition that when this game became, as it did, a conversation with themselves, they did not buckle.

Just imagine the collateral damage of blowing this? Of losing a game they'd once led by a dozen points? To opponents who, 25 minutes in, had just a solitary player on the scoreboard?

Galway manager Micheál Donoghue. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Galway manager Micheál Donoghue. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Of all the indignities Brian Cody's Kilkenny have visited upon opponents across the years, that would have been right up there with the most harrowing.

Galway had every invitation to be re-acquainted with a self-loathing that had no filter. When Richie Hogan snapped home that 55th-minute Killinan End goal, the gap was down to a single point. Kilkenny had nailed seven of the previous nine scores, one of them another goal, from Colin Fennelly.

The bedlam rising from the stands had a mocking sound.

An old story was being written, you see. Kilkenny looked like they might win a game they had no business winning. It would have been a riotous repudiation of where these teams sit in the current food chain, but when did Cody's Kilkenny ever answer to conventional judgement?

If the champions' house was made of straw, he'd make sure the gale would blow.

So what followed? Galway won the remainder 0-8 to 0-2, both of Kilkenny's scores TJ Reid frees. If there was a perfect way to win a provincial title, Micheál Donoghue's men somehow found it. Connacht men in a Munster town, winning a Leinster title that every molecule within their shaken bodies recognised as non-negotiable.

Donoghue isn't the type to flap on the line when crisis looms and he remained impressively sanguine in the dressing-room tunnel afterwards, talking of his players understanding the "responsibility" of wearing that maroon jersey and acknowledging with a smile: "It was some game and some game for us to win!"

It was a smile that concealed a multitude.

Because the difference between winning and losing here felt, for them, not a million miles from the difference between a health spa and a scaffold. Donoghue would have had a monumental task lifting the champions to face Limerick next weekend. Now he has three weeks to calibrate them for an All-Ireland semi-final.

It took them just 33 minutes yesterday to match their score from 70-odd a week earlier. The central axiom of what they were doing was that every act would be aggressive, that the basics of their play would be salted with venom. In this, they were unrecognisable from the drawn game, antelope re-drawn as crocodiles.

"We knew we had to come out of the traps early," said Donoghue. "People mightn't comprehend how hard it is to turn around in seven days. But these boys have massive experience, both good and bad. They always draw on it, and they showed huge quality and huge leadership throughout the week.

"And, more importantly, huge desire to go on and win the game."

In a sense, they shouldn't have needed that. In another, it was their blessing that they did. With Johnny Glynn running amok, Galway led 1-15 to 0-6 when Ger Aylward somehow danced around Adrian Tuohey and Gearoid McInerney to kick a faintly inelegant goal approaching half-time.

At the time, it felt no more than a firecracker fired from a funeral congregation.

An idea of Kilkenny's troubles? They restarted with just 14 on the field, Cody beseeching in vain to have the throw-in delayed, Aylward having just danced back down the tunnel for, presumably, a toilet break. And both the Fennelly and Hogan goals would have more to do with random bounces than innovation, ball going to ground and being whipped past James Skehill by first-time pulls.

But that, in many ways, was the point about Kilkenny yesterday. They were ordinary, yet heroic. Is there a more admirable condition?

As Cody himself reflected: "The response of our players was magnificent in the second half against the best team in the country. And it came all over the field. We brought a huge lead down to a single point and it's very, very difficult to sustain that in these conditions. But we fought to the bitter end."

For a predominantly young team, he welcomed that evidence of steadfast personality.

"Ah yeah," he agreed. "It's learning on their feet, learning as they go. They're at the top level now, getting huge experience. It doesn't come easy and it doesn't happen easy. The first thing you want in a team is that absolute never-say-die attitude and I think they showed that today, which is the most pleasing thing.

"I'm absolutely certain of the character or the spirit or the commitment that's there. When you have that, you can work on other things."

When Galway needed them, Joe Canning and Cathal Mannion were outstanding, while David Burke made a mockery of his anonymity in the drawn game. Galway, essentially, found the best of themselves just when circumstance invited them to track down the worst.

"Look, I've said it many times, this group doesn't care what's said outside," explained Donoghue. "We can't control that, we just try to control what happens in Athenry when we're training. What's said about us, what's written about us is irrelevant."

He knows and we know. Great teams shape their own narrative.

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