Waterford 1-13 (16) Clare 1-16 (19)

There is an old story about a farmer in South Kilkenny who loaned his prize bull to a neighbour in order to do what the bull had won so many prizes doing over all the years . . .“When the bull had not been returned after a few days his concerned owner headed over to the neighbour’s farm to check out what was going on. He was horrified to see his bull hitched to a plough and being driven across a cornfield by the neighbour. “What the hell are you doing?”, shouted the bull’s owner from the gate. Came the reply: “I’m showing his boyo there is more to life than just sex and romance!”.

That gag, shamelessly lifted from An Moltoir’s column on An Fear Rua‘s site, best encapsulates the trauma which befell Waterford against Clare. It does not, however, leave me much closer to chronicling the events of that day.

I’ve been putting off the evil day for over a month now, because I simply don’t know where to start. Beating Tipperary should have been the end of the beginning, but little were we to know that it would be the beginning of the end, for this year anyway. The experience of a lifetime supporting Waterford (‘supporting’ as opposed to ‘following’; trips to see the Déise boys in action have been fitful to say the least) had kept me from saying anything too over-the-top in public, or at least anything which could then be used against me. But I’ll say it now: I thought Waterford were going to trash Clare. Justin McCarthy’s skill-based philosophy had elevated Waterford hurling to a higher plane, certainly higher than the testosterone-fuelled, one-sided hurlers that emanate from the Banner County. We would teach the world that hurling can be won with delightful stickwork and deft touches. Never again would the hurlers of Ireland feel obliged to drag tractors up sand dunes to get the requisite levels of fitness needed to win the McCarthy Cup. And there would be much rejoicing, especially among the Mick Mackey’s, the Seanie O’Leary’s and the, uh, Daithi Regan’s of the world.

A week in Rome immediately prior to the game did nothing to dent this enthusiasm. Apart from freaking out the huckster waiters preying on tourists outside their restaurants with the unidentifiable Waterford geansaí (“Newcastle, Leeds, Chelsea . . . ah, Watford! Elton John, Luca Vialli!”), we fed on every GAA related occurrence. Chests were puffed out at the sight of every other jersey. We were Munster champions, after all. And one lad from the city stopped us to enquire whether we were going to be at Croke Park next Sunday? If we had to swim, we’d be there.

Arriving in Croke Park, tanned and relaxed, the moment of truth had arrived. And boy, did we feel good. The minor game was distinguished by a spectacular second half performance by the Wexford goalie as he strived in vain to make up for the slow-as-tar efforts of his teammates. Every Wexford attack was sneered at from our lofty (see images) perch in the Cusack Stand. No danger of similarly leaden efforts from our lads. The very idea!

The omens were mixed. Seeing Gerald McCarthy in the hotel before the game seemed like a good omen – don’t ask me why, it just did – and the fact that we outnumbered the Clare fans in the crowd was definitely a good thing. Peter Finnerty tipping us for victory was bad, but you can’t have it all.

If there were any worries that six weeks of inactivity might have left Waterford stale, there were dispelled within about three seconds of the throw-in. The ball broke for Eoin Kelly who turned and smashed the ball over the bar with casual ease. It was the precursor to ten more minutes of total hurling from Waterford to add to the fifty-odd they produced against Tipperary.

Little did we know at that stage that this was also the last good hurling we were going to see from Waterford this summer.

In comments before the game, Ger Loughnane had said that Waterford’s period of inactivity would begin to show as the game wore on, and not at the start. Not being as well versed in the arcane science of hurling as the evil Ger Lock, the initial explosiveness of Waterford seemed to bury any fears about staleness. The Déise were picking up where they had left off in Cork. Not only were points flying over from all points on the field, but they were spectacular points, born of gifted hurlers at the top of their game. Within five minutes Waterford were four points up, three of the points coming from a majestic Eoin Kelly, and all of them scored from play.

Clare huffed and puffed, but they were being blown out of it at midfield by Tony Browne and the surprise selection, Andy Moloney. The ball didn’t cross into the Waterford half once in those splendid few moments and the only thing seeming to stand between Clare and total oblivion was their full-back line, teak-tough all round and admirably led by Brian Lohan, looking more like the player who had terrorised full-forwards before he had been roasted by Anthony Kirwan in the drawn ’98 Munster final.

But Clare soon began to demonstrate a characteristic that heretofore had been missing from their arsenal: scoring economy. They could always rely on Seanie McMahon to knock over any long-range frees, but seeing players score points on the run was an unusual sight. Waterford, meanwhile, were beginning to show feet of clay. Fergal Hartley’s wayward pass beck into the centre of the field would have had Kevin Cashman foaming at the mouth with comments about the Jennet Express, and while Waterford scrambled the initial danger clear, Clare still eventually succeeded in working the ball over the bar. At the other end, goal chances went a-begging. Paul Flynn ran half the length of the field before dribbling a disappointing effort wide, while Eoin McGrath and Seamus Prendergast simultaneously flapped at an opportunity served up on a plate and wrapped in white-and-blue ribbons.

At this stage, it still looked likely that the Liam McCarthy Cup would have a 50:50 chance of having those ribbons on it too. Clare were somehow staying in touch, trimming a five point lead to two points five minutes before the break. But when Eoin McGrath was awarded a somewhat fortuitous free about 21 yards from the goal, there was only thing on Paul Flynn’s mind as his shot arrowed to the net, via David Fitzgerald’s hurley. “Pick that out, Davy!” yelled a man sitting near us, and there was no denying the psychological benefits of the goal right before half-time, so much so that I thought out loud the idea that we would really like to be six points up at half-time, the fickleness of the wind meaning we couldn’t be certain that the wind would favour us in the second half.

How ridiculous that supposition was, looking back on it from this remove. Clare gave the screw an almighty turn in their favour in the next few minutes. Getting the gap down to a single goal, they then capitalised on a string of howlers that would get them the psychological edge of their own goal. Charging back into the defence to mop up, Peter Queally attempted to clear the danger by running towards his own endline. What happened next depends on your position in time. From where I was sitting at the time, he was clobbered out over the endline, finishing up in a heap in the netting behind the goal. Others say he had carried the ball over the line and it should have been a 65. Others still say he blundered spectacularly, running the wrong way, chucking the ball in desperation to ameliorate the gaff. The bottom line was that the ball ended up in Clare hands, it found its way to the unmarked Alan Markham and the ball was sweetly dispatched past the exposed Stephen Brenner.

Great. To make matters worse, Markham was fouled moments later and Niall Gilligan did the needful. It still beggars belief, to think that Waterford had produced all that hurling and were still behind at half-time. Inevitably you find yourself clutching at straws, telling yourself that this was the exact score at half-time in the Munster final, and that had worked out okay. This wasn’t so much clutching at straws as grabbing that blade of grass in the hope that it will keep you from falling over the cliff. The odour of defeat hung over Waterford like a miasma, and no amount of rationalising was going to dispel it.

Having secured the unlikeliest of half-time leads, Clare’s philosophy was breathtaking in its simplicity: disrupt Waterford in all areas of the field at all times. Tony Browne knocked over a delightful sideline cut – is there any other kind of scoring sideline cut? – but it was only in deadballs that we were going to get any peace. Paul Flynn shoulders were slumping forward in the form of a man who didn’t want to be there, and a clutch of miserable frees confirmed the feeling. Waterford were reduced to shooting on sight in the mode of so many losing Waterford outfits, and the sight of the previously imperturbable Eoin Kelly trying to hook the ball over the bar from virtually over his shoulder was enough to reduce a grown man to tears. The Clare forwards weren’t doing much damage, but they were refusing to allow the Waterford backs get the ball clear, and only taking half the scraps that fell their way was enough to see them home. Niall Gilligan missed a free from 21 yards out, but even this didn’t seem to fire up a Waterford outfit who seemed to have left their bottle in the glass factory.

The last ten minutes of play had all the heartbreaking inevitability of Episode III of Star Wars. Tony Browne gathered the ball way out and set off towards goal, feeling incapable of simply popping the ball over the bar because we weren’t going to get the two points that would have secured a draw. Eventually he was crowded out and the Clare fans roared. Ollie Baker shoulder-charged Fergal Hartley into the chest, and the Clare fans roared louder. Tony Browne was substituted, and the vengeful Clare fans roared loudest of all, still smarting over his supposed crimes against Colin Lynch. Baker administered the insurance point, and Andy Maloney’s late, late point – made so late by a long stoppage for an injury to Gerry Quinn, see below – served only to give us false hope. Pat O’Connor drew a veil over proceedings, and if only he could have drawn a veil over our minds, so that we could blot out the vision of what might have been, and the horror it had become.

Waterford: Stephen Brenner, Brian Greene, Tom Feeney, Brian Flannery, Peter Queally, Eoin Murphy, Fergal Hartley (capt.), Tony Browne, Andy Moloney, Eoin Kelly, Ken McGrath, Paul Flynn, John Mullane, Seamus Prendergast, Eoin McGrath. Subs: Dave Bennett, Dan Shanahan, James Murray and Míceal White

Clare: David Fitzgerald, Brian Quinn, Brian Lohan (capt.), Frank Lohan, David Hoey, Seanie McMahon, Gerry Quinn, John Reddan, Colin Lynch, Tony Griffin, Jamesie O’Connor, Alan Markham, Tony Carmody, Niall Gilligan, David Forde Subs: Ollie Baker, Anthony Quinn

HT: Waterford 1-9 Clare 1-10

Referee: Pat O’Connor (Limerick)