2007 Sports Highlight

March 27, 2008

MOMENT TO SAVIOUR: Pat Tobin celebrates after scoring Limerick’s match-saving goal against Tipperary.

The moment when
everyone seems to
settle deeper into their seat — happy there’s
a bit of time left

THE BOSS is only human. He finds the late pull as irresistible as the rest of us. When he asks his staff for their sporting highlight he usually plants the butt of the hurley between our ribs with something like: “Or in your case, the annual Waterford-Cork highlight.”

Cheeky bugger.

Off the proverbial top of the head, when it comes to a highlight of the year it’s hard to overlook Limerick-Tipp Mark II back in mid-June. The Premier were 10 points up with 15 minutes left, but then Limerick began to come hard at them, and it quickly became one of those rare communal experiences — impossible to replicate, difficult to describe, but unmistakable to anyone who’s been at a game like it. The realisation that something special is happening ripples through the crowd and everyone seems to both settle deeper into their seat — happy there’s a bit of time left — while craning forward to drink in the spectacle at the same time.

It looked like an exercise in gallantry for Limerick rather than an attempt to rescue their season, but Tipperary started to doubt, and the unlikeliest of draws materialised in the distance. It still didn’t look likely with 10 minutes left; in fact, it looked impossible. But Limerick did it.

Afterwards you saw stunned Tipp fans and players trying to make sense of the result. It couldn’t have happened. Could it? But when you’ve eliminated the impossible, as that fine wing-back Sherlock Holmes used to say, whatever remains, however unlikely, is the truth. With the evening sun stretching young men’s shadows into legend, we thought it couldn’t get better.

Not spectacular enough for you, maybe. Then how about one of the scores of the year: Dan Shanahan alone served up enough to choose from, and we’d go for that sweet ground stroke which beat Cork’s Dónal Óg Cusack low to the left in Croke Park (there’s something about that Railway End goal and the snappy pull: 17 years ago John Fitzgibbon planted a ball in the exact same spot in the exact same way).

It was a goal to prove to a generation of kids that pulling on the ball is a skill that must be practiced and acquired — and used properly. It proved to a generation of opponents that Dan has all the weapons in his armoury, but they probably suspected as much all along.

More? How about Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh or Ken McGrath’s spectacular catches the same day? Tommy Walsh in the same department on any day you care to choose? Pat Tobin’s late equaliser in Limerick-Tipperary Part One? Richie Bennis saying he wanted to go out and hurl himself after seeing it? The ovation Cork supporters gave the Semple Three at Waterford-Cork in the Munster championship? Richie hugging Babs Keating after the second Limerick-Tipp draw? Babs’ face when he did so? Or, above them all, how about the heartfelt tribute Henry Shefflin and his teammates paid to the late Vanessa McGarry on the day of the All-Ireland?

That afternoon after the game, as Shefflin limped from the dressing-room out the tunnel to go up the steps of the Hogan Stand, he was handed the proverbial slip of paper with the speech written on it. He didn’t need a note, however, to tell him to bring young Darragh McGarry up to collect the McCarthy Cup. It was a simple gesture, as obvious as the right thing always is. And it summed up Kilkenny in 2007. Class on the field. Class off it.

None of the above are our highlights of the year, however.

Our selection from 2007 comes not from any spectacular catch or decisive goal, no pithy description or angry outburst. Our highlight is the morning of Monday June 11th.

That was the day after the first Limerick-Tipperary draw, and the replay was scheduled for the following Saturday, with Cork and Waterford due to play their Munster SHC semi-final the next afternoon. The championship had been electrified by Limerick-Tipp, and while we didn’t know, obviously, that that story would become a trilogy, an extra Munster hurling championship game is like found money. As a good omen it didn’t let us down.

The rest of the summer was suddenly ripe with possibility, and what’s more, improbably enough, that possibility was fulfilled.

And that was the Monday which held all the promise you could ever want in the middle of the year. A few days to a perennially entertaining encounter, with an old rivalry being reactivated the night before.

Life at that stage could hardly have been better because it was all ahead of us. As readers well know, the championship season takes on a life of its own, and the days between the big summer Sundays fall into a predictable rhythm for even the casual follower: recovery and analysis on Monday. Injuries being discussed on Tuesday. Teams being named on Thursday, and plans being made on Friday. Those plans are inevitably broken on Saturday, so the last round of phone calls to discuss moves, switches and replacements takes on a practical edge.

A practical edge is needed, because at a couple of months’ remove the season looks like the work of fantasy. The three Limerick-Tipperary games. The three Waterford-Cork games. Tipperary-Wexford. Limerick-Waterford, both versions. Kilkenny-Galway. And at the very start, Waterford-Kilkenny in the league. That’s 11 class games in one season.

Did we imagine it all or is the rear-view mirror too rosy? Not so, said Justin McCarthy at one point during the immortal summer: “You’re seeing hurling at its best, to be honest about it. The best hurlers are around at the moment. They’re the greatest players of all time . . . they’re playing at a level so high that it’s nearly at breaking point at this stage.”

Well, that’s for another day. So is the annual threat to the Munster hurling championship in favour of a new format — open draw/champions league/whatever you’re having yourself. For the moment console yourself with the prospect that it won’t always be winter. June 11th, or some similar day, will dawn in 2008.

And once again the summer will stretch before you.

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