I gotta feeling sang the Black Eyed Peas before the start of extra-time in the Clare-Wexford game, and I had a feeling that something pretty special was coming down the tracks for Waterford. This wasn’t based on anything quantifiable, just a sense that Kilkenny’s trajectory had dipped to a point where we could finally aspire to touching it. Arriving at Semple Stadium though, I got the feeling that I was alone in this as a sparsely populated Killinan End suggested that the plain hurling people of south-east Ireland were not expecting anything out of the ordinary. How wrong they were . . .
A good start is obviously useful, but what is rarely mentioned is the usefulness of a bad start by the opposition, and we got both in spades here. We chuckled at Kilkenny hitting a wide within thirty seconds of the start of the game, already setting them halfway to the tally they produced in the 2008 All-Ireland final, and tried to think nothing of Waterford’s well-worked points to open the scoring and were engaging in all manner of tis-but-a-flesh-wound dismissiveness when Jamie Barron failed to take a great goal-scoring opportunity after being teed up by Maurice Shanahan, Eoin Murphy arriving in his path at the moment of striking. Kilkenny extracted maximum punishment from that miss when they came up the field and took their point . . . hang on, they didn’t. Another wide was swiftly followed by yet another wide from the Cats. You couldn’t tell whether this was down to bad shooting or expert hustling by the backs – in retrospect I’m inclined towards the latter – but whatever it was the ‘feeling’ was feeling pretty good. These Kilkenny gods had feet of clay. When Darragh Fives sent over a long-range effort to leave us three points ahead, they knew they were in a game.
It had been a bright start, but Richie Hogan finally adjusted the radar to open their account and Waterford began to go down the road that Seán Cullinane had warned against before the game, that of sending high ball into the Kilkenny back line. I’m a long-standing advocate of backs getting the ball and driving it, but even a numpty like me could see that this was meat and drink to Jackie Tyrell and JJ Delaney, especially with Seamus Prendergast having to plough an extremely lonely furrow in the forward line alongside the more lightweight talents around him. There was nothing lightweight about the backs though as Darragh Fives added two stunning points. The whole back division from 1-9 was nothing short of magnificent, routinely bursting through standing up to the standard Kilkenny tactic of hooking their arm and hurley around the onrushing player. One incident saw Seamus Prendergast stagger from such a clinch and be given an ‘advantage’ by the ref, only to lose the possession a split second when no advantage could be reasonably said to have accrued. James Owens did not have a good game. The only place where ‘advantage’ should apply is within 20-30 metres of the goal where a goal might accrue from such an advantage. Backs want frees to clear their lines. Forwards wants free so they can get cheap points. Owens’ determination to treat it as ‘a man’s game’ was of no use to Waterford. And that is to say nothing of the clanger he would drop right at the end.
But that’s for later. For all of the heroics of the backs Kilkenny were not going to keep on missing the chances they had for the entire 70 and they slowly reeled us in as each clearance was sent back with interest. Seeing Darragh Fives plough into Paul Murphy out on the sideline was viscerally satisfying but it reflected an underlying frustration that was beginning to show. He was to suffer more ‘advantage’ frustration when no free was awarded as he attempted to clear then was penalised for overcarrying. Some advantage. This allowed Kilkenny to take the lead and it was clear that Waterford would need to make demands on the backs over and above the call of duty here. They were going to have to carry everything out of defence and negotiate a forest of Kilkenny ash if we were to have any chance at all. A splendidly worked equalising effort for Jake Dillon typified what was needed – low ball and taking on your man every time rather than letting it in first time.
Now seems like a good time to digress. There was so much to be happy about with this Waterford performance. I’m not going to indulge any trolling suggestions that this was a golden opportunity missed or that we left it behind us. And it was particularly satisfying to see how they reacted to the realisation that what they were doing wasn’t working. It is surely counter-intuitive to take on your man in the manner I have just described. In effect, you are asking a player to look for trouble. But we had to adjust or we’d be killed. And adjust they did. Too many times in the past there has been no plan B for Waterford. Watching the craft with which Waterford applied themselves to this task, and the way they made the most of the limitations of the players available, it makes one almost wistful about what Michael Ryan might have done had he access to the superior forward line that we had throughout the Noughties.
Back to the game, and there was time for one of those typical sickening blows that seems to befall the weaker teams (also known as ‘losers’). A free out for Kilkenny brought a dark mutter from me that it was going to drop short and that’s exactly what happened, leading to a penalty. Up stepped Richie Power and his shot was brilliantly saved and the rebound went over the bar. Top result there. But wait. The ref is going into the umpires. This is rarely good, and it wasn’t in this case as the result of their deliberations was a green flag. It was most frustrating, and boos rang around the ground as they went off at half-time. I managed to have enough self-possession to realise that something must have happened to allow the goal be given. Maybe Stephen O’Keeffe had his hurley behind the line when he had gotten stick to ball? During the break a man nearby said he had phoned home and confirmed that the ball had struck the stanchion and come back out. So credit to the official for the correct call. The bastards.
I still felt we were in this. The backs had been outstanding. Prior to this year, Jamie Nagle had made nine Championship starts and rarely looked like more than a souped-up winter hurler, yet here he was imposing himself upon forwards with Celtic crosses lying down the back of the sofa. It was going to require a superhuman effort, but we had at least one bona fide superhuman in the person of Michael Walsh, so why not? Unfortunately there was no sign in the early exchanges in the half that any of the forwards had what it took to top the superhumans in the Kilkenny back line and when Henry Shefflin entered the fray not long after Richie Power had opened the second half scoring, you realised that the superhuman ratio was skewed heavily against us. One of our big hopes of recent years, Stephen O’Keeffe, was standing up to the pressure, cleverly batting a point-bound effort away from the danger area. Risky, but worth it when done right like this. Not long after a towering effort from Kevin Moran cut the gap to a single score again and then it was the turn of Darragh Fives to score from the back line, another product of taking on your man and giving team mates the room as a result, this time the spade work being done by Jake Dillon. This was what was needed to beat this lot. Did we have what it took to piece it all together?
Alas, for the next twenty minutes the answer was a decisive ‘no’. Seamus Prendergast weighed in with a fine score, but it increasingly looked like Sisyphean nature of the task was going to prove too much. The game was being played entirely between our goal line and their 45. The backs were pushing that stone back up the hill and, as per the myth, it was rolling right back down again. Kilkenny’s shooting was still wayward, and I was now certain that was mostly down to the constant harassment of the Waterford defence. They were getting enough shots in though that it didn’t seem to matter in the wider scheme of things. When Power tapped over a free with tem minutes to go to stretch the lead to five, Waterford’s task was clear – score more points in the last ten minutes than they had in the first twenty-five of the half, and not concede anything. Just the five impossible things to do before breakfast, eh?
And yet they did it. Jake Dillon tapped over a free – incredibly one of only two dead balls we’d score from all day – then Ray Barry got his second score since coming on. Only a goal in it and suddenly anything can happen, especially now that Tony Browne was on the field. I note that there was no patronising ripple of applause from the Kilkenny supporters as he came on. Proof, if ever any were needed, that they knew they were in a game. It was Barry who did the third impossible thing, pouncing on some loose back play to flash the ball over the bar and reduce the gap to two. Kevin Moran thundered over another long-range effort and suddenly getting this back seemed not impossible, or even improbable, but likely. Where they got the reserves of energy from, I do not know. They got it from somewhere though and when O’Keeffe and Nagle combined to send Moran down the right wing, memories of the thrilling finish against Tipperary in the League came flooding back as, just as he did that day, he turned his marker inside out before dropping a delightful stroke over the black spot to level matters.
So transformed were Waterford that I didn’t expect them to hold out for extra-time. They were going to go for the win, and for one gloriously tantalising moment the chance was there. Paudie Prendergast won the puckout and set off towards goal. He should have kept going. Even James Owens would have struggled to see an advantage if he were fouled. Instead he tried to play in Seamus Prendergast and the chance was lost. Kilkenny cleared and when Shane Fives flubbed an effort to gather the ball Matthew Ruth was straight onto it to slot over the winning score. But wait. The Kilkenny players were surrounding the referee. Initially I thought he had failed to play the advantage, which would have been supremely ironic given his performance prior to this, but it quickly transpired that he had blown the final whistle at some point before Ruth’s strike. Now we all had a good laugh, and strictly speaking he’s entitled to do this. But no-one in Waterford would have objected had he let the play go. Ruth’s attack was clearly of a piece with what had happened moments before and it takes a peculiar form of narcissism to think that that was the exact moment to blow the final whistle. Had it happened at the other end we’d have been raging. Poor refereeing, and I imagine something for which he’ll get his knuckles rapped.
If one chooses to view it as the outcome of fate rather than the ornery nature of one man, we bloody well deserved this. You knew in your head that the tank had to have been emptied in those last ten minutes but the heart they had shown meant that the heart refused to believe this one was gone. The head asserted itself in the opening few minutes though as Kilkenny effortlessly reeled off a string of points to go five points clear. The effort that Waterford had put in to drag themselves back into contention was clearly too much and even the backs, with the exception of the peerless Brick Walsh, were now second to every ball. The hope was still there though, and when Seamus Prendergast finally managed to discombobulate JJ Delaney and get the ball back across the goal Jake Dillon was there to bat the ball into the empty net. Naturally there were suggestions of a square ball but given Prendergast had knocked it back across the goal it seemed likely that Dillon was in situ before that play. As a Clare man behind us put it, he would have been offside in a soccer match – but this wasn’t a soccer match. Consultation between the officials confirmed this and, to paraphrase Chumbawumba, we had gotten knocked down but gotten up again. Could they keep us down?
Yes, they could. Two points early in the second period of extra-time stretched the lead back to four. Jamie Nagle gave a reminder to the All Star committee that will soon be forgotten of the quality of his season with a fantastic score from a long-range free but, in cricket parlance, we weren’t going this in singles so when Maurice Shanahan was fouled within 30m of the goal with only four minutes to go you knew he had to go the whole hog. His shot into a crowded penalty area was saved but somehow Ray Barry got onto the rebound and staggeringly we were level again.
I really thought we were going to do this. This was like the first Rocky film, a supposed nobody standing up to the champ for 15 bruising rounds, simply refusing to be knocked down. Unfortunately (spoiler warning!) the champ did enough to win on points that day and so it proved here as Kilkenny reacted with a flurry of punches to go three points clear again. You really have to doff your cap to that champion spirit, never once losing their focus despite all the miles on the clock. There was one more moment of enormous satisfaction for Waterford when Stephen O’Keeffe, now 100% in possession of the goalie shirt, somehow got this stick to a low shot from point-blank range to deflect the ball out for a 65. The Kilkenny fans had been celebrating, leading one Waterford man to wryly remark “steady on lads, it’s not over yet!” and when the 65 went wide it really wasn’t over. Come on Fates, we deserve this! The puckout seemed to be going out of play but in the scramble the ref decided to give a free-in even though the clock had ticked well past the two minutes he had decided had come in only ten minutes of play. One more chance . . . cleared. Game over, and spectacular rejoicing from the Kilkenny faithful for their deliverance.
You couldn’t argue with the final outcome. Kilkenny had scored ten points in extra-time. But there was so much to celebrate from Waterford’s perspective. The management look like they are capable of identifying a game plan. They’ve learned much about the players at their disposal, their strengths and limitations, and have earned more time to apply those lessons. The backs went toe-to-toe with the best team in the history of the game and never once took a backward step. So many players – O’Keeffe, Lawlor, Nagle, Fives and Fives – showed they absolutely belong at this level. There are problems in the forward line, no doubt about that. But how could we not have problems? We’ve lost players of the calibre of John Mullane and Stephen Molumphy this year and it asks an awful lot of the senior players to integrate the new boys in the absence of talent like that. We should have the latter back next year. And the former . . . he intimated on Championship Matters that he was missing it. A positive thought.
Not as positive as the fact that we’re still alive as a team of note in the game. Kilkenny’s trajectory is on the way down. There’s a golden age in the offing and we are in a position to be part of it rather than watching it from the wings like the last time. Quite a change in expectations from the start of 2013. Roll on 2014.
Waterford: Stephen O’Keeffe, Shave Fives, Liam Lawlor, Noel Connors, Jamie Nagle (0-1f), Michael Walsh, Darragh Fives (0-3; Tony Browne), Kevin Moran (0-3), R Foley (0-1; Paudie Prendergast), Jake Dillon (1-2, 0-1f), Seamus Prendergast (0-1), Shane O’Sullivan, Brian O’Sullivan (0-1; Ray Barry, 1-3), Maurice Shanahan (Martin O’Neill; Shane Walsh), Jamie Barron (0-1; Eoin Barrett)
Kilkenny: Eoin Murphy, Paul Murphy, JJ Delaney, Jackie Tyrrell, Tommy Walsh, Brian Hogan, Kieran Joyce, Michael Rice (Michael Fennelly, 0-1), Eoin Larkin (0-4, 0-3f), Richie Power (1-5, 1-0 pen, 0-3f), Matthew Ruth (0-1), Aidan Fogarty (0-2, Lester Ryan), Colin Fennelly (0-4), Walter Walsh (Henry Shefflin), Richie Hogan (0-5)
HT: Waterford 0-6 (6) Kilkenny 1-6 (9)
FT: Waterford 0-15 (15) Kilkenny 1-12 (15)
Referee: James Owens (Wexford)