IT TOOK A while to get going, but the end to that All-Ireland final was truly something special.
Limerick did all the hurling up until the last 15 minutes or so, but Galway will consider themselves a little unlucky not to come away with a draw after roaring into life down the home straight.
If they had sent the tie to a replay, it would have been one of the great All-Ireland final robberies. They came agonisingly close to doing it.
Let’s backtrack a little before we get into the nuts and bolts of this game. In the weeks leading up to this final, John Kiely’s main concern would have been ensuring his players showed up on the biggest day of their careers.
All-Ireland finals at senior level are a different occasion than anything this young group would have experienced before. Right after the semi-final finished, he turned his attention to shielding his players from hype in the build-up to today. The performance they delivered indicates Kiely nailed that department.
Things were looking a little ropey for Limerick five minutes into the game with five wides probably a sign of their nerves. If they carried on like that, it could have been another one of those days for the Treaty in Croke Park, but that’s not how it transpired.
From a tactical point of view they did everything right and even though they were fluffing chances, their hurling looked far crisper.
Galway have put in two long years on the road – this was their ninth game of the summer. Sometimes you think you’re doing as much as you were the year previous and you’re convinced you have the same motivation levels but the second season is always so much harder.
Limerick were the fresher team and dominated the majority of the game. One aspect of their play I found very interesting was how their forwards retreated on James Skehill’s puck-outs and left the Tribe full-back line free. Skehill ended up going short with a lot of his restarts and Galway tried to run the ball out from the back.
The six Limerick forwards were up for the challenge and you could see it was something they really worked on. The first guy on the scene would stop the ball carrier and then two more forwards would flood in to dispossess the Galway defender. The Tribe corner-backs kept trying to take on their man and come out with the ball, but that risky ploy meant they were inevitably going to cough up possession on occasion.
They pulled out this tactic right from the off and it worked throughout the game. I was surprised Galway didn’t try to move it through the lines rather than running it from deep.
Graeme Mulcahy’s 16th-minute goal arrived at a stage when Galway were creeping back into the game. Galway could have been awarded a free out for Seamus Flanagan’s hefty challenge on Padraic Mannion, but when Kyle Hayes picked up possession he showed remarkable composure to play it across to Mulcahy.
Remember, this guy is just 20 and only in his second season of senior inter-county hurling. Mulcahy’s goal was a bit freakish and arrived after a couple of mistakes from Galway backs but Limerick deserved credit for how they worked it. It put them back in the driving seat during a half where only one Galway forward scored from play – Joseph Cooney.
David Burke and Padraic Mannion also hit the target from play but Micheal Donoghue would have been reasonably happy to go in four down at the break. Galway failed to get going in the opening 35 minutes and the deficit didn’t do justice to Limerick’s dominance.
We were spoiled with games in this championship but the first period was very stop-start and well below the standards we’d gotten used to. The main talking point at the interval was the amount of wides each side hit – Galway with nine and Limerick with 11.
Kiely wouldn’t have minded too much that it was a scrappy game. Galway were awarded a couple of questionable frees before half-time that reduced the gap from six to a much more manageable four.
The Hayes challenge on Canning was never a free and I initially thought James Owens stopped play due to a head injury on the Galway forward. The other soft one was when Cian Lynch tracked back to dispossess Conor Whelan.
The Munster outfit had another couple of wides to start the second period and it didn’t really spark for them until Tom Morrissey’s goal in the 54th minute. It epitomised Limerick’s work-rate, particularly the way the forwards hassled and harried their men.
Gearoid McInerney was coming out with the ball when Morrissey picked his pocket beautifully. He still had a lot of work to do and showed great skill to flick the ball up and finish one-handed into the net.
Limerick were firmly in the driving seat by now but they didn’t score again for 13 minutes as Galway cracked into gear. Canning kept them hanging onto Limerick’s coattails with four from play and a few frees, but goals were needed if they were to put doubts in the Limerick minds.
Shane Dowling touched the ball twice when he came in, but one of those was his brilliant finish into the net in the 67th minute. Kiely deserves credit for holding Dowling in reserve. The temptation was surely there to start him after he turned the game against Cork, but keeping him as an impact sub proved the right call.
Peter Casey replaced Flanagan, who made a huge contribution on the inside line alongside Aaron Gillane and Mulcahy. The movement from that trio was outstanding and they had the Galway full-back line in the horrors all day.
Gillane and Flanagan were constantly out in front and collecting the ball in the channels and they made the right decision when they collected the ball. When you’re half-back and your full-forwards are sprinting into space like that it makes your job a hell of a lot easier.
Mulcahy worked his socks off and fittingly landed the insurance point at the end. Flanagan had a great chance to wrap it up with a goal prior to Dowling’s finish, but it his effort was bravely saved by Skehill. When Dowling’s opportunity arrived, he showed his experience with a deft finish instead of blasting it at the goals.
When Whelan found the net with a fine catch and finish in the 71st minute, Galway kicked on and enjoyed their best spell in the game. It could have gone either way in those closing stages after Canning’s stunning goal from 21m free dragged them within touching distance. It had to be a pretty special strike to tuck that free into the top corner with five or six fellas on the line, but we’ve come to expect that quality from Canning.
The Portumna man had a very difficult chance to equalise near his own 45 at the death, but it proved just outside his range. When it dropped short and it was cleared, the referee sounded the long whistle and the title was Limerick’s.
Watching those guys celebrating on the field afterwards you only realise how young they are. It’s hard to beat young, fresh kids who’ve got nothing to fear.
It was frightening to see the composure they showed on the biggest day. When things weren’t going their way with all the wides they had, they showed belief to keep plugging away and kept trying to do the right things.
Nickie Quaid deserves a mention for his super save late on, even though he ended up touching the ball on the ground for the 21m free that Canning buried. As expected, Limerick’s bench had a major impact and outside of Dowling, Casey made an important block as Galway chased a late score.
Declan Hannon was a real leader from centre-back. When you go into an All-Ireland final marking Canning, you’re just hoping to keep his score down but Hannon broke forward for two massive points in the opening half. One thing I noticed from his speech before accepting the Liam MacCarthy was the amount of people he name-checked from Kiely’s backroom team.
They had something like 20 involved in the management team, including three or four strength and conditioning guys, a similar number of statisticians and a performance coach. It just shows the level of detail they put into every game. Every base was covered from Kiely’s point of view.
Limerick have raised the bar in those stakes and they must be on a par with most professional outfits. I can’t imagine Munster rugby would have much more than 20 or 25 involved in their backroom set-up.
That level of detail must have given the players huge confidence when they took to the field all season. When you’re looking to bridge a 45-year gap without the big prize, that’s the sort of forensic attention to detail required to get over the line.
In the end, it all came together and they won by a single point. It’s going to be a wild couple of weeks on Shannonside.
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