Waterford 0-19 (19) Cork 1-19 (22)

In my heart, I thought Waterford were going to win the All-Ireland this year. This was based on two utterly ridiculous ideas. The first was a bit of déjà vu experienced in the run-up to the game, a perfect vision of myself standing in the bottom left of Hill 16 and seeing a Waterford half-forward galloping clear towards goal, egged on the thrilled Waterford fans. He gets within range and languidly bats the ball over the bar. With that, Eoin Kelly – yes, I can see who it is now – wheels away in triumph. We’re four points up in injury time, the fabled insurance score. We had done it. This vision was allied with a longer running theme, that of Chelsea win the European Cup. Repeatedly Chelsea had gone to the well and been repeatedly denied. And just when their star was beginning to dim, they get every piece of luck going to finally land the big one. Was it too unreasonable to expect such a fate to befall Waterford?

And arriving at Thurles, you got another sense that something big was brewing in the world of hurling. We came in along the Two Mile Borris road having spent the previous evening/current morning at a wedding in Carlow and recent experience told me that coming off the motorway with about an hour to spare would be time enough. A crowd of 20,000 or so would be plenty, especially given the habits of our betters in Kilkenny and Cork of waiting until September before opening up their wallets. So imagine my surprise as the traffic was bumper-to-bumper right at the motorway. Even more surprising was to get to the ground and find not a single stand seat available. And you know what? It was great to see. I’ve been to enough games in recent years where you could hear individual voices echoing around the venue to be able to take a simple pleasure from the thought that there was going to be a close-to-capacity attendance. Hopefully everyone saw something in Waterford that I hadn’t rationalised up until this point.

We scampered up the Killinan End a few second after throw-in and a barely-overheard radio commentary suggested that “it went in off the post” so it felt almost like a success when we got in and saw that no-one had scored. Such a pessimist/realist to think that early goals would always go to Cork. They took the lead soon enough with a simple tap-over for Patrick Horgan but John Mullane soon had us level as he hooked over a score from under the stand. The early stages felt a little bloodless with Shanahan and Horgan swapping frees and Waterford giving Cork a bit too much room in the half-forward line. Such space nearly proved damaging early on as Horgan got in for a shot but Liam Lawlor stood tall/got his arse in the way to block the goal-bound effort and get the ball clear via the goalkeeper. It was a brief respite as Pa Cronin scored a splendid point from a long way out and it was obvious that Waterford were struggling in the half-back line. Jamie Coughlan added another score and it was he who was given the freedom of the park to stroll through the half-backs and around the full-backs and drill the ball past Stephen O’Keeffe. It was bad, even if only because they didn’t chop him down when it was clear he was motoring.

I was seriously worried at this point that we were going to be stuffed. The fate of the underage teams in recent weeks has added to the fear of 5-31 style results and missed efforts from Mullane and Shanahan, the latter from a free that had the Cork intelligentsia on the Town End whooping with delight, added to the sense of impending doom. You need someone strong in the circumstances, and who currently competing in London is more citius than Tony Browne who landed a long-range free to steady a few nerves. I’m going to save a few superlatives for the inevitable retirement post.

It helps as well when management do something clever and around this time John Mullane moved out to the middle of field allowing Waterford to staunch the loss of blood in that part of the game. Kevin Moran flexed a few muscles, a thunderous clearance allowing Shane Walsh to bat the ball to Maurice Shanahan for a score then another fine effort from Moran, this time a rampaging run, caused consternation in the heart of the Cork defence before Maurice Shanahan opted to tap the ball over. A super effort from Paudie Mahony from under the stand reduced the gap still further. Points had been exchanged from frees but Mullane’s bossing of the midfield continued to keep Cork on the back foot and a wonderful catch allowed him to set up Stephen Molumphy for the equalising score from distance.

It scarcely seemed believable, all done with an economy of effort – no wild pulls, no rushed shots, no crappy wides – that would have done the great Waterford teams of yore proud. It is perhaps typical of our low expectations that when Cork reacted to Shanahan putting Waterford ahead from an easy free by retaking the lead themselves, Cian McCarthy scoring a great point from out wide then Horgan knocking over a simple free just before half-time, I was still thrilled with the way things had panned out. We were dead and buried. Now a hammering was improbable. How’s that for a glass-half-full way of looking at things?

The half-time buzz on the terrace was about the remarkable sight of John Mullane out in the middle of the field. It seemed blatantly obvious now that you were looking at it – employ Mullane’s incredible ball-winning skills in the heart of the action where they could do the most damage. When Cork midfielder Daniel Kearney was replaced at half-time, I couldn’t suppress a snort of indignation as the thought rose up that someone was being sent on to dish out some timber to our new Lory Meagher. This was (mostly) a jestful thought, and in fairness to Michael Ryan and co it wasn’t a long-term strategy. Just as playing the best centre-back in the country at centre-forward during the League was never a runner, playing the best corner-forward of his generation in the midfield was a nice wildcard, but Cork would be wise to it now so it made sense to revert to normal for the start of the second half. The point was emphasised early on as Thomas Ryan went from being anonymous to actively poor, making a hash of a splendid through-ball from Seamus Prendergast. Oh, for Mullane to have had that chance. He was taken off and Eoin McGrath came on, a decision that made me frown. Had Gavin O’Brien been so bad in the Munster final that he was being ignored in favour of what not so much a blast from the past as a mild breeze from the Stone Age?

The early exchanges had been even enough, Cian McCarthy scoring a fine point from range only for Walsh to manufacture a great score at the right end and Shanahan to level matters after Molumphy had eschewed all efforts at finesse by barrelling through the Cork defence and earning a rather soft-free. Horgan restored Cork’s lead after being set up by the evergreen Seán Óg Ó hAilpín before Walsh nearly engineered a goal from nothing, his tap-down producing a half-chance for McGrath and the follow-up from Walsh ending up in the side netting. It would have been an astonishingly good goal to have gone in, but it was a sign that Walsh was well on his game and he demonstrated it again as he came deep shortly after Shanahan pointed from a 65 to put Waterford in front.

Now recall all the blarney at the top about channeling the spirit of chav mercenaries and fantasies that would have put Gerard Manley Hopkins to shame. It was all nonsense of course, but the feelings were real enough and now Waterford were about to put together a period of play that was tangibly real. Allied with the dreams, hope swelled in my heart, not just about this game but about the possible ending of 53 years of hurt. A point from Paudie O’Sullivan levelled matters but Waterford were clearly on top. The full-back line looked unperturbed, Moran and Molumphy were driving forward at every opportunity, Paudie Mahony was now looking like the summer hurler we always hoped he could become, Shanahan was keeping the frees ticking over, Walsh was a hair-trigger ready to wound Cork at every opportunity and Mullane . . . he was Mullane. A super solo effort from Mahony put us in front, Shanahan engineered and scored from a free and a point of impudent genius from right in the corner by Himself put Waterford three points clear with only fifteen minutes to go. I didn’t just think we had a chance. I thought we had them.

It’s easy to see what went wrong in retrospect, although even at the time things happened that dented such a feeling of confidence. Shane Walsh going off to be replaced by Shane Casey was worrying. Shanahan missed a decent free chance and Mullane hit a wide when perhaps there were better options available. Either would have been the insurance score. Okay, there was still plenty of time to go but in a relatively low-scoring affair it would have been advantageous to put Cork in a position where they might feel the need to go for goals. What had happened though, and you would have needed to have been a soothsayer to have seen it coming, was that Cork had emptied their bench in the manner of a baseball team determined to start a fight. It was one-part desperation on Jimmy Barry Murphy’s part, two-parts plan – the players that came on could not have been plucked randomly from the team sheet. But whatever it was, the contrast between the quality of the fresh legs Waterford brought on was stark. Cathal Naughton – remember how he broke our hearts in 2006? Will we ever forget? – got a fine point then we had to rely on a fantastically composed piece of goalkeeping from Stephen O’Keeffe to prevent a Cork goal. There was one more moment when Waterford could have landed a sledgehammer blow, Kevin Moran’s pinpoint clearance should have created a two-on-one situation but McGrath couldn’t take the ball and the chance was gone and with it, were we only to know it, the match.

Cork were now totally on top and everywhere there seemed to be a red jersey with a number 2 on its back. Waterford were forced to drag down Luke O’Farrell to prevent a goal chance and Horgan slotted over the free. O’Farrell put over a score himself after another great run from Naughton and the teams were level. Horgan and Naughton added two more points and we were two points down only three minutes after being ahead by that much.

Amidst the turmoil, Tony Browne departed to be replaced by Richie Foley. I managed to get arsey that the Cork fans didn’t afford him the standing ovation that the Tipperary fans had done in the Munster final but I quickly realised this showed the game was probably still on. In previous years I’ve scoffed at any suggestions that he might be about to pack it in and I’ve been proven right. Now I think this might be it. To play into your forties just doesn’t seem possible, even for him.

Ó hAilpín struck a blow for old men with a point and after Horgan and Shanahan swapped points from frees we needed a goal. Casey had a chance to pull the trigger but inexplicably opted to bat the ball towards goal and it went harmlessly wide. There was a half-chance for McGrath which bobbled out for a 65 although everyone had eyes for the sight of Mullane in heap with a Cork back. Had he been fouled? We had no way of knowing and the 65 was still to come so there wasn’t time to get bitter over it. Foley took it and it was clearly too high but hit the post and bounced into the one part of the small square where there wasn’t a Waterford forward loitering with intent. The clearance was whipped out for a sideline ball and the ref, perhaps hedging his bets over the Mullane incident, allowed the sideline to be taken but it was blocked and that was that.

Tony Browne departs...

Being the world’s greatest fatalist, it says much about Waterford’s performance that I was convinced we’d close it out when we so purposefully hit the front midway through the second half. It seemed to me that barring a calamitous fluke, Cork were not going to get the goal they needed. We had looked so good, but I hadn’t banked on Cork being able to bring on a number of players who were almost as good as what was on the pitch – perhaps even better, some of them are bound to start against Galway. And it’s worrying for the future that we can’t match that ability to blitz teams with fresh legs. Still, we’re still a good team and even if we can’t match the likes of Cork from 1 to 15 we have talented hurlers. Stay competitive, and maybe we’ll have our Chelsea moment after all.

Waterford: Stephen O’Keeffe, Noel Connors, LiamLawlor, Stephen Daniels, Tony Browne (0-1f; Richie Foley), Michael Walsh, Kevin Moran, Stephen Molumphy (0-1), Philip Mahony, Maurice Shanahan (0-9, 0-6f, 0-1 65), Seamus Prendergast (0-1), Pauric Mahony (0-3), John Mullane (0-2), Shane Walsh (0-2; Shane Casey), Thomas Ryan (Eoin McGrath)

Cork: Anthony Nash, Shane O’Neill, Stephen McDonnell, Brian Murphy, Tom Kenny, Eoin Cadogan (John Gardiner), Seán Óg Ó hAilpín (0-1), Daniel Kearney (Darren Sweetnam), Pa Cronin (0-2), Niall McCarthy (Cathal Naughton, 0-2), Cian McCarthy (0-3; Lorcan McLoughlin), Jamie Coughlan (1-1; Stephen Moylan),  Paudie O’Sullivan (0-2), Luke O’ Farrell (0-1), Patrick Horgan (0-7, 0-4f)

HT: Waterford 0-11 (11) Cork 1-9 (12)

Referee: Barry Kelly (Westmeath)