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.

in the struggle (almost)

THERE HAS been some discussion as to why other counties are not coming out in solidarity with Cork’s striking hurlers and footballers. Well, during the week we
established the following…

Dublin were going to come out on strike but they arrived onto the picket line in dribs and drabs past the appointed time and their delay meant the protest never really got off the ground.

Meath were going to strike but when they heard Dublin were going on strike they decided not to, out of badness.

Antrim were going to strike but nobody understands the situation in the north if they haven’t been there, you know?

Armagh were going to strike but felt that wouldn’t be taking the whole thing seriously enough so they went back training.

Donegal were going to strike but decided not to because they never succeed in anything if Brian McEniff isn’t involved so they went back.

Down were going to strike but decided not to because a perfect
industrial relations record in certain disputes with Kerry would be

Derry were going to strike but felt everyone would say it was a one-man operation based on Paddy Bradley.

Carlow were going to strike but the seductive mistress that is potential victory in an O’Byrne Cup semi-final drained their resolve.

Longford were going to strike but couldn’t fit all the letters on the placard; Louth were going to strike but you know, it’s over 50 years since the last time…

Cavan were going to strike but felt everyone would think they were playing up to the stingy stereotype so they went back.

Clare were going to strike but somebody forgot to bring the
placards to the hill in Crusheen so Mike Mac said they might as well run up and down the slope for an hour anyway.

Kildare were going to strike but felt white would clash with the placards; Wicklow were going to strike but decided that Mick O’Dwyer’s Kerry had never been on strike so they went back; and Laois were going to go on strike but felt they’d succeeded with Micko
without going on strike so they, too, went back.

Galway were going to strike but felt separate protests for hurling
and football were unworkable; Mayo were going to go on
strike but heartbreakingly they were pipped at the post when their
placards never turned up at the last minute. Leitrim were going to go on strike but felt their picket line would be too small to be noticed.

Westmeath were going to strike but decided not to out of respect to Joe Dolan; Wexford were going to strike but felt one good performance was all they’d get out of it.

Limerick were going to strike but decided to head off and play a bit of rugby with Shannon while they were out of action.

Waterford were going to strike but felt people liked their team so much they’d be better off going back. Tipperary were going to strike but decided not to because they felt they had nothing to prove: the finest.

Fermanagh were going to strike but half the county is water and half is Protestant, so where would they get pickets? Monaghan were going to strike but they couldn’t find a Patrick Kavanagh poem about strikes so they went back.

Offaly were going to go on strike but got annoyed with everyone
saying they’d be too busy partying to picket properly that they went back to prove the naysayers wrong.

Roscommon were going to go on strike but felt their promising minor pickets were too inexperienced, so they went back; Sligo were going to go on strike but hey, when you’re Connacht champs…

Tyrone were going to go on strike but felt that swarming in numbers all over the picket line would be counterproductive.

And Kerry were going to go on strike but felt that there were so many of them in Cork as it was that it was like they were on strike

Kilkenny were going to go on strike but decided to have an oul’ puck-around around while they were on the picket lines, y’know?