Shane Stapleton examines a Kilkenny side facing question marks like never before
“Give a thumbs up for Wexford, Nickey Brennan,” screamed a delighted Wexford woman to the former GAA president on Sunday.
Brennan had been watching the game from inside the press box at Nowlan Park, no doubt smarting at a Kilkenny defeat, but he obliged her with a smile.
A haymaker was to follow: “Ye were saying ye wanted us back, now let’s see how ye like it,” and off she went smiling from one ear to t’other.
Later on, once the post-match interviews had been recorded and transcribed, the press gang sat upstairs in the Nowlan Park offices trundling digits across their keyboards.
Cats chairman Ned Quinn was in the room, and a steward approached him, bemoaning the performance.
“We’re not dead yet,” Quinn said flatly, repeating his words to journalists after the encouraging draw with Tipp a few weeks previously.
For Kilkenny folk who have dined out on success now for the guts of two decades under Brian Cody, they find themselves in a contemptuously unfamiliar position.
Whereas once they climbed to the top and pulled the ladder up after them, now their knuckles are white trying to hang on.
So long infallible, the greatest manager of all time is now under scrutiny too. Eoin Larkin said this week that the “tactics on the line were non-existent”, and that about his own James Stephens clubman, after previously questioning the work-rate against Clare. This breaking of ranks from an ex-player was unheard of in the past.
That’s life for the average GAA county though. Think of Michael ‘Babs’ Keating cutting the backs off Tipperary players and management over the years, think Guy Sheerin driving the boot into Roscommon boss Kevin McStay. Questioning is par-round for most panels and managers.
Is Larkin right though, did Kilkenny go missing on the line? Cody made just a single substitution as Wexford tightened their grip all over the field, mirroring the All-Ireland final loss to Tipperary last September. Do you read that as a sedentary approach, or judge it as a lack of confidence in the cavalry?
Even go back to the 2015 All-Ireland against Galway, a game they took over in the second half, he only used two subs — the Power brothers — late on when it was over. He used the same in the 2014 semi-final — with Richie Power crucial against Limerick — and final replay wins over Tipp.
More often that not, his bench now houses the same bottoms for the majority of 70 minutes in big games. Gone are the days of decorated stars being sprung.
Kieran Joyce and Joey Holden, two men who have started and been victorious on the biggest days of all, no longer seem to hold their manager’s confidence. Pat Lyng, who impressed as a first-half blood sub against Dublin but was quiet when reappearing later that game, wasn’t given a chance against the Models.
That was telling on a day when Liam Blanchfield was the only Kilkenny forward to score from play in the second half, while TJ Reid was the only other to even attempt a shot during those 35 minutes.
Reid and Richie Hogan have accounted for 38% of the side’s scores from open play during the league, though 1-10 and 0-12 respectively is hardly shooting the lights out; four in five of Reid's scores coming via placed balls.
That’s been their issue overall, because almost half (48%) of all scores have come though placed balls from Reid and goalkeeper Eoin Murphy.
Without the latter continuing to position himself as the greatest netminder of all time, things could be worse. For the record, Murphy is being talked of in such terms because his saves, speed off the line, decision-making, and puckouts are all of the highest standards. Any other contender throughout history is second to him in one or more area. As for keepers before the ‘90s, a good look at All-Ireland Gold footage will show you they were largely an embarrassment.
Meanwhile his big players are getting their fingers stubbed trying to plug so many holes in the team. Or perhaps, they just aren’t playing well enough. Hogan has a niggling back injury, Padraig Walsh (brilliant otherwise) required an X-ray to his head a week before the league quarter-final, and they badly missed Conor Fogarty (hamstring).
Cody has nine weeks to get his side ready for championship and a likely rematch with Wexford. He doesn’t know when Michael Fennelly will be back, his Man of the Match from their last All-Ireland final win in 2015. On the plus side, he should have the likes of Ger Aylward and the developing talents of Richie Leahy and Conor O’Shea.
When you’re beaten all over the field, as they were against Wexford, it’s hard to be positive. As Babs once said of his own Tipp team after a league defeat to Galway in 2006: “Our fellas are dead only to wash them.”
“Not dead yet,” is the Kilkenny message, but Cody knows the hurling world is no longer under his thumb.