WITH a boot to their throats, Kilkenny began to roar. Henry Shefflin has been the king of hurling for as long as we can remember and his leadership pulled Kilkenny back into the game.
From a position where Galway had it in both of their hands, Shefflin was in a position to make sure the Tribe no longer kept a single claw on the Liam MacCarthy Cup late on.
Firstly, how he turned the game is to be commended but it was very un-Shefflin to see him tap over the penalty after Eoin Larkin had been fouled by goalkeeper James Skehill.
With 68 minutes gone and a couple of minutes injury time always likely, a point was only ever going to keep the game of tit for tat alive. Kilkenny went ahead on the scoreline but rather than it being a psychological belief, it acted as a relief to the opposition that the game was not over.
To go just one point behind allowed Galway believe they still had a chance. Had a goal gone in, and few would have thought Shefflin would pass up a chance to kill off the game, there was no way back.
Particularly not for a Galway team that was wilting so badly in the second half. Niall Burke’s goal on 55 minutes was the Tribe’s only score in a 26-minute spell that could quite easily have gifted Kilkenny the title.
We say gifted because Anthony Cunningham’s side were in total control of the game coming into half-time before handing the All-Ireland champions a couple of scores. David Collins was caught for overcarrying needlessly and it was one of the scores that didn’t have to be, with Shefflin happy enough to tap it over.
We keep harping back to Shefflin but why not because when you go through the Kilkenny team, few other big-name players stepped up to the plate.
Richie Power continued what has been a relatively quiet year for him, Colin Fennelly was ineffective as Johnny Coen undoubtedly secured the Young Hurler of the Year award, Aidan Fogarty was shackled much better than as against Limerick and Tipp, while Richie Hogan and Michael Fennelly lost the midfield battle.
It was a game for the backs of both sides but that was actually because either set of defenders gave such unsympathetic deliveries to their forwards.
As the tension grew, so too did the tendency for players to lash the ball up the field with no interest in where it went.
In the first half, Brian Hogan struggled to keep with Niall Burke but as the game wore on and Galway lost their way by reverting to long ball, the O’Loughlin Gaels man came into it. Paul Murphy, not for the first time, had a stormer and profited from the Connacht side’s aimless play.
Davy Burke, his assignment, has been exceptional for most of the year but this was his second disappointing game in a row; he had a quiet All-Ireland semi-final against Cork and he wasn’t much louder in the All-Ireland final.
He was perhaps fortunate to stay on the field while James Regan, who when given decent ball troubled Kilkenny with his direct running was a threat, and Niall Burke, the same, were withdrawn.
Plenty of people felt it was an enthralling game on Sunday and we would agree that it was in the sense that the tension maintained our interest. Was it a quality game though? We would argue not, indeed it felt as if it never quite got going.
Kilkenny began the game with five chances in a row but converted just one. It was at that point that Galway sensed an opportunity and they, quite the opposite to the Cats, put away four of their next five efforts to establish a 1-3 to 0-1 lead.
Kilkenny actually missed eight of their first nine chances and only got one score from play inside 23 minutes, precisely the case when they lost the 2010 All-Ireland final to Tipperary. It looked set up for them.
There was a surreal atmosphere as Galway built up a seven-point lead during that first half. Tribe fans seemed a little stunned that their team were pulling ahead and Kilkenny fans taken aback by their side’s profligacy.
That the Cats got back into the game by poor Galway play hinted that this was not a classic. That the Connacht men scored just seven times from play to the champs’ eight solidifies the point. The game never quite got going but the tension masked that fact.
The game finished 2-13 to 0-19 and it was key for Galway to finish the game with more goals to avoid defeat. Skehill made a fabulous save to keep his side in front, even if the free he gave away for lying on the ball levelled the game — that was a massive moment, as was Shefflin’s decision to take a point.
Sometimes pundits refer to it as the “sensible option”, like when a Gaelic football fists a point when a goal is on with the foot, but to the brave go the spoils.
On that score, Joe Canning deserves immense credit for stepping up to the plate and firing over the free at the end. Brave because he went over after missing one just before, and braver still considering the managerial furore in front of him caused by the awarding of the free.
Galway had it, lost it, and almost didn’t pull it back; Kilkenny were gone, took it and then gave the opposition a lifeline.
Shefflin and Canning were the stars, and you’d suspect one of them will decide the title in the replay.