Tuesday 12 November 2019

Martin Breheny: Did Gleeson loss deny Déise?

Absence of tight-marking defender over red card may have cost McGrath's men All-Ireland title

Conor Gleeson all alone with his thoughts at Croke Park last Sunday. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Conor Gleeson all alone with his thoughts at Croke Park last Sunday. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Such was the drama, excitement and tension wrapped around last Sunday's All-Ireland hurling final that viewing figures on RTé peaked at over 1.1 million in the closing stages, making it the most watched programme in Ireland this year.

That's no surprise. You wouldn't have to be a keen hurling fan to enjoy the wonderful spectacle delivered by Galway and Waterford as they battled to end long waits for All-Ireland glory.

In the end it was Galway's day, their victory secured by a one-score margin in a game that yielded 2-43.

It was as tight as the respective form lines suggested in a game in which the outcome may well have been decided by what happened three weeks earlier.

Would Waterford have won if Conor Gleeson had been aboard? That will always remain an imponderable but what we do know for certain is that he had an excellent season up to the rash moment when he was sent off late in the semi-final win over Cork.

He had been a frustrating presence for Conor Lehane, just as he was for several others earlier.

Often delegated a man-marking role on one of the opposition's top forwards, Gleeson would, in all probability, have been assigned to Joe Canning last Sunday.

Waterford have a long winter to wonder if Gleeson might have made the difference.

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Suffice to say, his absence left them without one of their most consistent defenders, effectively weakening them on the biggest day of all.

Such are the small margins that can make a crucial difference.

It has been interesting to note the reaction to the final, much of which has portrayed Galway as a liberated force who will go on to harvest more titles, whereas Waterford's means and methods are under critical scrutiny again.

That's what happens in a world where the winners take it all. Galway (5/2) have been automatically installed as 2018 All-Ireland favourites, followed by Tipperary (11/4), Cork (11/2), Kilkenny and Waterford (6/1 each).

Galway beat a Waterford team, who were without one of their best defenders, by a single score, yet are rated well ahead for next year. It just doesn't make sense.

All the hurlers who played in this year's championship either attended last Sunday's final or watched on TV, with many no doubt wondering 'what if'?

Take Cork. Would they have been in the final if Damien Cahalane hadn't committed a clumsy tackle which drew a red card in the semi-final, leaving them a man down for the final 20 minutes?

And if they won, would they have maintained their record of never having lost an All-Ireland senior final to Galway?


And then there's Tipperary, who must be knee-deep in regrets. If John O'Dwyer's late shot for the equalising point had gone over the bar, would they have beaten Galway in a replay?

If they did, they would certainly have fancied themselves against Waterford, whom they have beaten in the last six championship clashes.

Then there's Kilkenny. It's surprising how many people seem to think that they are on the outskirts of a recession with no routes for a bypass.

Yes, they lost to Wexford in the Leinster Championship for the first time 13 years and were later beaten by Waterford but that hardly constitutes a crisis.

They lost in extra-time to a Waterford team that later beat the Munster champions and came within one score of Galway last Sunday.

If Kilkenny had snatched a late winner in normal time against Waterford, there's every chance they would have reached the final.

And since Galway have won only one of their last 12 championship clashes with Kilkenny, who's to say the 13th would be any different?

All this is in the realm of conjecture but it doesn't alter the reality that, unlike football, where many of the wins this year have been by big margins, hurling is almost always extremely competitive.

Brendan Cummins made the point in yesterday's Irish Independent that being in Division 1B of the Allianz League next year will benefit Galway, allowing Micheál Donoghue an opportunity to experiment with his extended panel, while knowing that a place in the quarter-final is all but guaranteed.

It's a valid point. Of course, Galway's presence in 1B highlights the ridiculous nature of the League format.

According to the current divisional structure, the reigning All-Ireland and league champions aren't in the top six, having finished second behind Wexford in 1B this year.

Not having the All-Ireland champions in 1A is a big loss to a group comprised of Clare, Cork, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Waterford and Wexford.

In effect, Galway can have a leisurely stroll into the quarter-finals through 1B, while the six 1A teams are flat out against each other, with two missing the quarter-final cut and one being relegated.

Where's the logic or fairness in that?

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