Killkenny V Galway: The lost Tribes
Generations of Galway hurling people have had their hearts broken in the 27 years since the county's last All-Ireland win in 1988. So do they believe the West is finally ready to awaken again against Killkenny?
Sometimes, even now, Joe Rabbitte finds himself lying awake in the dead of night trying to rationalise the regret that still tugs at the hem of so many Galway hurling lives.
His was one of those journeys that became a cliché in the end, the great, all-consuming dream rejected like a poorly transplanted organ. Maybe, if he looked closer, he'd have read his destiny from the start. Joe's first year as a Galway senior was 1990. He was a big, fearless addition to Cyril Farrell's panel, someone who - as he puts it himself - "people knew feck all about".
But a burst appendix in June blew Joe's year apart. They told him his season was over yet, three weeks after surgery, he reported back for training. There had been no formal medical clearance and Farrell was not entirely comfortable having the Tysaxon kid back running with the bulls.
One night, they had a 15-on-15 game and he sent Rabbitte in to play full-forward on Sean Treacy with a paternal proviso, "Don't go in on top of him, mind yourself!"
Joe agreed, but his hurling brain simply wasn't wired that way.
The first ball that dropped between them, he pulled. As the sliotar spun behind Treacy, big Joe kicked it to the net. "Sure with that, I got a prod of the hurl," he chuckles now in reminiscence. "I gave a prod back and the next thing the two of us started belting.
"And Farrell comes running down from centrefield, shouting at me, 'Go home, go home...' He sent me into the dressing-room, then came in after me and explained himself. 'Jayzus Joe, you'll bust yourself out there!' Ah 'twas different times."
In his autobiography, 'The Right to Win', Farrell would write that Rabbitte's appendix "may well have cost" Galway an All-Ireland win that year. They were beaten in a high-scoring final by Cork, yet a fit Rabbitte was, he wrote, "just the sort we needed to be coming through".
Rabbitte is 45 today, farmer, husband, father to a boy and two girls, hurling man. Twelve years ago, I sat in his kitchen as he itemised the bones broken in pursuit of a medal that was destined to elude him. When he'd joined the Galway panel, it felt as if it was a structure built around men of stone. As if glory was a given.
"I was in with the big boys of '87 and '88," he smiles now. "Guys that I adored!"
But the deities had plans for him riddled with pain and mischief. For the first six years of his senior inter-county existence, Galway's season would end with defeat to the eventual All-Ireland champions. And almost always, it seemed, Joe was compromised by some kind of war-wound.
His medical history in shorthand?
1992 - broke two ribs in a league game against Cork; '93 - broke a finger against Clare (without knowing), then broke another in training; '94 - had a friendly Roscommon full-back (there were 'events' called Connacht finals back then) stamp down on the back of his leg, rupturing a calf muscle; '95 - broke an index finger against Cork, "some lad pulled"; '96 - had an elbow broken in the Connacht final (without knowing), then broke his foot in the All-Ireland semi-final against Wexford, hurling away for 40 minutes after; '97 - had his skull fractured in the Connacht final; '98 fell off an 18-foot wall just days before an All-Ireland quarter-final against Waterford (he was building a shed), bursting his heel (still played), '01 - broke his thumb two weeks before the All-Ireland final against Tipperary; '02 broke another thumb in a May challenge game against Waterford.
"I don't know, I always seemed to have that misfortune," he smiles now. "I could never say I had a clean bill of health through those years, there was always something that was broken."
Did we mention his nose? Broke it "at least" five times.
Listen, Joe Rabbitte is the last man to do precious. He lost a finger in a milking machine at the age of two-and-a-half and, if anything, that seemed to steel him against over-reacting to any of life's gruesome mishap.
Joe hurled with Galway for 13 seasons, played in two All-Ireland senior finals and, right to the bitter end, believed he'd get that Celtic Cross. The finals?
When Kilkenny beat them in '93, it didn't leave him especially traumatised. Galway might have won, maybe even should have.
He remembers late in the game, feeling alive with power, carrying the ball deep into Kilkenny territory and big Pat O'Neill approaching fast, a police tug intercepting a smuggler. Joe Cooney was waiting for the pass inside, coiled like a spring.
And Rabbitte, four points already to his name, knew precisely what to do. But, as he went to offload, Terence Murray's whistle blew. Free out.
"He said I over-carried," Joe recalls now. "He never saw that I put the ball on the hurl. We were coming, we had the momentum. And, f*****g hell, didn't he pull me! Next thing, rather than us getting a score, DJ was putting the ball over the bar at the far end. It just took the wind out of our sails.
"The following Wednesday night at the GOAL Challenge, he came up to me and apologised. 'I 'pulled you in the wrong,' he said."
It would take Rabbitte eight years to play in another final and his memories of '01 against Tipperary broadly leave him vexed.
"No words," he says flatly. He's not of a mind to go into detail, but Tipp had a plan and it's probably fair to say that Galway's management did not inconvenience it.
Joe Rabbitte did not start another championship game for Galway.
That would be Damien Hayes's debut season on the senior county panel and, 14 years later, he too walked away without that precious medal.
Hayes, who announced his inter-county retirement last January, won three All-Star awards, but - for all the flaring hope and sporadically brilliant team performances - so many end-of-season reports in his time came to read as a kind of 'Get Well' message for Galway hurling.
The Portumna flier played in the finals of '05 and '12, two experiences that left him with natural regrets, yet a pragmatist's view of what his career became.
Last Saturday, he took himself to Johnstown to hurl in a celebration game the Fenians' club was hosting for local legend, JJ Delaney.
And simply being on that field with men like Delaney, Tommy Walsh, DJ Carey, Henry Shefflin and 'Taggy' Fogarty brought it home to Hayes that, perhaps, the story of his life as a county man did not, ultimately conceal any hidden secrets.
"You have to bear in mind that we were trying to win All-Irelands in the same era as maybe the greatest hurling team of all time," he says flatly.
"And, in '05, we came up against maybe the best Cork team in a generation. Look, there'd be huge frustrations that we didn't win it, but the margins can be tiny between winning and losing.
"It might be just a fumble in the middle of the game or taking the wrong option with a pass. People tend to only remember what happens towards the end. I would say our preparation was always very good, but maybe the teams we played against were just better on the day. That's what it boils down to."
For Tony óg Regan, the pain of being an ex-county hurler cuts deep enough to remain audible in his voice today.
Regan was an unused sub in the All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Clare in 2013 before Anthony Cunningham cut him loose at the age of 29. He'd been a county man for nine years.
"Since I was 16, it felt as if I was preparing to win an All-Ireland with Galway and, not being in there now, is very hard to take," he reflects candidly.
If there is a single day that burns in Regan's memory now, the one he is drawn to is the first All-Ireland final against Kilkenny in 2012.
"We had the winning of that game just before and after half-time," he argues. "But we left Kilkenny off the hook."
That is, of course, a line that could be cut into the headstones of countless broken hurling careers.
Yet, for Regan, history lumbers no surplus weight upon the Tribesmen in this regard. He points to that 2012 season as re-affirmation of the eternal mysteries of Galway hurling.
On April Fools' day, they suffered a 25 points National League hammering in Nowlan Park yet, three months later, delivered the worst beating of Brian Cody's managerial career in an extraordinary Leinster final.
Galway have never been entirely readable, even to themselves.
Regan recalls losing an All-Ireland qualifier to Kilkenny by 19 points in '04. "You'd be thinking after, 'Jesus, we're miles off it!'" he reflects. "Yet, 12 months later, we were in an All-Ireland final!"
In his three years as Galway manager, John McIntyre never made it beyond the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
Yet, the defeats in '09 and '10 (to Waterford and Tipperary respectively) were both by a solitary point. The Waterford loss is the one that "haunts" him because, four points up with 68 minutes played, Galway just needed the game-management to see things through.
"We were relatively in control and, for want of a better word, we bottled it in the last few minutes," recalls the Lorrha man.
By 2011, impatience had a fresh hold on the county. In the week of their Leinster Championship opener against Dublin, this writer canvassed the opinions of three former greats and the candour of Conor Hayes, Brendan Lynskey and Noel Lane rang out like gunfire.
Lynskey even referenced the word "cowardly" in his appraisal.
If there was the salt of indignation in his team now, McIntyre was surely about to see it. But they went down that day with barely a raised voice in Tullamore.
Four years on, he remembers: "We were obviously aware of that article on the morning of the game. And I thought that this was absolutely perfect in terms of motivating them for the challenge against Dublin.
"Here were a number of former greats, for one reason or another, having a pop at them on the eve of a big game.
"The timing, I thought, left something to be desired in one way. But in another way, when you're in the dressing-room, it's perfect. We used it before the game, absolutely.
"There was an anxiety I suppose to prove those people wrong. But I've often said emotion doesn't win matches. And maybe deep down it affected some of the Galway players very negatively. 'God if that's what these men really think of us...'
"You know there's no five-minute, rabble-rousing speech, talking about cultivating a new tradition and all that and proving these people wrong that is going to overcome or compensate for when a fella is thinking inside, 'God I'm proud to be wearing a Galway jersey, but the fellas who have gone before me don't think a lot of us...'
"I think it had a corrosive influence on the display. We started off well, but we were error-prone, missed a lot of chances and we were well beaten in the end.
"At the time, I really thought, 'God this is perfect!'. But maybe deep down it got to the players. It might have compounded whatever insecurity was there.
"I suppose if I put myself in a Tipperary jersey, going off to play a big game having struggled to win big matches previously and, suddenly, you have three or four former legends from Tipp coming out and saying the present team isn't up to much, that they don't have the bottle... On one hand you're bursting to make a point, but on the other hand, deep down, you might be saying, 'God Almighty, am I up to this at all?'"
Galway rallied subsequently with big victories over Clare and Cork only to then crash heavily against Waterford in Thurles, losing yet another quarter-final by ten points. It was McIntyre's last game at the helm.
He has been impressed with what he's seen since, Anthony Cunningham firing the team up so impressively in 2012 and now, again, taking them to the foothills of deliverance.
"I've always felt Galway hurlers have come in for unfair flak over the years," says McIntyre. "They've been a bit of a soft target for accusations of being flaky or inconsistent, suggestions that you couldn't trust them. But from my time with Galway, I can honestly say the Galway hurler is as serious about his sport as any Tipperary, Cork or Kilkenny man.
"But any manager worth his salt is trying to emulate the Kilkenny template for industry and work ethic. The bottom line is having the players who can carry out that objective. And Anthony has developed these young players who can. More than that, I think Anthony and his management team haven't been afraid to make tough calls.
"I mean in Galway, it would nearly have been unheard of to introduce a player for his championship debut in an All-Ireland quarter-final as they did with Conor Whelan. It shows, I think, that the management are backing themselves."
Immediately after the semi-final defeat of Tipp, Hayes was a guest on the RTé radio programme, 'The Marty Squad', and proposed a theory that Kilkenny "fear" Galway. One of the programme's regular panellists is former Kilkenny goalkeeper David Herity. In Hayes's eyes, Herity "kind of laughed it off, he didn't agree".
Yet, history suggests that Galway have been responsible for some of the starkest defeats during Cody's time in charge of Kilkenny ('01, '05 and '12) and Rabbitte now believes that stability of management may just be taking Galway hurling to a new altitude.
He served under seven different management teams during his county career and suspects that Galway might have paid a price for that.
"I would say that Galway haven't helped themselves historically in that regard," he argues. "Like we had a great run with Mattie Murphy in 2000, but got bet in an All-Ireland semi-final by Kilkenny, the only game we lost all year. And they got rid of Mattie after that.
"If you look at the Galway set-up over those years, Jesus you were just getting used to a manager when, next thing, he was shafted and you're starting from scratch again. Then you look at what Kilkenny have done under Cody. That was one of our big disadvantages.
"People talk about the rivalry between Galway players, but there was a fair bit of rivalry between Galway management teams as well!"
McIntyre says he could sense a different energy in Galway this week. There is a big screen up in Eyre Square and a giddiness rippled through the city that just wasn't palpable in 2012.
The team just needs to draw down impenetrable shutters now and drive on to their destiny. Because they've had their fill of rueful nostalgia in the county.
Maybe Regan puts it best.
"I think it could be the start of something great," he says.
"It would be massive for the younger players in our squads, the U-14s, 16s, minors and 21s to see that this thing is achievable.
"Everyone's sick of talking about the '87 and '88 team, younger lads don't even know who they are at this stage.
"It's important we get a new brand of heroes now."