WICKLOW hurler Daniel Staunton won man of the match in a club championship game at the weekend. After the game, a bewildered looking Daniel was presented with a bag of new season Wexican Queens potatoes by a beaming Louise Hollingsworth of Kelly’s Fruit and Vegetables, Wicklow Town. He will need a wide mantelpiece.
When we won the National League in 1992, followed by the Ulster and All-Ireland championships the following year, I could have opened a gift shop. Crystal clocks, bronze boots on stands, crystal lamps, wooden ornaments, whiskey tumblers, crystal vases, MOTM crystal bowls and all the rest of it. If something wasn’t engraved, it made a perfect wedding present. I had been in Trinity College with Cyril Duggan, the fearsome Laois football and hurling full back.
Once, during a game at Nolan Park against Kilkenny, Cyril, as was his habit, was pulling hard and freely when the ball was in the general area. Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh said, “You’d want to have your novenas said before you went in around the Laois full back.”
In due course, I received a wedding invitation from Cyril. On the morning, I rummaged around in the gift boxes in the spare room until I found a very large, expensive looking crystal Celtic Cross with a clock inset. Had a quick look. Brilliant. Not engraved. Filled out a gift tag, “to Mr and Mrs Duggan, wishing you both a happy life together, all my love, Joe” and dropped it at reception in the hotel. Lovely jubbly.
In those days, there were no mobile phones. A fortnight or so later, I came in from court to hear my answer machine beeping. I pressed the replay message button. “Joe, Cyril Duggan here. You are a cheapskate b******d. I’m just reading from the bottom of this clock. ‘Congratulations Joe on your All-Ireland win from all at Mayobridge GAC’.” He has kept it on his mantelpiece ever since and shows it to all new visitors.
The Galway players will have potatoes on their mantelpieces unless they someday go on to win Sam. I was cycling in the Pyrenees once with the great Tour cyclist Paul Kimmage.
We had been climbing hard for around 14 miles up a very narrow mountain, a sheer drop to the left. Any wobbles meant certain death. As he disappeared over the crest of the mountain top, he shouted over his shoulder at me, “Don’t pull your brakes” before zigzagging down the narrow path at speeds well over 40 mph. Galway pulled the brakes.
For most of the game, Kerry were a mess. No shape. No ideas. A ball of tense nervous anxiety. Sean O’Shea was anonymous. Paudie Clifford falling over himself and going nowhere. Stephen O’Brien soloing and kicking the ball into the keeper’s hands. Paul Geaney absent.
Shane Walsh, a free spirit in the mould of Georgie Best, gave a performance that had us laughing and clapping in delight. Like the Pied Piper, he bewitched Tom O’Sullivan and the Kerry defence, leading them on a magical mystery tour of Croke Park. In the 39th minute, he scored one of the greatest points ever seen in Croke Park.
It was reminiscent of Maradona’s famous goal against Belgium in 1986, the four defenders fanned out in front of the little Argentine as he turned to face them, wondering what his next move might be. Taking possession on the right touchline, with three defenders shepherding him, Shane went left, then right, then left, then right again before kicking the point from an acute angle on the right off his right foot. We were directly in line with it and it went over the black spot, gaining him a perfect 10 from the judges. In the 44th minute, he did it again from the other touchline, this time dummying right before angling it over with his left foot. He finished with nine points. Football this good makes defenders redundant.
By half time, Galway, playing in a relaxed, confident vein, but not particularly pushing themselves, should have been about 0-8 to 0-2 up in normal circumstances. But a team with Clifford in it is not normal circumstances. With him, normality is suspended. Playing alone and without help, and starved of possession, he scored four extraordinary points to keep them in it. His first was a superhuman high fetch for a mark. Then a free. Then a wonder score from 45 metres without any backlift.
The defender thought he was covering him only to find, no doubt to his considerable surprise, that the ball had already gone over the bar. His last point of the first period showed he is Star, the Bomber and Gooch rolled into one, a breathtaking high fetch amidst a crowd of Galwaymen from a ball that had been thumped up high into the air and took ages to come down, followed by a deftly taken point.
The second half resumed where the first had ended, Kerry beset by anxiety, Galway playing confidently but within themselves. The Galway ‘keeper was now getting his short kick outs off, the team was settled, and Clifford was the only threat to their relaxed mood.
It was this third quarter where Galway lost the game. Instead of driving on, they played too safely. The game was lacklustre, Kerry were vulnerable, but unlike Tyrone last year who went after the game ferociously and stuck the dagger in the Kerrymen, Galway played far too passively.
By the 52nd minute it was 0-14 to 0-14 and the perfect moment to go all out for immortality. Instead, they invited Kerry to win it, Damien Comer kicking a ball tamely into the keeper’s hands, Cillian McDaid (who was otherwise very good) taking a stupid shot under pressure and Damien Comer doing exactly the same a moment later. Then Walsh wasting a crucial two minutes kicking an impossible free wide when he should have taken it short and fast. Galway didn’t go hard enough. They pulled the brakes. And pulling the brakes in an All-Ireland final spells disaster.
Kerry moved two ahead in the 56th minute, and the anxiety that had cloaked them all day began to lift. Galway, suddenly sensing this could easily become an anti-climax that would haunt the rest of their lives, upped the pace, but it was too late. Killian Spillane had come on and for the first time, Clifford had someone to help him.
Clifford scored a magnificent acute angled free: 0-17 to 0-16 (66 minutes). Killian Spillane drove past his man to score a difficult point with the fist. Gavin White gleefully tore through and fisted another, getting hammered by three Galway men in the process. No pain, no gain. And finally, with an easy free, the otherwise anonymous Sean O’Shea finished the scoring.
Galway threw in the towel, humping in three high balls, the third heralding the final whistle. If this is their last opportunity to win Sam, the rest of their lives will taste of anti-climax. Losing when you could have won is a lifelong shroud. Just ask the Mayo lads.
Kerry won, but they are imperfect and could easily have lost in both the semi-final and final. They are imperfect. Fortunately for them, Clifford is not.