A new sense of belief that enabled them to stand firm in the face of adversity was key to Galway’s victory in front of a record crowd at Croke Park on Sunday. With Galway six clear at the break, the never-say Killenny came back to within a couple of scores, but never got closer as a determined Tribeswomen held on to claim the O’Duffy Cup for the third time.
Having seen the Intermediate team give up a seven-point interval lead to a dogged Westmeath side just an hour earlier, any fears that there would be a repeat in the senior match were repelled by the gutsy performance summed up a late monstrous free landed by goalkeeper Sarah Healy.
With Niamh Kilkenny majestic and Carrie Dolan showing a maturity from placed balls far beyond her years, Cathal Murray’s side condemned Kilkenny to their third final defeat on the trot — a devastating return which saw coach Ann Downey step down on Monday.
In a first half that could have yielded five or maybe six goals for the victors, they struck three times — finishing smart moves that saw them exploit acres of space created in the Kilkenny defence. Deceptive movement from Ailish O’Reilly saw her hit two crackers to the net.
Afterwards, she revealed that a fierce determination to prove the detractors wrong provided incalculable fuel as Galway illustrated once again their resolution to overcome whatever was thrown at them this year.
On numerous occasions in both their National League-winning campaign and the Championship, they have had to deal with setbacks and whereas in the past they might have struggled to do so, were unyielding this time.
The worst of all was the cruciate knee ligament injury suffered by brilliant defender Tara Kenny on Thursday night which forced a reshuffle but replacement Catherine Finnerty excelled and Caitriona Cormican was magnificent at centre-back on Kilkenny dangerwoman Anne Dalton.
That brought Catherine Finnerty into the fray and though Kenny was a resounding loss, her replacement would go on to be hugely influential.
Another notable point from the throw-in was the deployment of Caitriona Cormican, the player who gave up ladies football to concentrate on Camogie this year and was the side’s vice-captain, being deployed to mark the very dangerous Anne Dalton and she too would perform magnificently.
As you would have expected, Kilkenny threw everything at Galway in the second half, having trailed by seven points after Carrie Dolan’s point soon after the restart and they were back within two by the 50th minute.
But just as they had done when the sides met in the League Final at the end of March, Galway showed the mental strength that has epitomised them all season and pulled away once more to inflict a third consecutive September defeat on the Cats.
Michelle Quilty hit the first of eight points from a free in the first minute but the Galway crowd were lifted off their seats within seconds, O’Reilly hitting the roof of the net after Niamh Kilkenny’s stunning swivel of the hips had gotten her away.
Kilkenny followed with a fantastic point from 50m but the Noresiders gradually settled into the fray well, firing over six of the next eight points to move two clear.
Denise Gaule, Davina Tobin and Marian Walsh all split the posts from play while Quilty was unerring from placed balls as the increasingly-overworked Galway defence began to give away frees
Quilty and Carrie Dolan added a brace of points each before Cathal Murray’s charges hit the purple patch that ultimately proved decisive.
Finnerty had a point before Hanniffy slid a ground shot to the net in the 26th minute, after O’Reilly and Sarah Spellman had threatened.
O’Reilly did the business two minutes later for her second, Finnerty supplying Kilkenny, whose delivery made its way through to O’Reilly, who made no mistake with only Emma Kavanagh to beat.
Kavanagh denied O’Reilly a hat-trick just before the short whistle and Grace Walsh cleared Spellman’s follow-up out for a 45, which Dolan slotted to make it 3-7 to 0-10 at the change of ends.
Dolan made it seven early in the second half but Kilkenny gradually reeled their opponents in. Quilty, Aoife Doyle, Miriam Walsh, Anna Farrell, Denise Gaule and an unusually quiet Anne Dalton were among the points and it was a two-point affair with 10 minutes of regulation time, and four minutes of injury time remaining.
Ann Downey’s crew wouldn’t score again however, while Galway found another gear, finishing with four consecutive points, one from a free in the middle of the field by goalkeeper Sarah Healy and two from their own on-fire Kilkenny to end a six-year wait to get their hands on the O’Duffy Cup.
“There was a lot of talk about the Kilkenny forwards and I think every time we ran at them we looked dangerous” said Ailish O’Reilly.
“The pressure was on them and we went out and put everything out there for 60 minutes and I’ll appreciate this one for sure.“
2013 feels like a lifetime ago. I was vomiting all that morning and I flew off on Erasmus a few days later so I didn’t appreciate it enough. By God, am I going to enjoy this one.
“We beat them in the League Final and all the talk was they beat us in the first round of the Championship. What was the point of giving anything away then?
“We were definitely going to have to play them again and we were definitely going to have to play Cork.
The strategy was to play it down on the middle, thankfully we got on the breaking ball and it paid off.“
“Whatever Cathal has done this year with our team, there’s a mentality and a belief there that whatever is thrown at us, we were going to come fighting back even two times harder. We did it for Tara.
“Teeny (Cormican ) went back and you would barely even know that Anne Dalton was in the game. Teeny did well, we’d Shauna (Healy ), we’d Heather (Cooney ) and I don’t think our backs have gotten enough credit all year.
Again, a lot of talk was about Kilkenny and that suited us down to the ground. We showed what we’re capable of. We beat Cork and we beat Kilkenny so I think we deserve this one.“We were written off against Waterford. We didn’t play for the first 20 minutes but we weren’t allowed play and I don’t think Waterford have been given enough credit.
“We beat Cork by a point and again all the talk was about Kilkenny and that suited us down to the ground. And I think we’ve proved a lot of people wrong today.“We said ‘workrate, workrate, workrate’ no matter who we were playing and I believe 100 per cent that got us over the line.”
Kilkenny manager Ann Downey, who stepped down from her role on Monday afternoon, was magnanimous in defeat, praising Galway for their hunger but backing her troops to come back from a third devastating final defeat on the trot.
“The three goals really killed us and they all came from their puckouts that were landing on our centre-back and they won the breaking ball and from that their centre-field was doing the overlap. We just didn’t contain it.
“In fairness Galway hunted in packs today and we didn’t. At half-time we knew there was more in them. We made some positional changes, moved Claire Phelan back to full-back and moved Meighan (Farrell ) back and that helped the situation.
“We got within two points of them but never closer. They were never going to leave us in for a goal, it was impossible, they swarmed us and they were hungrier than us.“
“I’ve no idea why. Maybe it was that they haven’t been here for so long and we were here the last few years and maybe our players were so afraid of losing, they weren’t able to express themselves.
“I know they’ll be disappointed with their performances. Some of our younger girls played with freedom but maybe the end of the line is nearer for some of our older players from last year and that holds you back but I couldn’t ask any more of any of them, they’re trained so hard and given such commitment.
“It’s all about the day and didn’t perform on the day… we were used to running all year and obviously Galway had done their homework and stopped that overlap.
“In the first half our half-forwards should have pushed up more and helped our centre-field more with the overlap but it all goes down to the will to win and the hunger and they had it in spades today.
“They’ve been here so many times and come back and come back but it’ll be a long winter and we’ll reassess after it, sit down and see what everyone wants to do. They’ll go back to their clubs and we’ll be there for them and support them to try and get over today,” concluded Downey.
SCORERS FOR GALWAY: C Dolan 0-6(4fs, 2 45s ); A O’Reilly 2-0; N Kilkenny 0-4; N Hanniffy 1-0; N Coen, S Spellman, C Finnerty, Sarah Healy (f ) 0-1 each
SCORERS FOR KILKENNY: M Quilty 0-8(7fs ); M Walsh, D Gaule(1f ), A Dalton (1f ) 0-2 each; D Tobin, A Farrell, A Doyle 0-1 each
GALWAY: Sarah Healy, Shauna Healy, S Dervan, H Cooney, L Ryan, C Cormican, E Helebert, A Donohue, N Kilkenny, S Spellman, N Coen, C Finnerty, N Hanniffy, A O’Reillysubs: a M Starr for Coen (42 )
KILKENNY: E Kavanagh, C Dormer, C Foley, E Keane, K Doyle, C Phelan, G Walsh, M Farrell, D Tobin, A Farrell, K Power, A Dalton, M Quilty, M Walsh, D Gaule. Subs: A Doyle for Keane (29 ), D Morrissey for A Doyle (56 )
REFEREE: Ray Kelly (Kildare )