And it all started so well. Waterford won the throw-in, the ball flashed towards Seamus Prendergast, he’s in space in a scoring position! – then he hits it wide. Ah well, it would become a recurring theme through the course of the afternoon, but it would be a cheerful theme for all of that. Moments later the ball is hurtling back towards the Tipperary goal, and Ken McGrath slips past Philip Maher like a butter-coated eel. The Tipp defence fell Ken like a redwood tree and Waterford have an opportunity to register the first score. As Paul Flynn addresses the ball, there is much wistful reminiscing on what might have been had Ken not been injured early on when it looked like he was going to box Maher’s ears in 2000. Never mind, sharp intake of breath as Paul Flynn prepares to strike his first free and it’s over the bar. If nothing else, at least we were ahead once.
Not for long though. Tipperary soon slipped into gear in the middle of the park, and the sharpness of their movement made us wince. The Waterford backs seemed to be struggling to keep pace, and some great points sailed over the bar. Happily a few of their efforts went wide, and there was the early satisfaction of seeing an Eoin Kelly free from a relatively easy position sail gleefully to the left of the uprights.
At this early stage it was looking grim though. The wind seemed to be swirling at pitch level, so we couldn’t put our early struggles down to the elements, and Aodhan Mac Suibhne was making his presence felt. Ah, Aodhan Mac Suibhne. If any friends or family, or even the man himself, are reading this, then I suggest you skip to the next paragraph. Aodhan Mac Suibhne refereed the 1998 League final against Cork, when he missed Alan Browne throwing away his hurley before scoring the decisive goal. He refereed the 1999 League match, when he played enough injury time to give Cork the chance to stymie our comeback. He refereed the 1999 Championship game against Cork where a succession of horrendous decisions at crucial times cost us dear. It was no surprise to see him emerge wearing red, and harsh bookings of Paul Flynn and Seamus Prendergast didn’t fill one with hope that he was going to give the little guy a break this time.
Tipp continued to dominate, stroking over points and shooting some wretched wides. 0-6 to 0-2 down, it was, as the brother suggested, looking ominous. Then something struck me. No, not one of the beach balls that had been flung around the terrace with a steely determination that we were going to have the craic No Matter What Happened On The Pitch. What struck me was that the flags at the top of the Caucescu Bowl were fluttering stiffly in the breeze in the direction Waterford. Tipperary had the wind.
The realisation of this put a smile on my face, although it also introduced the notion into my head that if we were close at half time and still lost, the sniggering around the nation at Waterford’s inability to take a chance would have been unbearable. Then Eoin Kelly created even greater hopes and fears. Gathering the ball on the right hand touchline, he seemed to lose possession before regaining it, zig-zagged through the Tipperary defence and scored a fantastic point. This would later be highlighted to me as the turning point, the moment when the team started to believe as the youngest player on the team made a monkey of his marker. In such a tumultuous game, it was surely a bit early to ascribe that point such mighty powers.
Besides, the next point was even better. Mullane gathered the ball in the right corner and turned to see Paul Flynn charging – insofar as Flynn ever can be said to ‘charge’ – into space. I can remember screaming at Mullane to pick out Flynn, and while he couldn’t have heard me alone, the fact that a hurling cretin like myself could see it would suggest that ten thousand voices were raised in unison to demand the same. Some lovely stickwork by Flynn followed and the ball was dispatched over the bar. Great stuff.
Not long after, Eoin McGrath evaded his marker before drawing a foul about 21 metres out. Paul Flynn stepped up to the plate. A debate was taking place at this moment on WLR. Ciaran O’Connor wondered whether he should go for a goal, but he and Jim Joe Landers agreed that he should he should take his point. Indeed, the wish was expressed that “hopefully” he’ll take his point.
Oh ye of little faith. Flynners calmly drove the ball into the roof of the net, via Brendan Cummins’ stick. Never mind Bren, you can’t save them all, or when Paul Flynn is on the case, you can’t save any of them.
Well well well. We had been under the cosh for the whole of the first quarter yet we were in front! We survived a traumatic moment when not long after the Flynn goal when Mullane misplaced a pass back into the half forward line. Tipperary got the ball and swept up the field, the Waterford defence being forced to back-pedal furiously. The initial Tipp goal effort was blocked by Brian Flannery and ricocheted to another Tipp forward whose shot flashed across the goal. Eoin Kelly scooped the ball into the air and batted it into the goal. Had this stood, we might have been right royally screwed, but the umpire signalled that the ball had gone wide before Kelly had retrieved it. A close shave, and it was noteworthy to see Ken McGrath belligerently reminding John Mullane to forget about it and move on. Or else.
Points were exchanged for the remainder of the first half, Waterford just managing to keep their noses in front despite the fact that chances were being missed. Tony Browne in particular had two disappointing efforts, one of which went wide while another dropped lamely into Brendan Cummins’ arms. A third effort when he drove for goal was blocked and he fed John Mullane who did the needful by popping it over the bar.
Then disaster struck, quite literally on the stroke of half time. Tipperary got a free near the 21 metre line, and like Paul Flynn before, Eoin Kelly had only one thing on his mind as he hammered it high and clean into the net. This should have been a source of much frustration but this Waterford team is bigger than that. Ken McGrath drove through the Tipperary defence to notch a quick reply then Paul Flynn slotted over an easy free to level scores, made easier when the ref moved it closer in due to incessant Tipp bitching. Mac Suibhne then handed back in any credit he earned with Waterford fans for that by falling for an obvious dive by a Tipperary forward which allowed them to restore their lead to one point for half time.
Click here for Part III