Galway hold their nerveSeptember 13, 2012 - 7:00am
CIARAN TIERNEY AT CROKE PARK
WHAT drama, what tension, what magnificent composure from star forward Joe Canning to land a difficult 45 metre free under such extreme pressure and bring the All-Ireland Hurling Final to a replay for the first time in over 50 years just as the three designated minutes of injury time were about to elapse at Croke Park on Sunday.
And what a wonderful learning curve this was for 12 of the Galway players, who had never experienced anything like it before, as they went toe-to-toe with the greatest team of all time amid the bedlam generated by a captivated audience of 81,932 enthralled spectators.
The team who were written off by virtually all the pundits ahead of two epic encounters with Kilkenny in the one hurling summer are still unbeaten, still standing in the championship going into the last Sunday in September after rescuing an unlikely, but fully deserved, last gasp equaliser.
It was deserved because they had been so magnificent in the first half, tearing into the Cats and dealing with the magnitude of the occasion; and because they refused to wilt despite losing their way in attack during an alarming third quarter in which Kilkenny, battling back after being five points down, had shown the class of true champions.
Twice in the closing period, it looked to be gone from the spirited young challengers. Who will forget that amazing diving save from Galway goalkeeper James Skehill to deny what looked a certain goal for Colin Fennelly with 59 minutes on the clock?
Henry Shefflin, the hurling legend who was chasing a record ninth All-Ireland medal on the field of play, had fed Fennelly with a neat little hand pass and Skehill showed stunning agility to dive and block the Kilkenny forward’s venomous, goal-bound shot.
An even more remarkable scene followed at the same goal eight minutes later when Skehill, under immense pressure, tripped Eoin Larkin after the Kilkenny attacker had finally managed to round the committed Kevin Hynes.
Skehill conceded a penalty, but he had prevented a certain goal. It was not just a penalty, but a moment for the ages, a strike that might have been spoken of in 50 or 100 years. And yet another moment of heartbreak for Galway, or so it seemed . . .
Up stepped Shefflin, knowing a goal would bury the Galway challenge and deliver that record ninth Celtic Cross; but he hit it high into the Davin Stand, taking the gamble that a one point deficit would put too much pressure on the inexperienced Tribesmen with just two minutes of normal time to go.
Both sides missed chances in the tension-filled minutes following that score. Canning and the immense Iarla Tannian hit wides while Shefflin, unbelievably, missed two at the other end in the most tense finish to a final in years.
That only made Canning’s achievement all the more remarkable when he calmly slotted his 45 metre free between the posts, while all around him were losing their heads, following the last-gasp foul on substitute Davy Glennon. Had a Galway team ever finished such a tight game with such composure, we wondered.
It felt like the kind of game Galway would normally lose in other years, especially as they were outscored 10-2 by the reigning champions between the 33rd and 55th minutes, but Anthony Cunningham and his mentors have instilled unbelievable mettle and self-belief into this supposedly ‘flaky’ group of players.
Cunningham epitomised that spirit himself when he refused to be intimidated by rival manager Brian Cody during a sideline disagreement in those intense closing minutes of the final.
For more, read this week's Connacht Tribune.