Early in the second half of this game, I gave up trying to put together any meaningful record of events. The first half had featured a harum-scarum performance from Waterford, so lacking in a plan that even the thought of just getting the ball into Stephen Bennett at every available opportunity, an unimaginative plan but one that would have at least been coherent, seemed beyond them. I put my camera down and waited. The narrative would come to some kind of conclusion without my intervention.
With all that in mind, here’s a meaningless record of my day in the smoke. I had been determined beforehand to just enjoy the experience. A combination of our dire record in All-Ireland semi-finals (one win in twelve attempts at Senior, Minor and Under-21 since winning two against Antrim in 1992) and my record in Croke Park (one draw and eight defeats since seeing us beat Galway in my first ever visit to Headquarters in 1998) meant I wasn’t filled with optimism. We were going to head up and support the boys then enjoy the second game, which looked rather tasty. Such feelings of bonhomie were aided by a picaresque scene on the Luas as a lovable Dublin gangster went about his day. I say ‘lovable’ as he spent a good two minutes talking to a Cork supporter about last week’s football game while she was talking about the hurling match that day. I say ‘gangster’ as he then got on the phone to advise someone that while he was sorry about the way things were going with the person at the other end, he had to talk to some third party who had grassed him up. He didn’t want to fight with anyone but this needed to be ‘sorted’. This line of conversation went around three or four times to increasingly broad grins from the overhearing culchie contingent. I must remember to check whether there were any gangland shootings in Dublin on Sunday evening.
Arriving at Croke Park before the gates had even opened, I got a little emotional upon seeing a couple with their Waterford jersey-clad children. They were aged somewhere between 7 and 9 (the children, not the parents) and had the wide-eyed look of those on their first trip to Jones’s Road. It struck me that there was no guarantee that when my son is their age (six weeks old at the time of writing) he will be able to experience this kind of outing. The man on the loudspeaker in the kids area under the Davin Stand wondered whether there was anyone left in Waterford while also spotting a lone Carlow jersey. Not much call for Carlow folk to be in Croke Park in August. Despite the woeful records I referenced earlier, these are still days to be treasured.
We took up our seats in the
Canal End Davin Stand and opened the programme I had unthinkingly purchased. Oh. Four pages on the Minor game. Who knew there was so much more emphasis on the main feature? Still, it was noted by one of my siblings that the Waterford player from Bonmahon on the starting lineup (Micheál Harney) and from Tramore on the bench (Barry Whelan). It was likely both of those players had been on the field during the Three-Minute War. A long way from there to here.
The match began and it was clear that Waterford fans outnumbered those from Kilkenny by a multiple of several. This was good, but it would be remiss not to doff a cap to the Kilkenny people who made the journey. This was my first All-Ireland Minor semi-final. Your average Kilkenny supporter will have had double-figure opportunities to see the Kittens (groan) so the people who were here on this day for Kilkenny really do care about the game. And they had more to cheer about early on. Waterford, to be frank, were crap. Kilkenny players were first to every ball and promptly winning frees which were slotted over with considerable élan by Alan Murphy. There was some grounds for irritation in Waterford circles at the ease with which the referee was blowing his whistle – if you got ahead of your man, all you had to do was hit the deck and you had the free – but there was no doubt most of the frees were justified as Waterford struggled to get going.
As I said earlier, there seemed to be no plan, not even one of getting it into Stephen Bennett post-haste. And when they did, lo! he worked the oracle, breezing past two Kilkenny defenders before drawing the goalkeeper and lobbing the ball into the onrushing Adam Farrell to bat the ball into the empty net. Great stuff, and Waterford could have had another goal moments later but Farrell went for a point from a narrow angle when he really should have made the goalie work and the ball went wide.
It was better from Waterford, even if they kept on giving Kilkenny too much space, space which ended in a free and a score from Murphy. It made for frustrating viewing, but while there were signs that while Waterford were struggling to win clean possession they were having no such problems winning the loose ball. I’ve fretted on a previous occasion about how midget-like Waterford players are at this level, but this team looked much more robust and it was by a demonstration of teak-tough play and no little skill that Waterford got their second goal, DJ Foran bursting onto a loose ball out on the 45 and zipping through the Kilkenny back lines before cracking the ball in off the stanchion – it rebounded out but was tapped in anyway, just in case.
You have to be fatalistic if you are going to survive as a Waterford supporter, and even amidst the pleasure of the goals was the worry that this is what this Waterford team were about – goals keeping them in the game, just like in the Munster final replay. The self-belief was beginning to show though as Patrick Curran added a couple of frees and another effort from Stephen Bennett, this time a fine individual point, kept us ticking over at the same rate Kilkenny were doing. A two-point half-time lead felt slightly flattering, and there were numerous horrifying moments as they frequently played first-time balls which may be in the spirit of our hurling forefathers but is enough to give you a coronary in this age of defences hunting in packs. Waterford were on the ascendancy, struggling to win the ball first time but mopping up any loose play. Maybe the plan is to play to the strengths of players – in this case, their strength?
Whatever it is, they hit the ground running in the second half, two fantastic early scores stretching the lead to four and causing me to put my camera away. I couldn’t pretend any more that I could be blasé about this. If we failed to win this one, it would be more sickening than several previous losses in HQ, low expectations that I had in those games. Kilkenny quickly hit back with two scores of their own and while it could hardly be said that the teams were now keeping it tighter the pattern was clear. Kilkenny were more of a unit but Waterford had the standout individuals, with Bennett, Foran and Patrick Curran making life very difficult for Kilkenny whenever they got the ball, the latter hitting the post with a 65 but showing no ill-effects by popping the ball over the bar when it was played back to him. The backs weighed in with a couple of great scores courtesy of Harney and the ever-industrious Austin Gleeson, and if we could match them score for score, we’d be home and dry. Easy!
It’s been a summer noteworthy for the furore over red cards, and for a horrible few minutes it looked like that was going to be the case in this game. Flicking through match reports, I’m still not sure what happened to Shane Bennett as he picked up a second yellow card midway through the half. At the time I was right confused as it looked like the second yellow card had instead gone to a different player and Bennett had been given a straight red card for what could only have been giving the referee a bit of lip. The confusion was a by-product of the surreal surroundings. You’d normally hear a reaction in some section of even a tiny crowd at a decision, but when the red card came out, there was…nothing. As we fumed at what seemed like complete foolishness on his part, as opposed to the partial foolishness of picking up two yellows in this card-happy season, Waterford lost their way. Crucially though Kilkenny, unlike Cork a few hours later, failed to ram home their advantage. A few bad wides and suddenly the clock was against them. It’s probably a bit harsh to assume that a group of boys are potentially lacking characteristics of the adult teams that have ruthlessly put the boot in when a team was down. That’s not going to stop me thinking it though, i.e. that this group of Kilkenny hurlers lacked the characteristic of previous generation in ruthlessly putting the boot in when a team was down. Wishful thinking? I’m in a buoyant mood.
Whatever about the future, the present saw Kilkenny fail to expolit the extra man and when Eoin Kenny also saw double yellow for them – referee evening things up, perhaps? – and DJ Foran got a spectacular point from distance to stretch the lead to three, once again pouncing on secondary ball and shrugging off the attention of two backs to score from distance, you felt we just had to keep them away from the goal to clinch the win. Kilkenny managed one point from distance, but there were three subsequent plays where you thought ‘if we can only win this ball, we’ll be fine’. And yes, I realise that makes no sense. Waterford duly won each of them to keep Kilkenny on the back foot and when Shane Hourigan blew up after a minute of injury time, Croke Park erupted.
Okay, it didn’t. We did though. It was great. I had really thought I could school myself to be casual about the Minors, but this had been a plan of battle that had not survived contact with the enemy. They had taken on the Evil Empire and triumphed. For only the third time in my life, we can look forward to seeing a Waterford hurling team play in Croke Park in September. There are no words for the feeling. It was just great.
And so we sat back to smugly enjoy the second game, passing all manner of arch comments about the Jacks and the Langers, confident that nothing could mar the splendor of the day.
— Urbs Intacta Manet (@UrbsIntacta) August 11, 2013
Hoi, weren’t you listening? I said nothing could mar the splendor of the day! For crying out loud . . .