Warrior king Henry lifts Kilkenny to the power of ten
A BALMY dusk crept over Croke Park. The emptied stands and terraces were silent, the vivid tapestry of blue and gold and black and amber departed for the roads home to Clonmel, Ballyhale, Thurles and Portroe.
The floodlights were still blazing out, illuminating the emerald pitch strewn with the golden glittery streamers which had enveloped the victors as the Liam McCarthy Cup was hoisted to the sky by a jubilant Kilkenny captain.
But now the pitch too was empty, the fierce battle-sounds of clashing hurleys and the thunk of a sweetly-struck soaring sliotar just echoes and memories.
Or it was almost empty.
For down by a deserted Hill 16, a man in a black and amber shirt paused from his quiet pilgrimage across the sacred soil, stooped over and carefully placed a furry black and amber crown on the blond head of his small happy heir, Henry Shefflin junior.
It was a poignant portent that someday soon the glorious reign of King Henry, now the storied keeper of 10 Celtic Crosses, would set like the September evening sun.
But right until the final whistle signalled that Kilkenny had prevailed over their great rivals Tipperary by two points, there was no certainty that Henry Shefflin's 10th All Ireland medal was in the bag. The first drawn final had been a breathtaking carnival of skill, grit and passion which had left everybody none the wiser about which team would prevail in the replay - would Kilkenny find an extra gear, or would Tipp surf to victory on a rising tide of confidence?
Such was the anticipation that there wasn't room to swing a Kilkenny Cat in Croke Park on Saturday. Over 82,000 eager spectators filled every seat, and among them was Tipperary man James Healy who had flown in from London hours earlier to cheer on the Premier County.
"The funny thing is, two of my English pals will be watching the game on Sky. They can't believe the speed and skill involved, and are now even talking about coming over for a game next year," he said.
One of them asked me to bring him back a Kilkenny jersey - he's getting a Tipperary one whether he likes it or not," he laughed.
Down on the sidelines, the Sultan of the Small Ball, the Merlin of managers, Brian Cody paced and paced. He had put Cat lovers and Cat watchers on notice by making three changes to the team - rejigging two-thirds of his half-back line - which battled so beautifully against a rampant Tipp almost three weeks earlier.
As battle commenced, it became evident that this was to be no re-run of the classic first final.
But in the 57th minute, a mighty roar rose from the Kilkenny supporters, as the substitute board was brandished, and the green-helmeted Henry Shefflin galloped onto the pitch, replacing a clearly shocked Richie Hogan who threw down his hurley and his helmet as he headed off.
But Brian Cody doesn't do sentiment. He does tactics.
From then, the momentum was all Kilkenny's. Although Tipp fought right to the end, it felt like Kilkenny's day.
And it was. Afterwards at the press conference, Shefflin was asked if he would go for an 11th victory. "I don't know," he smiled.
Beside him, a ruddy-cheeked Brian Cody wanted to talk about his warrior king. "He is challenged in every single possible way from a physical point of view because he has gone through the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with injury," he declared.
If King Henry does abdicate, next season's drama will feel a little like Hamlet without its prince, whenever Kilkenny take centre stage.
Gaeilge galore in cup speech
THEY invested millions in bringing the GAA All Ireland Senior Hurling and Football Championships to audiences abroad, but Sky bosses faced an unexpected scramble on Saturday as Kilkenny's Lester Ryan performed his entire victor's speech in Irish.
While it's a common tradition for the triumphant team's captain to say a cupla focal as Gaeilge before launching into a lengthier speech in English, even dedicated fans who travelled to Croke Park a second time around for the replay between the Cats and old rivals Tipperary appeared dumbfounded in the moments before Ryan lifted the Liam McCarthy Cup.
Those without the mother tongue were left similarly stumped during Kerry's Dara O Cinneide's speech after winning the football final in 2004.