The GAA Championship, Week 16: Limerick End 45 Years of Hurt

by | Aug 31, 2018

It would have been “so 2018” if Galway’s Joe Canning had pointed his long-range, last-seconds free in Sunday’s All-Ireland Hurling Final, to complete the mother of all comebacks, even in a hurling year with an entire maternity ward-full of the things. But it wouldn’t have been right.

When Limerick went eight points up with two-and-a-bit minutes of normal time left, the scoreboard was a genuine reflection of the game. Indeed, there were arguments that Limerick deserved a double-digit lead by then. When Limerick last won the All-Ireland, they ended a 33-year wait for glory. Now, they seemed certain to end a 45-year wait. But if the 70 minutes WAS normal time, the nine minutes stoppage-time correctly allowed by referee James Owens was not normal at all. Even for 2018.

The 70 minutes had not scaled the heights of this hurling year…at times it couldn’t even see those heights. The story, Limerick winning their first All-Ireland since Ireland’s early days of colour telly, and the occasion, Limerick’s noisy following outnumbering their ticket allocation, was way better than the match. For 70 minutes. Limerick played well without being at their best for any sustained period. But Galway were wretched. For 70 minutes.

Limerick’s third goal, which put them eight ahead, was appropriately scrappy. Their subs were predicted to be key players and two, sort of, were. Peter Casey underhit a short pass to erstwhile bench colleague Shane Dowling, whose mishit shot apologised over the line. RTE commentator Marty Morrissey, channeling his inner Alan Partridge, screamed “back of the net.” But it barely made it that far. The Croker big screen showed a Limerick fan in tears. And, for once, there was no inane mugging for the camera, so overcome was she by the prospect that “45 years,” Morrissey also screamed, was “surely coming to an end.”

“That’s that, then,” agreed the friend with whom I was watching the match. “2018,” I replied. But even I was unconvinced that “2018”, for all the supernatural powers it has applied to its All-Ireland hurling championship, could save Galway. I was very nearly very wrong.

Canning, like at least two of his Galway colleagues, was demonstrably not 100% match-fit. But the great players can mask that more completely and more often than most. And Canning was Galway’s one shining light in a desperate second half. Limerick’s lead was only in single figures, on 70 minutes, because of him.

He wasn’t involved in Galway’s 71st-minute goal, the previously “blimey, is he still on?” Conor Whelan catching Jason Flynn’s high ball and blasting it to the net, as echoes of “they couldn’t, could they?” traversed the nation. Fellow talisman Daithi Burke brilliantly began that move. But Canning WAS Galway’s second goal.

Limerick keeper Nicky Quaid touched the ball on the ground outside his area, conceding a ’20-metre free’ in front of goal. Hurling penalties are taken from that spot and are a deal more difficult to score than soccer’s equivalent. And for 20-metre frees, keepers can be joined by team-mates. Quaid was joined by four, leaving a ball-sized gap in the top corner of the net for Canning to find. It’s 2018. It was Joe Canning. OF COURSE he found it.

Limerick were suddenly, inexplicably, only two points ahead. Nearly four of the eight announced stoppage-time minutes remained. There had been another minute-ish stoppage IN stoppage time. It was 2018. So, Graeme Mulcahy, scorer of Limerick’s first goal, in what had been an entirely different game, overhit a pass and Galway’s Niall Burke reduced the deficit to one.

And there was one more reason for Limerick fans’ gut-tearing fear. In 1994’s final, they led Offaly by five points with five minutes left…and lost by six. Offaly scored two goals and five points in the five late minutes which gave the game its “five-minute final” tag (setting up their second goal while RTE replayed their first). This Limerick side were different, we were told…and had seen. So, when Mulcahy, per script, had a shot at redemption, 80 seconds later, OF COURSE he put it over the bar. Two in it again.

But, 65 seconds later, Galway won a ’65,’ hurling’s equivalent of a corner, a free hit from the 65-metre-line, level with where the ball went over the end-line. This one was nearer the touchline than the goal. But…2018…Canning… OF COURSE he scored it. A point in it again. The eight minutes up. SKY’s match commentator Michael Finnerty “hearing” there would be two extra minutes’ stoppage-time. Replay ticket application forms being filled in across Ireland and beyond. So, OF COURSE Galway won another free.

It was controversial. It was given right in front of a Galway bench which began leaping about like a version of ‘Riverdance’ incorporating the arms. Alas for Galway, their bench was, to use “The 42” website’s ‘as it happened’ assessment of the distance, “absolutely miles back.” RTE co-commentator Michael Duignan said, as grammatically accurate as could reasonably be expected in such fraught circumstances, that “even for him it’s on the edge of the distance that he can strike it.”

Duignan was right. Canning’s free was bang-on-target but ten metres short. Limerick sub Tom Condon’s previous most-significant contribution to Limerick’s 2018 was getting sent off within 15 minutes of coming on as a sub in their Munster Championship loss to Clare. Not anymore. He grabbed the briefly loose ball and ran away. And Owens’ immediate final whistle was the signal for Limerick players, management, the lot, to go ‘Riverdance-with-Arms’ all over Croke Park. Forty-five years of hurt, all gone in a second.

Limerick’s predicted prospects were largely based on their ability to withstand the early onslaught Galway brought to their games with Kilkenny and, twice, Clare. On Sunday, the onslaught never came. Limerick’s first goal summed up the match as much as their third goal would. Mulcahy fumbled the ball as he ran onto man-of-the-match Kyle Hayes’ excellent pass. He bundled it towards Galway keeper James Skehill and all replays from all angles at all speeds failed to reveal how the ball rolled through Skehill like he was an obstacle on a Crazy Golf course before Mulcahy chaperoned it over the line.

Limerick led by four at half-time. And Galway, bad as they’d been before that break, were even worse after it. Limerick’s second goal, on 54 minutes, was a superb solo effort by Tom Morrissey, which at the time belonged in a different match. But it spoke volumes about the state of this match that Limerick’s two second-half goals and Mulcahy’s stoppage-time point, were their ONLY scores in the final 35 minutes, an entire half’s playing time. And Galway’s took all 14 of the minutes between Limerick’s goals to repair the scoreboard damage of the first goal.

Yet, if the laws of 2018 were followed to the letter, Galway would have equalised, directly or indirectly, from Canning’s free. But it wouldn’t have been right. And a goal would have been a case for the Supreme Court. Because by all methods of determining such subjective concepts, Limerick were the worthiest of champions.

The new format made it more possible for them to beat hurling’s “big three” (Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary) AND reigning champions Galway. But the fact that they did so was ample justification for “2018” not delivering (yet) another reasoned analysis-defying moment. It was enough that “2018” turned a mediocre match into one that will live as long in the memory as all the preceding epics. And that it gave us the ultimate romantic ending.

After big GAA matches, Premier League football can seem pathetic. Sunday’s match was only hurling at its best for ten of its 80 minutes. But after watching those properly amateur players “putting their heads in where you wouldn’t put a crowbar” (as RTE controversialist Joe Brolly is fond of saying), Man Yoo’s powdery efforts to salvage a point at Brighton seemed desperately tame.

Admittedly, ‘GAA good, Premier League bad’ is simplistic to the point of ridicule. Amateur, representative sport and the rich corporate world of modern club soccer are different sporting planets. But Limerick’s victory celebrations were a joyous affirmation of local pride far beyond the Premier League’s ‘global reach,’ pride which will probably be bursting forth whenever you read this. There was a huge, admirable pride as England advanced in this year’s World Cup. But that pride is the essence of the GAA, not an every-so-often exception, even when championship summers aren’t as mind-alteringly fabulous as this one.

Indeed, this hurling summer merits a far fuller review than word-count limits permit here (be warned). Limerick’s Munster Championship draw in Cork, despite being a man down for over half the match, would be ‘game of’ any other year by ‘absolutely miles.’ In 2018, in the ‘game of the season’ category on RTE’s ‘Sunday Game’ highlights show, it wasn’t even nominated…and not (just) because Sky showed it live. Probably.

The DVD will be awesome. Buy it even if you aren’t a hurling fan. Because when you’ve watched it, you will be.