How do they do it? The fanatical fans, I mean, following the team through a long, gruelling season. This isn’t just about Waterford United fans. When living in Liverpool, there was many a day / night where the thought of a cosy night of trashy TV or curled up in front of the fire with a good internet forum book seemed far more attractive than hauling butt up to Anfield. The only thing that stopped me was the thought that I’d already paid £30+ for the ‘privilege’. No such monetary chain tying me to the Blues. One of the joys of the inter-county GAA scene is the sense that most games are important. Yea, even the spring games where you need to be winning all the time to sustain the League challenge. Then there’s the Championship, of which no more need be said.
So thank heavens for the occasional marquee soccer game which help remind you what’s at stake. This day eight years ago, I sped up to the ground in anticipation of a great European night. It would be fair to say that expectations were not only met but exceeded. And Derry City are the kind of club that if you can’t get the blood up for, you’re dead. The Candystripes have been at the heart of much that is good about the League of Ireland over the last quarter century. Deprived of senior soccer for so long by the Troubles, the enthusiasm they brought to the League was a wonder to behold. They had an exoticism which went beyond bringing players with names like Nelson da Silva and Owen de Gama to these shores. They were Nordies, carrying with them a whiff of that sulphur. They appealed to the GAA type, decrying the partitionism of the domestic game. And they were quite successful.
Derry, in short, are among the heavyweights of the game. Then again, so should be the Blues. And perhaps it was that clash of potential titans that led to such an entertaining game. It needs to be emphasised – this was a cracking spectacle, with two teams committed to attack and playing attractive soccer. Factor in the utterly evil conditions on the pitch and the quality was nothing short of miraculous. Truly you won’t know unless you go.
It was Derry who hit the ground surfing, getting two chances in the first six minutes where the Derry player only had to hit the target and it was in, but both were thankfully skyed. You tell yourself when watching soccer that they’ll regret such profligacy and so it proved after eleven minutes when some nifty one-touch passing saw Vinny Sullivan put in space on the corner of the six yard box with a clear sight of goal. What is it with Vinny Sullivan, the dreaded ‘cult figure’ (see: Erik Meijer) of fable? Asking someone in the know, it seems he can string together a run of seven goals in five games then not score in twenty. This was a gilt-edged chance to make it three-from-three but he dragged the shot waaay across the face of the goal. It looked wide from where I was but the ball struck the post and came back to Liam Kearney who had the simple task of tapping it in against his former club.
A great start, and it almost got better as a long range free kick was parried by the keeper but in a remarkable stroke of luck for Derry managed to find not a single Waterford player. Then Vinny was put through again only for him to miss the ball, hit his standing foot and actually force the goalie to make a decent save. After that initial flurry of Derry attacks the game settled down into a more traditional setup where Derry tried to hit Waterford on the break. The Blues looked well cool in defence, Alan Carey in particular making all the right decisions whether it be shepherding wingers into dead ends or putting himself between strikers and the goalie. At one point I noted how well he was playing, and was informed that his parents were sitting in front of me. Which was nice.
Having piled up the praise for LoI fare, now to bury it. Okay, not quite, but it was noteworthy how flat the start of the second half was after the effervescent first 45. It was understandable given the shock of having to go back out into that proto-monsoon after the comfort of the dressing room, but it’s not a phenomenon I observed during my sojourn in Liverpool. It’s reasonable to assume that highly trained professionals find it easier to get back up to speed than the semi-pros of the domestic game. This is perfectly understandable so spare us the flame war, BTID’ers.
Maybe it was the mystical this-game-needs-something-to-spark-it-to-life, maybe it was an event in the game’s journey back to the realms of the high-octane. Either way, the game was sparked back to life when Derry actually managed to hit the target, an inswinging free from out of the right eluding everyone but goalie Konopka who flung himself to his right to push it around the post. It was a routine enough save and mutterings in the stand that he isn’t all that are hard to ignore at the moment, but at least he dealt with the danger.
The game was back on now and the Blues continued to look the more threatening, Liam Kearney twice getting clear on the left forcing one excellent last-ditch clearance in one instance and dragging it behind the onrushing attack in the other. Derry had another clear sight of goal which was spooned into the stratosphere, and it’s not premature with only two goals from three games to suggest they may have problems in that department this season – expect a bid for Graham Cummins any day now.
At the other end, Vinny Sullivan continued to terrorise their defence which kept them constantly on the back foot. Sadly it didn’t yield a goal and we can now expect another goal some time in September. There isn’t a striker on the world that doesn’t need a tap-in now and again to keep confidence going, and poor old David Grincell will doubtless be reflecting on what might have been when the ball fell to him in the penalty are after more great work by Kearney. He had enough time to take a touch and slam the ball home but, perhaps feeling that pressure that afflicts all strikers, opted to hit it first time and was betrayed by the conditions, falling on his backside and letting Derry clear. It would have spared us a few minutes of nerves, and I’m pleasantly surprised to find I was nervous, but the Blues held out for a great win. The bellow of delight from the Ultras and chairman John Sullivan’s reaction as the players came off showed how big a deal this was – no one would have dreamed of three wins from the first three fixtures when Cork and Derry were pulled out of the hat. Back in the winter on 1997 I was in on the ground floor when the Waterford hurling revival began. Maybe in the wintery conditions of 2010 we were looking at the start of something big for Waterford United.