When Dan Shanahan hared through the Limerick defence in the dying moments of this Munster final, like the Statue of Liberty on roller skates, he was about to put the seal on what will, should we add the Liam McCarthy Cup to our bag of recently-acquired swag, be the defining victory in this era. When the match entered the last ten minutes, Limerick could have reasonably hoped for a repeat of what happened in 2001, with Waterford crumbling under the unbearable lightness of their own being, the fear of not being able to bury inferior teams leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yet instead, to the joyous disbelief of the Déise faithful, Waterford hit the afterburners and blew the supposed masters of never-say-die away.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. I travelled to this game accompanied by two Englishwomen, one the oft-mentioned luckiest of charms – okay, she didn’t bring us much luck against the Yallowballies, but her record at Thurles is two-from-two – and a friend from Liverpool who had never even seen a hurling match, let alone attended one. I was looking forward to showing her the very best our fair country had to offer, in terms of light hearted banter in Liberty Square and a tub-thumping display as only Waterford can offer. As it was, it was a bit of a letdown. Arriving in the centre of town after much good-natured ribaldry about hang sangwiches and flasks of cawld tay, the need to acquire a ticket for my father who had decided at the last minute to drive up to the game limited the potential for that kind of hijinks. We had to go up to the ground to try and secure an officially approved ticket – cutting off demand for touts as well as supply, outrage fans – and you’d hardly want to turn around and head back into town once there.
As for the match, it wasn’t the totemic piece of free-flowing hurling that we’ve become used to with the Déise boys.
But more on that later, because the ticketing situation deserves an additional few (hundred) words of waffle. We went up to the corner of the ground where a steward introduced us to a Limerick woman with a spare stand ticket. Now, I wouldn’t change anything because we (with particular reference to my scrupulous father) are honest folk, don’t like touts and don’t like to rip off ordinary punters, so we happily paid the grateful woman face value for the ticket, right down to counting out 20c pieces. But it would soon become clear how lucky she was, as touts were now offering tickets for half-price and there would even be anecdotal tales of people giving tickets away.
For the last couple of weeks we were all hearing tales of the ticket famine and moaning from various personages that they had gone to every league match and challenge match and training session and couldn’t get a ticket and it’s a disgrace . . . and every one of these people is either delusional or a bare-faced liar. I asked two people for tickets. Each one of them secured me three, necessitating me turning one of them down, and each could have gotten me more if I wanted. It seems to me that people like to imply that they’d have gone if only they could have gotten a ticket when in truth they never bothered their backsides looking for one. The nasty side of this phenomenon is that it leads people to take any ticket on offer which they then can’t rid of come match day. Listen up people: there is rarely a shortage of tickets for any match in Munster, and never for any other hurling match other than the All-Ireland final. The sooner we all realise this, the less possibility there will be of empty spaces in Thurles. For empty spaces there were on the Killinan End. Still, those who missed out were going to miss out on another Waterford classic, right?
Well, they were going to miss out on the interminable build-up to the main event on Munster final day. Having reached the ground, we decided we might as well go in out of the rain, and I must say that I was dead impressed with the revamped Old Stand. It looked as swanky as any modern soccer ground. And the facilities! There were people there cleaning up in real time! Having remembered the rivers of urine that used flow like the Amazon in your average GAA ground, this was a splendid turn of events, and well done to all concerned. However, having a facet of GAA life that I thought would be acutely embarrassing prove to be a chimera, I was blindsided by the sheer dreariness of the pre-match bumpf on display. With neither side having a crowd there supporting them, the minor match was unspeakably dreary. It was so bad, I didn’t even notice that one of the Cork players had been sent off. Then when the formalities there had been dispensed with, the primary teams lined up to welcome the senior teams onto the pitch. And they waited, and waited, and waited . . . my guests were bored to tears and I was mortified that the most exciting show on Earth was being reduced to this. Things didn’t get any better when the teams finally arrived, slowed to a crawl by the presence of the bench for the team photo – not a bad idea, that one; eliminating the potential for the nonsense that went down between Cork and Clare earlier in the season. I never realised just how torturous the warm-up and the parade could be. Please don’t let the match be this mundane . . .
It wasn’t. I still managed to be embarrassed though, because after an initial period of good open hurling, the match descended into ham-fisted, ten-thumbed dross. The ironic thing about the opening was that it was Limerick who came out of the blocks first. Barry Foley got into acres of space but made a hash of picking it up and it bobbled wide. Then Brian Begley managed to beat Declan Prendergast, who unforgivably went off his feet in his eagerness to beat a player who moves with all the alacrity of a slug on valium, and set off towards goal. Five minutes later he arrived in front of Clinton Hennessy who made himself big to block the effort and push it out for a 65. Andrew O’Shaughnessy knocked over the dead ball – surely the first of many? – and we were under way. Waterford were soon level, but then the third Limerick goalmouth incident at last yielded a Limerick goal, Brian Geary’s free out being flicked to the net by Begley.
It is a sign of the times that the dodginess of this goal did not cause me to foam at the mouth. The low trajectory of the free suggested, even from as far away as we were near the Town End terrace, that he must have been in the square before the ball, a suggestion that seems to have been confirmed by subsequent analysis. But never mind, we can’t let things like that get us down if we’re going to storm the All-Ireland citadel. Really, that’s what I thought at the time! Okay, not with words like ‘citadel’ or so free of expletives, but the sentiment was there, as was the Waterford determination to shrug it off. Points and wides, including a belter of a point from Dan Shanahan and an absolute stinker of a wide, were intermittently exchanged for the next quarter of an hour or so, with no one being able to get up a head of steam. Stephen Molumphy in particular could be pleased with two scores as he tries to get himself mentioned in the same breath as the aforementioned exalted company.
I should emphasis in the context of second half events that I do not seek to put pressure on you, Mr Molumphy.
After this bright opening, the match became to slide inexorably into a dogfight. It is the expected response to blame Limerick for such behaviour, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Limerick employed a tactic of fouling John Mullane whenever he got the ball. Nothing of a violent nature (*cough* Clement Smith *cough*), but the attitude seemed to be that it was better to foul him and expose yourself to Eoin Kelly’s slightly erratic free-taking than take a chance with Mullane cutting in towards the danger zone. Despite that, I didn’t get any sense that Limerick decided to turn it into trench warfare. There were two teams in it, and it was as if both sides decided digging a hole was appropriate. The conditions certainly didn’t help, with lots of players slaloming around on their arses, leading to the referee intervening to bring some order to proceedings.
Speaking of the ref, Seamus Roche has received a very hard time on WLR this morning, a stance that I find difficult to reconcile with my reading of the game. Okay, he gave one utterly appalling decision when the chip pile was reaching its most monumental midway through the second half, allowing a Limerick player to use his shoulder to lever Tony Browne out of it, using Browne’s crotch as a fulcrum, eventually penalising him for overcarrying. And he had an alarming habit of taking an age to restart proceedings, notably pulling up Tony Browne – no conspiracy theories, folks – for taking too long over a sideline ball, then taking the best part of a minute to throw the thing in! This suited Waterford fine though, four points up with three minutes to go at the time, and I can’t think of him making any other wretched decisions – the square ball doesn’t count, that’s a marginal call at the best of times. Perhaps people are stoking up their outrage in advance of trying to gain a few favours come September.
So with the rain beginning to come down in sporadic showers and the ball being like a bar of soap, the match was showing characteristics of what cricket fans might call ‘nuggety’ play, each score like pulling teeth. Eoin Kelly missed an easy free, drawing hoots of derision from the Town End terrace, the same muppets who had chanted “who are ya, who are ya?” early in the half. They’d know who were soon enough, but at that moment it was hard to take from as rowdy a bunch of yahoos as I’ve ever heard at a hurling match, and my mood wasn’t improved five minutes before half time when Mullane somehow spooned the ball from behind himself into his grasp and fired a shot across the bows of Brian Murray in the goal. He pulled off a sensational save – remember, this is John Mullane – and the ball rebounded into the grateful grasp of a Limerick defender. Mullanimal then rounded off that phase of play by nutting the post. Madder than a mad thing.
Half-time came and went, and it was hard to tell if we were behind or in front, so scraggy had the first half been. We were well and truly behind early in the second half, as Limerick notched up three scores while we were held scoreless. One of the points was a right sickener, an attempt at a targeted puckout squirmed through Tony Browne’s grasp and was drilled right back over the bar. At this point in the Cork game, my wife had suggested that it wasn’t going to be our day. At the time, I was convinced she was wrong. She expressed a similar opinion for this game, only this time I thought she was right. I couldn’t see Waterford stepping up a gear, and when Paul Flynn turned in back-to-back horror shows, first fouling the ball after an early 90’s style mazy dribble through the defence, then flashing a shot narrowly wide after some great build-up, it only increased the sense of dread. The balubas on the Limerick terrace celebrated these events like they were points – which in a sense they were, four points – and you could see the heads drop, Eoin Kelly trying to get himself sent off by booting the sliothar towards the crowd and then missing another free after Mullane had been mown down in the corner. The demons were knocking and demanding admittance.
In retrospect though, the Flynn efforts were indicative that Limerick were beginning to wilt, allowing Waterford to get in around the business end of the field. The effort of keeping up with a team who are, to be quite frank, better than them was beginning to show. It was also around this time (or so I’m told) that the rarest of beasts reared its head: The Justin McCarthy Tactical Masterstroke. Eoin Kelly was brought out into the midfield, forcing his Limerick marker to follow him. With the extra space in the Limerick defence, Waterford found the gaps they needed and slowly turned the screw.
The first clear manifestation of that came when Waterford buzzed through the Limerick back line to put Paul Flynn in the clear. He flexed the shoulders and unleashed his patented rocket. Philosophers ask whether if tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear, does it really make a sound? And if a goalie pulls off a sensational save only for someone to knock in the rebound, is it really a save? Brian Murray might ruefully ponder this as he did what few goalies can do even with assistance from team-mates on the line, only to watch Dan Shanahan knock the rebound to the net.
Limerick were wobbling, but they kept hacking away at the advancing glacier, tacking on points in response to death-defying efforts from Dan out near the corner flag (which some people think went wide, the killjoys) and a long range one from Eoin Kelly, both points causing snarls of fury from myself at such recklessness, barely suppressed by them, ahem, going over the bar. But while they seemed to be able to match us in terms of points, they couldn’t get near Waterford’s goal. And the sledgehammer blow came with seven minutes left. After some delightful control of the ball under the Old Stand, Michael Walsh sent a perfectly angled cross-field pass towards Shanahan that would have put Xabi Alonso to shame. Big Dan shrugged off the Lilliputian efforts of the Limerick defender to send a daisy-cutter through Brian Murray’s legs and the gap was up to five.
Since his first goal, I had told myself that if we could only get three points up, we’d win. This line of reasoning was barely perturbed by Limerick scoring the next two points to close the gap to three, thus bringing me face to face with the potential folly of such musings, because there simply didn’t seem to be goals in Limerick’s bag of tricks. Each point Waterford scored now brought roars from the crowd like they had been goals, and the final knockout punch was quite glorious in its inevitability, a fiery statement that this Waterford can turn it up to 11 when the occasion demands it. It was fitting that Big Dan, completely unplayable in that second half, should be afforded the freedom of Thurles to bang his hat-trick goal and put the tin hat on proceedings. We even had the satisfaction of repelling numerous Limerick attempts to get a consolation goal. They were licked, and we both knew it.
The best comparison to such a rout was the 2002 win over Tipperary. This win over Limerick wasn’t as good as that – nothing ever will be – but it was more satisfying. Beating Tipp was born of decades of frustration unleashing itself in an unrepeatable frenzy. We know it was unrepeatable because Clare caught us colder than a pint of Fosters six weeks later. This was more measured, more controlled. The kind of thing that you’d hope can be replicated. And it will need to be, if we are to add the Liam McCarthy Cup to Michael Walsh’s increasingly cluttered sideboard. For now though, let us rejoice again in lording it over Munster. These are the days, my friend, and while they will end, let’s party like they won’t.
Waterford: Clinton Hennessy, Aidan Kearney, Kevin Moran (James Murray), Eoin Murphy, Tony Browne, Declan Prendergast, Ken McGrath (0-1) , Michael Walsh, Stephen Molumphy (0-2) , Seamus Prendergast (0-1f), Dan Shanahan (3-3), Paul Flynn (0-2, 0-1f) , John Mullane (0-3), Eoin Kelly (0-4, 0-2 f) , Jack Kennedy (Eoin McGrath, 0-1)
Limerick: Brian Murray, Mark O’ Riordan, Stephen Lucey, S eamusHickey, Peter Lawlor, Brian Geary, Mark Foley, Donal O’Grady (0-1), Mike O’ Brien (0-1; Paudie O’Dwyer), Niall Moran (Kevin Tobin, 0-2), Ollie Moran (0-1), Mike Fitzgerald (0-3), Andrew O’Shaughnessy (0-3f), Brain Begley (1-2), Barry Foley (Pat Tobin, 0-1)
HT: Waterford 0-9 Limerick 1-5
Referee: Seamus Roche (Tipperary)