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The majesty of Kilkenny’s perpetual pursuit of victory

 

LIKE the majority of sports fans, I’m programmed to cheer for the underdog.

I crave variety and against-the-odds triumphs, I favour minnows over giants, record breakers leave me cold.

Perhaps the reason why so many of us think this way is because we can empathise with the underdog. Most of us are not Manchester United, we are Oldham Athletic; getting by, enjoying the spin and hanging in there for the occasional day in the sunshine.

Galway are hardly the Oldham Athletic of hurling but compared to Kilkenny they may as well be: the Cats have won 10 All-Ireland titles since the Tribe last tasted September glory in 1988.

Kilkenny have become the Manchester United and Manchester City combined of hurling – they have won eight Liam MacCarthys this century, the Mancunians have the same combined total of Premier Leagues.

So it is easy to cheer against Kilkenny. The more they win, the more a lot of people long for somebody different to stand on the Hogan steps and shake the old trophy at a throng dressed in anything but amber and black.

I have longed for change in hurling. I’ve never cared for this Kilkenny team. They are admirable but, from my perspective, not likeable. Their whatever-you-say-say-nothing approach to the press means they are unknowable.

It’s hard to engage with people who offer little of themselves. Giving 100% to the jersey should not mean that you give nothing in the way of insight or straight-up answers to simple questions.

Your Galways or Waterfords, Tipps and Corks are always better value, always more engaging, more likely to surprise.

Kilkenny, though, surprised me on Sunday. For the first time since the 1991 final, I almost felt like cheering for them.

Galway, instead of viewing their lead as a foundation for success, used it as a shield that was eventually battered to dust. They pulled raiders back to stand guard and began to foul cynically out the field.

Kilkenny, though, were not just worthy of support because Galway were trying to foul and defend their way to victory. Faced with a younger, fresher, arguably stronger foe – who were five points ahead in the second half – the Cats raged against the dying of the light.

The ferocity and desperation with which Kilkenny players chased down possession was magnificent. Even men like Richie Power, who was far from at his best, harried and hustled, blocked and flicked and did everything in his means to ensure the cup went to Noreside.

Henry Shefflin should have gone for goal with the late penalty. That aside, he was monumental. He did what great players do: produce their very best when it is most needed. Pursuing a record-breaking ninth All-Ireland, Shefflin was as ravenous as any Galway opponent hunting his first.

The word hunger does the rounds before pretty much any GAA match of note. How can the likes of Shefflin, and Brian Cody, maintain their appetite when they have been sated so many times? It depends how long it takes to digest success, I guess. Their hunger is a perpetual yearning for honours.

Witness them after any rare Kilkenny defeat and you will see broken human beings. They have to win all the time just to feel normal.

Shefflin’s body language – the raging intensity, the cold gaze – was both eerie and wonderful. He has that sense of otherness that only the truly exceptional athletes have.

Chad Harbach describes the gifted hero in his fine baseball novel The Art Of Fielding — Henry Skimshander — as having “something frighteningly aloof in his eyes”.

He continues: “You can’t follow me here, those mild blue eyes seemed to say. You’ll never know what this is like.”

The description could as easily have been penned for the Irish Henry.

It was somewhat easier to decipher Cody’s thoughts as he squared up to Anthony Cunningham when the final – dubious – free was awarded. He was simply going crazy, something we have all done. Cunningham did well not to follow him there.

Cody’s behaviour was disgraceful. Davy Fitzgerald was almost dragged before the Le Hague Convention earlier in the summer for mouthing off at John Mullane from the sideline. Imagine if he had done as Cody did. He’d have been tarred and feathered and then forced to take a long walk down a short plank.

With Cody, though, nothing will happen. Because he is Cody! Normally this would really hack me off but in this instance, I just pondered on the elemental life force that drives the big lunatic.

He comes out with the most blood-haltingly dull platitudes but this single act told us more about the Kilkenny manager than his entire auto-biography. What we have here is a marble-hewn lump of aggro who needs to find a way to win like a river needs to find its way to the ocean. You can go around obstacles or you can go through them but, ultimately, nothing will get in the way.

I think Kilkenny will find a way to beat Galway in the replay. I thought they would get the job done the first day and was surprised at how well Galway nullified most of the Cats’ attacking threats.

I cannot see the likes of Power, Eoin Larkin and Aidan Fogarty being so well subdued next day out. The Kilkenny midfield of Richie Hogan and Michael Fennelly will also be stung into response after they were bested for most of the game.

Kilkenny, I expect, will somehow find a way to edge out what I now believe to be a better group of players.

Galway want this bad. Kilkenny and Cody, though, need it.

 

Twitter: @Ronanearly

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Ronan Early
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Ronan Early is Sports Editor and columnist with The Irish Post. Follow him on Twitter @RonanEarly

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