Damn you, pretensions to journalistic integrity. Long ago, back in the Geocities days when I had pie-in-the-sky dreams of making a career out of writing about sport in general and the Waterford hurlers in particular, it seemed important to keep a consistent output in the use of headlines. So any match report would appear as such: Waterford <our score> <Opposition Name> <their score>. This was carried over to match reports involving Waterford United with a slight soccer tweak: Waterford United <our score>:<their score> <Opposition Name>. Which was fine and dandy when the Blues met the team from Cork, as you could string out their contrived name for maximum comic effect. Now however, strictly speaking, they are back to plain old Cork City. In headline terms, we will address them as such. In our hearts though, they will always be Chicken Coop FC, the little team that could – bilk their creditors, that is.
This was my first game of the season, and the eternal question at this point is “what was the attendance?” Would trimming a further €3 from the price, a cut of 33% from two years ago, induce more people to attend the game? Predictably and dispiritingly for all concerned in domestic sport, not least the GAA, the answer is ‘no’. If prices were perfectly elastic then a cut in price of one-third should lead to an increase in attendances of one-third, and this has clearly not been the case. At this point we might have to accept that the average punter won’t go to games like this even if entry was free.
Did those who stayed away miss a classic of the genre? Not really, and any potential long-term Waterford United fans may have been put off by what unfolded. The initial exchanges suggested Cork were going to boss it. Derek O’Brien, playing wide on the left, started immediately after the kickoff as he meant to go on with a smart interception and a rampaging run towards goal that was just snuffed out near the penalty area. Cork then earned a free in a dangerous position in from the right touchline. The free looped in towards goal and for a horrible moment it looked like it was on target and Kevin Burns was a bit too short. It ended up going over the bar but the feeling that Kevin Burns was a bit short rattled around in my head for a while after that.
At the other end Waterford had their first opportunity and it surprised me that it didn’t lead to more vitriol from the Ultras. Conor Sinnott, who had an excellent game, controlled the ball well and released Michael Coady on the left. His driven cross found Gary Keane on the far post and he should have scored but failed to anticipate the ball eluding everyone else and he only managed to mis-hit it wide. Was I the only one who thought that if he had been more optimistic and assumed the best it would have been a tap-in? It seemed I was because the reaction was not one of gerhimofftheuselesstool. Or perhaps the Ultras have mellowed in their old age. Okay, I was the only one.
O’Brien was having a field day for Cork, earning a soft free which earned Keane a yellow card for his troubles. The free was cleared out for a throw and we saw the first of a recurring theme as the ref tolerated Danny Murphy taking an age to take the throw. Eventually he let go of the ball and O’Brien worked his way into space again but his shot from distance was always rising. Waterford then spurned another if-only chance, Willie John Kiely not getting much purchase on Seamus Long’s excellent cross, although while it was a free header it would have been a cracker had it gone in. The ball was cleared then lobbed back in and fell to Kiely who tried a volley that would have had echoes of Marco Van Basten in his pomp had it gone in. Needless to say, it went wide.
Waterford were seeing more of the ball but O’Brien was playing so well that there was no way anyone in blue could relax. He won a corner for Cork from nothing but Keane was on hand to mop up the danger. At the other end, Paul Murphy did well to get around the back of the Cork defence and Sinnott should have hit the target (© Alan Hansen). O’Brien was then allowed the freedom of the park to get in a cross which caused mild panic in the Waterford defence. A great pass from Sinnott almost released Kiely but the offside flag went up which looked rather harsh. The player making the biggest, er, impact other than O’Brien was Michael Coady who was lunging at anything and everything. It was entertaining stuff as he tried to beat every Cork player twice but enough to give the partisan supporter a heart attack. Meanwhile O’Brien almost unlocked the Waterford defence again, his excellent cross being cleared for a corner. The ball sailed out over the fence on the running track and it took an age for a ball to get back onthe field. The Blues players studiously ignored any efforts to speed it to a Cork players, the kind of behaviour that karma dictates you get punished for but they got away with it, Keith Quinn hoofing away the ball away when a more considered attitude might have set the Blues on the attack.
And then the moment when you thought it might be Waterford’s night. O’Brien limped off and was replaced by Vinny Sullivan, an arrival that led to scattered applause but mostly jeering. The former, I was authoritatively informed, would be the default position for a once (and possibly future, aha ha) Blue but the latter position – jeering him – was a consequence of an incident in the Munster Senior Cup when his elbow rearranged Paul Carey’s facial furniture.
Back in the moment, the departure of O’Brien had to be a good thing and former-playeritis be damned. Kiely got in around the back of the Cork defence but played the ball into the area in which he would ordinarily have been standing. Sinnott then swung a free into the box which was well-met by Kiely but gave Mark McNulty an easy save. In the Waterford box Burns was given a terrible backpass and he sensibly lofted it out of play rather than trying to control it with a Cork player bearing down on him. But from the resulting throw-in Cork almost scored. Some neat passing put Davin O’Neill in space on the edge of the box. He moved toward the centre of the goal and it seemed certain given the path of the ball that he’d curl it towards the far post but Kenny Browne managed to get in a block for a corner from which Graham Cummins headed over the bar.
Paul Murphy had been quiet up to this point, so it was good to see him out in a storming run although he eventually took too much out of the ball and it was cleared to Danny Murphy who got clobbered by Kiely for his troubles. Michael Coday echoed that with another lunging tackle when the ball got away from him, the kind of play which must give managers palpitations. It was at this point that I noted the game seemed to have gone quiet. So naturally it was time for a goal. Sinnott did brilliantly to control a long ball and turn sharply in the direction of goal. He was scythed down on the edge of the penalty. Everyone around me was excitedly hoping for an effort from him. but instead it was Murphy who put his foot through the ball. It should have struck the wall but the Cork defenders evaporated like gossamer and the ball flew into the net.
At that stage it was probably a little harsh on Cork but once Waterford got over the initial post-goal wobble it looked like Waterford were determined to land a knockout blow. A clearance from Browne turned into a super pass to Coady whose first-time cross was just begging to be buried but nobody could get a toe on it. Waterford continued to attack and were almost caught out, Cummins caught offside when he looked on to me. It wasn’t overzealous attacking that led to Cork’s equaliser, a lovely interchange of passing giving Greg O’Halloran a shooting chance and his 30-yarder fizzed into the bottom corner of Burns’ goal. Sometimes you’ve just got to accept that there are goals that can’t be stopped and this, right as the half ticked into injury time, was one of those moments. The half wasn’t over though, a less-than-emphatic clearance from Browne gave Danny Murphy a chance to put in a dangerous cross from which Cummins shot just wide.
Half-time gave me an opportunity to peruse the programme. There was some decent content in it, one article about a member of ‘The 21 Club’, those who have seen their team play at every League of Ireland ground – a moving target if ever there was one – being particularly amusing. The fact that I was sitting beside the saddo who wrote it probably helped, but thanks to the contribution of fans it was much better than the average GAA programme which consists almost entirely of ads. Then again, good luck getting the GAA to forgo those ads for something worth reading.
The Blues were the first to threaten in the second half, Kiely again getting in behind the defence and again playing it back into a space conspicuously lacking blue shirts, i.e. that ‘s where he should have been. Then Murphy almost played Keane in but he was crowded out by the Cork defence. Vinny nearly got in for Cork after some good approach work but Browne managed to get across to snuff out the danger. A nasty tackle on Cummins gave Cork a free in a dangerous position but the free was high and unthreatening. Danny Murphy almost got clear again on the left but it was well defended. Less well defended was the corner as a Cork forward got a free header which Waterford were relieved to see go wide. Vinny then gave everyone a good laugh when he tried to hook/loop/lob a half chance over the keeper only to see it bounce before it even crossed the endline. All hail quirky players. As long as they are playing badly for the opposition.
It was around this point, about ten minutes into the second half that the Blues began to get on top. Nothing decisive, just a gradual accumulation of possession and Cork beginning to rely on counter-attacking. A brilliant piece of control by Kiely saw the Blues onto the attack but his attempted backheel to set up a chance always a big ask. The ball pinged around and he managed to force the ball into the box but too close to the keeper. Keith Quinn controlled the ball well too but proceeded to play the ball to Sinnott, surrounded as he was by three Cork defenders. A few none-too-subtle efforts to bludgeon the ball into the box saw the ball fall to Quinn with his back to goal on the edge of the D. There seemed to be no danger but he hooked the ball over his shoulder onto the bar. It had an electrifying effect on everyone in the ground wearing blue, although that came a touch too late for his teammates who couldn’t get to the dropping ball fast enough. A sweeping move out of defence showed the increased confidence coursing through the Waterford players and a cross from the right gave Keane a sniff of goal but he needed an extra touch when it was just screaming for a first-time effort and Cork were able to clear. Moments later Murphy got to a bomb from Burns just ahead of the goalie but McNulty got a touch to Murphy’s goalbound lob which allowed a Cork defender to mop up.
Waterford were in full flight now. Cork were struggling to get the ball clear and after some head tennis on the edge of the box Waterford managed to squeeze it down the right. The cross was flapped at by McNulty and again Murphy wanted to get the ball under control when giving it a lash at the exposed goalkeeper might have been better advised. A soft free to Waterford gave Sinnott the chance to strut his stuff that he had been denied earlier but his shot was always going wide. A training ground routine from a corner was just about intercepted which gave Cork the chance to break and Burns was forced to belt the ball out for a throw.
You may have noticed the thesaurus-baiting use of ‘danger’ and its various derivations throughout this report. This is an oh-so-meta reference to what happened next. My colleague and I were speculating on Waterford’s new-found dominance and how Cork were only likely to score on the counter attack. This inevitably led to some nervous laughter about George “Danger Here” Hamilton. Surely the Fates would mock such presumption by conjuring up a goal for Vinny Sullivan on the break? Well, sort of. It was a Waterford attempt to counter-attack that proved to be their undoing as an attempted breakout from a foiled Cork attack was intercepted before it even started. The entire Waterford team were on the front foot which meant Shane Duggan was able to pounce on the through ball without molestation and score. It was an emphatic finish, but in truth he could hardly have missed.
The silence around the RSC was ghastly (it’s not as if there were many Cork fans to offset it). There was no anger or resentment, just an overwhelming feeling that we had been mugged but were getting used to the feeling. Given how much the Blues have struggled to score this season, the manner in which chins were brushing breastbones was understandable.
And you could see Cork felt it too. Waterford managed to scramble the ball down the right but it kept on getting stuck under feet and when it was whacked clear the Cork players made only the most perfunctory attempt to chase it down. They didn’t feel the need. A ball over top was gamely chased by Gary Keane but there were too many men back there. Willie John Kiely got in behind the defence again but crossed into a forest of Cork shirts again – ‘again’ has probably been used here more than ‘danger’. He managed to force a corner which found it’s way on to the head of Kenny Browne but with the goal at his mercy he was clearly in the mindset that the best he could do was head it back across goal and the chance was gone. Another corner was woeful, floated over everyone and cleared with interest from Cork.
Waterford are well organised and very committed, but the lack of guile is painful to watch. Michael Rafter, formerly of Colchester United, was thrown on in place of Shane Barrett (who had been intercepted from behind three times in the second half) to try and bring that guile, but the best Waterford could manage was a little more head tennis between Quinn and Kiely which ended with the latter blazing it over. The frustration almost reached boiling point when a cross from Danny Murphy which went wide was pompously signalled by the ref, against the advice of his assistant, as a corner. The fact that it looked like the right decision to me didn’t make it feel any better, every second it spent down our end meant another second spent having to get it back up to their end. The necessity to take chances left Burns in another awkward position after the corner had been cleared and hitting the ball out for a throw ate up more valuable seconds and led to the first outburst of rage from the stands as an unfortunate ballboy didn’t get it back, like, yesterday. There was time for one last hoof into the box which saw two Waterford players get in each other’s way and see the eventual shot ricochet out for a corner. From the corner Cork almost broke but ran in to the referee. Having fallen on his arse earlier in the game, Mr Rogers wasn’t doing much for the dignity of officialdom. There was one last long ball which ran straight through to McNulty then Cork effectively kicked for touch and that was that.
It’s a hard station, supporting Waterford United. You only have to look at the Cork panel to see how hard. For all of his cult following Vinny Sullivan isn’t much of a loss. Graham Cummins is though, as is Alan Carey who wasn’t even on the Cork team. But surely a team like Waterford should always have hope. They’ve been knocking around the upper echelons of the First Division for several years so surely our number has to come up some time, right? But the calm sense of resignation that greeted the final whistle showed that there is little hope, if any. Looking down the fixture list, every game looks like a minefield whether it be bogey teams (Longford), genuine contenders (Shels) or games that everyone else is going to win anyway (Mervue). With pessimism like that, I’m beginning to feel like a proper Blue.