Waterford United 1-1 Longford Town (Agg 3-1)

F*** off home, Longford Town
To the place, you belong
It’s a s****hole, in the Midlands
F*** off home, Longford Town

Oh, the seductive call of being able to belong, to be part of something bigger than yourself. Wrap yourself in the flag. Clasp yourself to the bosom of the tribe. Hopping up and down among amidst the Waterford United Ultras while singing the chant above (to the tune of Take Me Home, Country Roads) brought back happy memories of European nights spent on the Kop. That may sound like hyperbole, and it’s entirely correct to note that there’s a difference between a crowd  of 44,000 and 1,200 (or 1,198, to be precise). On the other hand, you could get to know every one of the people at the RSC if you were so inclined. Much easier to belong to a tribe that size.

And yet, it would be a terrible idea to allow myself to be sucked in too deep. Before the game my Ultra friend texted me to say he was a nervous wreck. Oh come on, I thought. We’re 2-0 up. Stop borrowing trouble. Yet by the time we were ready for kickoff I began to fret as well. Failure was not an option, and in the first few minutes it was clear Longford were up for it and, more worryingly, Waterford were letting thoughts like ‘failure is not an option’ get under their skin. A series of early corners were mostly the product of hesitant defending and clearances from Packie Holden in the goal that were more slaps than punches. God knows how it would have been had the Blues not scored with their very first attack. But they did, my brother getting to see Sean Maguire strut his stuff. Catching Longford on the break, he left his marker for dead and fired a low shot across the bows of the Longford keeper. It was a great effort from a narrow angle, especially with his left foot, and the ball pinged back out to the onrushing Peter Higgins to decisively rifle the ball to the net.

Marvellous, and looking back it was game over. Longford had one decent opportunity midway through the second half when a cross flying across the face of goal was dying to be nudged in, and did eventually score through Alan Kirby right at the end of the 90, but otherwise they didn’t threaten much and looked a shadow of the team that threatened at one stage in the season to run away with the division, usurping Limerick’s destiny. The fact that Waterford overhauled them in the second half of the season gives credence to the notion in baseball that the most likely team in playoffs is not the one with the better record through the entire season, although Waterford had that too, but the team with the better record in the latter stages of the season, Waterford being more than eight points better on the measure. Longford were always going to struggle in the face of that, and they did.

That’s all very wise after the event though. It didn’t feel like that at the time as my worrywart friend, who somehow finds the headspace to be a big Liverpool fan as well, noted that they needed to find inspiration from a team coming from three goals down. Yeah, a Liverpool supporter would know nothing about that. It only takes seconds to score one and then the remaining time to get the other two so it was sensible to remain on high alert.

Still, it wasn’t very likely and you felt all in your head that all Waterford had to do as keep their shape and stay aware of the possibility of a goal on the break, and they did both with admirable calm – that goal really had brutally affected the shape of the tie. While Longford had the lion’s share of the possession they were failing to create much in the way of chances with Waterford content to put each ball into row Z, with John Frost being particularly adept at this. Now, that may be only because Frosty is the only player I truly recognise on this team but it was part of a pattern of Waterford comfort and Longford discomfort and while each side had a decent chance with headers, Gary Dempsey heading over and Noel Havery (it says here) doing the same before half-time when either would have scored had they just kept it on target, Waterford kept it tighter than a Scottish drum.

Early in the second half any sense of comfort was badly damaged in the space of a few blood-curdling minutes. Paul Phelan really should have buried any Istanbul-inspired hopes of a Longford comeback when he side-footed a cross shot wide after a marvellous break from the Blues. Then Longford finally managed to get in behind the defence and Seamus Long lunged at the attacker on the edge of the penalty area leading to his third red card from Keith Callanan in four games. He was very hard done a few weeks back when given a second yellow for a phantom handball against Longford, and I’ve already written about the oddball behaviour of the fourth official against Mervue that proved so damaging to Seamus Long’s prospect of playing 90 minutes that evening. But here, he probably got it right, especially as Longford would have been particularly aggrieved to have only had a yellow card for preventing a probable goal-scoring chance. Reverse the roles and we’d have all been baying for red. So while I was happy to join the rewriting of Take Me Home – what a cracking chant! – to suggest that Callanan’s home lay in McDonald’s on the Cork Road (he’s rather portly, in case you don’t know), he wouldn’t have had to be explaining himself to the referee’s assessor for this decision.

So having survived the free, which was so awful that it would have cleared the nets behind the goal at Walsh Park, the notion of catching Longford on the break was an unlikely one. Now we would have to defend with eight men and hope Sean Maguire could work some magic on his own up front. Now was the turn of our number 7, who I think was Peter Keegan but mortifyingly I can’t tell you for sure, to come into his own. Thomas Crawley down the left was clearly Longford’s main threat and Keegan/number 7 marshalled him brilliantly, sticking to Crawley like glue and never lunging in recklessly. Seamus Long, take note. The Blues did survive a couple of scares, once when another ball over the top ended up with two defenders sandwiching the attacker and the ref mysteriously deciding that was a free out, and another when Crawley managed to evade Keegan only for his lethal cross shot to evade all Longford players as well. But once the game entered the final quarter and the mind began to tell your soul that more time had elapsed in the second half than was left, the atmosphere gradually relaxed. And it was ace. Amazingly a chant for everyone to stand up if they loved the Blues got everyone on their feet. Urbs Intact Manet Waterfordia is right. As with the city, it’s all about belonging.

The presence of Sean Maguire did put a crimp on Longford’s attacking ability, and he should have put the gloss on the night when he jinked his way past the stretched Longford defence only to have his shot well saved by the goalie. And there was time for a mild scare when Longford’s possession finally paid dividends, a cross from the right which could have been touched in by a succession of attackers and defenders was given that final touch by Alan Kirby. For a moment you calculated that Longford now didn’t need a goal every 80 seconds of the four minutes of injury team but one every 120 seconds. Who was I calling a worrywort? But it said much about how improbable everyone knew that to be when the announcement of Alan Kirby as the scorer led to a ripple of acclamation rather than abuse, and it took only one more failed attack for the mathematics of a comeback to move from the improbable to the impossible.

It’s a pity that I have to bash this out in the shadow of a playoff against Dundalk on Tuesday, so the feeling of euphoria has faded pretty quickly. I couldn’t help remembering how the joy of a spectacular comeback win against Shelbourne in the last game of the 2009 regular season as cruelly obliterated by a 3-1 one loss to Monagan at the RSC a mere three days later. Still, to be part of what a more experienced Blue called the “the best atmosphere in years at the rsc” is something to be cherished. Success next Friday would trump even that.