Waterford 2-17 (23) Clare 1-18 (21)

Back in the late 1980’s RTÉ found themselves without an English First Division game to show on a particular Saturday due to the postponement of the scheduled game. The best they could rustle up at short notice was Leicester City v Crystal Palace. It wasn’t the most enticing prospect in the world but my brother and next door neighbour left it on. It was cold and dark outside and live soccer was still a novelty. And our couch potato-ism was rewared with a scintillating 4-4 draw, six of the goals in a demented first half where we noted a crazy habit of a goal going in whenever I left the room. The fates had clearly rewarded us personally for our perseverance.

I’m being facetious of course in mentioning that game in the same breath as this game between Waterford and Clare. After all, we couldn’t have been certain of the outcome of the soccer match while Clare were adjudged by all and sundry to be a slam dunk. It was confusing. The howls of outrage that greeted the setup of the 2012 National League suggested that a loss to Kilkenny would be worth more than a win over Carlow. Yet here were Clare being viewed as decisive winners on the basis of the latter. Maybe we’d have been better off in Division 2, getting the habit of winning rather than playing games where we’d learn something. You pays your money, you takes your platitude.

Then I opened the programme and was even more confused. The Clare team reeked of inexperience. Not one of the Clare team could be labelled a household name, unless yours is the kind of household that still yearns for the proper hurling that was to be found in the Oireachtas tournament. Were we seriously meant to be frightened of this souped-up Under-21 team?

On the basis of the opening few minutes, yes we were. Clare were right on the front foot, Colin Ryan releasing Conor McGrath for a score and even a numbskull like me could see Ryan had beaten Aidan Kearney with alarming ease. A blatant throw by Richie Foley under no pressure allowed Nicky O’Connell to open his account, and while there was an encouraging start to his Championship career for Philip Mahony as he scored from distance after being fed by John Mullane Clare were soon two and three points clear. The first of those scores was so nearly a goal but for a less-than-decisive pass from Jonathan Clancy to Enda Barrett which left the latter having to take his point, then a simple free for O’Connell left them three points ahead. In between Gavin O’Brien had a sniff of a chance but was expertly crowded out. When Foley hit a monster effort wide from a free where he had no right to be going for goal, a bubble of despair rose in my chest. New management, new failings.

Cometh the hour, cometh the men as first Mullane stormed past his marker to reduced the deficit, then Michael Walsh showed all the guile to draw a soft foul and give Waterford the chance to really get into Clare territory. The free came down in the danger area and while there has been some controversy about the correctness of the decision it looked like a stonewall (whatever than means) penalty in real time with Eoin Kelly being manhandled off the ball. I wasn’t even nervous as he stepped up to take it. Has there ever been a better hurler from that distance than the real Eoin Kelly? In it went and incredibly we were in front. You’d swear goals were important or something.

Everything changes when viewed through the prism of experience. Ryan hits a careless wide from in front of the post? Clearly rattled. Mullane shoots from such a narrow angle that the ball goes out for a sideline? He’s earned the right. It helps when you’re ahead too. Waterford were now settling in, shrugging off the ref ignoring an agricultural pull on Shane Walsh to keep on the offensive and Maurice Shanahan showing some wit to draw a soft free despite never really having the ball under his control. He teed up the free, which I must confess to being surprised at with Eoin Kelly on the pitch. Perhaps it reflects a general GAA-wide prejudice against citeogs but his free-taking stance is horrribly inelegant. Still, it went over in this case and we were now a goal clear. He then showed a lot of cool to fashion space for himself after a run – in so far as it can ever be called a ‘run’ – from Seamus Prendergast and we’d now scored 1-4 without reply. Sweet.

Clare got one back after a wild pull from Kearney on Barrett, an action that brought a deserved yellow, but it was a respite before the defining moment of the game. You know how we often grind our teeth with frustration at moments of madness proving pivotal to our hopes? Well, we were the beneficiaries of such a moment yesterday and that’s what made it ‘pivotal’ in a tight game. A huge effort from Stephen Milumphy eluded everyone and should have been dealt with y Patrick Kelly in the Clare but inexplicably he hesitated and Shane Walsh pounced, nudging the ball past the goalie, brushing off the challenges and bundling the ball into the net. So this is what it feels like to benefit from an almighty clanger from the opposition. You gotta love it.

The downside of moments of luck is that you can’t rely on them, and the problems Aidan Kearney was experiencing came back to haunt us. He allowed McGrath way too much room to gather the ball and score, then it looked like he had dealt with another ball into the corner but Richie Foley had been sucked into help him out which meant that when the ball broke for Ryan the Waterford backs were suddenly exposed. Ryan put John Conlon in the clear and he buried the ball past O’Keeffe. And, alas, it had been coming out of Kearney’s corner.

Waterford were still winning the majority of the ball. A free from Shanahan restored the lead to three, then some brave work on his part drew the Clare backs out of position and allowed him to put Shane Walsh in space. It was a tight angle but it was a clear sight of goal so even though the shot was saved, pinging up into the air with frustrating speed for the onrushing Waterford forwards, it was well worth the risk. Gavin O’Brien took an opportunity to shine, ramming the ball over the bar from the halfway line with satisfying decisiveness to get us four points ahead. At the other end Liam Lawlor could consider himself unfortunate not to have won a free and the rushed clearance was sent back over the bar by Nicky O’Connell, who was at the heart of everything Clare were doing well. He looks like a gifted hurler, and there was a fascinating contrast in the middle of the park between his ways and those of Stephen ‘dirty ball’ Molumphy. In any orchestra you need someone to play the piano and someone to carry it and Molumphy carried it through a crowd of players to earn a free only for Maurice Shanahan to drop it with a Tom & Jerry-style crash, missing the free from in front of the posts. No point in getting breaks like Walsh’s goal if you’re going to hand them back by missing chances like that.

That was an aberration in terms of the quality on display from Waterford, Seamus Prendergast’s splendid catch, run and strike over the bar being more typical of the fare on offer. Waterford were being far more direct than Clare, a typical Davy Fitz series of  hand passes and short passes down the sideline ending in the ball slithering out of play and many hoots of delight from Waterford fans. Liam Lawlor was, God help me for tempting fate, looking  every inch the full-back, masterfully staying goal-side of Conor McGrath and eventually forcing him to overcarry. From the subsequent free there was a brief window for someone to pull on it in the box and Clare only barely cleared it. We were really looked good and while it was Clare who ended on the up, O’Connell playing a short free to Conlon to score when it would have been just as easy for him to knock it over the bar himself, then Padraig Collins keeping in play a ball everyone else had left for dead and allowing McGrath to reduce the gap to two, it had been a good half for Waterford. The horrors of the start of the League campaign were well past now.

Half-time saw the Primary games where I was able to see Ciara Jackman in goal for the Waterford camogie team. Why is that noteworthy, you may ask? Because she happens to be the little sister of possibly the most famous person on my Twitter feed. Not exactly Suri Cruise, but much more important.

The second half began with the unsurprising swapping of Aidan Kearney for Noel Connors. Unsurprising and definitely the correct decision in the context of a match where he was getting a roasting and there was a top quality replacement available. But you worry. The last time I can recall a returning stalwart being hauled ashore at half-time was Ken McGrath.

Waterford almost got off to a flyer with space opening up ahead of John Mullane but he quickly elected to take his point. At least his speed gave him a choice, something not available to Maurice Shanahan who had a similar chance moments later but was so painfully slow by comparison that a point was the only true option available. In fairness the ball went over the bar smartly enough and the late first-half spurt for Clare had been rubbed out. Waterford kept up the early running in the half, an overambitious ball turned into something useful by the ever-game Shane Walsh who harassed Conor Cooney into overcarrying the ball. Unfortunately Shanahan couldn’t take the tough chance from the free and with it the momentum was lost.

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t thinking at the time “crap, that miss has cost us the initiative”. And I don’t even think it cost us the momentum in retrospect. But no matter how long I watch hurling, and amazingly I’ve attended just under 20% of the Championship matches Waterford have ever played, I can’t put my finger why the balance of a game can swing so dramatically within the game itself. If two teams are level then surely it should stay tight throughout, yet here we had a team have a sustained period of pressure only to then come under a sustained period of pressure itself. Maybe it’s down to switches, maybe hurlers need to take a breather like a boxer after a particularly attacking round. Whatever it is, the feeling persists that one of two teams can maintain dominance but must by necessity hand it back.

Because make no mistake, Waterford now handed it back. Jonathan Clancy – after O’Connell, Clare’s brightest prospect  – started the fightback with an excellent individual point. To emphasise the sudden, faintly mystifying turnaround John Conlon then harassed Philip Mahony into overcarrying the ball and now it was Waterford who were rattled as Mahony got booked and the free moved further in for a sustained volley of abuse aimed at the referee. O’Connell added the point and Clare were now all over us. We were grateful to see him miss what was probably an easier chance moments later but it was a brief respite as Conlon tacked on another score after loose play from both teams to reduce the gap to one. When Liam Lawlor was forced to sit on the ball to prevent Conlon bursting unchallenged towards the Waterford goal it typified the new on-field dispensation. Colin Ryan levelled matters with the free and when John Mullane was yellow-carded for a wild pull on a Clare back – in truth, he could have seen red for what was a desperate stroke – the force was with Clare to the extent that Patrick Kelly struck over a huge point from his own half.

And just as they took the lead for the first time in nearly forty minutes, the midi-chlorians abandoned Clare. Fresh legs helped as Paul O’Brien chased a potent ball into the corner from Prendergast and drew a foul. Shanahan scored from the free, not the easiest one a left-hander will ever have, and O’Brien repeated the trick not long afterwards as he raced onto a loose ball from Conor Cooney who was forced into chopping him down. Shanahan knocked over the much easier free and we were back in front. Clare were hardly licked and there was a terrifying moment when McGrath got in around the back of Stephen Daniels but he was caught in two minds and his abrupt effort to spoon the ball over the bar ended up flopping apologetically wide. At this stage the error count had moved decisively in Clare’s favour – their errors, so that’s a good thing for Waterford – and Stephen Molumphy rammed the swing back in our favour, batting the ball over after John Mullane had won the ball and made the space. And it was he who weighed in with a third point of the day, slotting over after a sideline ball had been played short to him, and feeling good enough to engage in some attempts to gee up the crowd. Steady on, John, save it for the final whistle. A belter of a free from distance from Richie Foley after Padraig Collins had been done for overcarrying put us four points clear. Could we ram home our advantage?

In short, no. Eoin Kelly was penalised in the middle of the park for . . . something, leading to another explosion at the ref from Mullane and a pithy “F*** YOU MULLANE!” from a Clare lad behind me. O’Connell took the point and an uncharacteristically casual bat-down from Prendergast allowed Clare to swing back into the attack with Clancy getting another excellent score. Shanahan eased the pressure as he went over like a felled redwood tree to earn the free and score his fifth place ball of the day. At the other end Lawlor gave away a daft free when he fouled his man off the ball and you briefly wondered whether Clare would go for the goal. It looked like a chance to me but McGrath went for a point. Clare then had reason to feel frustrated with that decision when O’Connell missed a relatively simple free, their frustration compounded by how narrow a decision it looked and made worse still when Martin O’Neill, on barely a few moments for the mostly lacklustre Eoin Kelly, smacked the ball over the bar having made acres of space for himself and leave the gap back at two.

It had been a great game and it didn’t look like it would end with a whimper, but nothing could have prepared you for the lunacy of the last few minutes. It was perhaps appropriate that a period of complete meltdown by both teams would begin with the shock of a careless pass back from Michael Walsh putting Clare on the front foot. Conor Clancy raced towards goal but Stephen O’Keeffe positioned himself perfectly and blocked the ball out for a 65. It was great goalkeeping and got the full reward when O’Connell hit the 65 wide. Waterford looked to have earned a chance to finish it at the other end but Prendergast’s cross shot hit the post and it looked like he was penalised in the end anyway. Clare’s next attack saw the ball break to sub Darech Honan and the latest Under-21 man who would be king looked more like a complete pretender as he ineffectually stabbed at the ball on more than one occasion bare yards from the goal. It must have been galling for the Clare fans but we soon knew how they felt as the clearance saw Thomas Ryan and two team-mates clear on the Clare goal. People will say that he should have played one of his colleagues into space but to be honest it should have been buried without anyone else’s help. Instead Kelly somehow managed to keep it out and Clare roared back into the attack, Clancy earning a free on the 21m line as he tried to cut back inside.

It had been breathless stuff, so it was just as well it took Clare took their time over the free. Even at the time you wondered whether there was something slightly self-reverential about bringing Patrick Kelly up to take the free. Maybe he does this all the time. Maybe it was an attempt to channel the spirit of Davy Fitz. In the end, it looked like the latter as we were able to follow the flight of the ball all the way to the massed Waterford ranks on the line. The ball was whipped clear and one of the most helter-skelter few minutes you’ll ever see ended up with Waterford coming out on top.

I dread to think what this game would have been like without the back door. Both teams really went at it from the start yet it never got niggly or bad-tempered. At least, not on the field of play. As I said earlier in the week, reaching the Munster final won’t look so clever if Cork beat Tipperary as winning the Munster title would likely still leave us needing to beat both Tipp and Kilkenny to win the All-Ireland. But the system is clever in laying out myriad opportunities for bragging rights. I doubt we’ll ever soar so high that beating Clare is not a bit special. And we saw glimpses of the Waterford of old, the great entertainers. You could get used to the everyone’s-favourite-second-team feeling again. I like being liked. Who do you think we are, Crystal Palace?

Waterford: Stephen O’Keeffe, Aidan Kearney (Noel Connors), Liam Lawlor, Stephen Daniels, Richie Foley (0-1f; Dean Twomey), Michael Walsh (capt), Philip Mahony (0-1), Kevin Moran, Stephen Molumphy (0-1), Maurice Shanahan (0-7, 0-5f), Seamus Prendergast (0-1), Eoin Kelly (1-0 penalty; Martin O’Neill, 0-1), John Mullane (0-3), Shane Walsh (1-1; Thomas Ryan), Gavin O’Brien (0-1; Paul O’Brien)

Clare: Patrick Kelly (0-1f), Domhnall O’Donovan, Cian Dillon, Conor Cooney, Brendan Bugler, James McInerney (Liam Markham), Patrick O’Connor, Nicky O’Connell (0-6, 0-5f), Patrick Donnellan (capt), Enda Barrett (0-1; Fergal Lynch), Padraig Collins (Seadna Morey), Jonathan Clancy (0-3), Colin Ryan (0-3, 0-2f; Aaron Cunningham), John Conlon (1-2), Conor McGrath (0-3)

HT: Waterford 2-8 (14) Clare 1-9 (12)

Referee: James McGrath (Westmeath)