What do you take from a win that is the work of one man? On the one hand, it can’t be sustained. If you were told after the Galway – Cork match that the Tribesmen were carried by Joe Canning, you would not be surprised to learn that they lost. On the other hand, what’s wrong with one player dominating on a day when other tried-and-tested players don’t fire on all cylinders? Past performance is no guarantee of future results, an axiom that can cut both ways. Perhaps one of the giants who slept through the Offaly game will arise against Wexford and take the burden from the shoulders of the one who carried it against the Faithful. You can only hope.
Speaking of hope, those who hold out hope for the future of hurling – a bare handful of people if the volume of conversation on the web is to be believed – will be puffing their chests out after this stellar day in Thurles. For the preposterously low sum of €25, the thirty thousand-odd people who were present were treated to over two hours of top notch entertainment. Chief among the hopeful brigade is Wellboy over at UpTheDeise.com, who was to be found (I think; perhaps it was one of his acolytes) on the bridge near the railway station handing out his branded balloons. I’m not certain what these items are called, and Googling hasn’t yielded any results, but I recall the cacophonous din created by the fans of the Anaheim Angels during Game 6 of the 2002 World Series. 45,000 people hammering them together was quite a sight, and while it’s easier to get everyone doing it when a) the crowd are all rooting for one team, and b) the sport in question, i.e. baseball, is a series of setpieces rather than the nonstop tumult that is hurling. Still, 10/10 as an exercise in marketing, and I might frequent UpTheDeise.com a bit more, especially now that he seems to have purged the trolls.
We took up our seats good and early, with two Laois women, a Kerry man and an English woman in tow, all cheering for the Déise boys – now how’s that as an exercise in marketing? We certainly got there earlier than the hordes that suddenly erupted out of the New Stand onto the pitch a few minutes before the match was due to start. It didn’t look like the stand was full, but you can’t blame the stewards for deciding that it was better to give those willing to trash the GAA some more ammo by permitting people to switch stands in such an undignified manner than have people crib about being expected to sit in the wings of the stand. It was two parts amusement one part buttock clenching embarrassment as the stream continued into the (superior) Old Stand, despite the protestations of the announcer. Once again, the GAA can’t win with its public. People complain about having to buy tickets at a booth when it would be easier to pay at the gate. Yet things like this are bound to happen when it’s pay at the gate. Should the authorities close the stand you’d have people wailing that they would have to run around to the other side to gain admittance and they should delay the throw-in, which would lead other people to say to hell with them, start the game on time and come earlier next time, but the Gardaí would inevitably delay the throw-in due to the danger of a crush which means no one need be worried about the game not being delayed meaning they turn up late next time and the next time . . . nope, there’s no solution short of some kind of hive mind implant to change everyone’s behaviour.
(One final thought before we get away from this padding and into the match. Once again, the toilet facilities were superb in the Old Stand. Whoever decided that the patrons of Semple Stadium deserved treatment that wouldn’t be out of place in the Hilton after years of treating them like cattle should be beatified.)
The last couple of weeks have been rather helter skelter, what with the English woman up to her tonsils in exam papers and the dislocation of switching jobs, so the details of Waterford’s team passed me by. It wasn’t until Waterford had their first free that I twigged that my great crusade for 2008 had come up short. Dave Bennett was back in his pre-destined position of bench warmer, punished for the crime of not being flawless with the frees against Antrim. I probably should give up banging this drum, but the sight of Bennett coming on with about thirty seconds to go was enough to make yer blood boil. The manner in which he takes these slights is only further evidence of the even temperment of a man who should be picked way ahead of some of the fat arses currently stinking up the side. Sort it out, Davy Fitz.
So that’s one of those things that haven’t changed under the nouveau régime. Another thing that hasn’t changed is Waterford’s capacity to hit the ground running, as John Mullane rattled over the first point within seconds then worked his way into space before playing a pass to Eoin Kelly that went too close to Brian Mullins in the Offaly goal. Way down in our perch near the Town End of the stand it was impossible to tell just how big a clanger he dropped – did it bounce awkwardly or did he simply take his eye off the ball? – but it somehow squirmed past him and Eoin Kelly, like a good striker assuming the best, was there to bat the ball into the gaping net. Further quick fire points followed and Waterford were 1-4 up before we’d even drawn breath.
Other things that never change are the free taking calamities, as Eoin Kelly missed a routine strike only for Offaly to come straight down the pitch and score. We joked that this was a ‘turning point’ then watched in growing horror as Offaly reeled us in like a mackerel. The early spurt was always going to be skewed by the soft goal which made this period all the worse. Eight points flew over without reply. The Antrim game had made me wonder whether the Davy Fitzgerald model had a game plan, something you could never accuse Justin McCarthy of having. The only plan there seemed to be here was an infuriating desire to do what I can only describe as micromanaging the ball, constantly twisiting to try and create more space rather than simply letting fly with the ball out of defence at the first available opportunity. Even the first available half- opportunity would have been better than these ham-fisted handpasses and hospital balls. Panic seemed to be spreading through the team to the point that every foray forward had to end in a goal. In fairness they were decent goal scoring chances, with Hurney racing (in so far as he can ever ‘race’) through only to be well blocked, Mullane slicing a chance wide and Kelly being fouled then having the free saved and cleared. But had we been several points ahead rather than watching a lead evaporate you can be certain these would have gone over the bar.
Thank God for defensive cockups then as Offaly’s full back line contrived once again to gift Waterford a goal. Another charge towards goal seemed to have ended when the ball was intercepted by Michael Verney but he fumbled the ball like a bar of soap and Kelly was there to lash the ball past Mullins. What an utter sickener for Offaly, seeing all their good work undone in one careless moment, and Verney was quickly called ashore. Points were exchanged until half time leaving Waterford a point ahead at the break.
Much has been said online about the performance of the referee Michael Haverty. He didn’t have a great game, that’s for sure. It struck me that he was prone to give the decisions according to the way the momentum was going. Whichever side was on top was given the benefit of the doubt, which led to some truly wacky decisions. Players were punished for what might be termed loose strikes but were neither dangerous nor anything they could have anticipated. I’m all for supposedly over-fussy refs – apply the rulebook, that’s all I ask; this notion that refs should ‘let the game flow’ is a recipe for brutality, something that would be evident in the following game between Galway and Cork. But Haverty got lots of decisions wrong, the only consolation being he seemed to dish out the errors evenly. And the abiding memory of the ref from this game was the astonishing distance he got on the sliothar as he threw them from the 65 metre line to the edge of the square just before the start of the second half. Clearly no one is going to argue with his decisions.
The second half started with Offaly flying out of the traps, knocking over two quick points before the game settled into a series of tit-for-tat points, with Eoin Kelly contriving to miss another doozy of a free in this period. It is about time that I referred to him directly, as anyone who was at the game will be wondering what game I was watching to be so dismissive of his performance. For starters, his goals were soft affairs gifted up to him by dreadful Offaly errors. And his free taking was as erratic as always. He seems to have adopted a Jonny Wilkinson-style routine for his frees but while he hit some decent ones in the second half he did miss a few easier ones that we need to be getting if we are to advance further. Up to the fifty minute or so mark, there was little to suggest he was about to go supernova. But go supernova he did, with a display of crazy point scoring that was as good as any hurler ever produced. Gathering a puckout around the 65 metre line, he turned and smacked it over the bar on his left side. Then he pointed from way out wide on the right, over his shoulder no less. Then came another crazy heft from out the field under pressure. Long range frees now flew over the bar with minimum effort. Stirring stuff, and it was observed to me after the game that you could see Offaly crumble around this time. They persevered but when it became clear that goals were what was needed it became equally clear that none were going to be forthcoming. Whether this was because of the presence of Ken McGrath is debatable. We definitely missed his moxy in the half back line, and he didn’t seem to do a whole lot of import at full back. But the scoreboard tells us Offaly didn’t score a goal and Clinton Hennessy didn’t have to make a single save throughout the game. Some might say Offaly didn’t threaten, but Joe Bergin has given us palpitations in the past so it’s not unreasonable to suggest we were doing something right.
Kelly’s stellar performance, rounded off with two more long range frees, carried the team across the finish line. The ying of his 2-13 can be set against the yang of 0-5 for the rest of the team. John Mullane endlessly caused trouble for the Offaly backs and drew a few frees, but the rest of the forwards could have been replaced with dustbins with little harm done, and Big Dan was a fair bit worse than any trash receptacle might have been. The selectors have got to bite the bullet with Dan. Tracing the comments I’ve made through each game this year can show how mediocre he has been. The point where you say “give him another chance” was passed a few games back. Other players may have underperformed yesterday but they’ve either not had enough games to be sternly judged (Hurney and Prendergast) or can point to good outings already this year in their defence (Mullane and Eoin McGrath). The ongoing experiment with Ken McGrath in the back line will surely be persisted with even if the evidence for its effectiveness is mixed. We’ve come a long way since that Clare game, and (let’s be honest) we’ve gotten the easier half of the draw in the quarter-finals – just like Offaly in this round Wexford will view it the same way so no need to paste this to the dressing room wall, Mr Meyler. Kilkenny and Tipperary won’t be quaking in their boots but even getting a crack at either of them would represent progress of a sort.
Waterford: Clinton Hennessy; Eoin Murphy, Ken McGrath, Declan Prendergast, Shane O’Sullivan, Tony Browne, Jack Kennedy (Brain Phelan), Michael Walsh (capt), Jamie Nagle (Paul Flynn), Dan Shanahan, Gary Hurney (Stephen Molumphey, 0-1), Seamus Prendergast (0-1), E McGrath (0-1; Dave Bennett), Eoin Kelly (2-13), J Mullane (0-2)
Offaly: Brian Mullins, David Franks (0-1), David Kenny, Michael Verney (Conor Hernon; James Rigney), Kevin Brady, Ger Oakley, Paul Cleary (0-1), Brendan Murphy (0-2), Rory Hanniffy (0-2), Shane Dooley (0-1), Joe Brady, Derek Molloy (0-1), Brian Carroll (0-9), Joe Bergin (0-1), Daniel Currams (Conor Mahon)
HT: Waterford 2-6 (12) Offaly 0-11 (11)
Referee: Michael Haverty (Galway)
Post Scriptum: the second game was a thirlling, tension soaked, bonus. Hopefully I’ll get to write about it through the week.