HurlingMark TownsendSports

HATS OFF TO MOST DESERVING CHAMPIONS

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So there you have it. A most enjoyable final and most deserving champion at the end of it. As gut-wrenching as it was to see Waterford walk away empty handed once again, it would take a heart of stone not to take some satisfaction from seeing a 29 year wait ended. For this year at least, Gaillimh abu.

It was a game in which an unusual victor did it in an unorthodox fashion. It was the first time since 2004 that a team won an All-Ireland final without scoring a goal. It’s the first time ever I believe, that a team won an All-Ireland without bagging a 3 pointer in their last four games. So maybe they weren’t the most eye catching of champions, relying on pointing their way to victory rather than making the net shake, but as regards performance, they were by far and away the best.

Sometimes a team wins an All-Ireland and there’s a gnawing sense that they might have got lucky. Certainly, with Galway’s last 2 final defeats, there was a feeling they may have left it behind them. With this one, there are no doubts. Galway, by any known metric, were clearly the better side on the day, and ever since they steamrolled Tipperary in the league final, have been the best team throughout the year.

Watching the game, the biggest fear you had for the Tribesman is that they weren’t making their undoubted superiority count on the scoreboard. Undoubtedly, they started like a house on fire, but those two goals, particularly the second one which Colm Callanan may edit out of his end of year highlights, gave the impression that Waterford were well in the game. How the Deise managed to stay within a point of Galway during that first half is still something of a mystery.

The fact that they went in front a few minutes into the second half was an even bigger conundrum. It was during this time though, that the likes of David Burke, Johnny Coen and co showed real leadership to say “Not today boys” They had been in a similar situation 2 years ago against Kilkenny, when they let their lead slip in that pivotal third quarter. It was a sign of their mental fortitude this year, that they were not going to let the same situation occur this time.

So congratulations to Galway and, to Waterford, the heartiest of commiserations. I can’t imagine the soul-destroying nature of losing an All-Ireland final, but at least, unlike 2008, they can take some solace from the fact that they gave a great account of themselves on the day. They really showed up for this one, or at least, the majority of their players did.

3 weeks ago I suggested Austin Gleeson should be suspended for the All-Ireland final and was roundly criticized by Waterford fans for saying so. The question I would ask those same fans now is “Would Waterford have been better off if he had been suspended?”

Now before anyone thinks that I have a personal vendetta against the guy, I don’t want to dismiss what Gleeson has done in the past few years or his immense hurling talent. He is one of the most gifted players in the game, and one who has provided some of the most magical moments produced by any player in the championship this year. But the fact remains, he needs to do more. He needs to display more than provide the occasional flash of brilliance, and become a leader of the team, rather than a mere headline grabber.

In fairness to the Mount Sion man he’s still young. This was his first All-Ireland final and he did work hard throughout. If this Waterford team maintains its current rate of progress, it seems likely it won’t be their last. But Gleeson needs to take inspiration from the likes of Brick Walsh, Kevin Moran and Jamie Barron who actively look to grab the game by the scruff of the neck. This game bypassed the incumbent hurler of the year. His most notable contribution in the game were 3 wides, one from a near impossible position halfway through the first half, the other from an audacious side-line towards the end of the game, and a final wayward free as the game entered injury-time.

On the subject of Brick, it would be heart-breaking if this was to be his last year as an inter-county hurler. Of course, it would be perfectly understandable if it was: time waits for no man and all that, but the fact is, in his fifteenth season as a Waterford senior hurler, he produced arguably his finest hurling. He won ball, he carried his team, he even started scoring goals for God’s sake! What a player he has been and what a loss he would be for the county if he was to depart. So let’s hope that Derek McGrath does everything he can to persuade the great man not to.

And if we are going to mention Derek McGrath, there was a certain ex-Tipperary hurling manager who tried to grab some headlines for himself yesterday, by saying that he should step down if Waterford lost the final. One would sincerely hope it doesn’t come to that. Firstly, because as anyone who has ever met McGrath in person, or heard him on radio or television, would know, he’s just about one of the nicest and most honourable people in the game. And secondly, because he has taken this team from being one that could almost never get past a semi-final, to within 3 points of winning an All-Ireland.

Now I’m sure, as the devastation of this defeat sinks in, Derek will be spending a large amount of his time over the coming weeks and months wondering to himself what it is he could have done better. Could his team have spent less time hammering the ball aimlessly into Maurice Shanahan in the full forward line? Could he have given the forward line more impetus by entrusting more faith in the likes of Brian O’Halloran and Tommy Ryan and introducing them earlier?

So, for sure, like every other manager before him, Derek McGrath made mistakes. But to my eyes at least, he should be given at least another year if not more to put it right. The level of respect and faith these players have in him is something that could not be easily replicated with anyone else. If Waterford were to lose him, they would risk losing everything they have built with it.

If we mentioned Austin Gleeson before we must also mention the other new “Prince of Hurling” who was featured in the pre-match billing. There are those who will now put Joe Canning up with the likes of Henry Shefflin in the pantheon of greats, and there are others who will say he will never reach it. But it is a relief to people who love hurling across the country, and particularly I imagine, to Joe himself, to have finally got that monkey off the back. It’s far better to be one of the greatest players with an All-Ireland medal, than one of the greatest ever without one.

The funny thing about it is how little they relied on him in order to do it. Sure, they wouldn’t have won this All-Ireland without him, his show stopping last quarter hour of the semi-final was the most crucial fifteen minutes of Galway’s year. But one of the foremost reasons Galway prevailed this season is the variety and spread of players that were able to share the burden. Before it was a case of “If Joe doesn’t do it, who will?” Well this time, Conor Whelan, Conor Cooney, Joe Cooney all stood up in ways that we’d never seen before. And even when those men flagged ever so slightly in the later stages, there were the likes of Jason Flynn and Niall Burke to come in and drag them over the line. So it wasn’t Joe that won Galway this All-Ireland. It was the team, or to be more apt, the squad, from 1 to 31, that did it.

Another special mention has to be paid to Michael Donoghue. Rarely has a manager had to come into such a tricky set up as the Clarinbridge man did, when coming into an outfit where a manager as respected as Anthony Cunningham, to the media and outside world at least, had to step down. Last year they lost to the eventual All-Ireland champions by a point. This year they reversed that score-line in the semi-final, and went on to win the final. So, while the manner of Cunningham’s dismissal and Donoghue’s instatement left a sour taste, the end justified the means at the end of it.

So after a great final had been played and a fantastic side had won it, all that was needed was a heart rending speech to follow it and David Burke truly delivered on that score. It did justice to the wait that Galway had endured, and the people who have departed during the meantime. The tragic passing of Tony Keady was mentioned. The even more tragic death of Niall Donoghue was also brought up, with a special mention for how serious an illness depression is, and how far we still have to go in coming to terms with it in this country. The Saw Doctors were played. All that was missing was a “People of Galway, we love you” sign off at the end of it.

So it’s been a most enjoyable championship and it’s refreshing to have new worthy champions at the end of it. The only question remains, if the “Mayo” of hurling have got the monkey off their back after so long, is it possible that the “real Mayo” could do likewise in the football final? It’s never happened before that 2 All-Ireland senior trophies have crossed the Shannon in the one year. Could this be the year? Haha, yeah, just imagine.

Tomedia.ie