For Galway hurling fans, like MICHAEL O’BRIEN, Sunday’s All-Ireland senior hurling triumph against Waterford finally brought an arduous journey in search of Liam MacCarthy to an end…
When the final whistle blows, there are a trail of thoughts that flick across your mind. Some are not directly related to winning. But emotions, whether happy or sad, flood the mind at times when the head needs to be clear.
It can be many hours afterwards before the significance of a victory really sinks in. I didn’t appreciate the enormity of Galway’s win until well into Sunday night. It was more a feeling of contentment and relief rather than an incredible winning feeling. Such was the weight of how much was riding on this game for Galway hurling. Few said it, some whispered it, but most knew it — if Galway lost this final, the fallout would be massive on a whole range of levels.
In previous years, especially after the losses in 2005, 2012 and 2015, there was that feeling of ‘they’ll be back next year’. Not this time. A young team, yes. But this was set up for Galway. A great team. Playing well. Carrying hurt. No injuries. No suspensions. No Tipp, Kilkenny or Cork in the way in the final. No excuses.
My father first took me to a match when I was a small boy. An hour or so after the whistle sounded on Sunday, that memory came into my head. So did a whole host of other memories. Like the 2005 final. Galway wouldn’t have won that final against Cork if it went on for three hours. The link? It was the last time my father attended a game in Croke Park. He doesn’t go to games there now. “That isn’t for the likes of me anymore”, as he says himself.
But he used to go to loads of games. And take me with him. One of those early memories of a game involved Killimordaly and Castlegar — it was part of a double header in Kenny Park, Athenry. There was a row during the game. A player had another by the throat, and had him pushed up against the wire (very close to the top row of bull wire or so it seemed to a startled boy). There was players flying in every side.
Ger Loughnane once said: “Our abiding memories of hurling are rows”. So who was the player dishing it out that day? The link? Tony Keady.
In the second match of that double header featured a wing-forward who I still maintain is the fastest I ever saw carrying a sliothar on a hurl. The child in me still gets a kick the once or twice a year I ring him to order a delivery of oil. He’s local. His name is Martin Naughton. A finer individual you wouldn’t meet. Two All Irelands. One All-Star. No ego.
In late 1986 or early 1987, the club opened its new facilities. All-Ireland champions Cork were in town. I cycled back for a look. I got drenched on the return journey, peddling faster than that Armstrong bloke from Texas as I rushed home to tell my father about the game. I had seen a few giants, including Tony O’Sullivan of Cork. He was probably about 5’ 9 but was such a talented player that he seemed about twice that in my eyes.
In the 1980s, county finals were expected with the club, and All-Irelands were expected from the county team. The finals kept coming for the county, and to a lesser extent for the club, but the years rolled on with no senior titles. Father and son came home disappointed again and again.
The winter of 1989 was a long one. I spotted one of the giants of the game from back then, Pete Finnerty, one day and asked him for an autograph. He signed it: “Best wishes, we’ll be back next year, with or without Denton.”
He looked at me wondering if a little 11 -year-old knew what that meant. My reply: “That’s the ref, John Denton from Wexford.” Sure how could you forget him. Martin Naughton did his knee in the summer of ’89. He turned out to be a much bigger loss than Keady was that year.
The county final of 1990 was painful. The club lost to Kiltormer, who went on to win the All-Ireland a year later. Soon a young stylist would emerge on the scene to join Naughton and company. The name? Locally, Franny. The link? Francis Forde — a selector with Michéal Donoghue on Sunday, who also played on the winning Galway minor side of 1992 with Donoghue — against Waterford manager Derek McGrath. Franny was so good, he played U-21 with the club aged 14.
The years passed. No titles for club or county. At senior level. Underage titles aplenty, for club and county. But they didn’t matter as much. Call it arrogance. Or a sense of expectation.
In 1990, a player that literally came out of the blue (and seemed to vanish soon afterwards) called John Fitzgibbon broke Galway hearts. Galway scored 2-21, but lost to Cork’s 5-15. In 1993 I stood behind the goal that PJ Delaney scored the winning goal into as Kilkenny beat Galway in the final. But the heartbreak soon eased in a very roundabout way. For the next eight years, Galway didn’t get to the final. They just got beaten earlier in the championship.
Like in 1997. Father and son were in Thurles for the quarter-final clash between Galway and Kilkenny. Cathal Moore and Franny Forde were representing the club. Justin Campbell had a stormer of a first half. Galway led by 3-9 to 1-6 at half time. Full time: Kilkenny 4-15, Galway 3-16. A certain Denis Joseph Carey had helped himself to 2-8 (having scored 2-10 against Galway in the league a few months earlier, off the same player). The losses kept mounting.
For the 2001 final, Galway v Tipp, it was seen as a 50/50 game. Galway had a decent side. But no bench. Thanks to politics of such proportions it has become a sick joke — a player made the final 26 that couldn’t hold his place on his club team. Fact. A good bloodline got another man into the squad.
I watched that final defeat in the Canal End. And the 2005 defeat in the Upper Cusack.
The final losses to Kilkenny in 2012 and 2015 were just that — losses to Kilkenny. Galway could have won both. But they didn’t. They were ahead at half time in both. They did a lot right, but lacked a cutting edge during the key moments. One man paid a very high price for those losses.
Anthony Cunningham was treated very badly by Galway hurling no matter what way you look at it. When the going got tough on Sunday, there was no way a Shefflin, Brennan, Walsh, Delaney or Fennelly could influence proceedings for the opposition. Anthony didn’t have that luxury. He made a few mistakes, less than most, but suffered terribly.
I thought of Anthony Cunningham on Sunday night. Without him having brought Galway to those finals, they wouldn’t have had the experience and drive to win this one.
And I wondered too is the day of ‘off the cuff’ hurling at the highest level a thing of the past.
And I thought of Jennifer Malone too. She would have been gutted for Waterford. Jennifer was the girl that made national headlines for her wonderful gesture towards Waterford’s Pauric Mahony after he lay deflated following defeat to Kilkenny in last year’s championship. Jennifer rushed onto the field to celebrate with Kilkenny, but stopped to see how Pauric Mahony was.
Jennifer hails from Kildare. I had the privilege of meeting Jennifer and her mother at a game in Kinnegad a few weeks ago.
I was delighted for all the players, especially Joe Canning. He’s the player my nephews pretend to be playing in the garden — like I was Martin Naughton three decades earlier.
Sunday was the release of a pressure valve. Generations two and three of the family were at the game, but my father wasn’t. The long, deep analysis wasn’t as long and deep either.
The passage of time. All of 29 years. Age waits for no one.