Waterford 2-19 (25) Wexford 3-14 (24)

Pre Scriptum: it’s a new era here at Come on the Déise. We’ve taken the plunge into the world of Sky+, and pretty darn slick it is too. Up until now, I’ve always adopted the philosophy that match reports should be as contemperaneous as possible. If you want to read a proper account of the match, there are plenty of sites for that. If you want to read an account of just when a grown man felt closest to a heart attack, you’re in the right place. However, with Sky+ the more obvious clangers can be nipped in the bud right at the start. For the moment we’ll carry on in the old vein, reserving the right to switch if trying to remember who scored what point – Eoin McGrath got 0-4! – becomes too obviously hard.

One of the more worthwhile exercises I’ve ever conducted online regards the accusation that the GAA has an unwritten rule encouraging the referees to ‘play for a draw’ – yeah, it’s worthwhile in comparision to conducting long drawn out battles with WUM‘s or checking out the results of the Boston Red Sox. It seems that since 1998, the year that is universally accepted to be when hurling began, Waterford have been involved in quite a few one score championship matches:

1998: Tipperary (won by three points), Kilkenny (lost by one point)
1999: Limerick (won by one)
2000: Tipperary (lost by three)
2001: Limerick (lost by three)
2002: Cork (won by one), Clare (lost by three)
2003: Limerick (won by two)
2004: Tipperary (won by one), Cork (won by one), Kilkenny (lost by three)
2005: Cork (lost by two)
2006: Tipperary (won by three), Cork (lost by one)
2007: Cork (won by three), Cork (won by three)

We’ve played fifteen championship matches where the refs have failed to engineer the draw so beloved of the GAA despite having an open goal, so to speak. In all that time, only three times (Clare in 1998, Limerick in 2004 and Cork in 2007) have they succeeded. Either they haven’t being doing a very good job, or they are playing it straight.

And yesterday we saw it again. Referee John Sexton announced with two minutes remaining that he would play one minute of injury time. It would surely have been politically sensitive to give Wexford one more chance past that additional period – one that is only ‘a minimum’ – to secure a draw / replay (more on that later). But he did not. The final whistle went with buttock-unclenching haste and Waterford were into their sixth semi-final in eleven years. Had it been the other way around we’d have been fuming, much as we have in the past.

Speaking of the past, it came as a surprise to realise in the build up that the pleasures of the Killinan Maher Terrace, as it is now known, had gone untasted for nine long years. This was a realisation that brought out a dose of reminiscing on the day when Mikey O’Connell put us to the sword, a day which my poor wife had to relive even though it happened three years before I met her, as I foamed at the mouth recounting how a player could score six points from the midfield then vanish from the annals of hurling, All-Ireland medal and all. Nostalgia sure ain’t what it used to be.

Waterford got off to a decent start, with Eoin Kelly knocking over his first two frees. Last time I noted the Jonny Wilkinson-esque routine he seems to have adopted (at least, I don’t remember him having as convoluted a routine before) and despite my sniffiness at the time it might well be having results. The first point from play was quite a laugh, a Wexford back clearing to the delight of their supporters – only to send the ball straight down the throat of Eoin McGrath who did the needful. Speaking of Wexford’s supporters, it was quite shocking how few fans they had at the match. Having been very impressed by the noise and the colour generated by the Wexford fans in defeat when I saw them in the 1999 Leinster semi-final in Croke Park, I’ve thought well of their fans. To see the paltry turnout for a match that everyone agreed they had a decent chance in shows how much the beatings they have taken at the hands of Kilkenny has reduced morale in the Model County.

Those who stayed away were to miss a stirring performance, one jumpstarted by as classy a goal as you are likely to see. Rory Jacob got in behind Eoin Murphy and sent the ball across the goal where it was gathered by Stephen Doyle. He cut inside and batted the ball past the helpless Clinton Hennessy. Simple as you like, and it makes you wonder why there aren’t more goals in hurling. I suppose it helps when trying to keep them out to have, you know, a good full back line. The match programme noted that Waterford were trying to keep three successive clean sheets for the first time ever in championship hurling. So much for that then.

Having snuffed out Waterford’s early lead, Wexford proceeded to open up a three point lead of their own. Waterford were huffing and puffing at this stage, and it wasn’t until a rather splendid gather-pivot-and-shot effort from Seamus Prendergast that Waterford got a score that could be said to be all their own work. At the other end of the field, Ken McGrath was beginning to get on top of things. He had fluffed his first attempt to gather the ball for the third match in a row, but his next effort was a message-bearing scythe across the dropping ball and his third a clean catch and clearance. In contrast to Offaly, Wexford didn’t seem to be putting Waterford under that much pressure. Certainly the ‘tactic’ of getting space before driving the ball seemed to be reaping greater dividends as the half wore on. Some nifty play got Dan Shanahan into space and he bore down on goal only to have the ball flicked from his hurley when he was in position to pull the trigger. This brought the usual bout of carping from the assembled fans, but to me it was the first positive contribution from Dan all summer. Having demanded his head during the week this was definitely one in the eye.

Slowly but surely, Waterford began to assert their authority. Stephen Molumphy was creating havoc in the middle third of the field and Mullane was in dominant form – except that the ref was insistent on penalising him for overcarrying the ball. The odds are that Mr Sexton was correct, but I find it hard to believe that Mullane was the only player at it. Still, the amount of possession we were getting was a good sign, in no small part due to a towering performance from Tony Browne at centre back. Waterford played it cool at this point, confident that with all that ball that scores would come, and as it neared half time Waterford had edged two points in front. Mullane might have made it three but for one of those overcarrying penalties, allowing Wexford to clear and tack on a score as the clock ticked towwards the end of the extra two minutes. I’d have settled for that, but Seamus Prendergast had other ideas. A mighty catch in the middle of the field while surrounded by three Wexford players was followed up with a well directed ball into the danger zone. The ref gave Waterford a free and Eoin Kelly teed it up. “Take yer point” said some fool on the terrace (ahem) but he didn’t listen, instead opting to smash the free into the roof of the Wexford net.

What a turnaround, 1-5 to 0-1 in the second quarter of the match, a period that had been as good a display of control from Waterford as we had seen all year. Mentally ruminating on events in the first half, two things seemed clear to me: 1) this lot weren’t as good as Offaly, and 2) a goal early in the second half and we’d run away with it. A team whose fans were afraid to turn up for fear of the beating they’d get were surely one sharp push away from collapsing entirely. Of course, it didn’t work out that way. After an exchange of points Rory Jacob got the ball in the corner. “Don’t foul him”, roared the Nostradamus of the terrace and the ball ended up going out for a Wexford lineball. What happened next was a bit of mystery – no Sky+, remember – as the sideline ball seemed to fly through the entire Waterford back line before bouncning apologetically into the net. The fact that the goal was credited to Willie Doran would suggest to me that the ball did travel all the way without being touched by anyone in the full forward line. Then in the next attack, Jacob and Stephen Doyle were given the freedom of the park to walk the ball into the goal.

Well that’s just champion. Perhaps there was a karmic butterfly effect at work here and Eoin Kelly shouldn’t have been so brazen in going for that goal at the end of the first half. Whatever it was, we had gone from being four points up to being four points down without much effort on Wexford’s part. Yanking off Brian Phelan in favour of Kevin Moran did not inspire confidence that the bench knew what they were doing. Credit at this point to Jamie Nagle for an excellent score from the midfield, earning a gee-up from Eoin Kelly in the process. It was certainly a moment to calm the nerves, and with John Mullane working out how to avoid being penalised for overcarrying and instead drawing soft frees from frazzled defenders, Waterford began to climb back up the self-made mountain again.

It was, ironically enough, from a less-than-authoratitive moment from Mullane, that Waterford moved to within sight of the summit. Turning to shoot after some good supply work from Eoin McGrath, he either mishit the ball or hesitated at the last moment, sending a strange looping ball into the edge of the square. Lurking with intent, only moments after some yahoo on terrace had demanded he “win the ball at least once, ya lazy feck” – in this case, I plead not guilty to having said that instead tut-tutting sotto voce at such obnoxiousness – was Dan Shanahan. He plucked the ball out of the air like an ripe apple from a tree and this close to goal there was only going to be one result.

There wasn’t exactly joy unconfined on the Killinan End, but it was definitely what the doctor ordered. From this point on it felt as if it would be who ever was ahead at the final whistle would win – that might seem obvious, but play five more minutes and you’d have a different winner, another five another winner. This might have motivated Eoin Kelly when another Mullane jig – followed by crazy war dance for the benefit of the terrace – earned Waterford a free. Straight in front of goal, not much more than 21 metres out and only two extra bodies in the Wexford goal, a shot at goal seemed a no-brainer. Yet Kelly popped it over the bar.

Keeping the scoreboard ticking over had to be the reason. It wasn’t long before this didn’t look so reasonable. Stephen Doyle cut in from the right again and in the ensuing scramble Wexford got a penalty. Up trotted Damien Fitzhenry and mentally you were already adding three points to Wexford’s score. This meant it felt like quite a release when his shot raced into the nets behind the goal. While Eoin Kelly’s effort was deliberate, this must have been a mishit. Why send your legendary goalscoring goalie up for a penalty to do what every hurler in the country could do on their weak side?

So were hanging in there, sometimes level, sometimes in the lead, but crucially never behind – had Fitzhenry’s penalty yielded a goal it probably would have been very different. Wexford seemed to be on top in their back division, with David O’Connor mopping up everything that came his way. Why Waterford only used one sub on a day when the sun was beating down like a hammer is something the mentors need to think about before the next game. At this point we began speculating on the possibilty of the dreaded extra time. I was convinced that extra time would be necessary, but page 3 of the match programme seemed to blatantly differentiate between the certainty of extra time in the minor and the lack of said certainty in the senior matches. So a bumper pay day was in the offing for the GAA, if John Sexton played his cards right.

And perhaps Wexford were expecting that, because when the announcement went up that there were effectively only three minutes left, Diarmuid Lyng was standing over a free awarded after Kevin Moran had effectively committed a professional foul to sniff out the possibility of a goal. Three minutes left, two points in it: plenty of time left if Wexford didn’t dally, yet Lyng took a lot of time to take the free. Molumphy had the chance to leave Wexford needing a goal as the time ticked inexorably on but his shot went wide. The clock moved into the 72nd minute and Fitzhenry still showed little in the way of urgency. This tardiness meant that it was almost anti-climactic when the ref blew the final whistle. Where was the last minute scramble, the ball hitting the bar, the back emerging triumphantly with the sliothar in his fist – or the forward wheeling away in triumph having smashed home the goal to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Not that I’m complaining, though Wexford might legitimately gripe about the ref having no soul.

And thus it has come to pass. The leprechaun has given us his crock of gold, or at least a portion of it. It’s obligatory to say at this stage that there doesn’t look like there’s an All-Ireland in this Waterford team, and I’m loath to omit that which is obligatory. Still, after the rout against Clare it would have not seemed possible that Waterford would be the only team left out of the non-Big Three counties at the semi-final stage. It’s not progress but at least we’re not going backwards and anything is better than going back.

Waterford: Clinton Hennessy, Eoin Murphy, Ken McGrath, Declan Prendergast, Shane O’Sullivan (Jack Kennedy), Tony Browne, Brian Phelan (Kevin Moran), Michael Walsh (capt), Jamie Nagle (0-1), Dan Shanahan (1-1), Seamus Prendergast (0-1), Stephen Molumphy (0-1), Eoin McGrath (0-4), Eoin Kelly (1-8, 1-6f, 1 65), John Mullane (0-3)

Wexford: Damien Fitzhenry (0-1 pen), Malachy Travers, Paul Roche, Brendan O’Leary, Mick Jacob, David O’Connor, Colm Farrell (Darren Stamp), Eoin Quigley (0-1), David Redmond (0-2), PJ Nolan (Stephen Nolan, 0-1; Keith Rossiter), Willie Doran (1-1), Diarmuid Lyng (0-5f), Stephen Doyle (2-1), Stephen Banville (Barry Lambert), Rory Jacob (capt; 0-3, 1f)

HT: Waterford 1-10 (13) Wexford 1-6 (9)

Referee: John Sexton (Cork)