Thursday 22 March 2018

Simply the Best?

Kilkenny's current crop will join elite if treble bid is secured

Brian Cody's current Kilkenny squad are just 70 minutes away from surpassing the achievements of the Cats teams of the past
Brian Cody's current Kilkenny squad are just 70 minutes away from surpassing the achievements of the Cats teams of the past

Gaelic Games

- First Kilkenny team to win the All-Ireland three-in-a-row on the pitch as opposed to in the committee rooms?

l First Kilkenny team to win six All-Ireland titles in the one decade?

l First Kilkenny team to win 14 successive championship games?

l First Kilkenny team to win the All-Ireland title without conceding a single goal in the entire campaign?

l Best Kilkenny team of all-time?

No pressure then on James 'Cha' Fitzpatrick and his colleagues as they prepare for an All-Ireland final that comes wrapped in so much intrigue that watching the layers being stripped away tomorrow afternoon will be one of the authentic highlights of the sporting year.

Brian Cody and indeed the entire Kilkenny camp have worked diligently at playing down the significance of this final but the reality is that if they win, they will become the most successful squad the county has ever produced -- and by some distance too.


Five All-Ireland titles since 2000 already makes this the most successful decade in Kilkenny's history and if they land a sixth tomorrow they will create a nationwide record, beating Cork who claimed five in the 1940s.

However, the three-in-a-row is the big prize which, if achieved, will cement the squad's position as the best ever produced by Kilkenny; they're probably there already but the treble would make their position utterly unchallengeable.

Comparing teams from different eras is a notoriously unreliable art but it's nonethe less interesting for that. Granted, all sports undergo an evolution process which makes comparisons very difficult but some fundamentals also hold true.

The current Kilkenny squad would have been winners in any era, just as the best of previous decades would thrive nowadays once they enjoyed the same level of preparation, conditioning and so on that applies in the modern game.

It's fascinating to look back at players from various decades, especially in a county like Kilkenny where success came so regularly. But wherever you stop off, it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is indeed the real golden age of Kilkenny hurling. In a county of such lustrous achievement that's some accolade for Cody's crew.

1970s: There's no doubt that this is the decade which can lay most claim to challenging the current squad for top cat status. They won four All-Ireland titles and lost two more finals but the real question is whether they would have won four-in-a-row were it not for the double injury blow which robbed them of Eddie Keher and Jim Treacy for the 1973 All-Ireland final against Limerick.

Having beaten Cork in a dramatic '72 final, Kilkenny were fancied to retain the title a year later but fate intervened at its spiteful worst, robbing them of Keher and Treacy for the final. Keher -- one of the greatest finishers of all time -- was an incalculable loss while Treacy -- one of the best corner-back or his generation -- was also sorely missed.

The double hit impacted on team morale while providing Limerick with a sign that their day had finally come. They won by seven points but a year later Kilkenny, with Keher and Treacy back, hammered them by 12 points and retained the title in '75.

It has always been a source of disappointment to the '72, '74 and '75 All-Ireland winners that they hadn't a full hand for the '73 final as they remain convinced that if they had, the four-in-a-row would have been secured together with their place in history. There's a considerable volume of evidence to support their theory.

But just how would the 1970s side have fared against the 2000s team? It certainly would have been a fascinating match-up. There's no doubt that the '70s' full-forward line of Mick 'Cloney' Brennan, Kieran Purcell and Keher would have tested any full-back line, including Kilkenny's current trio.

Further out, Mick Crotty, Pat Delaney and Billy Fitzpatrick were a formidable half-forward line while Frank Cummins -- the granite midfielder -- and his classy partner 'Chunky' O'Brien were an ideal combination.

Pat Henderson, 'Fan' Larkin and Jim Treacy were powerful defenders in front of Noel Skehan -- one of the best goalkeepers in the history of the game, who had waited so patiently in line behind the equally brilliant Ollie Walsh.

Martin Coogan (in the early '70s) and Joe Hennessy later on were outstanding wing-backs with the latter actually improving in the 1980s.

Nicky Orr and Pa Dillon were excellent full-backs while Pat Lawlor sealed the right half-back gap with admirable consistency.

Cork, as usual, were Kilkenny's main opposition during the '70s and they actually defined the decade with their triple All-Ireland success in '76, '77 and '78. However, the Kilkenny team of '72-'75 were as good, if not better.

1980s: Skehan, Hennessy and Cummins and Billy Fitzpatrick overlap with the '70s but overall this crop were not as imposing as their immediate predecessors.

Ger Henderson could match anybody from any era; brother John was an undervalued corner-back everywhere except Kilkenny; while Christy Heffernan, Liam Fennelly and Brian Cody were imposing figures but, as a team, the '80s outfit weren't as rounded as the squad of the '70s.

They ended the decade with two All-Ireland decades but surrendered first place in Leinster to Offaly.

1990s: Liam Fennelly overlaps with the '80s team. And in a decade made memorable by the return of Clare and Wexford to the top table and Offaly becoming the first 'back door' team to win the All-Ireland, Kilkenny claimed two titles, 1992 and '93.

It also heralded the arrival of DJ Carey but, as a squad, this wouldn't go down as one of their finest. After winning the All-Ireland double, the Cats into a tailspin, going five years until their next Leinster title win.


2000s: The records speak for themselves. Galway ('01 and '05), Wexford ('04) and Cork ('04) are the only teams to have beaten Kilkenny in 39 championship games in a decade which has yielded five All-Ireland titles and eight Leinster titles -- and it's not finished yet. What's more, many of Kilkenny's wins have been by very big margins.

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