I really thought we’d win this one in a canter, and the arrival of the teams did nothing to dispell that impression. The Waterford team, having flown up that morning looked resplendent in their Glanbia jackets, shirts, kitbags and boxer shorts (I assume), while the Derry team looked like a bunch of lads who had just met up before the game, which, given the attitude of Derry’s football apparatchik’s to the small game, is probably what happened.
Rain was threatening from early on, and the pitch resembled a ploughed field as the game pucked off, Yes sir, it PUCKED off, and a perfectly satisfactory way it is to begin the game. This is especially true if Waterford get off to this kind of start in every game. With their first attack, the Derry full-back Conor Murray missed the high ball and drilled the ball towards goal along the ground. Kieran Stevenson in the Derry goal scrambled the ball clear, the first of several fine saves.
But Waterford were not hanging around and were five points up before we knew it. Barry Walsh looked very accomplished on the half-forward line, Peter Queally sent over a beautiful sideline cut and even Johnny Brenner looked up for it, with several tigerish pulls in the midfield. Derry were struggling to cope with the wind. Luckily for them, Waterford were looking a little flaky in front of goal, with several shooting opportunities sailing wide. It didn’t seem to matter though. Where were Derry going to get scores from? From a rather leaky full-back line, that’s where. Derry’s first meaningful attack wasn’t cleared and Ronan McCloskey booted the ball over the bar when a goal looked on. Then a high ball into the danger area was superbly hooked into the net by Gregory Biggs.
Waterford reacted well though. A few well taken points, interspersed with a few soft wides kept the lead healthy before Paul Flynn put Dave Bennett in the clear for a nice goal. Derry missed another goal chance as the first half drew to a close (after 35 minutes) but Waterford were sitting pretty. The fact that a few Derry frees dropped shorter than they should have didn’t dawn on me at this stage…
It didn’t take long for Derry to take the match by the scruff of the neck. Roared on by vociferous home support, they (correctly) identified the full-back line as a weakness and balls were fired in towards Geoffrey McGonagle with impunity. Waterford’s only response seemed to be to foul him, and the subsequent free would sail between the posts. Of course, when they didn’t foul him he did even more damage. Squirming away from the challenge he played a beautiful pass to John O’Dwyer who smashed an unstoppable shot into the net via Brendan Landers’ hurley.
You could see the panic levels were rising in the Waterford team as they struggled to get the ball to hand on a gluepot of a pitch. Paul Flynn (twice) and Anthony Kirwan both tried for goals when points would have done, although one of Flynn’s efforts did require another great save from the goalie. Whether Waterford were really in trouble at this stage we will never know, but 30 seconds of tension and the match was safe for the Déise. McGonagle was fouled again and the ref brought the ball forward 10 metres, a tactic he employed throughtout the game, and correctly so. Inexplicably, the free was taken by Oliver Collins and the ball drifted wide. Waterford moved straight into the attack and Paul Flynn, who had dropped back virtually to the midfield, raced through the middle. His wonderful arcing handpass found Dave Bennett in space. He still had plenty of work to do as the angle narrowed and the goalie advanced. With a delightful flick of the wrists the ball nestled in the back of the net and Derry were done. The silence in the ground as Bennett wheeled away, clenched fist in the air, was deafening. The relief that we had gotten out of jail was palpable among the Waterford fans.
There was still time for Míceal White to attempt to get himself sent off – off-the-ball shennanigans which had passed into memory by the time the game had stopped – before the ref brought the game to a slightly premature close. It had been a modest performance by Waterford, brightened only by some good shooting from Dave Bennett and Barry Walsh, and a very committed and skillful performance from the prodigal son Brenner. As we streamed into the bar afterwards, the mood was summed up by one Derry fan in conversation with a Waterford fan.
Derry fan: “You must have had a few injuries.”
Waterford fan: “No, not really”.
Derry fan (good humoured laugh): “Aye, just bad players”.
I hope he’s proven wrong.
Waterford: Brendan Landers, Tom Feeney, James O’Connor, Brian Flannery (Sean Cullinane), Stephen Frampton, Fergal Hartley, James Murray, Peter Queally (0-2), Johnny Brenner (0-1), Dan Shanahan (Brian Henley, 0-1), Ken McGrath (0-2), Barry Walsh (0-4), Dave Bennett (2-3), Anthony Kirwan (0-1; Míceal White), Paul Flynn (capt., 0-4, 0-2 frees)
Derry: Kieran Stevenson, Emmett McKeever (capt.), Conor Murray, Niall Mullan, Barry Kelly, Colin McEldowney, Joe Young (Martin Quinn), Oliver Collins (0-1), Declan Cassidy, Paddy McEldowney (Kieran McKeever, 0-1), Michael Conway (Kevin McCloy), Ronan McCloskey (0-1), Gregory Biggs (1-2), Geoffrey McGonagle (0-4, all frees), John O’Dwyer (1-1).
HT: Waterford 1-13 Derry 1-4
Referee: Jim McLean (Antrim)
Post Scriptum: A hearty ‘go raibh míle maith agaibh’ to everyone in the Dublin branch of the Waterford GAA Supporters Club, particularly Prionsias Breathnach and Anne Ryan who organised the bus to Ballinascreen. If we do end up winning anything I’ll be proud to be counted among those who went that first day, and it will be all thanks to them.