No priest required then. They didn’t press their noses against the wire mesh of a confessional, seeking final absolution. Kilkenny just unloaded themselves of loud, martyred sighs, opened their shoulders and hurled.
And, maybe, that’s their measure. Not so much what they win as how they do it.
Ordinarily, we see the Bob O’Keeffe taken home like it’s a nice cake bought at a church social. But this was different. This demanded a level of engagement Kilkenny normally reserve only for teams who get beneath their skin. Which tells you how far Dublin have travelled.
They’ve crossed continents in a day.
Better still, they have begun streamlining a pattern of pressure and selflessness that is fast becoming a city copyright. Their minors bullied Kilkenny in yesterday’s curtain-raiser by turning the ball into a smoking coal. Now read that line again and digest it. Kilkenny bullied, literally.
So the Cats were playing for something pretty fundamental in the big one. Already beaten in two finals by Anthony Daly’s troops this year, to lose a third would have been unthinkable. So they did what comes naturally to them. They took a short-cut through the funeral cortege.
It was brutal and simple and franked with a sense of authority not seen from them since last August’s filleting of Cork. They opened Dublin like an envelope, pouring through the gap like kids through an orchard fence. With 21 minutes gone, the lead was already stretched to eight.
Dublin were trying to swim from Alcatraz.
Daly watched his young team go under, knowing that — against some opponents — it can feel as if you’re trying to beat a ball off the sky. “I suppose we were expecting them to come out like that, but maybe you expect it too much,” he said later. “And it comes to you then.”
To be fair, for a team invited to hand in its pistols early, they declined. Just after Colin Fennelly’s 21st-minute goal, a score pointedly created by all of those marquee men who were absent for the league final — Tommy Walsh, Henry Shefflin, Michael Fennelly and Richie Power — Dublin chose to raise the heat.
And for 10 minutes or so, Kilkenny were asked to explore the very places their doubters reckoned they might no longer have a desire to visit.
Maybe King Henry was specifically targeted, maybe not. But when he squared up to Maurice O’Brien after the awarding of a Dublin free, Conal Keaney met him with a shoulder that tossed him to the ground like a rag doll. Seconds later, after another decision against Kilkenny, the great man wheeled away towards the Hogan sideline, exchanging ‘pleasantries’ with Dublin selector Ciaran Hetherton, whilst thumping the ground with his hurley for punctuation.
Then Barry Kelly awarded a free to Liam Rushe for what looked a blatant charge on Richie Power and Brian Cody could be seen throwing his hands to the sky in consternation. If there was a kink in Kilkenny’s resolve, we were hurtling towards the moment that would find it.
And maybe it came with David Herity’s miraculous re-adjustment to keep out a high delivery that seemed to take a deflection off Noel Hickey and throw the sliotar off in a desultory roll towards the Canal End goal-line. Herity had no business making the save but, somehow, he spooned it to safety with a millimetre to spare. Stunning.
And that was really the beginning and end of Dublin.
Kilkenny tagged on three injury-time points and lo and behold went to their tea leading by nine. Better still, Keaney had tired of Tommy Walsh’s aerial domination and drifted off in search of more hospitable climbs. The game was at halfway, the argument concluded.
“I was proud of the lads, they never threw in the towel,” said Daly. “You know ’twas our first real down day this year. In fairness to Kilkenny, they showed their class. You couldn’t take that away from them. You see the guys back, the likes of Walsh and Shefflin, and they looked desperately hungry.
“I suppose the league final teed them up a fair bit for us as well. But, look, we have no excuses. We knew there was a backlash coming and we thought we were ready for it.”
He has inspired them out of an ordinary existence but, sometimes, words become redundant. Dublin’s full-back line was, endlessly, under pressure yesterday because of the quality of shells being dropped from out the field. Henry, especially, was determined to lob bombs.
Then, in the 43rd minute, he drew Johnny McCaffrey’s attention to something in the stand and, when the Lucan man looked around again, Shefflin had turned into Casper. No one actually saw him make the journey from left wing to right corner, least of all anyone wearing blue. But TJ Reid’s handpass became a pantomime wail and, sure enough, an unmarked Henry materialised behind them. Goal.
From where he’s travelled this past season, that had to be some moment. “Last year, I suppose I was wondering would I ever be back again,” he said later. “But, look, we were ready for this challenge. We knew we had to put the foot down.”
And how they pressed it on Dublin’s jugular.
With roughly half an hour still to run, Dublin found themselves chasing goals and that’s not their natural setting. For all the miles travelled, they have yet to find the secret to creating space around an opposition goal. Until they do, they will have to out-hurl everyone they encounter. And that’s not really practical.
Bear in mind, Gary Maguire had saved brilliantly from Eoin Larkin before Paul Ryan’s goaled 20-metre free offered the illusion of a fight-back. It lasted about as long as an extended yawn, Paul Murphy’s delivery fetched out of the sky by Power and his offload giving Michael Rice a rudimentary finish.
“Murder to be honest,” sighed Daly. And it was.
Kilkenny saw out the remainder, essentially, as they chose. They tossed points over like swags of blossoms and maybe the most animated moment of Cody’s day came when Colin Fennelly raced out behind Liam Rushe and managed to hook an attempted clearance.
The Kilkenny boss bellowed with approval, slapping his hands as if killing a fly.
There were two minutes of normal time remaining, Kilkenny leading by 11. For the rest of hurling, this was a message received, loud and clear.
“I was certain that the mindset of the players was absolutely genuine,” he would tell us later. “The commitment to training was top-class, as ever. I had no idea if we were going to win the game, but I was certain we were going to perform.
“The early goals gave us a huge cushion in the sense that they obviously put doubt in the opposition heads.”
Kilkenny’s 13th Leinster title in 14 seasons then and an unprecedented seventh in a row. After all the questions about the strength of their pulse, the team is two wins away from a fifth All-Ireland in six seasons. Gulp.
Shefflin alluded after to the treacherous path facing any team sentenced to go through back doors now. “We’re just delighted to be there (an All-Ireland semi-final) because the qualifiers are hotting up and the quarter-finals are going to be a severe test,” he said.
With big men to return, Dublin will face that test as a straw nobody is too keen to pull. As Cody averred, “I’m absolutely certain they’re going to have a serious say in this year’s Championship.”
To do so, they will need goals, though. Find them and the possibilities multiply. “Look, we were having a good year and we don’t intend to finish it now,” said Daly. “We just have to learn. You get hard blows along the way and that was another one to take there today.”
Turns out the corpse was just asleep.
– Vincent Hogan