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Vincent Hogan: Why I fear the worst for Tipperary in All-Ireland final


It's hard to believe 25 years have passed since Nicky English's starring role in Tipperary's
All-Ireland triumph against Antrim in 1989. Photo: SPORTSFILE

It's hard to believe 25 years have passed since Nicky English's starring role in Tipperary's All-Ireland triumph against Antrim in 1989. Photo: SPORTSFILE

It's hard to believe 25 years have passed since Nicky English's starring role in Tipperary's All-Ireland triumph against Antrim in 1989. Photo: SPORTSFILE

Tomorrow, the youngest team I know gets wheeled out to the world as a prehistoric assembly.

I exaggerate of course, but the idea of watching Ken Hogan and Nicky English and Declan Carr and Bobby Ryan line up in Sunday suits and wave to a dewy-eyed throng, makes the world feel profoundly old from this neck of the woods. It doesn't sit right.

Tipperary in '89 seemed the ultimate expression of hurling modernity, elegant, innovative and steeled with Babs Keating's unshakeable view of Tipp's place in the game. I was in the dug-out the day they devoured Antrim to win the county's first All-Ireland in 18 summers.

Staggeringly, it was quarter of a century ago. Grey hair belonged to the old.

So they regroup tomorrow as jubilee boys, a team that pre-dated global warming and one that put their hurleys down long before a man called Cody began stirring trouble across the border. They did, of course, beat Kilkenny in the '91 final too, but that was Kilkenny (BC). The distinction is between day and night.


It is often said that Tipp should have won more than two All-Irelands during Babs' first run as manager, but I'm not so sure. They just never quite found the obstinacy to become a team that could coldly stockpile. True, they had days when the beauty of their hurling would leave a gathering dizzy, but others when they just looked too languid and self-regarding to hold off hard-nosed enemy.

English won six All Stars, incidentally, but the last of them came his way in that summer of '89, seven full years before retirement. Injury diminished him as a player just as he should have been reaching his prime.

If Tipp have regrets, Nicky's susceptibility to leg strains and muscle tears must be high among them.

That and the fact that his charismatic full-forward line partnership with Cormac Bonnar and Pat Fox barely got to double figures in Championship appearances.

It's sobering to think that Tipp have won the Liam MacCarthy Cup just twice since that grey day in '91 when Michael Cleary's mis-hit free thieved a path into the Hill end net. Actually, it's more than that. As a Tipp man it's a compelling reason to fret about the optimism now seemingly gushing through the county.

Two All-Irelands won in 22 seasons? Just four won in 42?

And now, staring across from the opposite corner, resides the ultimate modern killing machine. If Brian Cody and Henry Shefflin win their 10th medals tomorrow, they will be able to declare a haul that Tipp would have to go back as far as '58 to match. They won't bring brittle nerves to the assignment then. They never do.

Time was that Kilkenny-Tipp games could be condensed into a debate about whether those in stripes had the stomach lining to front up to those in blue and gold. Now it is the polar opposite.

Doubts about Tipp fixate, essentially, upon their readiness for war. Kilkenny, it is assumed, will turn Croke Park into the smallest field they can and invite Eamon O'Shea's team to go figure a way around. The more the game becomes a battle, the more comfortable they will be.

Tipp will carry three forwards routinely accused of being short on self-sufficiency. Kilkenny will carry three backs the game's ageists declare fragile. Neither team is considered as strong as, say, they were in '09 and '10.

If they are the best in the game today, that status is less than emphatic. So something's going to give.

The intrigue will be in seeing what O'Shea has planned for the creation of space. Kilkenny could be vulnerable to a runner who can break a defensive line, like 'Bonner' Maher or - on the evidence of last year's qualifier in Nowlan Park - James Woodlock.

Remember Tullamore on June 22? And how from a position of near impregnability, their back-line swung open like a shed door caught in a gale?

They might be spooked too by the notion of leaving just two defenders back on Seamus Callanan and 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer when Larry Corbett goes off on safari. They may even be susceptible to Darren Gleeson's lasered puck-outs and Noel McGrath's facility for arcing 'quarterback' deliveries from deep.

But if you were stood at a betting window now, where would your money go? On the team with five players new to an All-Ireland final or the one that sees this day as a lifestyle?

The hunch here is that Kilkenny will set the terms of engagement tomorrow and, when they do that, Cody teams seldom lose.

He has won every big game against Tipp bar that final of 2010, a day Kilkenny went into battle with their people saying novenas for two damaged cruciates. Henry's gave; John Tennyson's didn't. Larry went haywire.

That said, they had little to spare against Limerick four weeks ago and the consensus seems to hold that this Kilkenny rainbow may finally be fading.

Recent history is the problem. It tells us that they have Tipp's number, that they have a natural setting to grind out victory on the awkward days.

This promises to be one of them and frankly, if Callanan beats JJ, Tipp win. But just look at the jubilee boys splashing waves about beforehand and remind yourself of Tipp's haul since those great men were kings.

The wasp will always sting, given an opportunity. Kilkenny's to lose.


Referee jibe sails well wide of the mark

Jack Nicklaus once joked about the golf game of former US president Gerald Ford that "he doesn't know he can't hit the ball through the trunk of a tree".

You have to suspect that Eddie O'Connor could do with similar counsel after the former Kilkenny captain swung a little intemperately at All-Ireland final referee Barry Kelly (pictured) this week when more forethought should surely have been advised.

Part of Eddie's charm has always been his candour, but to express the fear that Kelly "might want to be more important than the players" wasn't simply inappropriate, it was positively unfair.

The Westmeath man is, clearly, one of hurling's best referees, even if his decision to send off Henry Shefflin in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final was ill-judged and subsequently overturned.

O'Connor wants Kelly to let the game run tomorrow and I imagine that hope is shared by most people, given the heights Kilkenny and Tipperary took the game to when refereed with a light touch in the finals of 2009, '10 and '11.

But Kelly is there to keep control too and, above all, to observe a duty of care to the participants. He must do so in a pressure-cooker environment, every decision parsed and scrutinised. If he was wrong to dismiss Shefflin, it is surely fatuous to imply that that decision was somehow motivated by self-interest.

Kelly doesn't need to be told that Kilkenny did not think much of his officiating last July. And he knows that the only perfect game he can have tomorrow is to go unnoticed. But his record suggests that he deserves the trust of hurling now, not the noise of bullets whistling overhead.

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