There may have been minor consolation for Tipperary at Croke Park but ultimately our big day was a major letdown. Another great hurling spectacle it may have been, for sure, but – damn it! – we’re sick of falling just short in these classics.
By now it’s become a tiresome pattern. In previous years it was Kilkenny who regularly rained on our parade but this season we’ve found new oppressors. A last minute Waterford point pipped us in the league semi this year and it was a case of déjà vu on Sunday in the penultimate round of the championship. Even the referee was the same on both days.
This inability to close out tight games is becoming torturous. Look at last year: a three-point loss to Kilkenny in a replayed All Ireland after earlier losing the league final to the same opposition with a last second point at the end of extra time. 2013, the first of Eamon O’Shea’s three-year term, was the same: a three-point loss to KK in the qualifier after an identical margin in the league final; one-score losses all the way.
I could traipse back through the years for similar stats to reinforce the point but I haven’t the stomach for it. For whatever reason we’ve become the bridesmaids of the hurling world forever decorating the gala occasions with spectacular displays – but always in the support role, rarely the lead.
Given that disappointment is relative to expectations, Sunday’s defeat was gut-wrenching. We travelled with high hopes, expecting a tough one but hopeful that we had enough to get through for another showdown with the ‘cats’. It nearly happened and that sadly has become the story of this generation of Tipperary hurlers – the nearly men.
A draw would have been some comfort but when the dust settled on Sunday evening Tipperary fans willingly conceded that Galway were worthy winners. Perhaps they adopted the Kilkenny template from last year’s replayed All Ireland because their subjugation of Tipperary on this occasion was similar. We never matched their physical intensity, their work rate, their relentless harrying and hassling. Our forwards particularly found the going tough, apart from the glorious exception of Seamie Callanan.
Rarely has one man so singlehandedly almost dragged a team to an All Ireland final. It was an unbelievable tour de force by Callanan, a performance that will share company with the greatest ever individual displays on a championship day at Croke Park. Without his input Galway would surely have been comfortable winners.
It was Callanan alone who kept this tie in the melting pot. His opening goal set the terms of engagement, defying a flaking pull by Padraig Mannion to snatch one from the air and finish smartly to the net. Moving out from goal he followed with a sequence of points, winning most individual tussles with his marker.
And yet it soon became obvious that Callanan was getting little back-up in attack, his colleagues mostly playing second fiddle to their markers. Galway remained undaunted by their poor start and by half time they were the dominant side. Saves by Darren Gleeson kept our line intact but Galway hit some quality points to eventually lead at the interval.
The pattern of the second half remained similar. Galway’s overall supremacy was kept in check by Callanan. His third goal was perhaps the finest of the three. ‘Bonner’ Maher might have added to the goal-haul but drove straight at the goalie and later Corbett was denied by a superb save by keeper Callanan. There was a time in the past when Galway struggled with their goalies but not on Sunday; Colm Callanan already has one hand on his All Star award.
The drama at the end was unbearable. Noel McGrath seemed to have made a dream return with a lead point but a mishit clearance gave Jason Flynn a crucial leveler. The final sequence will haunt Tipperary players. Canning hit a clever ball into the right corner position where substitute, Shane Moloney, availed by a slip by Cathal Barrett to fire the winner.
It was a galling defeat. The defensive end will ship far less blame than the attack. Gleeson in goal made some crucial stops though some of his puck-outs and clearances drew criticism. Barrett and Barry, I felt, were excellent in defence and Ronan Maher had his finest day since graduating to senior ranks. The others were impressive too though at times mixing excellence with errors, Paudie Maher typifying the pattern with a great catch followed by a stand-up attempt at a clearance and the inevitable hook.
Midfield overall was second best though McGrath had some useful inputs early on and Woodlock grafted typically. The attack, apart from Callanan, came up short of expectations. ‘Bubbles’ was well shackled and ‘Bonner’ Maher has been less influential this year than we’d hoped. The experiment of Brendan Maher at half forward has been a qualified success only.
In all of this the decision to introduce Shane Bourke at half time in place of Jason Forde baffled fans. The word in advance from the camp was that the Bracken’s man was flying in training though past experience would surely have taught the management that his best input comes late in games; he was never going to be a game changer in this bear-pit.
There was criticism too of the removal of Jason Forde at half time; he surely contributed more than Niall O’Meara in that opening period. An earlier introduction of the likes of Michael Breen was part of the after-match analysis also.
All of this is part of the inevitable after-match dialogue where hindsight is at play. Had Galway lost I’ve no doubt Anthony Cunningham would have been savaged for his tardiness in changing the marker on Seamie Callanan. Victory covers a multitude whereas defeat exposes every detail.
A few other aspects of the game deserve comment. I thought the tackle on Callanan that brought the second half penalty deserved a more critical treatment than it got on ‘The Sunday Game’. Remember a few years ago Sean Cavanagh was savaged by the pundits on TV – Joe Brolly especially – because of a professional pull-down of an opponent. It contributed to the introduction of the black card in football. The hurling pundits seem to operate to a different code.
The foul on Callanan was both cynical and dangerous, his head being driven into the ground in the movement, not too unlike a spear tackle in rugby. A yellow card seems a very mild reproach for such an offence.
Then there was the one-handed whip across Woodlock in an off-the-ball incident. Incredibly the linesman in close proximity saw nothing to report. Anthony Daly on TV that night felt the offender deserved only a yellow card because he merely used one hand and didn’t strike with too much force. Indeed. Somebody should remind the TV panelists of the rules of the game. Striking with the hurley is a red card offence – period. So let’s stop inventing our own rules on TV.
Anyway the championship is over for Tipperary and Eamon O’Shea steps aside without reaching the summit. There’s genuine sadness at his departure. He doesn’t have enemies in the game – or in life in general, I suspect. The respect that the players have for him borders on adoration. He certainly invested selflessly in this particular group of players and brought them tantalisingly close to the summit. Perhaps his role under Liam Sheedy was the ideal scenario because to me he always seemed less comfortable with management. Anyway he deserves our thanks for such a huge personal investment in Tipperary hurling.
Michael Ryan now steps into the role of manager as was announced last year. I always felt it was an unnecessarily premature decision. Why the haste? Now would be an ideal time to reflect on the whereabouts of Tipperary hurling and then, if it was felt prudent, appoint the Upperchurch man as manager. It’s not the only managerial appointment of recent years that was questionable. Anyway it will be interesting to see what team Michael Ryan assembles around him
Finally there’s little space for reflection on the minors who delivered some consolation on our day of misery. Liam Cahill has done very well with a group that hasn’t carried much expectation and yet now finds itself in an All Ireland final. They battled bravely on Sunday finishing with a flurry to finally seal the deal. Their final opponents will be Galway and therein lies another refereeing controversy after a blatant ‘square ball’ gave the Westerners the verdict over Kilkenny. Amazing that two umpires and a referee couldn’t see what was so obvious to everyone else.