Creaky Cats dig deep to stay in summer dance
Kilkenny 0-20 Limerick 0-17 - SHC Qualifier
An air of slipping grandeur about Kilkenny here in spite of the closing melodrama but, for now, the big man's coat stays hanging on the door.
Redemption is where you find it and Brian Cody will rightly turn his broad back against any aesthetic grumbles as he nurses his creaking team deeper into the Championship. This sure wasn't a victory with the regular Kilkenny copyright stamped upon it, given they seldom got a sniff of Nickie Quaid's goal and managed to spill a tally of wides (17) that would have been unimaginable in their pomp.
But these are awkward days for them with so many cornerstone figures low on either fitness or confidence and Limerick were intuitive enough to sense opportunity in Nowlan Park. They threw the garden gate at their hosts but, for as long as Cody is at the console, the Cats will not go gently.
And so they dug out a win that was often clumsy and pained, yet one that will have had a cold breeze blowing through rib-cages as this morning's round two Qualifier draw unfolded in an RTE studio. Because if Kilkenny haven't yet quite looked themselves in this Championship, they'll still believe a run into late autumn is not beyond them.
John Kiely struggled to make his words behave as he wanted them to in the dressing-room tunnel after, juggling the natural grief of a summer cut short with pride in a largely young Limerick team finding the gumption to go toe to toe with gentry.
They just lacked a little calmness and clarity in how they attacked and, maybe, a year or so in physical maturity too.
When it was put to him that, given the vibrancy of their U-21s, Limerick should surely go into winter hopeful now, a faintly melancholy smile cracked his features. "I'm disgusted the year is over because we've so much put in" he said quietly.
"If you only knew how much we've done, like the boys have dedicated the last eight months to this thing and to lose two Championship matches - one with a performance that we're not happy with and the second one with a performance that brought us so close to the line, but we just couldn't get across that line."
His voice tailed away until he could resettle his thoughts.
"We're going to miss this like, you know we wanted to keep going" he said. "We had plans for next week, but they're all gone now. The boys go back to their clubs and we don't see them for months on end. The 21s will obviously progress and that's hugely important to the group because we've got nine players involved in it.
"I'm hoping that they'll maybe take a lot of tonight's hurt and maybe use it in the weeks ahead.
"You know we've been very positive about our approach to the game this year. We haven't gone with sweepers. We've gone toe to toe, we've gone out and been straight up and put our best foot forward. We've no regrets about that.
"Listen, we're building something strong and sustainable. It is there for the future. But it's just so disappointing that that opportunity tonight to make a very significant step wasn't taken."
The game had a compelling pulse, but galloped by on largely untidy energy. Indeed, the joint accumulation of 32 wides in conditions that were all but perfect apart from a manageable breeze italicised the collective absence of composure. Kilkenny's strength was in the middle third where Michael Fennelly made a fine return to midfield in tandem with an impressive Paddy Deegan while Walter Walsh had some soaring moments at half-forward.
Their back-line looked to be returning to that old Fort Knox certainty too with Paul Murphy, Padraig Walsh and Cillian Buckley all having storming hours.
But Limerick set plenty of locals hyperventilating through the dying flurries as what looked a comfortable five-point gap with six minutes of normal time remaining dwindled to just two by the end of normal time.
Declan Hannon had a towering game at centre-back and, behind him, Richie McCarthy dominated Colin Fennelly whose verdict on the general quality (or lack of) delivery into Kilkenny's two-man full-forward line would, presumably, be unprintable.
Two of Limerick's younger breed, Peter Casey and Kyle Hayes, were terrific in attack too, yet there was always a sense that they'd need at least one goal to win. Shane Dowling had a fleeting early chance from a crossfield David Dempsey pass but was off balance as he swung and, when Pat Ryan torqued goalward just after the hour, Lester Ryan made a wonderful intervention.
Chris Bolger (twice) and Michael Fennelly had half-chances for Kilkenny too but, always, the gaps were closing too fast to facilitate composed execution.
The game ended with Dowling lobbing a 75th-minute free from the '45' into a crowded Kilkenny square, out of which Padraig Walsh scampered through a side-door, sliotar in hand, to deep, relieved roars from the local faithful.
Kilkenny stay breathing then with gentle signs of TJ Reid's game coming back to him, albeit summer remains a struggle for Richie Hogan and Ger Aylward, both substituted without a score.
No matter. As Cody put it: "The result was everything, it was a serious battle. We were strong all through the field, we were decent. It's normal that not everybody will always flow, but everybody was working. We'll need to improve again to progress."
Still creaking then, but not beyond them make a holy show of the doomsayers.
Scorers - Kilkenny: TJ Reid 0-8 (0-6 frees), W Walsh 0-4, P Deegan 0-3, K Kelly and L Ryan 0-2 each, C Bolger 0-1. Limerick: S Dowling 0-8 (0-7 frees), P Casey 0-3, G Hegarty and K Hayes 0-2 each, P Ryan and B Nash 0-1 each.
Kilkenny - E Murphy 7, P Murphy 8, P Walsh 7, J Lyng 7, C Fogarty 7, C Buckley 8, J Holden 7, M Fennelly 8, P Deegan 8, R Hogan 6, W Walsh 8, TJ Reid 7, C Bolger 6, C Fennelly 6, G Aylward 6. Subs: K Kelly 7 for Aylward (44 mins), L Blanchfield 6 for Hogan (52 mins), L Ryan 7 for Deegan (55 mins), M Bergin for Bolger (64 mins).
Limerick- N Quaid 7, S Finn 7, R McCarthy 8, M Casey 7, D Morrissey 7, D Hannon 9, S Hickey 7, C Lynch 6, P Browne 6, S Dowling 7, D O'Donovan 7, K Hayes 8, P Casey 8, G Hegarty 7, D Dempsey 6. Subs: B Nash 7 for Hegarty (46 mins), J Ryan 7 for O'Donovan (50 mins), T Morrissey 6 for Dempsey (54 mins), P Ryan 7 for Browne (59 mins), G Mulcahy for Lynch (68 mins).
Ref - B Gavin (Offaly).