This match was truly a red-letter day in the history of the GAA. For the first time ever, I was in the possession of a ticket for a National League group game! Unless you count those grubby little stubs as tickets. If nothing else, it showed someone in the GAA having the ability to think outside the box when it came to the ticketing arrangements for the Association’s hidden-in-the-attic child. Not only do the committed types who plan ahead get a discount on the price of their ticket, while slyly locking them in should the weather on the day prove to be off-putting, it was a good example of positive marketing (yeah, I know) as SuperValu/Centra advertised the games and the games brought people into SuperValu/Centra. Add in the horror for Superquinn-types as the GAA was brought into the shopping experience, and you have a winner all round. Kudos to whoever came up with the idea.
And speaking of ideas, the decision to retain the much-derided six-team divisional format was looking sound as Dublin rolled into town with everyone having a record of P2 W1 L1. Waterford had the less extreme pair of games, with a narrow but decisive result in both the win and the loss column. The Dubs, on the other hand, experienced a savage beating at the hands of Galway only to turn over Clare, the All-Ireland champions cock-a-hoop after a thrilling win over Kilkenny, in the following round. We would all have been conscious of the need to maintain the 100% record of home teams thus far if we are to continue making the six-team divisional format such a bone of contention by refusing to vacate the top table for one of our betters.
The team sheet looked encouraging for Waterford, with a lot of new faces. Three of the names – Tadgh Bourke, Shane McNulty and Ryan Donnelly – were complete unknowns to me so getting to know them was something to anticipate. Dublin are a familiar sight at this stage – including their thrilling game against Cork after the Minor game last August, I’ve seen them in each of the past four years – and they seemed to be straight into their stride. Waterford were playing a two man full-forward line and the initial high balls into Seamus Prendegast were not giving us much joy. Dublin won most of the early exchanges and gave the Waterford goal a few scary moments, one of them seeing Stephen O’Keeffe pulling off a great block only to over-elaborate on his clearance and was fortunate only to concede a point on the return. A 65 and a free from Pauric Mahony, both won by Prendergast making a nuisance of himself, were all Waterford had to show as Dublin cruised into a 0-5 to 0-2 lead.
That was as good as it got for the Dubs though. Perhaps it took Waterford time to adjust to their style of play, perhaps the boggy pitch – it looked awful; had the footballers played in a curtain raiser it would have been a complete quagmire – took its toll on Dublin more than us, or maybe the opening period was simply too short to be indicative of the wider game, but Waterford would boss the remainder in what is hopefully a harbinger of things to come. The half-forwards, perhaps boosted by the extra body, now got on top, winning lots of dirty ball and racking up the frees which were put away with aplomb by Mahony. Prendergast managed to make use of the extra space to fire over two great scores, and it was from some very dirty ball that Waterford managed their first goal of the season. Prendergast should have earned a free but from the scramble that did arise Stephen Molumphy – great to see him back – emerged from the scrum and put Mahony clear though on goal where he rifled an unstoppable shot past Maguire. When Ryan Donnelly popped over a tremendous effort from way out wide, we had outscored Dublin 1-7 to 0-1. Dublin might still be winning high balls but Waterford were pouncing on the breakdown and passes were sticking to palms. Carry on like this, and what could possibly go wrong?
A red card, that’s what. I could tell something had gone wrong for the incident which saw Michael Walsh connect with Alan McCrabbe, but the hue-and-cry from the Dublin contingent was more concern over McCrabbe’s welfare than rage at the atrocity which had befallen him. No free was awarded and the game carried on for a good half-minute before it stopped and attention came on for McCrabbe. I was so unconcerned that I wasn’t watching when Walsh was red-carded. Had the linesman spotted something? Did a hole appear in the space-time continuum that allowed Cathal McAllister to see the incident? Whatever it was, Walsh was off and we were shorn of our captain. We possess a top-drawer replacement for centre-back in Kevin Moran, but there isn’t a team in the country that wouldn’t be diminished by the absence of the Brick. No, not even them.
The game petered out strangely in the lead-up to half-time. It was almost as if both teams were in shock at the absence of such a giant of the game. There was time in the interval to look at a possible future giant as a young Ferrybank tyro put in an entertaining shift in the primary game, what with scoring a goal, lashing out in frustration by picking up the ball and throwing it, and generally putting him (her?) self about to the delight of the crowd.
Maybe Dublin had been too busy watching him/her because they didn’t seem to have worked on how to make use of the extra man during the break. An early dopey challenge gave Pauric Mahony the chance to stretch the lead to six, which he took with reassuring ease. Dublin meanwhile looked hopelessly adrift. Shoulders seemed to drop a little when the ref gave them an advantage that they promptly screwed up and he failed to bring the ball back like he should have done. They hit two horrible wides and got themselves in a complete tizz when they had a chance to bear down on goal leading to a third wide that was the worst of the lot. The Waterford half-backs were completely on top and while much to the ball was ostensibly wasted as they drove it into the stripped back forward line, the energy-sapping conditions meant Dublin were not getting it back up the field with the speed you’d normally expect from a top hurling team, thus eating up more valuable time.
Whether this was the function of one of those fabled occasions when a 14-man team is inspired by the fate of their fallen comrade or Derek McGrath et al have mixed up a winning formula remains to be seen, but the tenacity of Waterford was awe-inspiring. Now boy Tadgh Bourke in particular was a treat, one incident where he refused to be shaken off by Eamon Dillon before brilliantly blocking a shot out for a sideline (end result: wide) being a stand-out moment. As the game ticked into the final quarter there was no sense that Waterford were going to get this wrong or Dublin were going to get it right. When Dillon did manage to evade the Waterford backs his shot from a narrow angle was well save by O’Keeffe and Noel Connors put his body on the line to pick up the rebound leading to a free-out that raised the roof in the ground. The confidence almost turned a bit cocky when Kevin Moran was a bit loose with his handpass after yet another dominant piece of mopping up, but once again Connors was on hand to fling his body in the way of the attack and push the ball out for a 65, leading to a bear hug from O’Keeffe. It was intoxicating stuff, and the clearing of the 65 seemed almost predictable, so dominant were the Waterford backs. The bench was emptied without any loss of intensity. The Dubs were licked.
Incredibly Dublin did not score a second-half point until the 64th minute, and Mahony promptly knocked over another free, albeit after a slight wobble as he lifted the ball, to keep the gap at three scores. It seemed appropriate that the referee should ‘atone’ for his dismissal of Walsh by brandishing a red card for substitute Conor McCormack, again to the general bemusement of everyone in the crowd. There was almost an olé feeling to the crowd as the game entered the last couple of minutes and Jamie Nagle came out with yet another tremendous display of ball-winning, and the ebullient atmosphere in the crowd of 4,363 may have influenced him as he ran into a clutch of Dublin forwards and decided the way out was to pass the ball back to the goalie. The ball dropped horribly short and Conal Keaney managed to stab it past O’Keeffe to get a goal that they was scandalously undeserved. Nagle crumpled to the ground in disbelief at his act of madness and a point from Dillon a few moments meant Dublin were going to get a chance at redemption. Sport is full of stories like this, but to the credit of the Waterford backs they held their nerve, sticking every body in the way and daring Dublin to try and find a way through. A free-out signalled a thunderous whoop of relief and finally led to the final whistle.
I know in my head I’m being too gushing here. It’s only the League. The pitch made quality hurling difficult – early in the second half I opined that Waterford’s strategy would be to turn every encounter into a throw-in and at times it felt like that is exactly what they were doing as each restart took an age to sort out. Dublin are still prone to brain-fart performances like this. But my heart tells me to screw the nay-saying. How else are you meant to measure progress if not via the League? Both teams played on the same pitch, and surely a team with a man advantage for two-thirds of the game are the ones who should benefit in such limb-curdling circumstances, yet at no stage did Waterford look like relenting. Ultimately it was that unrelenting pressure that led to Dublin’s implosion. All this was done without throwing a clutch of Minors onto the bonfire. It was great, and shot through with the prospect that it can get even better.
Waterford: Stephen O’Keeffe, Tadgh Bourke, Shane Fives, Noel Connors, Jamie Nagle, Michael Walsh (capt), Philip Mahony, Kevin Moran (0-1), Shane McNulty (Stephen Roche), Shane O’Sullivan, Pauric Mahony (1-8 0-6f, 0-1 65), Stephen Molumphy (Gavin O’Brien), Ryan Donnelly (0-1; Brian O’Sullivan, 0-1), Seamus Prendergast (0-2; Barry Coughlan), Ray Barry (Eddie Barrett).
Dublin: Gary Maguire, Niall Corcoran, Peter Kelly, Cian O’Callaghan, Shane Durkin, Liam Rushe, Michael Carton, Joey Boland (0-1), Johnny McCaffrey (capt, 0-1), Alan McCrabbe (0-3, 0-2f, 0-1 65), Colm Cronin (0-1, Conor McCormack), Ryan O’Dwyer , David O’Callaghan (0-2, Seán McGrath), Conal Keaney (1-1), Mark Schutte, (Eamon Dillon, 0-1).
HT: Waterford 1-10 (13) Dublin 0-8 (8)
Referee: Cathal McAllister (Cork)