Winter has come upon us once more. The long cold nights made even more draining in the absence of any inter-county hurling action. However, as the business end of the club championships come to a close, chatter will once again turn to next year’s championship.
Galway’s triumph will give renewed hope to counties looking to end their own personal droughts. Yet, history has thought us the traditional heavyweights consistently fight back.
When Pat Donnellan climbed the steps of the Hogan Stand in 2013 to reclaim the Liam MacCarthy Cup for Clare, the question surrounding the win was simple: how many more would this extremely talented young squad go on to win with the old superpowers of Kilkenny and Tipperary written off after disappointing years?
The Davy Fitzgerald-managed side possessed a number of top class young prospects with David McInerny and Colm Galvin providing a defensive stability and an attacking platform. Up front, Conor McGrath continued to torment any defender unlucky enough to be given the task to mark him while Shane O’Donnell notched a hat-trick on his debut in the final, not bad for a teenager.
Another teenager, however, was the cream of the classy, youthful crop. 19-year-old Tony Kelly was deservedly named both Young Player of the Year and Player of the Year after a summer in which he was simply unstoppable from centre forward. The Ballyea man epitomised everything good about the adventurous Banner side that reinvented themselves in the qualifiers with the introduction of a sweeper.
The final quartet in the championship that consisted of champions Clare, finalists Cork alongside provincial champions Limerick and Dublin further emphasised the feeling that there was a changing of the guard in hurling circles. Kilkenny banished Tipperary in the qualifiers before becoming unstuck against Cork in the quarter-finals. Galway were beaten well on the same evening by the Banner as the revolutionaries began to gain the upper hand. Heading into 2014, Cody and his Cats were cast aside in people’s predictions, Clare would simply continue where they left off.
Fast forward four years to the winter of 2017 and the similarity between the situation facing us is eerily similar. Galway bridged a 29-year gap to bring Liam back west whilst defeating an up-and-coming Waterford team who had been beaten in two consecutive semi-finals by Cody. Add to that the resurgence of Cork that yielded a Munster title and the emergence of several highly-talented young players.
Davy Fitz wielded his magic once more to bring Wexford back into the reckoning, scoring a famous victory over Kilkenny in the Leinster Championship. Additionally, Limerick’s second Under-21 All-Ireland title in three years has thrust them back into the limelight.
Despite the fact that the All-Star team for 2017 hasn’t even been announced, the credentials of the perennial contenders, Tipperary and Kilkenny, are being quashed with the 2018 season approaching. Kilkenny, without an under-21 title since 2008, aren’t brimming with the class they once possessed. The likes of Henry Shefflin, Tommy Walsh and JJ Delaney have yet to be replaced. To lose three of the greatest hurlers of all time is a severe loss for any side. Yet, Cody, the undisputed greatest manager of all time, remains.
Messrs TJ Reid, Richie Hogan, Cillian Buckley and Michael Fennelly will represent the black and amber once more. Write them off at your peril because they are at their most dangerous when overlooked.
Tipperary, on the other hand, performed admirably this year. It took a brilliant Joe Canning point to shake them off in the semi-final as they gave the Tribesmen their toughest test in 2017. But the Premier county have become somewhat of afterthoughts after their inability to retain the crown they so impressively won in 2016.
The dismantling of Kilkenny in the 2016 final was seen as the moment that would kick-start a dynasty for the Munster county. This was not to be the case, but the core of the championship team remains and it has a vast amount of experience. A number of players possess multiple All Irelands. On their day, Tipp are arguably the best team in the country.
While we wait for the recommencement of inter-county action, Galway are favourites to repeat their 2017 feat on merit. Waterford and Cork are also being talked up as their most formidable challengers with Tipperary. Yet, history should teach us a lesson. The swashbuckling side of Clare that looked to take over have only beaten one tier one county (Limerick) in the previous four years while the apparently ‘waning’ Kilkenny have competed in three finals, winning two in the same period. Meanwhile, Tipperary have won one and lost a final.
There are plenty of teams that will challenge for honours next season with the introduction of a new championship format. Change is the new theme in the GAA with the football championship structure also going under the knife.
It all looks set that another new team will end their respective All-Ireland drought. However, come All-Ireland final day, don’t be surprised to see a pairing of Brian Cody and Micháel Ryan fighting it out on the sideline.
Jack Neville, Pundit Arena