Thursday 23 November 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: After the boom comes Kilkenny's inevitable crash

Last Saturday’s joust with Wexford was the kind of match Kilkenny would have relished in their heyday. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Last Saturday’s joust with Wexford was the kind of match Kilkenny would have relished in their heyday. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

It was hard to escape that end-of-an-era feeling last weekend. Kilkenny's defeat by Wexford and Mayo's loss to Galway seemed like unmistakable signs that both the most successful team of modern times and our era's most notable also-rans have run out of road.

There's always a chance that rumours of their deaths have been exaggerated. I can remember writing an obituary for Kilkenny after they were trounced by Dublin in the 2011 league final, much to the chagrin of a now-deceased Cats fan of my acquaintance. "What have you done Sweeney," he lamented, "Cody is going to make an awful fool of you." He was correct. Kilkenny won four of the next five All-Irelands.

When Mayo lost to Galway last year and barely got past Fermanagh in the qualifiers, it seemed safe enough to begin their obsequies too. Yet they ended up coming within a single kick of the ball of finally ending their All-Ireland famine. You write both of these sides off at your peril.

So let's live a little dangerously and say that last weekend's defeats are merely the latest evidence of a profound decline for both teams. If either of them go on to win the All-Ireland, I will eat a copy of this column in the main street of their county town. Gladly, because I'll always have the old ancestral grá for Kilkenny and would, like every other neutral in the country, rejoice to see Mayo finally make the breakthrough. But I don't think it's going to happen.

I've always been struck by the similarities between the paths of the two greatest teams in Gaelic games history, Mick O'Dwyer's Kerry and Brian Cody's Kilkenny. Both of them began by jousting for supremacy with an opponent who on the face of it looked slightly stronger, Kerry losing two of their first three meetings with Dublin, Kilkenny losing two of their first three All-Ireland finals with Cork. Then came the final which marked a turning point, 1978 for Kerry, 2006 for Kilkenny. Followed by the imperial phase of total dominance, Kerry's four-in-a-row between 1978 and 1981 and Kilkenny's quartet between 2006 and 2009.

Both sides fell short of the five-in-a-row, Lar Corbett doing to the Cats in 2010 what Seamus Darby did to the Kingdom in 1982. Neither side were the same force after that. Yet Kerry regrouped to win three in a row between 1984 and 1986 and Kilkenny to win that aforementioned four in five years. These finals were won in a different way, the guile and experience built up in the imperial phase enabling both to eke out the maximum return from an ageing team. In 1987, Kerry lost the Munster final to Cork and began a fallow spell which lasted for a decade. Does the Wexford Park spell presage the same kind of era for Kilkenny?

It's possible. Or maybe even probable. The first real sign that Kilkenny are a much-diminished force came in last year's semi-final against Waterford. They were conclusively beaten everywhere that day, except on the scoreboard. That they escaped with a draw was testimony to their ability, unrivalled in hurling history, to get out of tight corners. You expected the status quo to be restored in the replay but Kilkenny barely got over the line. In the All-Ireland final the champions were clearly second best to Tipperary and the final margin of defeat flattered them.

This year's league campaign added further evidence for the case against Kilkenny. Their struggle to scrape past a 14-man Dublin in their final match was the clearest example of their reduced state. The 'league doesn't matter' excuse didn't really seem applicable. Kilkenny under Cody have always taken the secondary competition seriously and have six doubles to prove it. No team in Division 1A scored less, there was a remarkable dependence on TJ Reid's dead-ball ability and a remarkable lack of emerging stars.

Last Saturday's joust with Wexford was the kind of match Kilkenny would have relished in their heyday. Jackie Tyrrell wrote last week of how they liked to put down pretenders to their crown with great severity. A Wexford side which had great expectations but is some way from being the finished article would have been grist to the mill of Kilkenny at their peak.

Instead the most surprising thing about Wexford's victory was how unsurprising it seemed. Only that old knack of poaching goals at key moments kept the visitors in the game at all. Once more they were flattered by the margin of defeat. John Mullane's comment that Kilkenny are now like Muhammad Ali in the 1980s and that every county will look forward to taking them on might be a slight exaggeration. But it is true to say that Galway, Waterford, Tipperary, Clare and Cork would all fancy their chances of gaining revenge on the Cats right now.

'I’ve seen Paul Kerrigan play an awful lot of football down here and have always been struck by his remarkable ability to get scores when his team most needs them.' Photo: Sportsfile
'I’ve seen Paul Kerrigan play an awful lot of football down here and have always been struck by his remarkable ability to get scores when his team most needs them.' Photo: Sportsfile

There's something inevitable about Kilkenny's current plight. The past couple of years have seen the retirement of some of the greatest players in hurling history. A Henry Shefflin, a Tommy Walsh, a JJ Delaney comes along only rarely. And Brian Cody's problems are exacerbated by the fact that this is not a vintage era for Kilkenny at underage level. The Cats have won just one of the seven Leinster under 21 titles since 2010 whereas they won six of the seven between 2003 and 2009. Of their younger players, only Cillian Buckley looks to be in the classic mould. They have no young forward to match Conor Whelan, Shane Bennett or Shane Kingston. You wonder if TJ Reid and Richie Hogan will end their careers like Jack O'Shea and Pat Spillane, playing on teams that are only a pale shadow of the ones they began with.

Mayo fans will have little sympathy for Kilkenny's plight. A famine for Kilkenny is a decade with only a couple of All-Irelands, something which would be a feast for the long-suffering Westerners. They might have beaten Galway had Keith Higgins not been sent off. But three years ago Lee Keegan was red-carded in the first half of the All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry and Mayo came within an ace of winning that one against a much better team than the Tribesmen. Do they still have a performance like that in them?

Mayo are often derided for underachieving on the big days but you could equally make a case that they've overachieved in getting as far as they have done. Last Sunday was a striking example of how few outstanding individuals they have to call on.

With Keegan uncharacteristically subdued and Aidan O'Shea and Colm Boyle on the bench, Mayo looked very ordinary indeed. Diarmuid O'Connor has yet to become the great player he has the potential to be while his brother Cillian suffers more than most from the team's weakness for the incredibly ponderous build-up. By the time Mayo's best forward gets the ball he's usually got a couple of defenders in close attendance. Is it any wonder he's so cranky?

You wonder too at the direction of the team from the sideline. Andy Moran might be getting on but he is the kind of player who might have manufactured an equaliser in last Sunday's frantic finale. Instead he was subbed right after kicking a good score and the burden fell on less experienced forwards. Aidan O'Shea played well when he came in but there is still a sense that Mayo don't exactly know where he can best be deployed.

Really, they need to clone the Breaffy man and play him at numbers 9, 11 and 14. The drawbacks of settling for yet another lackadaisical league campaign were evident on Sunday. Kerry used that campaign to make Jack Barry and Tadhg Morley significant additions to their armoury; there are no Mayo equivalents.

Stephen Rochford's side look weaker than they have done for some time, and this in a year where to win the All-Ireland they'd have to beat Kerry and Dublin one after the other. Instead you fear that this team's saga may come to an end not at the hands of their fellow members of the big three but against some hungry up-and-comers in the qualifiers. A Cork, a Kildare or a Cavan would be tricky opponents for this year's Mayo.

So the pendulum swings. Wexford have Davy Fitzgerald and are also benefiting from the work which gave them three Leinster under 21 titles on the trot. Take out last year's defeat by Tipperary and Galway's trajectory, successive wins over Mayo and promotion to Division 1, is a textbook example of gradual improvement under an under-rated manager.

The supporters of both those teams know they're on an upward curve and will probably be even better in 2018. Kilkenny and Mayo fans have no such consolation. They've enjoyed the boom. Now comes the crash.

It's the circle of life and the wheel of fortune.

Cork players deserve a break and some respite from Kerry pundits’ tsunami of condescension

It’s time to give Cork a break. The Cork players specifically and the Cork footballers in particular. Said footballers appeared to have hit rock bottom eight days ago when they sat in the dressing room at Páirc Uí Rinn trailing Tipperary by five points in the Munster semi-final. The deficit wasn’t the worst of it. Cork had managed to play a full 35 minutes and score one point. Just one point. It was probably a county record.

This was the second rock-bottom moment for the Rebels in a couple of weeks. The previous one had come when they looked set for defeat as their match against Waterford moved into injury-time. They pulled that one out of the fire.

But just when it looked as though they’d done the same against Tipp, the visitors struck for a goal by Conor Sweeney which left Cork two points down as this game moved into injury-time.

Defeat and disgrace loomed for the Rebels. Yet they kept their heads and straight from the kick-out produced a move which ended with the Luke Connolly goal that gave them a single-point victory.

You may argue that it’s no big deal for Cork to beat Tipperary, though the latter did reach last year’s All-Ireland semi-final and are a decent team. But the Cork players had to overcome not just the opposition but the bizarre selection and tactical choices imposed upon them by a panicky management. The former included the omission of Mark Collins, the county’s best player for the past two years. The latter featured a nervy negative formation which suggested Peadar Healy and his cohorts thought they were facing Dublin rather than Tipp.

In the end sense prevailed and Collins was introduced to make the vital incision and provide the pass which enabled Connolly to score the winner. And Cork, who after a humiliating defeat by Clare in the National League seemed to have slipped to the number four slot in Munster, had achieved progress of a sort. It was a striking example of a team digging out a result in the face of adversity.

The reason I think this is worth stressing is because it seems to have been open season on the Cork footballers of late. The players have been dismissed in terms which have been unusually personal and hurtful. Their spirit has been questioned and they’ve been in danger of being swept away by a massive tsunami of condescension and pretend concern directed their way by a variety of Kerrymen. (What is the collective term of a group of Kerrymen? A ‘We have no problem taking our beating in Kerry but’ of Kerrymen perhaps.)

I’ve been critical of Cork myself of course. But chiefly of the county board which has, for one thing, saddled the footballers with two unimpressive managers in a row. The practically eleventh-hour revelation that Páirc Uí Chaoimh wouldn’t be available for the Munster final was a classic example of the kind of thing which drives a lot of Cork fans mad. The world and his wife down here could have told you the ground wouldn’t be ready but only a couple of weeks ago the board were still insisting it would be. And it should have been. How much better would it have been for the footballers had they hosted Kerry on a red-letter opening day rather than face another trip to Killarney?

The fault for the missed deadline may lie with contractors rather than officials but it feels like a slap in the face for the county teams all the same.

Those teams deserve better. The footballers have their problems but the casually-levelled accusation that they lack both spirit and leadership is unfair. I’ve seen Paul Kerrigan play an awful lot of football down here and have always been struck by his remarkable ability to get scores when his team most needs them. He did the same last Saturday. Mark Collins has been unfortunate to hit his peak when the county is at a low ebb yet he hasn’t let his standards drop and didn’t when introduced against Tipperary. Both players seem like leaders to me.

By beating Tipperary both hurlers and footballers have already made this year an improvement on the dire pair of campaigns which preceded it. It’s still possible that the hurlers will lose to Waterford this afternoon and probable that the footballers won’t be able for Kerry. Yet I believe that the early summer of 2017 may come to be seen as the moment when the county took its first steps on the long road back to inter-county relevance

Cork may not have the best players in Ireland right now. But looking at the way both senior teams finished when the game was in the balance over the past few weeks, it was difficult to detect anything wrong with their spirit.

So give Cork a break. The players are entitled to one.

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