We’re all rather self-congratulatory about the ‘umble nature of much of the GAA, how marvellous it is that amateurs can take on the might of the professionals of Australia’s national sport and, er, lose. This attitude can be overly pompous, as if the GAA has a monopoly on altruism in sport. This pomposity will be particularly easy in the week when Wayne Rooney’s tantrum has earned him a pay rise. But we would do well to remember that the vast majority of people involved in sport everywhere give of themselves without asking for anything in return other than the enjoyment they get, whether it be seeing one of their own do well – not everyone resents John O’Shea his salary, and yes, I am looking at you Pat Kenny – or the simple pleasure from a match well-refereed.
But sometimes even an ecumenist gets a little thrill from the myths of his own church and I got one yesterday when Michael Wadding, seven weeks after presiding over the Clash of the Titans in front of 81,000 souls, was required to come down from Mount Olympus and bring his wisdom to bear on a much less elevated plane. Does Howard Webb still have to referee at lower division matches in front of a few thousand people? Perhaps he does, but you can imagine that since the All-Ireland final Wadding has had matches that make even the county senior hurling final look Herculean.
And ‘Herculean’ would certainly be stretching it for this particular match, which featured a niggly first half and a turkey shoot in the second. The conditions were excellent for hurling, the pitch dry and in good nick with little in the way of breeze. Only an overcast sky to conceal the sun could have made it better. In spite of that setup the first half was dire with a mere four points from play. A low wide count is usually taken to indicate a quality game but the four we saw here testified to no one troubling the opposition’s goal. When RTÉ went to Martin Kiely to be brought up to speed he mentioned that it was a good game. You had to wonder what match he was watching, and credit to John A Murphy on WLR for calling it like it was at half-time. And the second half wouldn’t be much better as Ballygunner were taken down by a series of lightning bolts.
So now you know the only thing Greek about this match was a tragedy for the neutral, how about some reporting? Ballygunner could have been a goal up within a few minutes, a De La Salle back failing to mop up after he had told one of his teammates to back off and allowing Ballygunner to get a shot in. The ball was scrambled away by ‘Stevie’ Brenner but the subsequent 65 was missed. This allowed De La Salle to get an early spurt. They were already a point up from a John Mullane free and soon had a second, Jake Dillon drawing the foul. A dropped ball allowed Mullane to get a shot on goal but he was crowded out in what would be a rare example of Ballygunner getting bodies back. Then David Greene scored a splendid point on the run to leave De La Salle three points clear.
Naturally it wasn’t obvious at this stage that Ballygunner were in trouble. They tacked on two points from Stephen Power frees, the second one a fine effort from way out the field, and they caused some mild panic in the De La Salle back line when Brenner batted a long-range free back into the mix. But in a battle of frees Ballygunner were giving more away more of them and Brenner’s carelessness paled into insignificance against Shane Walsh, under no pressure, spooning the ball straight into the hands of Kevin Moran who rammed it right down the throat of the Ballygunner defence. In the end De La Salle could only scramble it wide but Ballygunner were rattled and De La Salle lifted by a John Mullane over-the-shoulder special. Stephen Power felt the need to react by hammering a soft free over the bar, over the net behind the goal and out of the ground, the kind of behaviour that once drew Kevin Cashman’s ire for ‘wasting the game’s resources’. It is certainly not what you do from a position of strength.
De La Salle kept the scoreboard ticking over, Jake Dillon skinning the Ballygunner corner back to earn a free from which Mullane scored then Mullane teeing up David Greene for a second point from play. Even some annoyance over a forward getting creamed but ignored by the ref didn’t put De La Salle off and it took a decent save from Stephen O’Keeffe from Dean Twomey to prevent the first goal of the game. At the other end Brenner was engaging in a little argy-bargy with Pauric Mahony when it might have been easier to just clear the ball. A late free left De La Salle four points clear at half-time and they were well worth it.
Half-time then, and an opportunity to find out how Liverpool were doing on the radio and what was happening in other county finals. Switch on RTÉ to get . . . music? Probably just an ad. But no. It was a music show with some really corny slush. I suppose it shows that RTÉ prioritise the championship and there ain’t much in the way of other sport in the winter apart from events cross-channel, and it’s nice that they’re not duplicating coverage elsewhere, but you wonder how many people like me tuned in for updates and got a dose of Country & Irish.
De La Salle won the second half throw-in and Paidi Nevin got to steam through the Ballygunner defence. His shot tailed badly wide but it was a portent of things to come. Another Mullane special from way out on the right put them six points clear and it began to look like De La Salle were going to run away with it. Ballygunner needed to step up in the manner that Andy Moloney did last season and briefly it looked like David O’Sullivan might be the man as he rattled over a fine point on the run then made the space to repeat the dose but it tailed just wide. Worse was to follow as Stephen Power missed a relatively simple free that might have trimmed the lead to four. Much like England in the World Cup against Germany, you know they were given a pounding over the duration of the match but if that had gone over / that goal been given then who knows . . . actually, no. Nothing would have saved Ballygunner on this form and when their entire back line went completely AWOL David Greene had the simplest of tasks to slot the ball to the net.
Not even the sight of John Mullane missing a simple chance could lift Ballygunner out of the doldrums at this stage and another defensive disaster allowed Paidi Nevin to get clear on the right and his shot wasn’t adequately dealt with by Stephen O’Keeffe and squirmed over the line at the near post. Another top-notch point from David O’Sullivan was evidence of some life from the Gunners but it was finger-in-the-dyke time at the other end with O’Keeffe somehow getting his hurley up to block David Greene’s goalbound effort after some fine approach work from Dillon. Ballygunner threw on a few subs, with the announcer heralding the arrival of ‘number 17’ when this was the only number between 1 and 29 not in the programme, but it availed them nought as the Red & Black Sea parted once again, allowing Nevin to bear down on goal and kick the ball past O’Keeffe from about six inches out.
It was just a question of shovelling the soil into the hole now with Lee Hayes filling a role as club clown, arriving to much whooping from the De La Salle faithful. I don’t think it was him who tried wrestled O’Keeffe to the ground but it was typical of the kind of cocky playfulness that now characterised De La Salle’s play. Ballygunner were having to go for goals at every turn and managed to have one chance that was scrambled away for a 65 that Power sent over, but it was getting close to the point where players were reduced to fighting for pride by taking points where they could rather than engage in a futile attempt to win the game. Hayes was tapping anyone who bested in playful manner that would send me off the deep end if I was part of a losing team, although in fairness he sent over a great point which allowed him to gleefully punch the air and gee up the De La Salle crowd, not that they needed geeing up.
There was one more blowback from Ballygunner, Philip Mahony pulling smartly on a dropping ball to send the ball past Brenner, and there were a few flaps in the box. De La Salle were on a victory lap now though, bringing on club legend Derek McGrath to join the festivities. Eoin Madigan was in full wind-behind-his-back mode, zig-zagging his way past everyone for a great score. The game wound down with a decent point for Ballygunner’s JJ Hutchinson and David O’Sullivan earning a penalty which was deflected over the bar by Brenner.
And that was it. It was not a great game. De La Salle’s goals were a horrorfest for Ballygunner, and the game was over as soon as the first one went in. The big question is whether they are going to be good enough to win the All-Ireland title. Instinctively you get the dread feeling that no one will be quaking in their boots based on this performance. Sarsfields certainly got a better challenge from Glen Rovers in the Cork county final than De La Salle did here. But let’s be optimistic. Having won the Munster title only two years ago and with Ballyhale and Portumna out of the equation, De La Salle are as experienced as anyone left in the competition. They even beat Sarsfields in Cork back then. Could this be it, a Waterford All-Ireland?