Kilkenny hero Shefflin officially crowned best hurler of all time
AS Kilkenny captain Eoin Larkin hoisted the Liam MacCarthy Cup, a cascade of yellow streamers fluttered down onto the pitch. It may have been part of the ceremony, but really it was a ticker-tape parade for one man, King Henry Shefflin, now officially the best hurler of all time, the possessor of a record-breaking nine All-Ireland medals.
And after another majestic display from the 33-year-old Ballyhale maestro, it was a coronation that nobody would dispute.
This final replay had the promise of a great contest. At the stroke of 3.30pm, when the whistle sounded and the roar went up, it was a mighty shout of anticipation and suspense. Surely something special was about to unfold upon the verdant stage of Croke Park. Three weeks ago, Act Two of this year's Kilkenny-Galway drama had kept the audience spellbound until it ended in a final-gasp deadlock, a plot-twist that nobody saw coming.
And it served mainly to whet the appetite for more. Tickets -- reduced in price from €80 to €50 -- were as scarce as a sunny Irish summer. Outside Croker yesterday, as the clock ticked down to 3.30pm, increasingly desperate fans sought elusive passes.
One grizzled Galwayman held up a sign which appealed, "I'll hardly last another 24 years" -- a reference to the last time that the Liam MacCarthy Cup had been lifted by the Tribesmen.
And now Act Three was under way, featuring once more the underdogs of Galway and the top dogs of Kilkenny. And this drama had its own two lead actors -- Joe Canning, who had scored the last-minute point for Galway which took the final to a replay, and Henry Shefflin, who had more or less single-handedly dragged Kilkenny back into contention in that game.
There was a crackle of excitement around the stadium, which bloomed in unexpected sunshine with the black and amber flags of Kilkenny and the maroon banners of Galway. Which team would come roaring from the traps like hungry hounds?
There was speed and fury from the start. Henry Shefflin missed a free. Nerves were jangling on both sides. Then Joe Canning scored a free from 65. First blood to Galway.
The noise from the stands increased in intensity. This Galway team is much loved, and hopes were high -- they had already subdued Kilkenny in the Leinster Final, and held them to a draw on September 9. They have talent, skill and hunger.
But Kilkenny weren't just hungry, they were ravenous. There was no sign of complacency as they chased the sliotar relentlessly. Henry got a couple of points on the board. And then the Cats added a brilliant third, scored by 20-year-old Walter Walsh, making his championship debut.
However, this match had no intention of sticking to the script which decreed that Kilkenny's path to a 34th championship would be smooth sailing. Within a dizzying three minutes, David Burke put away two goals for Galway.
A lesser team might've panicked, but Brian Cody's men simply counter-attacked with ruthless efficiency. With four points separating the teams at half-time, it was still wide open.
But around the 45-minute mark, it all went sideways for Galway. David Burke had the ball in the net, but the ref had already blown for a free, then Joe Canning hit the post, and then Cyril Donnellan was shown a red card, reducing Galway to 14 men. They were playing into the sun and into the breeze and against a now-rampant opposition.
In the closing stages of what was now a canter home, King Henry scored yet another point to set the scoreline at 3-22, and manager Brian Cody spun on the sideline and clenched his fist in triumph.
Game over -- and for him, his 13th All-Ireland crown, four as a player, and nine as a manager.
Suddenly the aisles of the stands clogged, as dejected Galway supporters headed for the exits.
The final whistle blew, and the maroon shirts dropped to the grass as the black-and-amber shirts threw hurls in the air and tumbled onto each other in joy and relief.
His face alight, Henry the Ninth now smiles and smiles. It is, he tells the roaring crowd, "absolutely special" to enter the record books.
He lifts and hugs his little daughter, who buries her head in his broad shoulder, overwhelmed by the tumult.
She doesn't know it yet, but they'll be singing songs about her daddy, King Henry of the Nine Medals, from Ballyragget to Inistioge to Mooncoin for years and years to come.