The width of a crossbar. I’ve been trying to kickstart this post without mentioning the corniest element of our too-outrageous-for-Hollywood victory over Cork, but there’s no getting away from the woodwork-thin nature of the success. When Shane / Sean / Seaghan Murphy’s shot thudded back off the crossbar, there was still time for Shane O’Neill to hook the ball back into the danger area before Aidan Kearney could put a firm fist around it. And when he did, we all knew it would need a Cork player to split his hand open like a coconut for Waterford to be denied. Our ten-year battle to hold back the tide of history, flowing into our figurative estuary and infiltrating every river and stream of our being, had had another positive result.
For make no mistake, the fear of being swamped and drowned by that tide informs everything Waterford do. When Cork were robbed of the services Porthos Cusack, Athos O hAilpín and Aramis O’Sullivan, it was Waterford’s game to lose. Never mind that we’ve twice beaten teams containing that trio in the last five years. Fail to beat a team bereft of them and we might as well forget about beating Cork later on in the All-Ireland series when we would be back. So it was win or face the sneers and arrows of those who think we haven’t got the bottle.
It had been four years since I had made the trip to Tipp, five since that flukey Tony Browne goal had secured victory over Cork at the same venue. Compared to the epics that have characterised meetings with the Rebel County since, that match was pretty thin gruel. But having missed the Greatest Match Of All Time in 2004, and been present for the heartbreaking defeats in Croke Park in 2005 and 2006, that match has waxed in my mind as the pinnacle of Waterford’s sporting achievement. It certainly was the day that we went from plucky losers to nearly (and soon to be) winners. The previous year we had been bearded by Limerick in Pairc Ui Chaoimh. Six years on, Limerick are lepping about Thurles because they had secured another draw against Tipp. A dour grind akin to that 2002 win over Cork would have suited me just fine.
As it was, it was 2004 revisited. John Mullane set the tone with a swashbuckling sashay down the right touchline and a laser-guided shot over the bar. Cork were soon back on terms, a splendid sideline cut from Ben O’Connor showing he too was in the mood. Eoin Kelly then missed a straight forward free. Incredibly – and it still seems hard to credit a day later – it would form fully 25% of Waterford’s wide balls during the day. But at the time, it raised fears of the habitual Waterford free taking blowout and the Cork fans cackled at the premature celebrations on the Killinan End.
Points were exchanged before the first manifestation of the theme of the day, er, manifested itself – goals, or more specifically the goals from the dropping ball. Waterford’s woes in the full-back line are well documented, and Declan Prendergast’s stellar form there has not entirely eradicated fears of the flakiness of our back line (much like Eoin Kelly’s recent reliability from dead balls hasn’t buried our concerns on that score). So when Anthony Nash drilled a free from the Ger Cunningham school of pucanna fada, the ball broke kindly to the latest Great White Dope of Cork hurling, Kieran Murphy, and he drilled the ball decisively past Clinton Hennessy.
It would be remiss at this point, in advance of salivating over the best period of Waterford goal scoring in the current era, not to refer to the absence of the Simple Three, particularly The Pebble and Donal Óg. Clearly it had an impact. It would be self-deception to say otherwise. But you can’t simply mentally take out their replacements, slot in the Three Amigos and expect them to raise Cork to the level that would have secured victory. What Donal Óg Cusack could have done about the hurricane that was about to rip through Anthony Nash’s faceguard is a mystery. And Diarmuid O’Sullivan, for all his undoubted talismanic qualities, is not a figure which everyone in Cork, let alone the rest of the hurling world, is entirely sure is the player he might be. When Cork deployed him as the extra man in 2004, it was universally agreed that he screwed it up big time, and his habit of getting into shoulder-to-shoulder brawls with anyone and everyone is just as damaging as it is productive, spurring the opposition to teach the big galloot a lesson. In a nutshell, the game would have still been 15 v 15, the seventy minutes would have had a completely different complexion and it still would have been tighter than a supertanker sailing down the Suez Canal. That’s just the way it is with Waterford and Cork.
Of course, Young John Halpin is a different matter. In my opinion, he is the most complete hurler of his generation, and when the dropping ball broke in the left half-back line for Seamus Prendergast, his vision and strength might have been useful. As it was, Prendergast was given the room to turn like a supertanker and set off towards goal with John Mullane at his shoulder. It seemed like he had taken it too far before flicking it out to the right where Dan Shanahan gathered the ball before Mullane and flashed the ball between Nash and the near post.
And it would not be long before Mullane got in the act. Another dropping ball pinged around the full-forward line before finding its way to him. I was sitting right on the endline down at that end of the New Stand, so I should have had a decent view of the strike. But the ball left the bas of his hurley like a small explosive device had been strapped it, and on his weak side too. So I never saw the ball hit the net and insisted on waiting to see the green flag before celebrating, by which time the game was already back under way. Can you be too careful with matters like that? Absolutely not!
Four points down to three points up in a few minutes. The way this game lurched back and forth like a drunk on a log made me ponder whether momentum is an alien concept in hurling. It was if the expenditure of the physical and mental energy necessary to get back in charge had, rather than seeing the pendulum swing in that team’s direction, left them vulnerable to a counter attack. It certainly seemed that way to Waterford as Cork leapt at our exposed jugular. Eoin Murphy failed to mop up the dropping ball between the half-back and full-back lines, Pat Cronin pounced and set off towards goal a la Prendergast. He drew the challenge before handpassing to Kieran Murphy who hit another belter high to the net and Cork were level again.
Bearing in mind the hypothesis that teams – or at least teams called ‘Waterford’ and ‘Cork’ – find it impossible to establish real momentum in a game and the exertion of getting on terms actually sets them back, what happened next was crucial in the outcome of the game. Cork would level matters in the second half but they would never recovery from the blows they received in the end of the first half. Initially the breaks went with them. John Mullane was unlucky not to receive a free as he burst through the Cork half-back line and in the ensuing play Niall McCarthy scored from distance. Boos rained down on the referee Barry Kelly from the Déise multitudes and Mullane raced towards him to remonstrate. Oh God, I thought, he’s going to get himself sent off. As it is, he accepted the ref’s explanation, or at least put it behind him very quickly, which was a positive development. Moments later Waterford were the recipients of a soft free which the work colleague who was coincidentally sitting beside me agreed was payback for the iffy nature of the previous decision. A few Cork players were mighty upset and Kelly didn’t hesitate in moving the free in front of the posts. Eoin Kelly stepped out and Paul Flynn stepped in.
We’d been here before. But on previous occasions there would be a debate as to whether he should ‘take yer point’. No one was advocating a safety-first attitude, a sign of the appreciation on the part of Waterford fans that you’ve got to speculate to accumulate. Oh, and an appreciation of Flynn’s lethal record from this sort of range. The shot went low, hard and via Anthony Nash’s hurley into the net. As predictable as night following day, but somehow much more exciting. Then Ken McGrath had a free in his own half. Perhaps he went for a point but the ball dropped short, Cork failed to clear again and when Flynn’s shot was charged down, Big Dan gathered and threaded the needle to find the top corner of the net. Joe Deane’s late point from an (almost) impossible angle took the shine off it a wee bit, but there was no disguising the sledgehammer blow we had dealt Cork. Half-time had, in Graham Taylor’s immortal phrase, come at the wrong time.
Half-time featured an excellent performance from the Waterford primary hurling team. When this first started being played during Munster senior matches, Waterford teams used be mercilessly battered. Not any more . . .
It was inevitable that Waterford would start the second half with less energy than they had ended the first, but (not withstanding the momentum hypothesis) this was a sickening lurch back in Cork’s favour. Cork almost got in for a goal before Jerry O’Connor’s follow up was deflected for a 65 and Ben pointed the resulting dead ball. Then another dropping ball broke kindly for Cork. Clinton Hennessy’s advance was less-than-inspirational and Pat Cronin managed to hit a daisycutter past him and across the line. Cork soon got level and we’d barely had a flicker from Waterford in the second half.
Cool heads were needed. So what do Waterford do? Bring on Brian Phelan, ‘the Bull’. I don’t know much about him at this point having been out of the loop for so long, but nicknames like that don’t fill me with confidence. Charge in, rough up your opposite number, get sent off – well done! As it happened, Phelan did nothing like that, so my pessimism was misplaced, and he would play a crucial role before long. A mis-hit clearance as the match moved into the final quarter hour bounced across ‘the Bull’ and instead of picking it up he half-volleyed a splendid shot into the danger area. First time hurling is overrated in my opinion – if you make a mess of it, you’re completely exposed – but this was exactly the right thing to do. This was confirmed as the Cork back-line was caught on the front foot. Eoin Kelly managed to squeeze through and bore down on the goal. Batting the ball clinically past Nash, he then put his hand to his mouth as if shocked at having the cheek to score a goal against our Rebel lords and masters. In a game featuring incendiary antics from John Mullane on scoring a goal and V-for-Victory signs from Dan Shanahan just because he’d scored two goals, this was closer to Paul Flynn’s calm trot back to his position, despite what bitter Cork fans will tell you.
The match was still finely balanced and I was dying a thousand deaths. My wife had said on several occasions that I should prepare for defeat because Cork were jammy beyond belief. This is good neutral, British-stiff-upper-lip advice, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were going to do it. Even when Cork secured a penalty after Murphy went down screaming from an arm across his shoulder, I was confident we’d get across the finishing line first. Ben O’Connor stood over the ball and I pondered that a missed penalty seems rare enough these days. This was pure fatalism; O’Connor flicked the ball out too far and fell over striking a tame effort straight at Clinton Hennessy. What happened next shook my faith once again in the overratedness of first-time hurling. Declan Prendergast came to the ball with all of Cork bearing down on him and, rather than picking it up, lashed it out to the wing where in the ensuing bedlam the sideline ball went to Waterford. A great piece of vision; who said first-time hurling was overrated?
With Mr Evergreen, aka The Hurler Still Known As Tony Browne, firing over a point from way out wide and Cork sending a decent effort to drop the ball in harmlessly wide, it required some remarkable deus ex machina to save the Langers. Either that, or a goal. A Waterford point would exclude even those possibilities, so when Waterford let the clock tick over into injury time with a sideline ball under the New Stand deep in the Cork half, the omens looked good. But they couldn’t make much of it after much toing and froing, and when Pat Cronin earned a free 45 metres out, Cork had a decent chance to make one last assault on Hennessy’s goal. Ben O’Connor sensibly fired a low effort in and it ricocheted to Shane / Sean / Seaghan Murphy. When his shot thudded back off the crossbar, there was still time for Shane O’Neill to hook the ball back into the danger area before Aidan Kearney could put a firm fist around it. And when he did, we all knew it would need a Cork player to split his hand open like a coconut for Waterford to be denied. The final whistle blew and the latest instalment in the saga that more objective and clear-headed observers than myself have termed hurling’s Ali – Frazier had ended in a victory for Frazier.
Supposedly the Munster title doesn’t matter any more, but as the Waterford players mobbed each other and the Cork players slumped dejectedly to the ground, you could see it still counted. But it was more important for us, far more important. Ten years ago, Clare won the All-Ireland senior and minor crowns on the same day. It seemed that they had established a virtuous circle, and the manner in which they battered Cork the following year in the Munster semi-final did nothing to scotch that notion. Yet Clare did not establish the virtuous cycle, succumbing to a succession of failures in Munster which progress in the back door could not ameliorate. Charming and all as the aforementioned robustness of the Waterford primary teams is, it needed the from-nowhere addition of Aidan Kearney and the unexpected maturation of Declan Prendergast to keep Waterford standing still. This isn’t an appeal that we must win the All-Ireland this year or we’ve missed the boat or any other such nonsense. But to have failed to beat an evidently weaker Cork when they were evidently weaker would have been a sickening blow to the always-fragile self-confidence.
I’m repeating myself now, and not for artistic effect, so I’ll wind up this oh-so-sweet success with an observation: the day will never arrive when beating Cork is not worthy of celebration. Never. And it is for that reality, in spite of efforts to downgrade the Munster Cup or give Cork seven or eight extra fantasy points on the back of the Three Stooges that we rejoice in the wake of this victory – our biggest win over Cork in the Championship since 1974.
Waterford: Clinton Hennessy, Eoin Murphy (Denis Coffey), Declan Prendergast, Aidan Kearney, Tony Browne (0-2), Ken McGrath (0-2, frees), James Murray (Brian Phelan), Michael Walsh (capt), Jack Kennedy, Eoin Kelly (1-5, 0-4 frees), Dan Shanahan (2-1), Stephen Molumphy (Eoin McGrath), John Mullane (1-4), Seamus Prendergast, Paul Flynn (1-1, 1-0 free; Shane Walsh)
Cork: Anthony Nash, Brian Murphy (Shane / Sean / Seaghan Murphy), Cian O’Connor (Peter Kelly), Shane O’Neill, John Gardiner, Ronan Curran, Kevin Hartnett, Tom Kenny (0-2; Neil Ronan), Jerry O’Connor (0-2), Kieran Murphy (capt), Niall McCarthy (0-2; Timmy McCarthy; Conor Naughton, 0-1), Pat Cronin (0-1), Ben O’Connor (0-5, 0-2 free, 0-1 65), Kieran Murphy (2-0), Joe Deane (0-6, 0-2 frees)
HT: Waterford 4-8 (20) Cork 2-9 (15)
Referee: Barry Kelly (Westmeath)