In the 1988/89 English First Division, Arsenal’s ninth League success in 104 years of top flight football happened to deny Liverpool of their thirteenth success since 1964. The arrival of Bill Shankly at the tail end of 1959, followed by Messrs Paisley, Fagan and Dalglish had transformed Liverpool from a relatively successful English club – they had won five First Division titles – to a behemoth of domestic and European football.
Although Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool side managed to transcend the anguish of Michael Thomas’ last minute winner for Arsenal the previous May and capture the First Division title for the 18th time in 1990, they have never since been the beast they once were. Their tyrannical dominance on the English game served its term, but, their demise from the peak of the domestic game is now to enter its twenty-fourth season – just two seasons shy of equaling the amount of time in which the club induced most of its terror.
While their dominance transpired in years long before I was born, their status as also-rans and more often than not as sheer after-thoughts when it comes to contesting the Premier League has become an assured frame of mind. This is not sustained with any intentional disrespect to Liverpool and their vocalised past, more so it is just what we of the post-Liverpool years have come to expect. For those of us who have been fortunate enough to live through Ireland’s answer to such unprecedented domestic dominance – the era of Kilkenny’s hurlers – we may now come to realise how quickly such dominance can diminish in the mind of those who never witnessed it firsthand. Will Hurling enthusiasts and Kilkenny locals ultimately find themselves harking back to a time that remains vivid in their memory but a mere gathering of statistics, lists and YouTube clips for those who wish to embrace Hurling’s future? As Kilkenny face their watershed moment having exited the Championship earlier than the semi final for the first time since 1996, will they enter the dark ages of a Hurling wasteland or, reassert their vice grip on a Liam McCarthy that a Brian Cody led Kilkenny have come to know so very well?
It is not wholly fair to measure up Kilkenny’s upcoming challenges with those that Liverpool faced. A season that runs from August until the following May such as the Premier League does, with minimal breaks in-between poses a far greater physical and mental challenge than a Championship which can occasionally run from the middle of June until the beginning of September, with the potential of as little as four games in that spell. Naturally, Gaelic hurlers and footballers are not professional athletes and their challenges are relative to their year round commitments. However, I suspect it would not offend many right thinking hurling enthusiasts that the difficulty presented in winning a Premier League title is not completely equal to the possibility of Kilkenny winning another scattering of All-Irelands with what may not be players equal to the standards possessed during their dominant years. The real problem that Kilkenny are presented with is not whether they will win an All-Ireland in the years ahead, but, whether they can do it in the monumental fashion that the Kilkenny of Cody has allowed us to expect as usual.
On the basis of this year’s on-pitch performance Kilkenny are floundering. The distinct lack of the Shefflin factor has not helped. Injury and age have left last year’s Hurler of the Year scoreless in 2013. Regardless of the undisputable talent Kilkenny have in reserve, the sight of a deteriorating leader must surely have stunted confidence. Likewise – although I am certain the manager would refute it – the absence of Cody throughout the pre-Championship months may have left a gaping hole in the security continuity normally assures. However, life tends not to accommodate hurling, and the unfortunate physical situation of Brian Cody and Henry Shefflin – albeit not exactly like for like – can only shoulder some of the blame. The players who represented Kilkenny over their six-match 2013 Championship were ultimately left lacking. They were sloppy with their shooting, clumsy when faced with the sliotar, be it coming high or low, and struggled greatly with generating any kind of cohesion between players that normally appear to have the sliotar on a string. While pundits deemed Cork to be the team to dethrone Kilkenny, the truth is that the damage was done long before last Sunday – particularly at their inability to beat Dublin after two attempts.
As to where Kilkenny go from here, one probably should not doubt Cody when he assured us that this Kilkenny panel have an abundant of great talent still available. Whether they have another Henry Shefflin though will have to be seen. It is possible for teams to be successful without an individual with the talent of Shefflin’s in their ranks, but they would not be successful as Kilkenny were. If we were to take this year’s Champions League winners Bayern Munich, and hold them up against the dominant force of recent Champions Leagues Barcelona, although the prize is the same, few could say that witnessing Bayern’s performance last May was anywhere near as enthralling as any of Barcelona’s noteworthy European nights – begrudgingly see the Wembley final of 2011. In Messi, Barcelona had their Shefflin. Bayern had no such one great player, but they are Champions just the same. Whether Kilkenny will ever measure up to the standard they set themselves in the decade just gone is largely down to that which is ultimately unpredictable. A county like Kilkenny where hurling is #1 means they will never be short of great hurlers. However, to ever realise the domination that they came to regard as usual performances Kilkenny will need to hope that they, before anyone else, can find Hurling’s next superstar, that, and perhaps a few more years of the dual Kings Cody and Shefflin.