Kil-ken-NEEE, concrete jungl . . . oh, did that gag last time out. Besides, Kilkenny is a proper town with its own train station and all. A train station whose main function is to add fifteen minutes to the journey time between Waterford and Dublin, but it’s undeniably useful when trying to get to Nowlan Park. It has to be admitted amidst all the none-too-subtle digs at the Marble Town that Nowlan Park is a fine venue, what shoud be the archetype for county grounds as opposed to grotesque white elephants like the Gaelic Grounds or betwixt-and-between mini-grounds like Walsh Park and Fraher Field. While not as big a tribute to the wisdom of the Kilkenny County Board as all those All-Irelands, it’s evidence of that industriousness that puts many larger countries to shame. And it is the site of Year Zero in modern Waterford hurling. Fond memories abound.
We got to Nowlan Park early and took up seats directly in front of the high priests of Kilkenny GAA. The ongoing saga of Being Stuck Beside An Overzealous Opposition Supporter had a light-hearted entry as a young man with Down’s Syndrome took exception to sitting beside us and stormed off in a huff. Ah, to be on the other side of the fence for once. And getting there early meant we could also engage in a spot of people watching. While it’s fun to see the usual suspects – Tony Browne Sr is always easily spotted among the early arrivers – there was a galling amount of people who live in Waterford cheering for Kilkenny. They’re taking all the jobs. Still, it must have made Paddy Buggy’s day easier to know that he was among his own people.
When watching the likes of Kilkenny, or to be more accurate when watching ‘Kilkenny’, every moment of quality on their part mushrooms into a splendiferous statement of intent while every screw-up on Waterford’s part is indicative of an underlying malaise that eats away at the collective body politic. And we had an early example of that, TJ Reid sending over a long free after Seamus Prendergast had been harshly adjudged to have overcarried. Jaysus, they can score from anywhere – how are we meant to compete? Then you look upon some mediocre play from John Mullane, winning the ball brilliantly but then sending in a nothing handpass which trickles wide. Jaysus, even Mullane isn’t at the races – how are we meant to compete? Mullane then won another ball and was fouled as he attempted to get clear, only for him to squander the ‘advantage’ by sending in another wide. The ref isn’t giving us a digout – how are we meant to compete? In fairness the ref was quite correct to apply the advantage rule so narrowly, but it did emphasise something I’ve often thought, that referees who ‘let the game flow’ are over-rated. If I’m fouled, give me the free. The dead-ball score is always going to be easier.
Of course the Lord helps those who help themselves, and Waterford certainly weren’t doing themselves any favours, Stephen Molumphy squandering another good opening by playing the ball into nobody in particular from which Kilkenny swept down the field to give Aidan Fogarty his first score in what would be a fine performance, then Seamus Prendergast chopped a sideline cut wide. Shane Walsh could probably count himself unlucky not to earn a free when he was hit high and not very smartly, and you would begin to worry about Waterford losing their cool as Michael Walsh was penalised and yellow-carded for a hit that wasn’t obviously different to the one Shane Walsh had taken. Richie Hogan slotted over the point from way out to add to the slowly-inflating bubble of concern.
We really needed some TLC at this point and the referee weighed in with some, awarding Darragh Fives a soft free. From the subsequent free out Mullane won the ball, turned inside and teed up Thomas Ryan to open Waterford’s account from close in. But before you could get your hopes up Richie Hogan was allowed the run of the park to catch, run and slot the ball over the bar. They looked like they were going to run away with at this point but thankfully a) Waterford showed a bit of backbone and b) Kilkenny showed they had feet of clay. Fogarty was shepherded by Fives out of play and the following sideline was cleared by Michael Walsh. A free-in for Waterford was gathered by David Herity in the Kilkenny goal, sent down to Michael Walsh who sent it back in where the attentions of Shane Walsh – needing to distinguish the two Walshes is a pain but an inevitable by-product of their respective performances – forced a Kilkenny back to pick the ball straight off the ground and Foley trimmed the gap to two. That was Waterford showing backbone. Now came Kilkenny showing feet of clay. Michael W was penalised but Hogan sent the free wide. Then Stephen Molumphy took way too much out of the ball when he should have released it quickly and ended up getting crowded out, but Kilkenny’s next attack ended in another wide, this time for Pat Hartley. There would be a lot of wides in the game, and the majority of the really duff ones would be for the home team.
A corollary to the idea that everything they do well gets blown out of proportion is the constant fear that their full-forward line will take even the best full-back line apart for goals. And we have a notoriously weak full-back line. So it was almost a relief in the 11th minute when Eddie Brennan was fouled after catching John Dalton’s long clearance. He seemed to have eluded his marker and it was, not to put too fine a point on it, a professional foul. Hogan took the point to restore the three point lead. Now came another moment from Kilkenny that had one of our players done it we’d never hear the end of it. Eoin Larkin gathered a sideline ball and had enough time to drop the hurley and tie his laces before delivering the ball into danger. So what does he do? Drill a short ball way too high and hard at a teammate who found it too hot to handle. Shane W powered through and set up Mullane whose attack was scrambled out for a 65 from which Foley pointed.
I’m labouring the point at this stage, but hey, why break the habit of a lifetime? Another wide for Kilkenny, this time from John Mulhall, and you really began to dream. Could they seriously be vulnerable? This is the team that squandered a six million (approx) point lead against Galway. Waterford added a wide of their own, a long range effort drifting just wide but the Kilkenny backs didn’t look like they knew a hell of a lot about it as the ball thudded out over the endline. And when Thomas Ryan scored again after some tremendous fielding from Shane Walsh again, the gap was a scarcely believable one point. Eddie Brennan may have heard my seditious thoughts because he proceeded to score a peach of a point, gathering and turning to score with all the ease with which you’d fall off a log. Brennan is a tricksy sort, but he outsmarted himself soon after, winning the ball cleanly then batting a dangerous ball . . . into the portion of the field where he ordinarily wreaks so much havoc. Kilkenny had scored a good few of their points from outside the 45, so it was gratifying to see them miss a few long range frees. Waterford were the beneficiaries of another soft free when Mullane was fouled but it was Kilkenny who ended the half on the up, Eoin Larkin scoring from distance and Hogan pointing a free after Mulhall had been fouled fourteen (approx) times. There was enough time for Tommy Walsh to be substituted after a crunching shoulder charge and be replaced by Tony Browne – at least, according to the bewildered PA, a faux pas which led to much merriment in the ground as half-time arrived.
And for the interlude, a question. Where was Davy Fitz? Sitting where we were, I expected to see him serving his sideline ban but there was neither sight nor sound of him. My father had also noticed that Pauric Fanning was wearing an earpiece. Perhaps the Waterford mentors always wear one. It’d be the kind of new-fangled gizmo that would cause Brian Cody to go red(der) with laughter. But perhaps they were secretly communicating with the manager. If so, it’s surely in breach of the spirit of a sideline ban and it’ll be interesting to see how the authorities react.
Half-time ended with a rather thoughtful gesture for the Primary Game lads, the teams lining up to shake each others hands. This was done as part of the RESPECT initiative, possibly the world’s least profound acronym, but it also induced a round of applause which is the kind of thing that will live forever with those young fellas. Back in the game, Eoin McGrath had come on for ‘James Molumphy’ – take another bow, Mr Announcer. I thought nothing of it at the time but it now seems that he had to leave to go back on Army duty. What could Davy have learned about Molumphy in those thirty-five minutes that he didn’t know already? Would it not have been better to give someone else a run? Certainly a lot of the fringe players will wonder whether they’ll ever get a go. As Molumphy was racing from Nowlan Park with his cap backwards and his braces around his ankles Kilkenny were quickly into their stride, earning a free within seconds from which Hogan scored. It was slightly unnerving to see the scores were almost double – echoes of that horrible moment in 2008 when I saw they had scored ten points in just fifteen minutes. It was important to squelch such thoughts, Foley pointing from a free after a foul on Seamus Prendergast. It was a badly struck free, barely making it over, but over it went. PJ Delaney stomped through much of the Waterford half-back line but having done the hard work hit a terrible wide that must have had Brian Cody tearing out his . . . well, you know what I mean. Colin Fennelly made up for that, gathering a puck-out and didn’t need to barge his way past anyone as he raced towards goal and struck over a fine point to stretch the gap back to five.
Several frustrating minutes followed as the ball was struck back and forth between the respective half-back lines, a period ending with Michael Walsh earning a foul which led to another long free going wide. Waterford seemed to have taken someone out of the full-forward line, or perhaps they completely lost their compass as three balls in a row went into areas with only one white shirt or no white shirt at all. At the other end, Wayne Hutchinson earned credit with good back play to snuff out a goal chance, then promptly handed that credit back with a horrible looping backpass to Stephen O’Keeffe which was cleared after a fraught few moments. From the next attack Mullane put a rampaging Kevin Moran clear and he smashed the ball over the bar. Gap down to four. Mullane wasn’t getting the space he normally creates, but he was being fouled and another free earned left only a goal in it ten minutes into the second half.
A couple of more bad wides, one from each from Richie Hogan and Eddie Brennan, increased the sense that this could be Waterford’s day. Foley pointed from a 65 and then the ref moved a free in after some lip from a Kilkenny player. You’d think having scored the 65 moments earlier that this was within his range and it was – sort of. Foley’s free hit the post and it was no surprise that it was the effervescent Shane Walsh who was first to the rebound and he hammered the ball across Herity’s bows to the net. Great stuff, and it got even better as Eoin McGrath scored a point after the Kilkenny backs in his quadrant went AWOL.
It may seem demented to be saying this, but at that moment I really thought we were going to push on, use the momentum to build up a decent lead which might be defendable should Kilkenny come back at us. At the very least give us a cushion against a goal. Certainly if someone had told me at this stage that we’d score two points in the last twenty minutes I’d have thought they were the demented one. Instead Waterford retreated in a fashion that will lead to a post mortem or two. Shane Walsh won the ball for the umpteenth time but there was no one to support him. Kilkenny cleared as far as Aidan Fogarty who rattled the ball over the bar to cut the gap to one. David O’Sullivan got robbed and then gave away a free in his frustration. The ball was dropped into towards the square where it seemed to elude everyone on the way to the net. Whether the Kilkenny forward had gotten a touch to it or not, in real time it looked to be a square ball but the ref wasn’t interested and Kilkenny were now two points ahead where moments before they were two points down without much in the way of effort.
We needed a big performance from someone whose surname wasn’t Walsh. Eoin Kelly was now on but he hit the kind of wide that deflates teams more than just missing. At the other end Colin Fennelly earned a free and Hogan stretched the lead to three. Thomas Ryan teed up John Mullane who slid the ball over the bar but Waterford were really struggling to get clean possession in the forward line. Hogan drew a foul and scored from the free and it was now only loose shooting that was keeping Kilkenny from slapping us right down, Brennan dropping a point effort into O’Keeffe’s lap who also pulled off a good save when sub Matthew Ruth had put Fogarty in the clear. Hogan did manage to get a point from the following 65 and even with seven minutes of normal time to go you felt Waterford would need a goal. The hubris in the aftermath of Walsh’s goal had been laid bare.
Then again, Kilkenny weren’t showing their usual elan. A sideline ball was given to Waterford which led to an entertaining detonation from Cody. The ball eventually found its way to Jamie Nagle who pumped the ball into the mix. Kilkenny half-cleared it as far as Kevin Moran who made the space for Eoin Kelly to notch what would be Waterford’s last score. In fairness the quest for a goal was now paramount and when Nagle and Ryan combined to get Mullane in space he was chopped down in prime goal-scoring territory. Kelly’s free was saved and popped up in a manner that just begged for a goal but it was pushed wide. Kilkenny were feeling a bit more themselves now, a bit more puffed up, which explained Eddie Brennan putting his head down and going for a goal when there was a point there for the taking. Waterford got it clear and after a lot of faffing around Michael Walsh managed to get the ball into the danger area, i.e. towards Shane Walsh, but Kilkenny managed to crowd him out. Hogan missed a free that would have finished it but Waterford failed to trouble the Kilkenny back line with a long range free that bumbled apologetically wide.
The final insult came in the second minute of injury time. Waterford were penalised, something that brought a hissy fit of monumental proportions from Eoin Kelly. The free dropped in again and in a much more crowded square didn’t get much encouragement as it went past Stephen O’Keeffe. He looked utterly dejected, crouched down on his line as Waterford came up the field for one last hurrah. A couple of Hail Mary goal efforts culminated in Mullane lashing the ball wide.
It had been a less-than-inspiring game, riddled with bar-of-soap handling errors and poor shooting. There were a few encouraging signs for Waterford. The full-back line stood tall, and Michael Walsh was as monumental as we have ever seen him. You may have noticed I was quite impressed with Shane Walsh. Having been surprised by how good he was at full-forward against Cork, it was perhaps even more pleasing to expect something good and get it. Kilkenny were flattered by their six-point margin of victory. But while each the Kilkenny forwards shook a leg at some point only Walsh and Mullane, subdued by his standards but still good enough for everyone else’s level, did so for us. We now have two games with which to experiment in finding a forward line. The omens are not good.
Waterford: Stephen O’Keeffe, Darragh Fives, Wayne Hutchinson, Noel Connors, David O’Sullivan, Michael Walsh, Kevin Moran (0-1), Richie Foley (0-6, 0-4f, 0-2 65), Jamie Nagle, Pauric Mahony (Eoin Kelly, 0-1), Seamus Prendergast, Thomas Ryan (0-2), John Mullane (0-2), Shane Walsh (1-0), Stephen Molumphy (capt; Eoin McGrath, 0-1)
Kilkenny: David Herity, Michael Kavanagh, Noel Hickey, John Dalton, Tommy Walsh (PJ Delaney), Brian Hogan, JJ Delaney, Eoin Larkin (0-1), Pat Hartley (Paul Murphy), Aidan Fogarty (0-3), TJ Reid (1-2), John Mulhall (Matthew Ruth), Eddie Brennan (0-1), Richie Hogan (0-7, 0-5f), Colin Fennelly (1-2)
HT: Waterford 0-6 Kilkenny 0-10
Referee: John Sexton (Cork)