Saturday 24 March 2018

Steelier Tribe refuse to die

Cat-and-mouse play ends with 'unified' Galway denying Callanan and Co another shot at title

Galway boss Anthony Cunningham celebrates at the final whistle while
Galway boss Anthony Cunningham celebrates at the final whistle while
Tipp’s Pádraic Maher can’t hide his dejection
Noel McGrath wheels away after scoring a late point for Tipp
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

It took divine rage to get them home but Galway will now step, once more, into the dominion of kings determined, never again, to be bystanders at their own wake.

No birds sang, nobody mistook what we got for art or opera. It was a frenetic, even inarticulate contest at times, pock-marked with misbehaving nerves. But, boy, it was hurling too, the game the summer needed. A rollercoaster that bucked and swayed, keeping its flustered audience guessing right down to the last, great arcing loop.

Tipperary might have won had they not leaned so heavily on Seamus Callanan, it was a wonder he wasn't designated water-bottle duties on top of playing wizard on the edge of the square.

All but seven points of their total came from the Drom and Inch man, Galway leaving him in a floundering Padraig Mannion's care for much of the journey almost as a tacit admission that, against someone in that form, maybe the best hope you have is prayer.

After a season of nervy, straitened, parental-guidance hurling, this felt like a break-out by consenting adults. It was ribald and free, indifferent to the anchor of systems.

Now Tipp and Galway didn't abandon the concept of defence, that would be stupid. They just weren't programmed to factor it into every game decision, every play. The teams were, thus, level on 11 occasions, each one coursing the other with a frenzied intensity.


Galway, indisputably, looked the better, more balanced, more unified outfit, but we're talking inches here. We're picking at minute things.

After all, when Noel McGrath edged Tipp in front on the stroke of 70 minutes, every back-page had its story. Even Anthony Cunningham would have seen the beauty of it. The way he made it his business to seek McGrath out at the close, offering private words of commiseration and, presumably, thanksgiving, seemed to deliver a message, not just for his team, but for the game itself.

Even at its fiercest pitch, hurling has a way of tracking down nobility between neighbours.

Word of McGrath's illness had been delivered to his Tipp team-mates in the week they played a National League game against Waterford. The group, according to Eamon O'Shea, was left "devastated" by the news. Five months later, his arrival onto the field felt like a glorious hallelujah.

McGrath won't have seen it that way, of course, having had his moment quickly rewritten into the smallprint as points from Jason Flynn and, finally, Shane Moloney edged Galway across the mountain-top.

For Cunningham, thus, his post-Leinster final promise to Brian Cody that Galway would "see you again this year" came to momentous fruition. But this was white-knuckle travel. Callanan had a Hill-end goal inside 38 seconds and if, by half-time, Galway nursed a single-point advantage, it felt as if they'd done an inordinate amount of hurling to secure it.

It took Callanan 39 seconds of the second period to nail another goal and, when he drove home a third on 53 minutes, Cunningham's continued trust in young Mannion was drawing a hum from the stands.

"He's probably un-markable really, Seamus Callanan," the manager told us when it was over. "Padraig had a good enough game but the goals were killers for us. It's hard. We wanted to keep three backs, it was man to man there today. But we reacted well to every goal they got. I suppose this year we tried to add a bit more steel and I think we've done that."

That they palpably have. Within a minute of Callanan's second goal, Flynn and Cathal Mannion had scored Hill-end scores and his third drew four unanswered Galway points over the next six minutes.

"Another time, maybe we'd have been inclined to lie down," suggested Joe Canning after. And that, undoubtedly, would have been the prejudice in many minds. The sense that, under serious duress, their story would return to that mildewed old book of heartache.

They led Tipp by six points deep into the final third of an All-Ireland qualifer in Thurles last summer only to forsake all shape at the first sign of crisis. It was a lesson Cunningham drilled into them this time. Galway would not buckle.

They had their heroes then, yet maybe none more crucial than goalkeeper, Colm Callanan, whose quite breath-taking reflex deflection of a first-time Lar Corbett pull on the hour was, in hindsight, the winning and losing of a remarkable game.

Afterwards, Eamon O'Shea spoke with lucidity and natural emotion of his final day at the helm for Tipp.

"I had my innings," he said with a smile that concealed the world of things. "We did what we could, we tried to play the game in a particular way. The belief I have in the players that they can continue and grow better when I'm not there is really strong. Somebody else will come along and do this better than I did.

"I had a real good shot at it. Obviously losing is huge, but it's theirs. It's the players' game. Me leaving will be only a footnote. What's really important is that we push and try to go on and be better.

"That's what high-level sport is. It's a beautiful thing, but it's a brutal thing. It's both at the same time. And that's the essence of what happened today. But, for them, this is a beginning. We had nine players who won their first Munster final. They're the story and are going to be the story over the next number of years."

His time at the helm decanted a litany of near-misses, no doubt none more heartbreaking than last year's critical Hawkeye intervention.

"When you sit down and think about it rationally, it is frustrating" he agreed. "But you can't allow it dictate what you think about your players. To feel alive on days like this... I just said to them the disappointment of losing by a point, you were just defeated, you're not beaten.

"You can wallow in the point but, working with them, there is no greater thing in sport that I've been involved in. I think a better manager will come in and get that point or get that two points. You can't wallow in this. You can be bitterly disappointed, but the story is Galway today.

"I know that and I would say fair play to them. These days are about the winners. The winners go on and the losers go home."

Inches between them. And a small eternity.

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