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When We Were (U-21) Kings

Update 21/9/16: I mention below how this piece, first written 13 years ago about events 11 years before, was entirely from memory. In the days before TG4 the only way to see it would have been to attend one of the showings of it at various clubs around the county. It was probably that copy of the game that has now been put on YouTube by Freddy Kelly:

I haven’t looked it from start to finish, but you know what? It looks like the memory was pretty good. The crowds were huge, much larger than at the recent win in Thurles, and just as dominated by Waterford supporters then as it was in 2016. Johnny Brenner won the last puckout of the drawn game and hammered it, if not over the bar, then at least back with interest. Paul Flynn did give an underarm fist pump upon scoring what was the last score rather than the second-last score – close enough. And I doubt I was the only one to miss Tony Browne receiving the trophy from Peter Quinn as the multitudes could barely raise the roof any further than they were doing before the presentation. On the debit side, no one was anywhere near Ray Barry for either of Offaly’s goals. A spot of wishful thinking there. Anyway, what a wonderful blast from the past. Let’s hope it survives any copyright claims to bring tears to Déise eyes of a certain age for years to come.

It’s always better to lose in the semi-final than the final, at least in the All-Ireland series. The ensuring cliché that it’s the other way round stems from the tedious folklore surrounding the English FA Cup, where losing the semi-final would be seen as depriving that team of the opportunity to stroll down Wembley Way – actually called Olympic Way, trivia fans, although recent developments (or lack thereof) have surely led it to be rechristened Not The Way. Going so close, only to have it taken away from you . . . you’re better off not getting so close.

We’d know all about that in Waterford, getting knocked out at the semi-final stage. Defeats in the All-Ireland semi-final to Kilkenny (’98 ) and Clare (’02) were heartbreaking, but then we had the perverse pleasure of watching each of them blow it at the last hurdle. A few hurdles have been vaulted in the last six years, such as reaching a final, not losing a final and – shock, horror! – winning a final. Reaching the All-Ireland final is still to come, and obviously that has to come before we can win it, but I’d happily forgo a couple of appearances in the final if we could be certain of winning one. Just one, oh Lord won’t you buy me an All-Ireland for Waterford!

There was a time though, and in my lifetime, when reaching AND WINNING finals wasn’t complete pie-in-the-sky for Waterford. That was at the start of the 1990’s, when the minor and U-21 hurlers showed their senior counterparts how it was done.

It’s important at this stage to trace my own personal development as a Waterford supporter, to give context to the importance of the events of the summer of 1992. When I first became aware of the importance of that team in white, the traumas of the Munster final massacres of 1982 and 1983 were still a gaping wound in the Waterford psyche. Our affairs plummeted as low as losing to the likes of Kildare and Roscommon, and the long, dark teatime of the soul that was Division Three. This was where I came in, shuffling along to Division Three matches against Armagh and county finals where I would convince myself that I was a Ballyduff Upper man for a day.

There were also a couple of county finals in football for my own club, Tramore, and even a victory in the Centenary year, but I do vigorously repent my interest in the big ball game, and a polite person would not draw attention to such a crime against good taste.

The only way was up from such a position, and up we went, charging through Division Three (a hiccup against Mayo and Joe McHenry excepted) and Division Two with the glee of an escaped prisoner desperate to put the Lubyanka as far behind as possible. There was a superb victory over Cork in the League quarter-finals, memorable on so many levels. Kevin Hennessy had allegedly been spotted on the beer the night before, dismissing all objections on the basis that “it’s only Waterford”. Four points down going into the last couple of minutes, the fairytale comeback came true and Waterford finished point-goal-point to snatch the win. Never mind that we were trounced by Galway in Port Laoise in the league semi-final, it was a fantastic day, not least for the satisfaction of having Ger Cunningham glancing in our direction to see where the stream of four letter words was coming from. There’s not much opportunity to swear at a legend of the game anymore, more’s the pity.

Next up was Limerick in my first Championship game, and here we must pause. Waterford dominated for fifty minutes, and the flame of hope was kindled and fuelled. But Limerick, League winners in ’84 and ’85, and Munster champions as recently as six years before, eventually overhauled us to win by four points. Waiting underneath the Old Stand after the game, this 10 year-old buachaill, tennis-racquet-thin, couldn’t hold back the tears of anguish, and an unconscious decision was made to give up on following the Waterford hurlers.

That’s what effectively happened. In the next five years I went to one (1) inter-county hurling match, a Division One relegation decider against Limerick. We lost that one too. Not only did I lose interest in going to games, I lost interest in the Waterford team in general, going so far as to almost (but not quite) adopt Cork, the land of my fathers, as my number one county team. Ostensibly, Waterford were still my county, but to this day I could name you the entire Cork team that won the All-Ireland in 1990, yet not tell you about one of the players on the Déise team trashed by Cork on the road to that victory. An unhappy memory now, but that’s the way it was.

Not following the hurling scene in the Gentle County, and jacking in playing the game at the grand old age of fourteen (something I’ll always regret) didn’t help matters, the progress of the county at under-age level passed silently by. A more concerted effort had been under way for a couple of years, exemplified by the presence of Colm Bonnar as a roving schools coach. But this was something you enjoyed in primary school, and not of relevance to a young fogey like myself, retiring from the battlefield in my early teens. Qualifying for the minor and U-21 Munster finals raised an eyebrow of interest, but it soon fell back again at the memory that we’d certainly lose, because we always lose, because we’re crap and that was the end of the matter.

The minor championship, it should be said, was something of value to a fifteen year old who had invested so much time in television sport. Only two hurling matches were shown live on television each year, the semi-final between Galway and the Leinster/Munster champions, and the All-Ireland itself. The minors provided the curtain raiser. Wow, just how cool would it be if Waterford were on the telly? Heck, that made us famous! It was a lovely thought, even if one rendered irrelevant by the inevitable hammering we were going to receive at the hands of Tipperary, right?

Wrong. The senior match between Cork and Limerick was obviously the main news, but amidst all flannel was the story that Waterford had held the might of Tipperary to a draw. As shocks go, this was like grabbing the main line out of a power station with your teeth. My brother came back from the game giddy with excitement, raving constantly about some young tyro called Paul Flynn. Even more dramatic was the manner of the draw. Waterford scored an equalising goal at the death, only for Tipp to come straight back and score another goal. Then Flynn saved the day with another goal at the death of death. Stirring stuff, even enough to rouse the now much more corpulent fifteen year-old out of his torpor.

All eyes were focussed on the replay twelve days after the game. So much so that when, nine days later, my other brother bounded into the living room with the news that we’d won the replay, I expressed bafflement as to how this was possible. Investigations revealed that we’d “only” won the U-21 Munster title. No danger that would be on telly, you see. How shallow would those sentiments prove over the passage of time. To begin with, the game was actually given extensive coverage on Sportsworld a few weeks later. Watching Mark O’Sullivan and a Waterford mentor collapsing in a heap after the final whistle was enough to warm the stoniest of cynical hearts. Plus the U-21’s were about to take on an even greater significance . . .

But first, the minors did the impossible, beating Tipperary in the replay amidst joyous scenes down in Cork. The cutely-monikered TWA Cup was hauled back through the county, filled with ‘lemonade’, used as a vinegar bottle in takeaways, left in ditches, kicked around like a football, dropped in the Colligan – all the usual abuse handed out to trophies that only other counties ever get up to. With only Antrim standing in the way of the teams, there were now two All-Ireland finals to look forward to.

The first Sunday in September, as the All-Ireland hurling final day was back then, and there we were, trading under the name Port Láirge. It seemed that fully a third of Hill 16 contained white-and-blue flags as all forms of swaps and blags were conducted to get as many people as possible in to see a Waterford team play in Croker. Sadly, contrary to popular belief, the crowd doesn’t win you games. Port Láirge sank to a sad defeat to Gaillimh, the Tribesman pulling away with ease in the end after a plucky first half performance by the Déise lads. It was disappointing, but memories of playing Armagh in Walsh Park meant that it wasn’t a waste of our time. We had had a good day out in Croke Park and not been humiliated, and even gotten on the telly. After everything that had occurred before, this truly was riches beyond our dreams.

At this stage, I still didn’t feel confident enough to go to games, or probably I didn’t feel bothered going to games. Following them on the radio was enough. It would certainly have been taking the mick to go to the All-Ireland final having not even known the name of any the players only a few weeks previous. The U-21 final was a different cauldron of crabs. Taking place in Kilkenny, it didn’t take much effort to get to the game and you only had to turn up on the day with cash in hand. Driving up to Kilkenny, it struck me that the reason I was going was merely to ‘be’ at Waterford in ‘an’ All-Ireland final. The notion of victory honestly never entered my head.

Half-time confirmed that view. Again, the crowd wasn’t going to win the game, as this time we outnumbered Offaly fans by about ten to one – they were used to going to Croke Park for their championship appearances – and Waterford were 0-9 to 0-4 down. Still, it was genuinely pleasant to be there, part of such a big crowd behaving itself impeccably when memories of English football hooliganism were still fresh in the memory.

All these isn’t-it-fun-to-mess-around-in-boats reveries were rudely torpedoed minutes into the second half. Sean Daly (in the days before I knew him as Growler) lashed in two goals and we were in front. What happened next had echoes in the not-too-distant past for me. Watching Armagh play Dublin in the football semi-final, my Portadown colleague confessed little interest in Gaelic football before the game, but was turned into a snarling fanatic when it looked like Armagh had a sniff of glory. The same happened to me in Nowlan Park that day. The scent of an All-Ireland and I was transformed into Jaws. I was effing and blinding like a sailor with Tourette’s syndrome, oblivious to my dad’s pleas to keep it down while in the earshot of our local TD. Johnny Brenner, Tom Fives, Tony Browne and Fergal Hartley were providing stirring support to the Daly roadshow as the Growler put us ahead again with yet another goal. Three goals and no points in the second half. The fates seemed to be on our side. Waterford even had the benefit of a myopic umpire, who signalled what looked like a perfectly good Offaly point wide. I would not have believed it had it not been unfolding in front of me, but there it was and the best part of 20,000 people were rubbing their eyes in disbelief.

Offaly were clearly playing the better hurling, but Waterford seemed capable of scoring a goal every time they got the ball. The question was, who would score last and leave no more time for the opposition to recover? It was that feeling which led me to think we had it won when super sub Paul Flynn – that man again – stitched it into the net to make it 4-4 to 0-14 in injury time. Surely they couldn’t get two points?

Actually yes, they could. Two points sailed over the bar, and there was still time for Brenner to hammer the ball over the bar after the whistle had gone to signal the draw. A replay. I would have settled for it at the start, but it was upsetting after such a gloriously unexpected triumph had presented itself mere moments before.

From that day on, I was back in the Déise fold. Going to matches on a regular basis would be a long way away, but few games missed my beady gaze whether they be tournament games or the Munster championship. The beast had been awoken, and it wasn’t going to slink back into the shadows just because there was precious little around to eat.

There was also the small matter of the replay. The pundits felt Waterford had missed the boat, but I was a lot more confident, rationalising that now that we had shown that we could do it, it didn’t take a great leap forward to do it for real. There wasn’t a feeling of certainty as we trudged along the ring road back to Nowlan Park, but there was a quiet confidence. Offaly had never given us anything to worry about before (mainly because we’d never played them) so why worry now?

The replay had the distinction, from a neutral’s point of view, of being even more bizarre and inscrutable and downright exciting than the drawn game – I also kept a rein on the four-letter words, but I digress. Waterford found how to score points, putting over six in the first half, while Offaly scored two goals to provide a clear counterpoint to the mood music of the previous day. The second goal was particularly frustrating, coming right at the stroke of half-time and looking from my perspective like it should have been disallowed for a foul on the goalie Ray Barry.

The second half began with Waterford quickly trimming the lead to a point, and then set off on the most incredible period of unrewarded sustained pressure ever seen on any sports field. It was like a soccer match where one team are so overwhelmed by the opposition that they decide to play for a draw/defend a slender lead. This kind of thing makes sense in association football, but if the opposition drop back in hurling you can just pop the ball over the bar. Waterford, however, seemed chronically incapable of doing even that, racking up a series of the most outrageous misses as they struggled to come to terms with the fact that Offaly were a beaten team. The equalising score had to come eventually, but what if eventually came after the final whistle?

Come it did though, from a free if memory serves me correct. (One should note that all this is from memory, a decade of memory. About the only thing I can be certain of after this length of time is that we won.) With that, it was as if an enormous, Wile E. Coyote-style, cartoon anvil was lifted off the team’s shoulders. The lead point flew over, then Paul Flynn put us two points clear. The crowd roared their approval, and Flynn turned to the terrace to give a low-slung clenched fist signal, a gesture which spurred us to decibel levels that made the earth tremble. There was less than one score in it, but there was no way that we were going to let this one slip. Over another point went, and the screams of joy among the Waterford faithful took on an almost hysterical tone as the burden of failure was lifted, if only for a brief period of time. The Faithful County’s faithful stole away, wry smiles on their faces that such dementia could attach itself to this result. They would have their day in Croker two years later, and they didn’t begrudge us this one now.

The final whistle blew and the rest is a blur. Somehow we got onto the field, which might have something to do with the stewards opening the gates, and said stewards were engulfed by a tsunami of delirious Déisigh. So tumultuous was the, er, tumult that I didn’t even see the presentation of the trophy, and can’t even vaguely remember anything that Tony Browne said in his victory speech. Some cynics might say that that’s down to Tony’s broad townie cadences, but while TB may not have a Gladstonian oratorical flourish, he proved later on in the evening that talking to a big crowd does not faze him. It’s more likely that a combination of the ear-shattering crowd noise and the shock that reverberated through my system proved more successful in sensory deprivation than a night in a flotation tank.

Back to the Crystal City then for the inevitable civic reception. It didn’t seem that inevitable actually – was it really an achievement worthy of over-the-top celebrations? – but the people spoke loud and clear. Sitting in the Garda barracks on Ballybricken Hill while my old man sorted out some paperwork, the air was rent with the sound of car horns being sounded on the Quay. The Cablevision text service was reduced to a simple message, congratulating the boys on their victory. Waterford 0-12 Offaly 2-3. The Cork and Kerry guards (98% of coppers in Waterford are from Cork or Kerry) were tempted to sneer, but one look at our faces told them that this was not an occasion to belittle another county’s achievement. It was wonderful, and not one scintilla of guilt that I was effectively a bandwagon jumper entered my head.

Why should I feel guilty? As my brother and I stood near the hastily assembled podium near the Bull Post in Ballybricken, we chuckled at all the times we had been forced to defend our Waterfordness. Born in the city, but with our parents living in Mooncoin at the time, we were constantly ribbed for being Kilkennymen! No amount of All-Irelands was worth that fate, and this moment seemed to be a reward for sticking by the Gentle County.

The reason for looking back on those days is to compare and contrast the reaction, of myself and others, to the victories of 1992 and 2002. Some might say we were slightly pathetic to get so wound up over such a piddling victory as the U-21 All-Ireland, but it meant so much to a county who had won nothing of any description at inter-county level since 1974. My cousin, a Kerryman, informed me that he had never seen the likes of the celebrations that erupted in the Kingdom when they won the Sam Maguire in 1997. The poor things, they had gone eleven years without winning the senior All-Ireland. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and seeing the joy on people’s faces was incredible, whether it was in ’92 or ’02. Heading into school the next morning, seeing the beam on the faces of those who had been there, lads wearing white-and-blue hats, the sporadic yells of “Come on the Déise” . . . not even the rantings of a sociopathic teacher, who terrorised those who didn’t go to the game, could take the gloss off our glory.

(Now that I think about it, he went very close to doing exactly that. What is it about the more deranged GAA types that they think they have the right to harangue those who don’t share their point of view? Lives have been lost trying to find an answer to that question.)

Neither Time nor maniacs has dimmed the warm glow of that day. Only three of the players – Fergal Hartley, Paul Flynn and Tony Browne – would be present on the day a decade later that we landed the Munster Cup. But how many of the younger generation, like Eoin Kelly or John Mullane, put in that little bit extra effort into their hurling skills in the hope of emulating/exceeding the achievements of the U-21 team? Besides, these days are enjoyable in themselves. Never mind the width, feel the quality. For one day we were the happiest GAA fans in all of Ireland. Thousands of Déisigh could never have claimed that before, but for that one day, we were Kings.

Waterford 0-21 Wexford 0-11

Waterford get back in the groove with Wexford dismissal – Irish Examiner
Waterford recover from Munster final misery to swat Wexford aside and set up Kilkenny clash – Irish Independent
Under-par Waterford get past Wexford to set up clash with Cats – Irish Times
Waterford cruise past Wexford to book All-Ireland SHC semi-final spot – The42.ie
Wasteful Deise men advance – HoganStand.com
Waterford cruise past Wexford at Semple Stadium – RTÉ

This seemed like one I was going to miss. With the Under-21 match looming and toddler-sitting duties coming thick and fast, it seemed like an indulgence too far. Yet Mrs d insisted that she would do the needful, which forced me to decide whether I wanted to go. Perversely my decision was swung by how awful Waterford had been a fortnight ago. There was a feeling of dread that no-one would turn up and we would be seriously outnumbered by the buoyant Wexicans, a group who have been pretty hardy trouts in my experience when it comes to turning up for a lost cause. Zipping into Thurles with the greatest of ease, it seemed my fears were being confirmed.

In the end, as so often before, I was wrong. I was planning to go up on the terrace anyway but to my immense surprise the stands were sold out, and to my immense relief there was no obvious difference between the crowds hailing from the south-eastern counties. One in the eye for those who suggest that Waterford fans are reluctant travellers, not that I care.

Okay, maybe I care a little bit.

It felt like a reward for my courage in coming to Thurles – no no, plaudits are quite unnecessary – that the people either side of me were Waterfordians, and fine company to boot. We all had a good old chuckle when the announcer in Thurles namechecked Austin Flynn playing at number six for Waterford, although the man to my left gently corrected my belief that Austin was no longer walking among us. “I saw him last week and he was hale and hearty”, he said. It was a rather sweet mistake by the announcer, and you wonder whether Austin Gleeson will ever be mentioned in the same company as the men of ’59 who, despite only winning one All-Ireland, are among the most revered in the game thanks to their swashbuckling style of play.

‘Swashbuckling’ is not a charge you are likely to ever level against Derek McGrath’s team though, and it was clear from the start there would be no cutting loose against a team that almost all recent evidence would suggest are not up to our level. Playing with a strong wind in the first half, one I notionally suggested would be worth eight points to us, Waterford got off to a steady but unspectacular start. Maurice Shanahan got the show on the road with a neat point from play when there was a slight sniff of a goal, Pauric Mahony knocked over a free and Michael Walsh scored his first point of the Championship a few minutes later. His first point in the last two Championships. Truly a red letter day. Lee Chin got one for Wexford, and it was evident that a) Wexford were going to deliver as much as possible into his lap, and b) Waterford were going to try and choke said delivery at all costs. This added an extra layer of tedium to the already stultifying tactics of both teams, and about the most excitement in the first quarter were a couple of Hawk Eye calls from Waterford, both denied, and when a Wexford free from close in was acrobatically blocked from going over the bar by Stephen O’Keeffe. The subsequent 65 drifted wide, and we gleefully wondered whether that might prove significant at the end.

Waterford had moved five points clear by that stage, another free from Mahony being sandwiched by another point from Walsh and one from Austin Gleeson. It shouldn’t have been too much to ask Waterford to move through the gears, but instead the second quarter wides started racking up in much the same manner as had happened against Tipperary. The scores that did come seemed almost accidental, with only a lovely effort from Jamie Barron going right over the black spot. It might be argued that Waterford’s strategy of stripping out the forward line obliged players to try from distance, but the ease with which the Waterford backs were winning the ball and the lack of challenge from their Wexford counterparts meant Waterford had plenty of time to pick out the right option. Instead we had a litany of Hail Marys, with Austin Gleeson (natch) indulging in the kind of efforts that will have Austin Flynn turning in his future grave. The scoreboard inched gradually forward and by half-time the lead was seven points. Slightly below par with what you might expect with that wind, but way below par on the basis of how much of the possession we had won. If Wexford were half as cocky as they were when we first met them in the Championship way back in 2003, there was going to be trouble ahead.

The key point about the whole game was made by the man to our left around the 30th minute after another frustrating wide. “No disrespect,” he said, priming us for a comment was going to be deeply disrespectful, “but they [Wexford] are crap”. This salient point, allied to the dire display of second quarter decision-making, helps to explain the vituperative reaction over on boards.ie to Waterford’s performance. They are crap and it was dire. The reaction is over the top though, not least because the second half performance wasn’t too bad. Having set themselves up for a fall, Waterford duly avoided the trip hazard with three points from play without reply from Shanahan (right from the throw-in), Austin Gleeson and Pauric Mahony in the first five minutes, thus pushing themselves past the par point and leaving Wexford needing a glut of birdies. Gleeson’s point in particular was a treat after a half where he had landed six wides, scarcely believable for a player of his talent. The man to our right repeatedly lamented our lack of goals in the first half, something with which I didn’t agree. The onus was on us keeping them from scoring goals,  and while there was one hairy moment early on in the second half when O’Keeffe inexplicably decided to cut across his own goal and was dispossessed, leaving us to exhale deeply when a Wexford forward flashed the follow-up wide, it was going to be a Herculean effort from them to find their way through this Tadhg de Búrca-marshalled defence.

In case you are thinking I am drinking the Kool-Aid for suggesting that Waterford’s second half performance wasn’t awful – how’s that for damning with faint praise? – you have to remember that Waterford would win the second half against a strong wind and despite playing into Wexford’s hands for a horrible ten-minute period. Having gone ten points clear Waterford proceeded to persist with puckouts down their right where Wexford were in the ascendancy. A splendid point from Liam Ryan starting out deep in his own half gave them a gap into which they could hope to drive a wedge. They slowly did so, raising the decibel level from their fans, and were aided by a ‘point’ which looked like a wide to me but was inexplicably not referred to Hawk Eye. Does that only work for wides and not points? Anyway, the problem for them was that it was happening way too slowly. They were not aided by a long period, at least three minutes, which ended with Eoin Moore being taken off after a nasty collision. The gap had been trimmed to five but they couldn’t be sure how much of that lost time would be added on at the end and when Brian O’Halloran, on as a sub and stymieing their efforts down our right, scored a fantastic solo effort the need for them to get a green flag became increasingly plain. Jake Dillon also weighed in with a score and (whisper it) McGrath now felt confident enough to haul Shane Bennett ashore with the gap at a mere seven points. I was still fretting about the possibility of a goal, but it’s unlikely any neutral was anticipating a rollicking finish.

This would be where I normally say we squeezed the life out of the game, but that implies there was much life to begin with. Wexford had a couple of long-range efforts for goals from frees which were efficiently snuffed out, and a couple of Mahony frees and another point from play for O’Halloran stretched the lead out to a healthy 11. They managed to get the gap down to ten by the end but had it gone on longer, and the additional five minutes was the very least it should have been, Waterford would have stretched their lead further despite being against the wind. It’s entirely possible that the wind was a buffer against the more adrenaline-fuelled errors in the first half, although it didn’t work out that way against Tipp and it’s not a strategy for the long run. The game duly petered out and we had earned the right to have yet another crack at the Cats in the semi-final.

That last line is a deliberate attempt to be downbeat after my usual Panglossian meanderings. 5-31 and all that. This was not a good performance. We had the boot to their throat in that second quarter and failed to apply it. Still, what would have represented a good margin of victory? Ten points would been eagerly taken before the game, and the way the game panned out it was still only at the bottom of what should have happened rather than being a hatful of points short of respectability. The worry is whether any lessons have been learned from it. There will be at least one change for Kilkenny. It’s hard to see how Darragh Fives can go off inside the first 20 minutes and recover the necessary fitness, so Conor Gleeson is sure to start. Other than that though, is there any sign that Derek McGrath and his backroom team are willing to give new players the chance to make their mark? Brian O’Halloran would surely be entitled to go into meltdown if he misses out. Michael Walsh’s brace in this game only shows how little impact he makes on the scoreboard the rest of the time. Is his position truly bulletproof? We’ve been on the road of The System for two years now and it is reasonable to question whether it is a dead end. Eddie Brennan is surely wrong about everything. Sorry, Eddie Brennan is surely wrong that you will never win an All-Ireland playing it. No team has been less inclined to ‘play off instinct’ than Kilkenny and it doesn’t seem to have done them any harm. There has to be some flexibility though. If you are going to have a system, it has to acknowledge that one size is not going to fit all. The broadsword worked fine in this case. The rapier would be nice when the occasion demanded it.

As we look forward to the Under-21’s playing host to Tipperary in the Munster final on Wednesday, let’s end with a cheerful thought. If Wexford were bad, how must they be feeling right now down Leeside?

Waterford 0-13 (13) Tipperary 5-19 (34) – Giveitfong’s view

(originally posted on boards.ie)

Waterford’s heavy defeat in the Munster Final came as quite a shock to Waterford’s dumbfounded supporters. The Waterford team which lost by a similar margin in the 2011 final was a shambles of a selection, and the team knew it going out on the field. This year’s team had earned a well-deserved reputation over the last two years as a highly-competitive and skillful outfit with a massive work rate and fighting spirit.

The rubbish spewed out in the aftermath of the game from a wide range of so-called “pundits” says more about their knowledge of hurling than it does about the Waterford team. Clearly last week’s outcome was freakish and, I believe, very unlikely to happen again. At the same time, something obviously went wrong and we need to know what it was.

While playing nowhere near their potential, Waterford were clearly the better team in the first half during which they had 19 shots at goal compared to 12 for Tipperary. However, while their shooting early on was good, their failure to score between the 14th and 35th minute really killed them. During this period they had ten bad misses – three in the 19th minute alone. Had they converted even half of these and not conceded a very soft goal they would have been six points up at half time, which would have given them something to fight for and put some pressure on Tipperary.

In the second half, Tipperary had a simple tactic – play long ball into the Waterford goal area and hope to get enough good ball from this to get a winning score. They bunched four or five forwards in the D outside the large Waterford square and as the ball arrived one forward went up for the ball and the others fanned out hoping for a break. This tactic worked well beyond their expectations due to a combination of good play on their part, poor defending by Waterford (especially bunching and poor match-ups in challenging for incoming ball), and good luck. For example, for their fifth goal, the incoming ball bounced sideways off somebody’s helmet straight into the path of Seamus Callanan who duly finished to the net.

Waterford actually won a lot of ball in the second half. Despite playing into the strong wind and being forced to hit long puckouts due to the Tipperary full forwards pushing up on the Waterford full backs, Waterford won half of their own long puckouts. However, their use of the ball was very poor, either playing it in to double-marked forwards or giving the ball away altogether.

Tipperary were up for a battle in what were very difficult conditions, and Waterford needed to be prepared to at least match this. However, compared with their normal level of performance, Waterford were very flat, lacking in drive and focus. At half time on the Sunday Game, Ger Loughnane remarked that Waterford were “mentally slow”. They were also physically inferior on the day. I counted 13 cases of Waterford players losing possession under pressure (i.e. turnovers) compared with just one for Tipperary. I also counted 19 cases of Waterford giving the ball away to unmarked Tipperary players, either due to playing the ball under pressure or poor shot selection.

There are a lot of stories going around about the Waterford panel being subjected to a very demanding programme of preparation for the Munster Final. I have heard of six training sessions in the week before the week of the Final, of workouts in Colligan Wood and of players waking up extremely tired facing into the day’s work. If these stories are true it raises serious questions about the team’s management. This is the kind of work you do in February and March, with the focus on developing explosive force in the summer months.

This would certainly provide an explanation for Waterford’s flat performance last week. It is also possible that, with most media pundits predicting a Waterford win, and with their own supporters more confident than I have ever seen them before, the team may have gone into the game in more relaxed mood than was warranted.

Of course, there is no guarantee that if Waterford had gone into the game really “up for it”, they would have prevailed against a Tipperary outfit which brought massive focus, determination and physicality to bear in addition to their high skill levels. One wonders in particular if Waterford need to be more flexible in terms of adapting to prevailing physical conditions. The wet conditions alone called for a more direct style of play, all the more so with the very strong wind at their back in the first half. With Maurice Shanahan at full forward and Patrick Curran and Shane Bennett on either side of him, who knows what would have happened if Waterford had adopted the tactics which Tipperary employed in the second half.

In the longer run, questions have to asked about the over-defensive nature of Waterford’s playing formation. This is more about the tactic of flooding midfield and leaving very few forwards up front than it is about using a sweeper (a lot of so-called pundits are unable to make this distinction). On the Sunday Game, both Ger Loughnane and Henry Shefflin were critical of this aspect of the Waterford setup, with Shefflin insisting that you need to be more courageous in order to win championships. Derek McGrath has pointed to Waterford’s good scoring rate over the last two years, but there is evidence that this doesn’t work against the better teams. Waterford only scored 16 points in last year’s Munster Final and only 18 against Kilkenny in the All-Ireland Semi-final.

I am inclined to see Derek McGrath’s approach as very similar to that of Jack Charlton when he was in charge of the Irish soccer team. Charlton’s strategy was based on stopping the opposition from scoring, and in this he was very successful. However, when it comes to World Cup and Euro finals, you need more than this. Charlon had an exceptional group of talented players available to him, and I always thought that he could have made better use of them.

Charlton, of course, played for Leeds, a team that was very good at winning leagues but hopeless at winning cups. They ground out their weekly away draws and home wins, but when it came to the bit of magic needed when games had to be won, they were found wanting.
I see a lot of parallels with the current Waterford setup. Waterford currently have upcoming strike forwards with great potential in Patrick Curran and the two Bennetts. Yet, just as Jack Charlton had John Aldridge wearing his feet to stumps (his own words) chasing long balls into the corners, last year Derek McGrath had Stephen Bennett operating far from goal playing a poorly-defined and thankless role. Similarly, Shane Bennett is wandering around the field hoping the ball will come his way.

We all know what Patrick Curran and Stephen Bennett are capable of close to goal, and we saw further evidence of it last Wednesday in Walsh Park. I have no problem with Waterford continuing to operate a sweeper. Most counties do it and in Tadhg de Búrca we have the best in the business. But I think we should plant Stephen Bennett and Patrick Curran close to goal and concentrate on delivering good early ball into them. In three plays they could do more damage than six players spending an hour fighting for ruck ball in the midfield area.

On the basis of recent games I am also coming around to the idea of locating Austin Gleeson at centre back. I don’t think the current practice of moving him around makes adequate use of his prodigious talent. I’m not normally a fan of Ger Loughnane, but on that Sunday Game programme he spoke a lot of sense. Of Austin Gleeson he said “he doesn’t know where he is playing and what he is doing.” I accept that the Clare Under-21 team are not the best measuring rod, but Gleeson looked very comfortable and imperious in a fixed half back position last Wednesday night. We need to get him to focus more on delivering early ball to the full forwards rather than running with it, but with Tadhg de Búrca filling in behind him, I would give him his head.

Finally, in relation to de Búrca, a writer in one of the Sunday papers said that a key factor in Tipperary’s win in the Munster Final is that they put men in on de Búrca, thereby stifling him. I have watched a recording of the game several times. De Búrca got possession a lot more than any other player, and I did not note even one occasion where he was stopped, dispossessed or blocked by his markers, while his use of the ball was frequently very good. He was not as good under the high ball as he normally is, but he was still easily Waterford’s best player on the day.

A long time in politics

Back in 2000 we all went to O’Moore Park to see Waterford take on Laois in the National League. We were undefeated up that the point while Laois, If memory serves me correct, had not won a match themselves. This was reflected in the crowd as Waterford fans outnumbered the Laois fans by about ten-to-one. What was probably more impactful on the attendance was the Laois Under-21 footballers playing Meath the same day. They lost. It was not a good day for them, although it was as good as our year got as we lost the next day out against Tipp, flopped badly in the National League semi-final to Galway, then went out with a whimper in the Munster championship.

You could understand the eagerness to flock to the Under-21 banner, what with the All-Ireland Minor champions of 1996 and 1997 coming of age. Things are not quite as skewed in Waterford, but the result last weekend was an almighty wake-up call regarding our progress. I don’t feel silly for thinking we were heading towards the ultimate glory in the next few years, or even this year. If we carried on in the manner we were going, it was inevitable. Alas, the beating we took in Limerick is a huge setback. Even if one assumes that Waterford are a lot better than that, and we should still be favourites for the next game against Wexford, Kilkenny looks like a mountain we are still not equipped to climb. Then there is the small matter of Tipperary. I had assumed, and this is the part that makes me feel silly, that they had not made the progress we had made in the last 12 months. Talk about making an ass out of u and me. Okay, just me then. They’ve clearly bulked up a lot since Galway took them out in 2015 and they will be bracing themselves for a collision with Kilkenny on the first Sunday in September.

That was the reality into which we faced on Monday morning, but in 60 wonderful minutes on Wednesday the Under-21’s shaped a new reality. I’m sure there have been occasions on the past where I have cheered for Tipperary – all of them probably against Kilkenny – but never with such gusto as I did on Thursday. Limerick have a bit of a hex over us at underage, with four straight wins at Minor level, and we could do without talk of them getting vengeance for the controversial Hawk Eye incident that directly contributed to them missing out on having another go at us in the 2013 All-Ireland final. All of this pales into insignificance though at the prospect of an evening of hoopla up at the old Sports Field.

This has the potential to be the biggest Waterford game ever staged in Walsh Park. Dungarvan has a storied history with three All-Ireland hurling finals staged there in the early 20th century. (I think it’s telling that when coming up with a convenient neutral venue for Cork to play Kilkenny and London in those three finals, Waterford city seems not to have been taken into account. A garrison town thing? But I digress . . . ) No Senior Munster final has ever been played in the city, and while there have been eight All-Ireland Under-21 finals played there, it’s only natural that none of them have involved Waterford, and it wasn’t until the mid-00’s that all Under-21 matches were played on a home-and-away basis. The first Munster Under-21 final was played in Walsh Park and the 23-point trimming we took to Tipperary was evidence of how the apparatus that had kept Waterford a force to be reckoned with in the previous quarter-century was beginning to fall apart – beating Galway in the semi-final was practically a bye in those days. We played Cork in the final in 2007 and got beaten out the gate. 2009 gave a glimpse of what might have been in Fraher against Clare. They won a thriller and went on to dominate the grade ever since. Could this be our time? Scramble for tickets, traffic jams, packed venue, crowd dominated by Waterford fans, a team in their prime, a shot at a little vengeance of our own . . . it’s going to be epic.

Waterford 3-23 (32) Clare 1-11 (14) – Under-21

Boost for Waterford hurling as U21 side storm into Munster final with 18-point win over Clare – The42.ie
Bennett blast for Banner as U-21s lift Déise spirits – Irish Independent
Waterford U21s blow Clare away – Irish Examiner
Stephen Bennett leads second-half blitz as Waterford put Clare to sword – Irish Times
Devastating Deise demolish Banner – HoganStand.com
Waterford trounce Clare to reach Munster Under-21 final- RTÉ

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. And, on occasion, the rhymes are a ripoff of the original. So it proved for the Waterford Under-21’s as, three years on from crushing the Clare Minors in the notorious free game in Dungarvan, they did the same to them in front of over 4,000 paying punters in Walsh Park. It struck me as I started this that a lot of those Clare players will have donned the county jersey for the last time. They won’t be sorry to see the back of our jersey – and the back of it is all they saw for much of this game.

I’m in a gleefully vindictive mood. If we only learned one thing from last Sunday, and if it took until last Sunday to learn this lesson then you must have spent the last half-century in Alpha Centauri, it would be that you have to enjoy these moments. In the build-up to the game I managed to work myself into a right state at the failures at this level over the last decade. In the long run Cork and Tipperary will always lord it over the rest of us and you have to make hay when they are shrouded by cloud, so for Limerick and Clare to win the last five Munster titles without even an appearance in the final from us is a dispiriting thought – and it’s not as if spirits were that buoyant to begin with. The class of 2009 came and went without making an impact on this competition. Could the class of 2013 do any better? If not, it would be clear that we were doing something fundamentally wrong.

The early signs were ominous. Having deliberately decided to sit right down at the far end of the stand so there would be plenty of room, a Clare lad duly plonked himself a few rows in front of me and proceeded to greet every score with at least 15 seal-like claps, even tap-overs from frees. Yes, I was counting. Had I not suffered enough on Sunday? Events on the field were not any better as Clare looked that bit sharper than Waterford. It seemed like we were first to every ball but they were cleaning up the dirty stuff and their goal was deeply alarming, going in after three attempts by Waterford to get the ball away. They were knocking over points around Waterford defenders and to slip 1-4 to 0-1 down inside the first ten minutes was enough to bring to mind all manner of dark thoughts. What the hell were we doing to players between 18 and 21? Stuffing them full of blaas?

A couple of frees from Patrick Curran stemmed the tide and there was one brilliant score from Mickey Kearney where Waterford worked it through the middle allowing him to ram it through the posts, but the ease with which Clare responded to that, a simple sashay up the left from the puckout without a speck of ash touching one of their players, was galling in the extreme. Six points up after 20 minutes, if Clare pushed on they could be out of sight by half-time.

They didn’t push on though and, in retrospect, had they found themselves in the same position one hundred times against the same team, they would have done well to win once. It was a remarkably open game and the Clare forwards had the edge up to that point on their Waterford opposite numbers, but even a small shift in a few battles saw Waterford get on top. Yet another ridiculously precocious score from a sideline ball by Austin Gleeson (see above) contributed to the Waterford fightback and while a chance of a goal was spurned by Patrick Curran it ended up in another point and showed that Clare were going backwards. By half-time the gap was down to two and you thought that with the wind to come they just had to be able to close this one out. If they couldn’t you’d be wondering what the hell we were doing to players between 18 and 21 etc.

Having spent half-time enjoying the sight of so many girls and boys (and a few adults) engaging in the simple thrill of playing on the pitch graced by their heroes . . . I’m laying it on thick here, but sod it. It would be all of 20 seconds before Waterford had killed the match stone dead, Stephen Bennett rattling the ball home after Waterford won the ball straight from the throw-in. Two points followed immediately from each puckout and even the world’s greatest fatalist here was contemplating going down and doing an Alan Pardew in front of Mr Seal. A few people have wryly wondered whether Ger Loughnane would question Waterford’s moral fibre after the Tipp game having been so disparaging of Galway’s far less apocalyptic implosion against Kilkenny. He would certainly have plenty of cause to be obnoxious towards his own county men here if he were so inclined as Waterford racked up score after score with barely any intervention. Stephen Bennett added a second goal after a mix-up in the Clare defence and another green flag soon followed from Colm Roche.

The bottom line is that the eventual 18-point victory completely flattered Clare. The last ten minutes it was Waterford who stepped off the gas, as if just to give the backs a bit of game time, with Jordan Henley dealing competently with a series of goalward efforts. None of it was Elastigirl stuff as the efforts were of the Hail Mary variety but it would have been annoying had one of them managed to slip by. I had a mutter or two along the lines that a 22-point win would be nice . . . man, I really am leaving myself some hostages to fortune here. Tipperary and Limerick will be waiting in the wings, both confident that they defeated the 2013 Minors in the course of that momentous season. It’s important though to tell posterity how fantastic this was. You know all the guff about teams being burdened down by expectations? Here you had a big crowd yearning for some redemption after the weekend from those who lifted us all up back then, and they got it in spades. There will be plenty of mournful moments to come, so let’s revel in the joyous ones while we can.

Waterford 0-13 (13) Tipperary 5-19 (34)

Tipperary add to Munster haul after crushing Déise – RTÉ
Five star! Tipperary’s goals see them storm to Munster title with 21-point win over Waterford – The42.ie
Proud Premier wallop Waterford – HoganStand.com
John McGrath the executioner as Tipperary bombard dismal Waterford – Irish Examiner
Gaelic Grounds massacre – Tipperary ease to 21 point win – Irish Times
Tipp torrents wash Deise hopes away – Irish Independent

Waterford v Tipperary 10 July 2016

I can’t say I wasn’t warned. Speaking to an ITK Tipperary man the Thursday before the game, he said two things: Seamus Callinan would be fit, and Tipp would be gunning for goals at the expense of everything else. Good luck with that, I thought. This was Tipp’s grand plan, attacking a defence that had conceded three goals in five Championship matches under Derek McGrath? With the addition of Shane Bennett and Patrick Curran to our attack from last year, I was now feeling very confident, confidence that was not dissipated when Curran pointed within 20 second of the start.

A lot had happened to get to this place. We had travelled to Limerick via a circuitous route involving Cahir, Mitchelstown and Ballyneety. Travelling through the latter I had to suppress invocations of Patrick Sarsfield. After all, the good guys lost the Williamite wars. It was a route that made a lot of sense as we zipped into Limerick city centre, although the arrival in Limerick city centre suggested this wasn’t going to be a remake of a Cecil B DeMille epic. Reports from earlier on in the week said the crowd would be well down on last year and I felt a rising dread as we approaching the Gaelic Grounds, a combination of the foul weather which matched all of Frank McCourt’s most feverish imaginings and the possibility that we would be severely outnumbered. I had heard stories of people who refused point blank to go to Limerick on the principle that they wouldn’t go to Limerick. Were we about to be humiliated by such nonsense?

Thankfully this didn’t look to be the case as there no visible or audible differences between the respective crowds. The feeling of dread didn’t dissipate until Curran’s score, and even then I wondered what the hell I was doing here. The last time I had been at a match in such evil conditions had been in Dungarvan when I was only an hour away from home. Once you factored in walking back tgo the city centre it would be four hours to get home from here, if we were lucky. The tens of thousands of people who had stayed away, for whatever reason, had been the sensible ones.

Eventually the feeling subsided – the dread perversely co-existed with confidence of victory – and after the first quarter everything seemed to be going smoothly, with one notable exception. Two points from sideline balls from Austin Gleeson certainly lifted the spirits and he was making a splendid nuisance of himself in the full-forward line. Tadgh de Búrca was hurling oceans of ball, as is his wont, and the scoreboard was kept ticking over thanks to a few frees, at least one of which was ridiculously soft. Keeping up a rate of a point every two minutes would do just fine, especially if the goals could be kept out. But that’s your problem right there. In the middle of all that we could see Tipp’s first foray at goal as evidence in favour of my ITK contact’s hypothesis, going straight for the jugular from which Stephen O’Keeffe pulled off a routine save. Alas, it looked a bit too routine as he spooned the ball into the air and John McGrath was on hand to put the ball in the net.

Okay, no need to panic. Waterford had a goal chance not long after but Curran (I think it was) would have needed a pooper scooper to have been able to pick the ball up while running towards goal and his attempts to bring the ball nearer the target with his feet were eventually shepherded out wide. We were soon back in front anyway, and that was as good as it got. We began to spurn some routine chances, with Gleeson in particular guilty of a rash turn-and-strike when he had time and space to adjust the radar. At some point he had moved back out the field and any threat of a goal from Waterford went with him. Tipp did hit a few poor wides in the first few minutes but were being far more economical with their chances. Not that this would be difficult as the minutes racked up without a single white flag for Waterford. There was one incredibly lucky escape when a short puck-out went straight to a Tipp man and (natch) they went for goal. O’Keeffe managed to do his bit but the defence couldn’t clear the danger and it took a couple of backs to clear it off the line, and even then we had to rely on a poor wide to ensure no damage had been done. This was looking like it was going to be a dour, low-scoring affair so it was possible it was going to be a pivotal moment.

That was the hope anyway. We play a possession game and work the ball up the field at the best of times so maybe that would work in the second half. Mahony had missed a couple of frees before finally notching one just before half-time and you clung to the notion that that had stopped the rot. During the break the Primary Games were on and a fingernail was lost looking at the Tipperary chiselers raining (pun unintended) shot after shot down on the lamentably exposed Waterford goalkeeper – although it should be noted that the goalkeeper at the other end was a ringer if ever there was one, towering over everyone else like LeBron James.

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. Some will look back at what unfolded and see parallels with the 2011 Munster final, and the margin of victory would certainly support that. Standing there on Sunday, what came to mind was the 1998 Munster final replay. This had none of the (ahem) poison of that day, but the manner in which Waterford set up the circumstances that led to total collapse had far more in common with the 1998 final than the 2011 edition. Having failed to make a strong wind count in vile, energy-sapping conditions, Waterford were going to have to show iron resolve. Instead they fell victim to a goal of almost comical simplicity as John McGrath was able to run through the middle and kick the ball to the net. A few minutes later a long ball was pounced upon by the same man and he had players rushing in from all sides with Michael Breen being the one to apply the finishing touch. Game over and still a good 20 minutes to go.

Man, how lonely it was to be in the Gaelic Grounds now. Literally so, as people began to stream towards the exits. It’s not nice, and we were determined to stay to the bitter end, but it was miserable enough up there without events on the pitch making it more so. It was training ground stuff for Tipp, right down to their fourth goal which came from a penalty from McGrath that had an experimental feel to it, opting for placement rather than power. It went in anyway via a valiant effort to save it from O’Keeffe, and there was no place in the world more lonely than his spot lying prostrate on the ground as the Tipp fans cheered. Or maybe it was Pauric Mahony’s spot as he sent a few more frees, whose only function was to put a slightly less grisly gloss on the scoreboard, wide of the target as the Tipp fans cheered.

Players went and substitutes came, the most consequential of them being the departure of Austin Gleeson. Saving him for the Under-21’s on Wednesday night? It would be nice to think that they were thinking that far ahead. The thoughts in the present were to avoid the result ticking over into the 20+ point territory, but the harsh truth is that Tipp could have driven well past that had they been so inclined. Even without trying they could cough up a few more goalscoring chances, one of which Callinan took to more it into that territory.

The best way of demonstrating how beat-down I was came as the game entered the final minute of normal time. All those goals produced a series of que-sera-sera shrugs but when Brian Gavin, who had been relatively generous to us, i.e. his mistakes fell more in our favour than theirs, indicated that there would be four minutes of injury time, I exploded with rage. What kind of jackass is so impervious to all manner of blunders, which every referee will make in every match no matter how good they are, yet engages in a flint-minded tapping of the watch when one team is being absolutely blown out of it? Is a referee’s assessor seriously going to say “you should have played an extra couple of minutes there, Brian”? Stronger words than ‘jackass’ came out of my mouth that would have embarrassed me if there had been anyone around to hear them.

If I’m being honest with myself, and what is the point of all this if I’m going to lie to myself, the rage was a blessed distraction from the unexpected unravelling that had just taken place. It was really unexpected. The whole point of The System was to ensure this kind of debacle did not take place. You hope that this was a perfect storm, that any team that had failed to ram home the advantage of the elements might fall apart in the manner in which we did. We’re not just any team though. We’re a Waterford team, and we’ve been here soooo many times before. The evidence of this game suggests that little has changed. We’ll give Wexford a good rattle. We’ll probably even be favourites. And if we do get past them, we’ll be gunned down for the umpteenth time by Kilkenny. I had really hoped the paradigm had changed, even unto thinking after the loss to the Limerick Minors (themselves gunned down by Tipperary earlier in the day; maybe that’s where the Primary Game ringer came from) that we just had to keep at it and we’d eventually get across that finishing line one year. This game suggests that, despite Derek McGrath’s best efforts, things have not changed apart from the initial lurch forward we made in the late 90’s. You wonder how many times we can maintain that position before we begin to go back at a rate of knots.

Waterford 0-17 Limerick 0-19 – Minor

Walsh Park, Venue of Legends

Terrific Treaty down Na Deise – HogansStand.com
Paul O’Brien delights for Limerick minors – Irish Examiner
Perfect 10 for O’Brien as Limerick book final berth – Irish Independent
O’Brien plays leading role as Limerick book place in final – Irish Times
Limerick’s great hurling week continues as they defeat Waterford to reach Munster final – The42.ie

That’s four years on the bounce now that Limerick have done for us in the Munster Minor championship. Things could be worse. We beat them in the two previous meetings in 2009 and 2011, but prior to that Waterford had not beaten Limerick at this level since 1955. That was a run of 14 defeats. Yep, things could be hell of a lot worse.

We’ll get back to the place this game occupies in the history books later, but for now let’s combine the past and present with something I noticed upon arrival at Walsh Park. During the week I had opined on boards.ie that “the only certainties in life are death, taxes, and no matter how tinpot the Waterford game, Tony Browne Sr will be there”. And wouldn’t you know it, it having arrived just after 6.30, who should hobble in moments later but the bould Tony. Way back in 2000 when I was young, single and flush with cash, I fancied myself as becoming some manner of roving reporter for Waterford, paid for by advertising revenue. With all that in mind, I took a photo of myself at our game against Tipperary in Nenagh for posterity, and there in the background . . .

Who needs proof you were there when, well, you are always there? It’s immensely humbling, to see someone who has devoted so much of their time and effort to Waterford GAA. God knows how many of that litany of losses to Limerick he’s has been at.

Waterford played against the wind in the first half, and after the complete failure to make use of it against Cork, this was a good thing. Having seemingly had no strategy to deal with the wind then, Waterford’s plan here seemed to be to slow the game to a crawl. You know all the griping about the time in football matches lost when the likes of Stephen Cluxton jogs forward to take a 45? Well, every free inside our own half seemed to be taken by Billy Nolan in goal and he was in no hurry to take any of them. Allied to some dire shooting by Limerick, Waterford were only a couple of points down after a quarter of a game where the blue touchpaper was staying unlit. Unfortunately Waterford were not able to box clever when they had the ball. The amount of fumbling was atrocious, and there were numerous occasions when the roar of “two hands on the hurl!” went up from the crowd. Some of the decision making was really poor, such as a sideline ball which, in an attempt to play it back to Nolan, was put out for a 65 (thankfully missed). There was little in the way of goalmouth action, which seems to be the norm these days. A late effort by Thomas Douglas, when he tried to score with a swing akin to someone driving a stake into the ground with a sledgehammer, went wide and was as close as it got to a goal. A spectacular point from a sideline ball with the last action of the half gave Limerick a five-point lead at the break. This would have felt about par before the game, but given some of their misses it looked very good for Waterford.

As if noting the presence of the Tony Browne père wasn’t enough, who should sit in front of me at the start of the second half but Tom Cunningham, former Chairman of the County Board. Given his life has been the essence of tribalism, whether it be Waterford GAA or Fianna Fáil, I was wondering whether I’d see repeated volleys of abuse raining down on all and sundry. Instead he was a model of decency and restraint, even going so far as to freely admit when Waterford were fortunate with refereeing decisions. In terms of those around me though, the best nugget of wisdom about what unfolded came from a woman behind with about ten minutes to go: “it’s like last year’s Munster final again, chasing a game with no forwards”. After a couple of quick points which suggested all would be well, Waterford’s strategy of withdrawing from the full-forward line came unstuck. The contrast with Limerick was noticeable. They persisted with a man in at full-forward despite being against the wind, which kept Waterford guessing while also giving them a chance of the odd cheap free to keep the scoreboard ticking over. Not having such worries helped Limerick keep Waterford at arm’s length. Twice we made it a two-point game and on each occasion Limerick pushed back. A four-point burst midway through the half meant the lead was now greater than it had been at half-time with barely ten minutes to go. Goals were going to be needed, you thought, but where were they doing to come from?

It has to be said that Limerick looked that bit tidier than Waterford. Yes, the shooting was a source of concern for them but they were making chances. Their handling was crisper and they were frequently sashaying around Waterford’s more ponderous players. It looked at that point like heads would drop, but to the credit of the Waterford players they pushed back. Eoghan Murray really stood tall and, by dint of effort rather than artistry, they clawed their way into the game to the point where the gap was only one going into injury time. Murray had a sideline ball way out the field but it drifted agonisingly wide and Limerick’s next attack yielded one of those cheap frees that you get when you bother stationing someone in the danger zone. All they had to do was crowd out the last attack and the Irish Press Cup’s absence from this land was stretched to at least four years.

An absurd way to look at it, but it illustrates why I was not too despondent. It would have been a smash-and-grab had we won it, although that never bothered me in the past. What was more pertinent was that despite getting so much wrong, despite a mystifying plan of action, despite that malojan record against Limerick weighing heavily on us, Waterford still nearly got away with it. The thing is, I don’t think history is weighing down on us like it once did. These players have grown up with the idea of being competitive and even of winning things. Losing these games is disappointing in itself, if only because a Munster final appearance guarantees two more games, and wouldn’t it have been lovely to give these boys a big day out in front of a big crowd for the Senior final? But we’ll be back at this level. We aren’t going back to those grim days of 20+ point beatings any time soon.

Coming up on Sunday week: a seven-goal battering at the hands of Tipp.

Waterford 0-17 Limerick 0-19 – Minor – Giveitfong’s view

(originally posted on boards.ie)

After their good performance against Tipperary, the poor performance of the Waterford minors against Limerick was a big disappointment. In many ways, this was a repeat of the first round defeat to Cork, with Waterford playing second fiddle for most of the match before launching a late rally which came up short. As in that game, our opponents were better focused, their first touch was much better and they had much more of a structure to their play, with many good passing movements.

Waterford started very nervously and never settled down until it was too late. Their fumble count was enormous, unable to hold onto a catch or get the ball in hand from the ground at the first, or even second, attempt. Time and again, Waterford players ran at their opponents only to lose possession in the process. There was a lack of urgency and alertness in their play, with Limerick first to the ball all over the pitch. In the first half, the Waterford backs stood off their opponents, allowing them to get easy possession from incoming ball.

Waterford were also very poor at competing for ball in the air. In this context, it defied comprehension that Waterford played their best ball winner, Eoghan Murray, in the full forward line in the first half despite playing against a very strong wind. The selectors obviously had come up with some kind of game plan which was rendered redundant by the weather conditions, and they were unable to adapt to these unexpected conditions. It was only when Murray moved to the midfield area late in the game that Waterford began to win some decent ball, and in the last ten minutes they showed some glimpse of what they were capable of, running hard and with purpose at the Limerick defence and hitting five points on the trot.

It also appears that Waterford won the toss and elected to play against the wind, which again struck me as being a poor call. I think you should always put visiting teams under the maximum pressure from the start, rather than presenting them with the opportunity to build up a bit of a lead. Even then, Waterford missed three very good early scoring chances, a reflection of the team’s weak mindset – and of course doing nothing to correct that mindset.

As it was, Limerick hit a number of bad wides themselves, and their five-point half-time lead (0-9 to 0-4) looked quite surmountable. Waterford did make a surge on the restart to reduce the lead to two points, but Limerick dug in and took over again to go six points in front by the 48th minute. The Waterford defence gave away too many easy frees, with Limerick sharpshooter Paul O’Brien nailing eight of them. Waterford did finally get their act together in the last ten minutes, and came agonisingly close to equalising when Eoghan Murray’s sideline went inches wide of the post. But once again Limerick won the ensuing puckout and forced the free which was the final nail in the Waterford coffin.

This will be Limerick’s fourth Munster minor hurling final in a row, while they are also the current Under 21 All-Ireland champions. Like Clare, they clearly have much better under-age coaching and management personnel at their disposal than do Waterford. In the 2013 Munster minor final replay, they completely outfoxed Waterford with their tactics and positional switches, and the following year, again in a Munster final replay, Waterford were unable to come to grips with their sweeper in defence. This was again apparent last night, as time after time the extra man in the Limerick defence swept up loose incoming ball.

With their Centre of Excellence and with Anthony Daly (very prominent last night) in overall charge of under-age development in the county, Limerick’s future as an under-age powerhouse looks secure. Waterford are in the dark ages by comparison.

Tippecanoe and Thurles too

Damn you, John Mullane. I had been pondering a post on the general subject of playing in Thurles for a while and had come up with a delightfully cryptic title. But the likelihood of Thurles staging the Munster final against Tipperary are surely dead in the water as the Great Man has spoken:

Oh well. It’s not as if anyone would have bothered Googling such a daft title, let alone understood it to begin with, so let’s just leave that remnant of the youthful time wasted reading about dead American Presidents in the set of encyclopaedias my parents bought back in the early 1980’s where it is and imagine there might be a debate to be had on whether the Munster final be played in Thurles or Limerick.

Such a debate pivots on whether you think Thurles is a home-away-from-home for Waterford, to the extent that it negates any home advantage that Tipperary have. Back in the day I would have believed this to the case, and you could probably waste some time of your own locating worshipful comments on the subject in the archives of this blog. But like John Mullane my opinion has changed. If you suggest that it might be an advantage for Tipperary then you will be asked to quantify how many points it is worth to Tipp. This is the wrong way to look at it. Instead, imagine playing them one hundred times in a neutral venue. Then imagine playing them one hundred times in Thurles. Anyone who says the outcomes would be exactly the same is fooling themselves. And yes, it isn’t a real world experiment. But it illustrates the point that there is a small advantage for Tipp and, all other things being equal, Waterford shouldn’t be handing it to them.

Of course, not all things are equal. There are myriad little reasons for preferring Thurles over Limerick. Traffic, parking, pre-match atmosphere, the venue (facilities and capacity), the prospect of making a few quid for the perennially cash-strapped Waterford County Board, the prospect of putting the kibosh on the our-turn-to-stage-the-big-dance entitlement of the perennially cash-strapped Limerick County Board. Depending on how much weight you put on it, any of those reasons could reasonably be enough to tip the balance in favour of Thurles.

For me though, it’s a little reason that have tilted the balance against Thurles – I’m sick of the place. Since 2000 we have played 64 matches in the Senior Championship. 30 of them have been in Thurles. There’s nothing special about a trip to Tipp if you’re doing it an average of twice a year. Even Tipperary folk seem to feel the same way as they could only manage an attendance of 25,531 yesterday when combined with Limerick supporters – so much for Waterford fans being the ones who don’t travel in great numbers. Familiarity also makes you really appreciate the smug, self-satisfied air that hangs around Thurles like Lar Corbett marking Tommy Walsh. By all accounts Limerick is a bugger to get away from after a big match, but the way people bang on about Thurles you’d swear everyone is able to park right next to the greyhound stadium and zoom out of the town in their own ZiL lanes rather than having to pay to park in the mart, as opposed to getting a free space out by the golf course, and not get out for over an hour like happened to us at last year’s Munster final. Any crowd in the region of 40,000 is going to generate a lot of traffic, and half-baked tales about taking one of the 85 routes in/out of the town are not going to change that.

(I realise the above tweet is a joke, by the way.)

The primary reason I want to play the game in Limerick is to not cede home advantage. Other considerations come a long way behind. But the sense of ennui with Thurles is real. The staging of games in Munster has become completely ossified, a sign of clinging to the halcyon days back around the turn of the century when every game had the potential to be 50,000-capacity sell-out. I was surprised to find out today that we have played a grand total of two Championship matches in Limerick in 50 years. Those games – Clare in 2008 and Cork in 1983 – ended badly. Time to make some positive memories as we bring morning to Waterford.

Twenty thousand’s a crowd

It is surely a sign of an increased sense of swagger in Waterford hurling that comments earlier on in the week ridiculing the propensity of Waterford fans for attending matches have passed seemingly without any sense of outrage. But never let it be said that this blog misses an opportunity to react to slights, or is burdened by any sense of irony about lashing out at criticism of our match-going habits having not gone to the match myself. I was kidnapped by a bunch of Brits. Yes, they are to blame for everything.

The comments came from Munster Council chairman Jer O’Sullivan, who reacted to a perceived poor attendance at the Waterford-Clare match by saying:

[If] you look back through recent years, Waterford, with all due respect to them, wouldn’t have brought massive crowds to games and the attendances would always be around 15,000 or 20,000.

Gee, I’d hate to see what he would say if he would trying to be disrespectful. The thing is, I saw the crowd while frantically hammering away at my Twitter feed over here in England and thought a crowd of 19,715 wasn’t that bad. Vague memories of checking the attendances as I researched the results archive would suggest these kinds of crowds were the rule even in the days before the back door, not the exception. With ‘all due respect’ to Waterford, Clare and Limerick, none of those counties is a particularly big draw in the way Cork and Tipperary would be, something that is confirmed by the attendance at the last Clare-Limerick clash all of 12 months ago, which could only muster a crowd of 21,493 for the respective All-Ireland and Munster champions of two years previous.

Further proof of concept is provided by the statistic that “Waterford feature in six of the 10 worst attendances in the Munster senior hurling championship since 2010”. I don’t know if this came from Jer O’Sullivan or the writer John Fogarty, and in fairness to the latter there is the caveat that the Waterford crowd “made up a sizeable proportion of the Thurles attendance on Sunday”. Whatever the source, this is a dig at Waterford supporters and one that, on its own merits, is grossly unfair. Think about it. Ten matches involves 20 teams, so if Waterford made up six of those teams then the other 14 are divvied up between the other four counties. Even distributing those figures evenly (which is unlikely) that means two counties each contribute to four of those not-many-shows. Hardly a statistically significant figure.

I know in the broader scheme of things it doesn’t matter, but it’s irritating to see the head honcho of the Munster Council peddling such nonsense. What we have here is an organisation determined to defend its relevance in an era when the provincial titles are no longer the gateway to All-Ireland glory. The statistic of how the Munster champions have not won the All-Ireland in a decade pops up in the unlikeliest of places, a stat just as useless as the one about Waterford’s frequency in the most-sparsely attended games. Did you know of the three counties to win the Leinster Championship in the last decade, only one has gone on to win the All-Ireland? You see how this works? The most effective way for Waterford to flick the bird at such slights is to win the All-Ireland, but that doesn’t mean we should let blatant disinformation pass unchallenged.

Waterford 1-21 (24) Clare 0-17 (17) – media reports

Déise advance after comprehensive win over Clare – RTÉ
Austin Gleeson’s scintillating scores give Waterford revenge – Irish Examiner
Waterford bounce back from league loss to see off Clare in style in Munster – The42.ie
Deise lower Banner – HoganStand.com
Waterford get it right the third time to dismiss out-gunned Clare – Irish Times
Waterford exact cold revenge on Clare in sun-kissed Thurles – Irish Independent