Waterford 4-9 (21) Clare 3-17 (26)

An Spailpín Fanach recently made the point that the Irish Independent, in the guise of Phil-Space-in-Chief Martin Breheny, routinely comes up with scare stories about the effect other sporting events have on GAA attendances and what a nonsense this line of thought usually is. “You only get proper GAA people at League games” he wryly observed. How right he is, and you wonder how many people came to this match with the intention of demonstrating just what an authetic Gael they are. It certainly can’t have been for the thrill of manly competition because this was as bloodless as a game played with metal-tipped pieces of wood gets. And for 10 yoyos there would not have been a single casual person at this game.

There was one thing that made this a worthwhile exercise though – seeing a Waterford man prowl the sidelines in charge of our senior team for the first time in nearly two decades. Could anything long-term be divined about Michael Ryan’s plans for the team? About the best that can be said is that he doesn’t look like a man given to tinkering. Not only did the Waterford team line out as on the clár oifigiúil, they even took up their positions as per 1-15. This isn’t just useful from the perspective of the amateur hack. It suggests the man knows his mind, is willing to give his experiments a chance, and not going to change them willy-nilly.

That’s the positive spin from this game. All of it.

It started pretty well. After a couple of quick scores from Clare, one a fine effort from midfielder Patrick Donnellan where he rammed a long Adrian Power puckout back down our throats with interest, Waterford settled down. Martin O’Neill could have had an early goal for us but wanted to turn onto his good side when the trigger needed pulling instantly, and Shane Walsh picked up where he left off on 2011 with two quick scores, the second an excellent over-the-shoulder effort. A foul on Eoin McGrath gave O’Neill the opportunity to open his account from a free which he duly took. The best player on the pitch at this stage was Donnellan, his rampaging run nearly putting Aaron Cunningham in with a goal-scoring opportunity but the forwarded opted to take a point. Waterford folk will have great hope for the positioning of Michael Walsh at centre-forward this year and a soft foul on him gave O’Neill the chance to put Waterford back in front before Seamus Prendergast swatted off a few challenges after some great approach work from Walsh to score the first goal of the game.

So far so good. Waterford looked neat and tidy at this stage, Jamie Nagle in particular impressing in the half-back line with some robust play. There was a moment of concern when Adrian Power and Declan Prendergast got their wires crossed under a dropping ball and and full-forward Colin Ryan should have done better with his booted effort as Power struggled to get across. You have to wonder when Prendergast will be put out of his full-back misery. But that seemed out of character with the performance thus far from Waterford, a point emphasised as Maurice Shanahan landed a long-range free, Kevin Moran went close with a typically butch effort from way out the field and O’Neill notched another free after a Clare back had taken too many steps under pressure. Yep, so far so good.

How bad was it about to get? Not scoring for another twenty minutes bad. Outscored 2-12 to 0-2 over the next forty minutes bad. in short, real bad. Tony Carmody scored for Clare, then was professionally fouled by Aidan Kearney to give Clare another score from a free. Clare’s number 25, unnamed in the programme, lobbed over another long-range effort to cut the gap to three, and Jamie Nagle was relieved that Cunningham was too hasty with his effort when Nagle attempted a daft over-the-head clearance right in the endline. At the other end, Martin O’Neill took a free way out on the left of the field despite being a left-handed striker of the ball, which suggests that he was advised to get some practice in. His free was only partially cleared but Seamus Prendergast flapped horribly at his effort to scoop the ball back into the mix and a free-out was awarded. He did something similar moments later, shooting widly when a point was definitely on, and Clare extracted maximum beneift from those let-offs as Carmody slipped away from Kearney again – worrying – and slotted the ball past Power.

Clare didn’t rest on their laurels, uimhir a Fiche Cúig continuing with his Cúilín Fada crusade and a colleague showing enough commitment to a lost cause that he nearly got skewered by the flag on the 65 in a effort to keep the ball in play. Some splendidly alert play by Colin Ryan as he charged from his line out to meet a short free from inside his own half gave him the chance to stretch the lead to two and he then drew enough players to himself to allow him to give the ball to Fergal Lynch in space to make it a three-point lead. Waterford ended the half with a score, Michael Walsh intercepting an attempted clearance and getting chopped down for his efforts and allowing O’Neill to land another score. But Waterford were an unholy mess and were grateful for half-time so they could change things around.

At least you thought that’s what was about to happen, but the only change I could observe as the second half swung into gear was Eoin McGrath coming out the field. Even a hurling klutz like myself would express skepticism at such a move and not fear ridicule, and it made no discernible difference as Clare serenely went on their way. One noteworthy feature of their play was their ability to keep the ball in hand, thus negating the need to try and pick the ball up off the muddy surface – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a mankier set of sliothars. It helped that Waterford didn’t seem able to even compete for the ball, Maurice Shanahan being a particular culprit as at one point he saw himself horsed off the ball with shocking ease. Paul O’Brien showed him how it was down by drawing a foul and allowing Waterford to get a point back, but it was cringeworthy watching such a tall man being brushed aside by relative midgets.

Shanahan’s performance was symptomatic of a beaten team. It is at this point that you would expect a flurry of subs or switches, but there was so little activity on the sidelines that Michael Ryan might was well have gotten out his fiddle. Daire Keane scored another point for Clare, and with that the dam burst. Eoin McGrath saw himself dispossessed in the middle of the field and ‘No 27’ swept the ball over the bar from distance. Ryan had a tap-over after Carmody had taken on the entire Waterford back division and come out on top. Cunningham sent over another great score, entirely unmolested by anything in a white shirt. Then we saw O’Neill miss a free on the left and have the puckout be deposited in the lap of the player in his corner of the field. It as all part of the plan, see? Stick with it to see if was working. The problem is that it clear wasn’t working. When Cunningham was able to tap over the bar after a wonderful sweep out of defense from Clare where the ball passed through a half-dozen hands, then scored a goal after shrugging off some half-hearted challenges, it might have been more productive to have changed everything. We’re not going to get many more chances to experiment.

If you’re of a nihilistic bent, and after this game it seems like a more attractive philosophy, the gradual improvement from Waterford for the remainder of the game was frustrating as it might give the impression that things are not as bad as they seem. Clare surely stepped off the accelerator because little changed on the Waterford side of things. A charity free from the referee allowed Waterford to register Waterford to get only their second score of the half, then Waterford nearly benefited from Shanahan showing what he was capable of, a fine run allowing him to tee up O’Neill but a Clare defender somehow (luckily) got a stick on the ball and it went out for a 65 which was duly wasted.

Clare struck back with two quick points, one of which was a free that looked wide all the way from where I was sitting. It would have been difficult for the umpires or the referee to judge it, but the linesman would have been right in the same line as mine so why he didn’t interfere, I don’t know. Another arcane rule? Michael Walsh then found himself surrounded by four Clare players, a depressing indictment of the lack of wag in this particular 15. Somehow he managed to get it away clean and when Waterford earned a free abit further up the pitch O’Neill went for a goal from a silly distance. Perhaps he was only getting his eye in because moments later a sideline cut went all the way through to O’Neill and he rattled the ball to the net. It was the sort of defending that probably had Davy Fitz foaming at the mouth on the sidel . . . actually, where was he? Perhaps Michael Ryan could get away with his Anthony Gormley subject pose because Davy wasn’t lepping around beside him.

Either way Waterford managed to shake off their torpor, Donal Tuohy being forced into a good save from Seamus Prendergast. O’Neill then got his second of the game thanks to some more woeful defending, somehow allowing him to get away a strike despite him letting the ball elude his grasp on numerous occasions. The gap was now down to five – could they pull off a crazy win? They might have done, two more goals were scored. Unfortunately one of them was when Adrian Power couldn’t pick a speculative effort from Colm Galvin out from under the bar and we only knew it was a goal because the umpire rather shamefacedly had to wave the flag. The next time the ball came in he batted it out in true David De Gea fashion. Maybe there was something in the air because at the other end Tuohy let a shot borne more out of frustration from Seamus Prendergast slide between him and the near post.

Five points in the end. It flattered us mightily. I’m clinging forlornly to a notion that Michael Ryan was determined to try certain people in certain configurations, and he’s entitled to some slack at this stage. But the beating we’ve taken at the hands of the Clare minors over the last two years overrides any sense of optimism. With only five matches to play we can’t afford to be going into the League cold. It might be an idea to encourage people to get out for this year’s League because if you had to pick a whipping boy from Division 1, it would have to be us, and we might not see the likes of Kilkenny and Tipperary in the spring for 2013 and beyond.

Those white shorts looked good though.

(NB even more guesswork than usual in the teams this time around. I won’t miss Davy’s opaque team sheets)

Waterford: Adrian Power, Stephen Daniels, Declan Prendergast, Aidan Kearney, Jamie Nagle, Kevin Moran, Shane O’Sullivan, Dean Twoney (Paudie Nevin), Paul O’Brien, Maurice Shanahan (0-1f), Michael Walsh, Seamus Prendergast (2-0), Martin O’Neill (2-6, 0-6f), Shane Walsh (0-2; Thomas Ryan), Eoin McGrath

Clare: Donal Touhy, Domhnall O’Donovan, Cian Dillon, Conor Cooney (Stephen O’Halloran), Seadna Morey, Enda Barrett, James McInerney (AN Other/27, 0-1), AN Other/25, (0-2), Patrick Donnellan (0-1), Colm Galvin (1-2), Daire Keane (0-1; Ross Horan), Fergal Lynch (0-1; Cathal Chaplin), Tony Carmody (1-1), Colin Ryan (0-6, 0-4f), Aaron Cunningham (1-2)

HT: Waterford 1-7 (10) Clare 1-9 (12)

Referee: John Ryan (Tipperary)