Why, enquired my wife, would you stand on the terrace at Walsh Park when there was a perfectly serviceable stand there and the terrace looked like a shingle beach after a hurricane? It was a good question, especially considering the price difference between the stand (€15) and the terrace (€13).
(The price, incidentally, seemed a bit steep given the furore over the €20 price for one of Walsh Park’s rare championship outings against Dublin a few years back. Even taking inflation into account, was the first league match in early spring worth three-quarters of the price of a championship match? After this enjoyably high-octane clash, and factoring in the chicken-feed student price of €5 that my wife paid – she is a student! – it didn’t seem so bad.)
Ten seconds after throw-in, the wisdom of the several hundred people standing on the terrace opposite became apparent. We in the GAA, along with the rugger buggers, routinely slap ourselves on the back for the lack of segregation at our games compared to the savages of soccer. Yet soccer’s policy of not putting opponents alongside each other seems more sensible when you are stranded with a Wexford woman behind you hollering like a New Ross fishwife. “Come on Rory! Come on Eoin! Come on John! Well done John! Come on Rory . . .” Wash, rinse and repeat. Oh, to be on the terrace where you could move away from such attention seeking nonsense.
It’s an endearing phenomenon, that of referring to GAA players by their first name. In soccer, players are referred to by their surnames – no sense in getting too close to a person who is waiting until someone else comes along with thirty-one pieces of silver. Referring to a player every time he hits the ball though, that’s telling everyone just how much you care. In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I was like that when I first started going to games regularly back in 1998, and I never realised just how annoying it is until yesterday. The old Wexford man who sat beside me, calmly noting the scores and wides in his programme, must have been shaking his head at such youthful exuberance.
Still, there was plenty to shout about in a game that bristled with energy. Lacking much knowledge of Wexford hurling, I couldn’t tell you whether their’s was an experimental lineup, but the absence of Damien Fitzhenry would suggest a few of the team will not see the summer. As for Waterford, there were a few new faces in Richie Foley at centre back, Brian Farrell at wing forward and Shane Casey, scoring machine for the intermediates last summer at corner forward. Whether these players make the grade or not, it would be a glimpse into a future without Ken McGrath, Tony Browne and Paul Flynn.
The game started, we tried to filter out the Hook lighthouse behind us and Waterford took an early lead through a fine Seamus Prendergast point. Having survived the first Wexford assault on the always nerve-wracking full back line, Eoin Kelly had a free about fifty metre out just to the right of the posts. The ball drifted wide, but it wasn’t an indicator of the horror show he would have during the following sixty-odd minutes. Points were swapped then Brian Phelan was harshly penalised for overcarrying deep in the Waterford defence, harsh for it seemed it was his momentum that caused him to overcarry and he had been running towards his own goal. The ref was probably strictly correct though, and he whistled up several times throughout the game for this offence, so at least he was consistent and players knew what was coming if they took too much out of the ball. The free looked marginally too far out to be a goal chance but the Wexford forward went for it anyway and was rewarded as it went to the net via Clinton Hennessy’s hurley.
Waterford didn’t have to wait long for a riposte, and what a nice goal it was, Shane Casey eluding his marker under the high ball right near the endline by the old scoreboard. Again, it looked an unlikely goal chance but he fired the ball across the bows of Dermot Flynn into the far corner. Things got even better a few minutes later when Dan Shanahan tried to cut in from the same corner and was hauled down for a penalty, which Eoin Kelly buried with aplomb.
Good stuff thus far, but the itch that would be impossible to scratch would, despite the goal, be Eoin Kelly. He had already missed a few relatively easy chances both from plays and deadballs, and those misses become more acute when a Wexford forward is permitted the freedom of the Waterford half to bear down on goal and knock it home. That’s unfair really, it was a fine run and an unstoppable shot, but dark thoughts burrow in when your freetaker is having an off day. Still, there’s always Dan, who pounced on a rebound off the post to snaffle Waterford’s third goal and he looked to have a hand in a fourth when his rampaging run was halted only for the ball to come to Kelly who put it in the back of the net only for the ref to rule it out for – again – too many steps. It looked right to me and the body language of the players suggested they had few complaints. A few people whooped in the crowd but the always sound policy of waiting for the green flag reaped dividends for the rest of us.
So a scrappy but entertaining first half ended with Waterford up by two points. The early part of the second half was most notable for the angst among the Wexford fans over substitutions. While Justin McCarthy brought on a steady stream of the old (Mullane), the new (Nagle) and the inbetween (Moran), John Meyler seemed in no hurry. Perhaps he had a point though, because Wexford, despite a few poor misses so typical of their hurling, were outscoring Waterford by two points to one. The backs were doing
Trojan work, particularly Jack Kennedy who was mopping up everything in the half back line, but the forwards were nowhere to be seen, and in a game dominated by backs you couldn’t afford to miss soft chances. That may seem obvious, but you can’t get away from the labouring of Eoin Kelly, who missed back-to-back easy frees midway through the half that clearly deflated the crowd who had greeted the frees like manna from heaven. Wexford only took the lead eight minutes from time and were quickly pinned back by John Mullane but had Wexford converted a penalty not long before they took the lead it could have been a lot worse. As it was there was still hope of a late equaliser as the ref signalled four minutes of injury time, but that was merely time for Shane O’Sullivan to show he had left his free taking hurley at home before the final whistle went and Wexford fans ended a frenetic encounter like they had won the All-Ireland. Or so the man next to my wife said. Perhaps they got a little too excited, but as a team who were walloped twice by Kilkenny last year they were entitled to see beating the Munster and League champions in their own back (scrap) yard as evidence of progress.
As for Waterford, the message was inverted from normal. The backs were fine, particularly Kennedy and Michael Walsh doing his cover-every-blade-of-grass routine, but the forwards were poor. The odds are that those statements will be reversed by the summer, but surely it’s easier for the backs to go wrong than for the forwards to go right.
Waterford: Clinton Hennessy, Eoin Murphy, Declan Prendergast (Kevin Moran), Aidan Kearney, Brian Phelan, Richie Foley, Jack Kennedy, Michael Walsh (capt), Shane O’Sullivan (0-1f), Brian Farrell (John Mullane, 0-1), Seamus Prendergast (0-1), Eoin Kelly (1-1f), Shane Walsh (0-1; Jamie Nagle), Dan Shanahan (1-1), Shane Casey (1-1).
Wexford: Dermot Flynn, Malachy Travers, Keith Rossiter, Paul Roche (Denis Morton), Richie Kehoe (0-1), Willie Doran, Diarmuid Lyng, Michael Jacob, John O’Connor (0-1; T O’Dwyer), Stephen Nolan (1-3, 1-2f), Eoin Quigley (1-2), John Breen (0-1; David Redmond), MJ Furlong (Pierce White), David O’Connor, Rory Jacob (0-4).
HT: Waterford 3-4 (13) Wexford 2-6 (12)
Referee: John Sexton (Cork)