The first thing that should be said is that we can’t blame the system. All the rules were agree before the start, all the counties agreed to be bound by those rules, and just because Waterford – long-suffering, always entertaining Waterford – were knocked out after only losing once while the People’s Republic of Cork (to rhyme with People’s Republic of China or the People’s Republic of Korea) sailed blissfully on having lost twice, doesn’t mean we have anything to complain about. After all, If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same . . .
(Record needle slips)
Oh. Right. That was the start to this report that I was contemplating two minutes before the end of normal time as Waterford lay four points adrift of Cork and the Langers were collectively dancing a jig around Croke Park, making mental notes to book Barry’s Hotel for the first Sunday in September.
I, for one, had given up the ghost. When my father pointed out in that infuriatingly reasonable manner of his that there was still time to save it, I dismissed it on the basis that white and blue heads were dropping all over the pitch. After all, they sure as hell were dropping in the stands. As one fella put it on the train after the game, “the glasses had gone into the case”. And the worst part of it was that it had briefly looked like this was going to be the day that Waterford cut loose and tore a top team a new arsehole. We would have to settle for seeing the team show the courage of lions on the Croke Park turf.
“Settle” for that. Yep, times have changed.
Arrival at Croke Park always brings to mind the same contrasting thoughts.
As the colossus rose into the north Dublin sky, the great Kevin Cashman was quite unequivocal, labelling it “Corporate Park “, a ground that could keep out “neither the rain nor the shysters”. And while his preferred solution – a 250,000 capacity ground in Thurles built by meitheal – shows his particular location on the lunatic fringe, it isn’t as great as some people would have it. The Hill remains a strange anomaly, like a supermodel appearing in public missing her two front teeth. Since I was last here at Croker, I have read the thoughts of one contributor to the Northern Ireland soccer website, Our Wee Country, where he / she noted the strangely exposed nature of the structure. Step out for a hotdog at half-time and you’ll wonder when they’ll get around to finishing the rest of the ground.
These negative waves are more than swamped by two positive thoughts about Croke Park, one objective, one subjective. The objective plus point for the ground its stupendous size, a point acknowledged by the aforementioned OWC contributor. It just goes on and on, and personal experience of the Millennium Stadium and the Nou Camp has been coloured by the fact that it seems you could drop either of them into Croke Park and not scrape the hoardings. The subjective reason for admiring Croke Park is that it belongs to everyone in the GAA – sez he cheekily, as if merely going to matches makes you part of the GAA – and its very existence is a towering tribute to the centrality of the GAA in Irish life, especially now that the FAI and the IRFU have had to sully themselves by genuflecting at the altar of all things culchie. It gives one a warm glow, just thinking about it.
Speaking of warm glows, watching the Banner slink out of the championship was quite pleasing. Bitter and small minded? Yes, but you’ll use anything against the denizens of a county who still wind Waterford up over the shortage of All-Ireland’s despite having won nothing, not even a Munster intermediate title, for the best part of a decade. You need to hoard even the puniest of nuts against the hard hibernation of another Waterford quarter-final exit.
Not that that seemed likely in the early exchanges of the Cork match, as Waterford didn’t so much hit the ground running as just grazing it before taking flight. Stephen Molumphy, in the first of three noteworthy cameos, set the ball rolling with a modest effort at the posts that somehow apologetically squirmed over – ah, no attempts to prevent the point from Donal Óg this time. Points were swapped to leave Waterford 0-4 to 0-3 ahead when Big Dan decided that Cork had been flattered by those opening exchanges. Racing onto the high ball, he shrugged off the attentions of the defenders and smacked a pinpoint shot off the far post. From my vantage point high up in the Cusack it looked like to have gone wide as it nestled in the side of the net rather than pinging back off the rigging. But the green flag went up and that was all that mattered. A trademark improbable over-the-shoulder point from John Mullane left Waterford five points up midway through the first half and I don’t mind admitting that I was harbouring thoughts of Waterford running away from Cork, so swaggering was this opening quarter.
Even at the time, you had to admire the manner in which Cork steadied the ship. It was as if their half back line decided they’d fannied around for long enough and stomped all over their opposite Waterford numbers, with Tom Kenny and Seán Óg Ó hAilpín scoring heroic solo points, and John Gardiner and Ronan Curran weighed in to provide oceans of possession for the forwards to nibble away at the lead. By half time we were relieved to be level, our only score coming courtesy of a dodgy looking 65 from Ken McGrath.
Was this the real Cork, we pondered at half time, fingernails being chewed past the cuticle down to the knuckle? Ó hAilpín in particular had been magnificent, and there was plenty to suggest that Cusack and The Pebble had strengthened the spine of the Rebels. Yet it took barely thirty seconds of the second half for the last part of that equation to be disproven. Molumphy, in the second of his hat-trick of noteworthy cameos, found himself in space on the 45. Some goon in the stand (ahem) yelled “take yer point!” but the young man making his Croke Park debut spotted Paul Flynn loitering with intent and The Pebble not to be seen. The handpass found Flynn who pulled back the arms that, I’m reliably informed, play off a two handicap, and scorched the sliothar past Cusack in the goal with the glacial presence of O’Sullivan nowhere to be seen. So after twenty minutes of having had a hurling lesson, Waterford incredibly found themselves three points to the good.
Waterford had stretched the lead to four points before the game settled into a sickeningly familiar pattern, one of two steps forward followed by three steps back, a.k.a. a goal, all the time interspersed with wides that would quail the stoutest of hearts – to put things into context, Waterford would hit fourteen wides this day; in Thurles, they hit four.
The first knockdown came from the penalty spot. Kieran Murphy charged through the defence and was pulled down. It looked soft, and with the recent Langer habit of diving Waterford were entitled to grumble, but it still looked like a foul and that makes it a penalty. Neil Ronan succeeded where Ben O’Connor had failed all those weeks ago in the Munster championship, driving the ball high past Clinton Hennessy, and Cork were level. Waterford regained the lead, with one spectacular point from way out under the Cusack Stand being a real highlight from Dan Shanahan, but the second knockdown gave Cork the lead, Murphy getting clean through on goal an cleverly eliminating the possibility of a hook by keeping the hurley between him and the goal and batting the ball, Federer-style, past the advancing goalie. Cork now led for the first time since early in the Munster semi-final.
There was blood in the water. The game was still even, and Waterford still played like they believed it could not not be their day, especially Ken McGrath. But Ó hAilpín continued to inspire, and it was perhaps that second quarter of the match that spoke loudest when Kevin Hartnett got into position and sent a shot towards goal. Hennessy saved well but could only fling himself in true Hollywood no-oo-oo-oooo style towards the rebound as Neil Ronan pounced and buried the loose ball to the net. Perhaps if Clinton had attempted to deliberately lie on the ball . . . With sub Hartnett adding the insurance score, the glasses were in the case and Cork were mentally booking hotels in de fake capital for the first Sunday in September.
Time for Molumphy’s third and most important noteworthy cameo. Ghosting into the edge of the small square as Paul Flynn locked-and-loaded about thirty metres out, he watched as the howitzer was brilliantly saved by Cusack, then brilliantly batted the airborne projectile to the gaping net. A noteworthy cameo, if ever there was one.
Great, I thought. The feckers are toying with me, offering me another one point heartbreaker and a winter of sneers from our betters in Langerland, a venomous sentiment confirmed as Ken drifted a long range free wide just as Brian Galvin signalled a puny one minute injury time.
But wait. McGrath the younger powered towards goal, getting his marker in such a tizzy that he was able to get around him and simultaneously lurch dramatically into the danger area. The debate would rage as to whether he should have taken the percentage point or go for broke, and it is not 20:20 hindsight on my part to say I roared for him to put it all on one roll of the die. As that great philosopher Eminem said:
Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted – One moment
Would you capture it or just let it slip?
To his eternal credit, Eoin McGrath went for it.
On his weak side, the shot only required a decent save from Cusack, which it got. Luckily for Cork, the ball somehow eluded Dan Shanahan who was standing mere metres away. Unluckily for Cork, it fell to Paul Flynn who had no choice but to pull first time for goal. Luckily for Cork, Diarmuid O’Sullivan’s fat arse (© Dan Shanahan) was in the way and provided a sizeable barrier to bypass. The ball deflected onto Cusack’s stick and seventy thousand-odd people gasped as everyone piled in on the line. Over to you, Mr Galvin
Free-in to Waterford. Having taken two chances for goal – not that Paul Flynn had a choice, he was just too close to too any Cork players to contemplate lifting the ball – Waterford spurned a presentable opportunity for Flynn to win it for good. However, let’s not poke the capricious hurling Gods too hard. Eoin Kelly knocked over the free, the ref called time and boos rained down from the Cork faithful on his head.
I’m not kidding when I say I was a bit bemused by this reaction. The first thing that should be said is that the decision was, on reflection, absolutely correct. Watch the footage. Donal Óg Cusack has clearly turned through 180º by the time Paul Flynn has arrived on the scene, all the while protecting the ball with his body. A textbook example of sitting on the ball. The consistency of the ref’s decision making is a red herring. They can complain about those he got wrong, but they can’t seriously think he should deserve praise for giving a wrong decision because he always gives ‘em wrong.
Even at the time, the decision reeked of correctness. Gerald McCarthy said in the immediate aftermath that “I couldn’t see it was free in”. What, it couldn’t possibly be a free in, not under any circumstances? Perhaps he based this on the unimpeachable reputation of Cusack for the integrity of the ball. Yeah, right. This is the man who can’t resist taking an extra six inches out of every puckout, a policy that cost them a point against Tipperary and ultimately left them playing the better of the south-eastern ‘ford’s. And, in the final analysis, the ref was right to allow context to dictate his decision. As he ran up to the schemozzle developing on the line, he can’t have known for certain what had transpired. It must have entered his head that if he gave a throw-in and that was the wrong decision – which it would have been – the uproar from Waterford would have been apocalyptic. Can you imagine Cork would be uttering the same platitudes had the roles been reversed and the decision had gone against them?
And so to the replay, scheduled to be the main feature on the day of an All-Ireland semi-final. The best message for Waterford is that there is room for improvement, while I think that that’s as good as it gets for Cork. I hope that, at least.
Waterford: Clinton Hennessy, Eoin Murphy, Declan Prendergast, James Murray (Brian Phelan, Tony Browne, Ken McGrath (0-2, 0-1f, 0-1 65), Aidan Kearney, Michael Walsh (capt), Eoin Kelly (0-4, 0-3f), Jack Kennedy (Eoin McGrath), Seamus Prendergast (0-1), Stephen Molumphy (1-2), John Mullane (0-2), Dan Shanahan (1-3), Paul Flynn (1-2)
Cork: Donal Óg Cusack, Shane O’Neill, Diarmuid O’Sullivan, Brian Murphy, John Gardiner (0-1), Ronan Curran, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín (0-2), Tom Kenny (0-1), Jerry O’Connor (0-1; Kevin Hartnett, 0-1), Ben O’Connor (0-3, 0-1f), Timmy McCarthy (Niall McCarthy; Conor Naughton), Pat Cronin, Neil Ronan (2-2, 1-0p), Joe Deane (capt, 0-5, 0-4f)
HT: Waterford 1-7 (10) Cork 0-10 (10)
Referee: Brian Galvin (Offaly)