The time has come, said the walrus, to speak of many things; of ships and shoes and sealing wax, and how a team jammed with talent like Waterford can lose to a team of scrubbers like Wexford. This match in one that would cause seasoned hacks, the Vincent Hogans and Tom Humphries-eez-eez of this world, to sit back in their chair, light a fag and try and exorcise a severe case of writers block as they attempt to make explicable the inexplicable.
Thank heavens for clichés. Wexford wanted it more, Waterford hadn’t the bottle, the Déise boys were too sure of themselves, underestimated the scale of Wexford’s challenge, a victory for the old dog on the hard road etc etc. The most repeated underestimation in Gaelic games is the ability of hacks to reheat offal and serve it up as fresh analysis.
Not that I’m bitter or anything.
Still, sometimes – dare I say it, often – the clichés have a basis in fact. Hurling is less susceptible to the sporting axiom that a good big ‘un will always beat a good little ‘un. The need to be ‘good’ is so paramount that bucketloads of hard graft will rarely triumph over silky wrists and delightful flicks. But every so often, a team with fire in their bellies will blow their more artistic opponents away, and this was one of those days. Wexford, God help me for saying it, wanted it more.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves here though (not really, since it’s taken me nearly six months to pluck up the courage to face up to this debacle, but you know what I mean). The success / failure of the back door in hurling is much debated and the consensus seems to be that it hasn’t been all it was hoped to be. Highlighting how much of the recent stagnation of hurling is down to Kilkenny’s newly rediscovered hegemony is a moot point – the back door was meant to reduce this kind of thing, and it hasn’t helped blunt the Cats’ edge one jot. On this wet night in Nowlan Park though, no one was questioning the value of the back door. The skies threatened to open up repeatedly, yet few people thought of walking away from this first ever meeting of Waterford and Wexford in the Championship. It’s a farcical statistic, that two counties so close geographically and so close to each other in the hurling hierarchy (relatively speaking, of course). Maybe the back door hasn’t yielded All-Ireland’s for Antrim or Laois or (ahem) Waterford, but games of this status mean that no-one is advocating going back.
It all started so well for the Déise boys, scooting into a six point lead without seeming to try. John Mullane was weighted down with the twin burden of that red-headed temper (the Englishwoman beside me with her 100% record at Waterford games may not appreciate the sentiment) and his stellar performance in the Munster final. His Wexford opponent, like Steve McDonagh in the drawn game against Limerick, was determined to needle Mullane. This manifested itself in the opening minutes when he was pulled ‘n’ dragged by the Wexfordman. The perfect reaction, as always, is to get a score, and this is exactly what John Mullane did, moving out to an angle where there hardly seemed enough space to put the sliothar between the posts, then putting it between the posts. Great stuff, and Mullane was merely practitioner-in-chief as some fine points went over.
So it was all looking very good five minutes before half-time, Wexford chasing Waterford shadows. A few good goal-scoring opportunities went a-begging, particularly one effort from Dan Shanahan that was brilliantly saved by Damien Fitzhenry and inexplicably cleared from millimetres out by the Wexford backs. But there didn’t seem to be anything in the Wexford tank to cope with Waterford’s greater skill. What we weren’t to know was that the Déise boys were only a few Wexford switches from being blown away. Paul Codd went into the half-forward line, Larry Murphy was dispatched to the edge of the square to wreck havoc and before we knew it, Wexford had us by the balls. The tide was beginning to flow in Wexford’s direction before Rory Jacob, coming back into the attack for them only moments after Stephen Brenner had cleared an earlier panic, drilled a shot goalwards where it hit the near post and scythed across the line before squeezing in at the far.
It’s the Waterford disease, one perhaps more built on perception than a fair reflection of ability, but that doesn’t make it any less real. If Wexford found themselves six points down against Kilkenny or Offaly near half-time, their attitude would be to just get into the dressing room and regroup. Against Waterford though, the mentality is to keep going and exploit our mental brittleness. Limerick in 2001, Clare in 2002, Limerick again in 2003, and now Wexford; they all were carved up for the first twenty-five minutes only to rebound like the Rubber Man by half-time.
Waterford were a beaten team mere minutes into the second-half, and John Mullane was the only one in Nowlan Park who didn’t know it – more likely he simply refused to accept it. He continued to hurl like a man whose All-Star depended on it, and when he lashed over another improbable score after fifty minutes for his fifth point from play, Waterford were hanging on by the length of one of his follicles. The link snapped moments later when he was called ashore due to injury and with him went the last vestiges of the self-respect that we had been burnishing since June 30 2002.
The last twenty-odd minutes passed in a blur as Wexford horsed Waterford out in just about every department, only Stephen Brenner in true backs-against-the-wall fashion coming out with dignity intact. There are some vignettes that stick in the memory to describe the torment. Tom Feeney, the great defensive artisan, being bulldozed by Larry Murphy was painful, although not as traumatic as seeing Fergal Hartley, surely playing his last ever game in white-and-blue after a career where he has given way more than he took out, lashing out in frustration as he struggled to hold back the avalanche. There was also humour of the gallows variety, as the Englishwoman cast a cold eye on the Wexford people celebrating around us. “A county full of village idiots!”, she snorted. One ponders this far away from proceedings that maybe she simply couldn’t cope with the desegregation so impossible at Premiership grounds, but at the time it seemed like the wisest of words.
But the worst part of it all was the glimmers of hope that existed – we’ll get a goal yet, mark my words! – and the agonising way they were extinguished as Wexford placed dirt in our collective grave by the spoonful. Death by a thousand cuts. At the end, the gap was five points but had we played for another twenty minutes it would have been fifteen. They weren’t ever going to batter us, but they did much more than enough.
A season that had promised so much had ended in dismal fashion amid the sporadic showers of Kilkenny. Worse things have happened at sea – in truth, far worse things have happened to Waterford hurling, and many times over. The disappointment of such a limp exit to a team of inferior talents was acute though. Many a losing team has sought solace in the effort of the team. What is left to the losing team who can’t even claim that?
Waterford: Stephen Brenner, Brian Greene, Tom Feeney , Declan Prendergast, Eoin Murphy (0-2), Fergal Hartley, James Murray, Tony Browne (Michael Walsh, 0-1), Peter Queally (Andy Moloney), Dan Shanahan (0-1), Ken McGrath (0-5), Dave Bennett (0-1), Paul Flynn (0-3, 0-2f), Seamus Prendergast (Eoin Kelly), John Mullane (0-5; Eoin McGrath)
Wexford: Damien Fitzhenry, Dave Guiney, Darragh Ryan, D O’Connor, D Stamp (0-1), Declan Ruth, Liam Dunne, Larry O’Gorman (T Mahon, 0-1), R McCarthy, B Lambert (Michael Jordan, 0-2), Adrian Fenlon (0-1; Larry Murphy, 0-2), Michael Jacob (0-2), Chris McGrath (MJ Furlong), Paul Codd (0-8, 0-6 frees), Rory Jacob (1-3)
HT: Waterford 0-10 Wexford 1-6
Referee: Willie Barrett (Tipperary)