Galway hurling manager Anthony Cunningham ...the Athlone resident will be hoping a hectic season will come to a glorious end in Sunday's All-Ireland hurling final replay against Kilkenny.
Kieran Galvin looks forward to Sunday's All-Ireland hurling final replay as Galway's Athlone-based manager Anthony Cunningham tries to guide his charges to the Liam MacCarthy Cup.
On April 1 of this year, Anthony Cunningham said he didn't want to see the colours of black-and-amber for a long time to come.
It was no April Fools' Day joke from the resident of Curramore, Athlone. He had certainly seen enough of those colours over that weekend.
Just a day after his then Garrycastle charges suffered a heavy defeat from Crossmaglen Rangers in the All-Ireland club football final replay, the Kilkenny hurlers - who, like Crossmaglen, wear black and amber stripes - hammered his Galway side in a National League game. The final scoreline in the football final replay was 2-19 to 1-7. In the hurling clash 24 hours later, it was 3-26 to 0-10.
The Athlone-based Galway manager would not get his wish, however. Little did he know then that he would have to face Kilkenny three more times before the end of the season.
In the Leinster final last July, Galway recorded a sensational victory over the Cats (2-21 to 2-11). The lead Galway enjoyed in the early stages of that final was almost surreal, given this Kilkenny team's status as surely the greatest force in the history of hurling. It was a result which stunned the hurling world and really ignited the championship.
Kilkenny regrouped via an unfamiliar (for them) back door route and set up a rematch with Galway in the All-Ireland final. In a thrilling contest, the sides finished level after Joe Canning's late equaliser from a free. And so they must do battle again after the first All-Ireland senior hurling final draw since 1959.
Although hurling was the game in which Cunningham excelled as a player, he has enjoyed considerable success in Gaelic football. He won two Roscommon titles and a Connacht crown with St Brigid's - the club from the parish where he has lived for a number of years. He followed these achievements by winning three Westmeath championships and a Leinster title with Garrycastle.
Guiding a club football team and an inter-county hurling side to All-Ireland finals in the same year is a remarkable achievement in itself. But can Cunningham now guide his Galway side to ultimate glory?
Cunningham has used tactics more associated with football to good effect during Galway's campaign. Damien Hayes, a proven sniper at corner-forward, was deployed as a third midfielder in Galway's Leinster final victory and this tactic opened up space for others to make runs from deep.
Galway's tactics have made them defensively more secure but they lost their way in the attacking sense in the second half of the All-Ireland final. An isolated Joe Canning couldn't get on the ball and Galway's deliveries into the forward line were continually returned with interest by the Kilkenny defence.
Westmeath referee once again
With James McGrath being chosen to referee the replay, it's remarkable that a county of Westmeath's standing in hurling should supply two different referees for All-Ireland senior finals in the same year. Barry Kelly was widely praised for his superb handling of the drawn match and his fellow Westmeath man now has the onerous task of trying to control what is sure to be a highly charged occasion.
McGrath is well known locally, having taught in Athlone Community College for a number of years. The Turin native has always been very dedicated to Gaelic games, and he has earned the right to take charge of hurling's showpiece occasion, even though it has come earlier than many expected.
There are so many fascinating aspects to Sunday's game. The great Henry Shefflin is chasing a ninth All-Ireland medal on the field of play (something never achieved before), and Brian Cody is attempting to win the same number of titles as a manager. On the other hand, Galway are trying to bridge a 24-year gap since their last All-Ireland hurling triumph in 1988.
This writer had a small punt on Galway winning ahead of the drawn game but, as this bet was over 70 minutes, there will no payout even if Galway win at the second time of asking. However, I covered my loss and secured a tiny profit by backing Joe Canning at 5/1 to score the first goal. I very rarely back players to score the first goal in any sport, but I just had a hunch that Canning would raise a green flag that day.
While I think I'll keep my money in my pocket ahead of the replay, my hunch is that the first goalscorer will be a player in black and amber. Players like Richie Power, Eoin Larkin and Colin Fennelly were all fairly subdued by their normal standards in the drawn game. They will be out to prove a point on Sunday, and they are all proven goalscorers.
An interesting parallel can be drawn between the two instalments of the All-Ireland club football final and Sunday's hurling rematch. Garrycastle avoided conceding a goal in the drawn final against Crossmaglen. Doing so again always looked a very tall order and so it proved. Galway managed to keep their net intact on September 9; it will be a major challenge to again thwart the Cats in such a fashion.
Moreover, in both of their last two meetings, Galway got off to a good start and forced Kilkenny to chase the game. If Kilkenny go ahead early on, it will be a huge test of Galway's resolve.
During his time as St Brigid's manager, Cunningham helped to bring a number of trophies to the Athlone area. Can he now bring the most famous trophy in hurling, the Liam MacCarthy Cup, across the Shannon?
If Galway can find a way to improve the scoring threat of their forwards (thereby taking the pressure off Canning to some extent at least), without sacrificing their defensive solidity, they can do it. But those are fairly considerable caveats.