Liam goes to Kilkenny for the 36th time.
The day had promised so much for the hurlers of Galway but, come full-time, a sense of callous inevitability filled the air as the men from Kilkenny, donned in their famous black and amber garb strode up the steps of the Hogan Stand to receive the Liam McCarthy Cup for the 36th time.
A second-half masterclass saw them defend their All-Ireland title and defeat the Tribesmen on a score-line of 1-22 to 1-18. For Galway, the famine continues into a 28th year.
But the day had promised so much. The aperitif served up by the minors went down a treat among their supporters, whetting the appetite for the main course to come. The people of Galway were hungry we were told; ravenous almost. After all it had been 27 long years since they dined at the top table.
It started well too. The Tribesmen raced out of the blocks. Joe Canning was on form and the vast majority of the capacity crowd at Croke Park, hoping for a Galway win dared to dream. Galway matched and even bettered anything Kilkenny threw at them in the opening 35 minutes.
A high-tempo first half, filled with hard work and no little skill, epitomised best by Jason Flynn’s sublime point from under the Hogan Stand side of the field, saw Galway retreat to the sanctuary of the dressing rooms with a 3-point lead. They scored a very respectable 14 points in the first half – half of which came from the mercurial Canning.
It was a decent return for a solid first-half display. The only black mark on the Galway copybook came in the form of a yellow card for corner back Johnny Coen who could count himself very fortunate to stay on the pitch following a high tackle on Colin Fennelly.
One sensed that referee James Owens perhaps took circumstances and the enormity of the occasion into account when granting Coen a reprieve. Only the metronomic stick of TJ Reid offered any resistance to Galway’s play. It helped to craft a total of one goal and three points in the opening half.
The lead could have been, and possibly should have been, more. But it wasn’t enough. In truth it was never going to be enough. This Kilkenny team are famed for their second-half displays, particularly in the 10-15 minute period after half-time.
The crowd inside Croke Park knew the onslaught was coming. An audience of millions watching on television knew it. The Galway players knew it. But they couldn’t stop it. Nobody could. There was no recourse for Galway to the sheer brutality of wave upon wave of Kilkenny attacks. Too often the men in maroon were left floundering in a black-and-amber vapour trail.
Kilkenny took the lead in the 48th minute of the match and it was a lead they would never relinquish. In the second 35 minutes Kilkenny outscored Galway by fourteen points to four. That in a nutshell proved to be the difference between the two sides. Joe Canning did manage a late goal for Galway in injury time but at that stage it was too little too late.
The space afforded Galway in the first-half seemed to evaporate. It was Kilkenny who now owned that space. They upped their work rate with relentless chasing of maroon jerseys. The Galway men were simply pressurised to the point of asphyxiation. Time on the ball was at a premium and Galway were prevented from playing their game.
By contrast, Kilkenny began to show their class. They showed more composure at vital times during the game and took the game away from Galway with clinical efficiency. Crucially, they scored the first three points of the second-half to draw level.
Momentum had now shifted in their favour. The men from the west never got going in the second-half. Or, perhaps more tellingly, they weren’t allowed to. Their style of play became chaotic and error-strewn. It became an exercise in damage limitation as they struggled to cope with wave upon wave of Kilkenny attacks.
Clearances were easily mopped up by the Kilkenny half-back line only for the sliotar to boomerang its way back into the Galway half. At vital times too, the radar that yielded those 14 points in the first-half deserted them. Conor Whelan, Greg Lally, Conor Cooney and most surprisingly Canning missed the target in the second-half.
Canning’s was a relatively straight forward free in the 62nd minute of the game and it somewhat aptly summed up his and Galway’s performance in the second-half. Only substitute David Collins offered any resistance. But resistance by that point was futile. Kilkenny finished strongly building up a seven point lead. Canning’s consolation goal right at the death glossed over a poor second-half display by Galway.
As for Kilkenny, they now have won their 11th All-Ireland hurling title in 16 years. This generation of Kilkenny players are the greatest ever. The 2015 vintage may not have reached the dizzy heights of the four-in-a-row brigade of the mid to late 2000’s; but yet they are self-evidently superior to anyone else in the game right now.
This team, under the watchful rose blush gaze of the indomitable Brian Cody is magnificent; peerless in this epoch of hurling. They are the All-Ireland hurling champions for 2015 and rightly so. For Galway, 2015 represents another year ultimately soured by another final and another defeat. But the day had promised so much.
By Padraic Ward