Does adrenalin speed your reaction times up to the point where time seems to slow down? I’m not sure if it is scientifically the case, but there is plenty of anectdotal evidence to suggest this and there was one such anecdote yesterday in Thurles. As Declan Prendergast – and I’m sure it was him, not Michael Walsh – emerged from his own half with the ball, soloing towards the Galway goal with all the grace of a gazelle with a lion on its back, who should I spy tearing up on his right hand shoulder but John Mullane. It was almost as if time telescoped as Mullane moved towards the event horizon of a black hole. Prendergast batted the ball towards him, Mullane caught in his stride and barely broke it as he sent the ball in a curving arc over the bar. And all hell broke lose among the Déisigh.
I’ve been following Waterford’s efforts closely for over a decade now – hurling started in 1998, doncha know – and plenty has happened in that time. We’ve had close games, a few big wins, a few big defeats, drew some, and lost games we should have won easy. But at no point have we won a game where we were behind the 8-ball for most of it. The only occasion that comes to mind where we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory was when Paul O’Brien scored a late goal against Tipperary in the 2004 Munster semi-final. And even then we had led for most of the game only to be overtaken in the last ten minutes. Against Galway yesterday we were probably behind for 60 of the 70 minutes, and were six points down midway through the second half of a low scoring, goalless encounter. To turn that around was the stuff of fairy tales.
The day had not gotten off to the most auspicious of starts. Taking the wrong roundabout coming off the Clonmel ring road sent us on the Fethard road. It had been a while since we had taken this particular cross-country jaunt beloved of those convinced they can trim thirty seconds off the journey. No problem with going through Fethard then. It was just that it got really wacky when we found ourselves in New Birmingham. Who knew there was a place in Tipperary called New Birmingham? We certainly hadn’t, which informed us in no uncertain terms that we’d come too far. Turning around brought us in conflict with a road race where the wretched of the earth were shambling along in the middle of the highway causing us to do swerves that would have impressed John Mullane. Next time we’ll make sure we stick to the main road.
We arrived in Thurles with flaming arrows poking out of our wagon and found the town eerily quiet. In retrospect, I was probably looking forward to some culchie craziness to make our English guests – my brother-in-law and Mrs d’s second cousin, although a much closer relation than that status usually implies – come away thinking the Micks were all mad when in crowds. God forbid they might think it no different to a regular league match at Anfield or Goodison Park. Making our way into the ground you then started worrying that they’d be certain it was nothing like Anfield or Goodison Park as the decrepit nature of the venue blazed forth for them to see (although the Red part of me wonders whether the Toffee would have felt right at home, ho ho). As it happens the authorities made the sensible decision to close the Killinan End thus forcing everyone together and minimising the gaps that might have reduced the atmosphere. Allied to some relatively decent seats, certainly by relaxed Ticketmaster criteria, I began to relax myself.
It wasn’t as if I had high expectations, and when the dust had settled my brother would confess that the main reason for going was what he saw as giving a send-off to this generation that have given us such a wild and wonderful time. With 15 minutes to go he would muse that this was going to be the last time Tony Browne would pull on a Waterford shirt. Then again, all things might well pass but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen today as Dublin failed to bring a tremendous season for them to the next level and reach an All-Ireland semi-final. Quite apart from hoping Dublin would make such a breakthrough and having those hopes dashed, there was a slightly queasy feeling at what would be said when Justin McCarthy’s new team did better than the team who had shafted him last summer – not that I begrudge Justin his happiness, but I can do without the trolling on the subject.
So having got through usual pre-match pleasantries, i.e. Amhrán na bhFiann, which I’m relieved to report didn’t leave me embarrassed at such a brazen display of nationalism in front of the post-imperial visitors , I was trying harder than usual to keep cool. This wasn’t made any easier by the presence of as big a bunch of balubas as ever to grace a sporting event sitting directly in front of us. They weren’t obnoxious, they were simply clueless about the game of hurling in general and the etiquette of match-going in a non-segregated environment (which, as expected, freaked the English folk out no end) in particular. They would applaud the ref for giving a free to Galway when he had given it to Waterford. Every Waterford wide was greeted with cheering and leaping to the feet which is fine in the last five minutes but totally OTT in the first five. One yahoo even had a Dublin beanie hat on, doubtless an expression of true love from some Jackeen brassie he had met in the boozer a few hours before. In fairness to the lads none of their clownishness was directed at those around them, but it was a source of constant irritation throughout.
Not as big as Waterford’s first half performance though. After the initial period of fencing Galway got on top. Looking at the programme beforehand I was struck by the lack of marquee players up front. When you consider how the likes of Noel Lane, Brendan Lynskey, Martin Naughton, Anthony Cunningham, Eanna Ryan and some fella called Joe C spring to mind even twenty years on, Galway’s attack – with the exception of some fella called Joe C – didn’t strike fear into our hearts. They’ve never had a problem racking up big scores since those days, the problem has usually been lightweight back lines. And to see Waterford being horsed out of it by the Galway backs was a source of great concern. Only Stephen Molumphy seemed to be getting any change out of the ball, and Ollie Canning’s limpet imitation on John Mullane was working a treat from Galway’s perspective. Points were exchanged from frees before Galway got the first point from play, an excellent strike from Aongus Callanan after an under pressure Clinton Hennessy had sent the ball straight down his throat. It was just as well that Eoin Kelly had brought his free-taking hurley – and it should be noted what a relief it is that this aspect of Waterford’s game is no longer such a source of angst – because Galway were well on top, helped along by a point from a sideline from Joe Canning. But the double-edged nature of such a talent would be illustrated by a period midway through the half. 0-5 to 0-2 up, Galway embarked on a shocking series of efforts, two dreadful wides bookended by two sideline cuts that were brilliantly struck but drifted wide. Waterford reacted to these let-offs with a couple of frees, one of them a really soft one when John Mullane was hit by what looked to me a clean shoulder, and a great point from Kevin Moran to almost miraculously level matters.
There was no disguising Galway’s ascendancy though, however scrappy it might be. Galway began to edge clear, helped by a point from Joe Canning when he was pulled all over the shop by Declan Prendergast and resorted to kicking the ball over the bar from a long way out. The unusual nature of the point disguised just how easily he had made the space. Waterford would be grateful for a great save from Clinton Hennessy which illustrated to the newbies the value of the reaction of the crowd in gauging what had just happened – abrupt ooh = wide / 65; ripple of applause = point; huge roar = goal. Anyone taking notes would appreciate this later on.
Canning knocked over the 65 and another ‘point’ from him soon after would cause consternation. Shooting from an acute angle the ball looked wide from where I was – admittedly as far away as it is possible to be and still be in the New Stand – but was signalled over after some hesitation from the umpires. What followed did no credit to either Waterford or the ref. Eoin Kelly in particular can consider himself fortunate to have escaped censure as he flew off the handle. The ball may well have been wide but the display of histrionics was unnecessary and could have seen him booked, or worse. The ref though displayed a surprising level of procrastination, heading in to have a consultation with his umpires when he was surely in no position to second-guess them then allowing the point. Either chalk off the score or get on with it. Eoin Kelly could probably claim on the sly that such pressure helps when the next 50-50 decision comes his way, and it looked right suspicious when Kelly went down in a heap right under the Old Stand on the 45m line. He scored from the subsequent free and we went in at half-time grateful to be only four points down and praying that the swirling wind was a factor.
Initially it looked like it might be the case with Mullane flashing a goal effort narrowly wide, Eoin Kelly scoring one of those ridiculously precocious over-the-shoulder efforts and Kevin Moran tacking on another fine point. But this was a false dawn as Galway struck back with three quick points, one of them the result of a free when Eoin Murphy simply chopped Damien Hayes down in a blatant professional foul. Joe Canning must have pondered having a go for goal to extract maximum punishment and Galway would come to regret such caginess.
The post half-time blowback had now evaporated and Galway moved six points clear. The Shanahan brothers came on – Maurice and Dan respectively, which demonstrates how the pecking order has changed – and Maurice made a nuisance of himself from the word go. Not enough of a nuisance to impact the scoreboard, although he could claim frustration when his good play put Mullane in the clear only for the effort from a narrow angle to go wide. Or did it? Instinct again told me it was over and we got another display of petulance from Waterford as it was waved wide, this time slapped down with righteous indignation by Diarmuid Kirwan. It looked like heads were beginning to drop as the good work by the backs wasn’t translating into scores at the other end. It was around this point, as alluded to previously, that maudlin thoughts about the imminent departures from the white and blue began to play around in certain skulls. Waterford managed to trim the gap to three but Galway quickly moved back to the insurance score clear, and even the English second cousin could see that Waterford were going to need a goal, something that I suggested was not going to come.
At some point Dan Shanahan had moved in to full-forward. In a sport which consists of 14 mini-battles all over the field with the final result dependent on the collective tally of those battles a simple switch can have a spectacular impact. It’s doubtful whether Noel Hickey would be as discombobulated as Eugene McEntee was, but the brief period where Dan made a difference was explosive. First he gathered a high ball and drove the ball goalwards. Narrowly wide but 10/10 for the effort. Then it happened again, only this time he got the ball clear. I couldn’t see who it fell to or how it ended up in the net – after-the-event nod in the direction of Shane Walsh here for a fine finish – but the reaction of the Waterford crowd on the Town End told us all we need to know. Suddenly it was a one point game. Galway had a chance which drifted hopelessly wide allowing Waterford to come back down the pitch, earn what looked like a soft free even at the time, thus allowing Kelly to level matters up right on the stroke of the 70 minutes. Extra time loomed but Prendergast and Mullane brought up that thrilling, scarcely believable denoument. There was time for Joe Canning to leap into a phone box and don the outside-the-suit underpants but his tricky effort slipped wide sparking wild celebrations – what was that about not celebrating opposition wides? – as the two minutes of injury fizzed into the bottom of the egg timer.
The final whistle blew and Thurles reverberated to disbelieving Waterford celebrations. During his bout where Waterford supposedly boozed away the chance of beating Dublin in the League, Bernard Dunne found himself well behind on the judges scorecards as it went into 11th round. He had to land a knockout blow and he did. This was similar. We hadn’t exactly been battered by Galway and while they were well ahead it could still be won with a knockout punch. It didn’t seem at all likely though as we went into those last rounds, which was what made it so special when they landed that late flurry of blows and Galway didn’t get up off the canvas. No one in Waterford will be under the illusion that Kilkenny will be quaking in their boots after this. But each individual Championship success has value when you are from Waterford, and the manner of this one will rank it up there with the very best.
Waterford: Clinton Hennessy, Eoin Murphy, Declan Prendergast, Noel Connors, Tony Browne, Michael Walsh, Aidan Kearney, Kevin Moran (0-2; Dan Shanahan), Shane O’Sullivan, Jamie Nagle (Maurice Shanahan), Seamus Prendergast (0-1), Stephen Molumphy, John Mullane (0-1), E Kelly (0-12, 0-11 f), Shane Casey (Shane Walsh, 1-0)
Galway: Colm Callanan, Damien Joyce, Eugene McEntee, Ollie Canning, Fergal Moore, John Lee, Eoin Lynch, Ger Farragher (0-2), Kevin Hynes, Aongus Callanan (0-2), Cyril Donnellan (Kevin Hayes), Andy Smith (0-1), Damien Hayes (0-3), Joe Canning (0-9, 0-5 f, 0-1 65), Niall Healy (Joe Gantley, 0-1)
HT: Waterford 0-7 Galway 0-11
Referee: Diarmuid Kirwan (Cork)