Sunday 22 September 2019

Dermot Crowe: 'Ball and destiny seized by Condon'

Worth Waiting For

Tom Condon. Photo: Sportsfile
Tom Condon. Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

This is about a split-second deed, with timeless consequences, the story of the man who made the last catch in the 2018 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship. There is no known record of who made the first catch but we can safely say, if you didn't know already, that the last was claimed by the left hand of Tom Condon.

It wasn't a classic leap and fetch, more of a priceless snatch when a dropping ball broke among a huddle of players in the dying moments. But when Limerick followers saw him take possession and make his way to safety, the relief is not difficult to imagine.

Describing the late stages, when Galway whittled down what had looked a safe Limerick lead, John Kiely used the word "horrendous".

What went through his mind and the minds of the thousands of other Limerick devotees when Joe Canning's free from inside his own half, far out but within his range, dropped short a few metres from Nickie Quaid's goal? One point down, a conversion would have earned a draw and left Limerick feeling hard done by. But a goal would have won it for Galway, who had trailed by eight points with less than two minutes of normal time remaining.

When a ball drops in the square and breaks anything can happen. Galway had scored two goals in added time. Hurling has conformed to certain conventions but it is still a mad unruly game where anything can happen very quickly. The last minutes of the final produced an enthralling end to a wonderful championship as Limerick closed in on the MacCarthy Cup which had become a torturous and futile pursuit for 45 years.

Sport's gift to mesh the jarring narratives of joy and heartbreak is embodied in this short story of Tom Condon, the veteran member of the panel who first made his way into the set-up when Justin McCarthy was manager in 2009. Condon in his prime was a swashbuckling, ferociously competitive and exciting defender, a crowd-lifter, but in recent years injuries and age have caught up with him.

At a time when Limerick is flush with underage talent streaming through to maturity - young bucks like Kyle Hayes who see no time like the present - the old soldiers like Condon are an endangered species and a fading curiosity.

The full-back line positions which were once his territory are now marshalled by brilliant young players. If you get a chance to play at all, you need to make the most of it. During the summer Condon was given that opportunity when Limerick met Clare in their final group game in the Munster Championship at Ennis.

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In the 13th minute, Seán Finn picked up an injury and Condon was entrusted with the duty of filling the gap. Twenty minutes later, nearing half-time, Condon struck David Reidy with the butt of his hurl and was sent off. That led to a two-match suspension. The odds against Tom Condon being seen on the field again before the season ended were long at that point.

Defeat meant Limerick, hailed for their performances and promise up to then, missed out on the Munster final. Condon was suspended for their preliminary quarter-final against Carlow and the quarter-final against Kilkenny. When Limerick made a defensive substitution for the All-Ireland semi-final classic against Cork that went to extra time, they chose Seamus Hickey to replace Diarmaid Byrnes.

In the final there were two changes in the full-back line due to injury. What chances of that happening for a start? After 50 minutes Mike Casey was replaced by Richie McCarthy. Twenty minutes in an All-Ireland final, plus additional time, is a long shift.

By the time Richie English had to make way when he suffered a hamstring injury there were two minutes of additional time almost played. The selectors had options. Hickey had the semi-final appearance in his favour and an appealing versatility. But they opted for Condon.

He had less than six minutes, and in that time Limerick's stout lead disintegrated. Galway had a terrifying momentum and when Canning's free sailed through the air everything was held in momentary suspense. Had it the distance? Had it the accuracy?

When the ball dropped there were eight Limerick players in the square and four from Galway converging. The likelihood of a clean possession in that company was remote, if not as remote as Tom Condon playing for Limerick in 2018 after Ennis. But sport's eternal appeal lies in those tales of the unexpected. When the ball broke loose it was almost impossible to see in real time where it had ended up. For a moment it was back in the air, open for bidding. Then you saw a player in a white helmet breaking free, ball and destiny in his hand. And for Tom, all the heartbreak and sacrifice since 2009 were worth it for that moment alone.

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