Joe Brolly was making the point recently that the GAA can’t expect a captive audience forever in the face of the relentless march of soccer or an Ireland rugby team duking it out with the best Europe has to offer, and he has a point that you can’t expect people to stay endlessly loyal despite repeated slaps in the face. Then again, sometimes people stay endlessly loyal despite repeated slaps in the face. It speaks volumes that the decision to stage the League semi-finals in Nowlan Park rather than dragging us all to sit miles away from each other in Thurles felt like a stroke of genius rather than something blatantly obvious.
And it helps keeping them loyal when the product is this good.
We rolled up to Nowlan Park just as the Dubs were rolling out after an implosion for the ages, reeled in by Cork after being given a 12-point head start. All of the pre-match optimism in Waterford would have been founded on the idea that we had nothing to lose, but that kind of result, or a merciless beating would soon disabuse a team of that notion, and there’s no one better than applying the timber to a team when they’re down than Tipperary. It seemed early on that they had a plan to unpick Waterford’s blanket with their first few puckouts targeted at wherever Jason Ford happened to be and he was trying to pull Waterford all over the place by popping up in different places each time. It felt precise enough not be random – be out on the 45 on the left-wing for the first one, come up to the halfway line for the second one puckout, and so on – and yielded a quick return as, after a couple of frees from Pauric Mahony, he gathered the ball in the midfield and hit a shot into the mix where Séamus Callanan broke the ball into the path of Patrick Maher. He had all the time in the world to collect the ball and fire past Stephen O’Keeffe.
This was how it was going to be. Having got our hopes up that we had devised a strategy that would make us contenders against the dross of Division 1B and the ever-so-obliging opponents that are Galway, it wouldn’t survive contact with a team that were, you know, good. We were already being reduced to impossibly difficult long range efforts from the likes of Austin Gleeson to compensate for the fact that there was no one in the danger zone. At the other end every Tipp attack reeked of danger, Barry Coughlan looking like a rabbit in the headlights of Séamus Callanan’s onslaught. The first encounter ended with him having to haul Callanan down with a tackle that would have gotten him a black card in football. The second encounter went better as he managed to hustle him out wide although the ref may have taken sympathy on him so soon after the yellow. Either way we were under a hideous amount of pressure and it was the outlet of Jason Ford that proved crucial again as, after Tipperary had to re-take a puckout for the crime of not waiting for the whistle, Ford won the puckout and released Brendan Maher who in turn put John O’Dywer in space to bat the ball past O’Keeffe.
Eamon O’Shea would say after the game that he felt Tipperary never got going, but I think he was confusing a lull you get in the crowd at the start of the second part of a double header with a lack of intensity because Tipp were all over us here. Callanan was certainly up for it, sending over a great score from way out right and drawing yet another foul to allow him to stretch the lead to seven after only 15 minutes. Seeing Colin Dunford back on his own 45 clearing the ball emphasised how under the cosh we were and when a storming Kevin Moran run ended in a free out as he was completely left without support, the feeling of dread about how this would be treated on boards.ie was building to a crescendo. Yes, that’s the way I think during a game.
What we could do with here was some stirring play and a soft free, and both arrived in the shape of a run from Dunford which ended with him hitting a low ball into the middle where there were finally some Waterford players, and the ref awarded a free for not very much. Mahony took the point – things were so grim that I did briefly wonder whether he should go for a goal – and with the next Waterford attack Maurice Shanahan managed our first point from play, with a lovely turn and strike. Some clumsy defence from Waterford gave Tipp a 65 which Callanan duly scored but there was more stirring play to come as Austin Gleeson raced from his own half past the entire Tipp back division. His shot at goal was weak and easily saved but goodness, he had earned the right to have a go.
Upon reflection, this may have been the period where Eamon O’Shea felt his team failed to keep up the intensity levels. The wind was strange with no impact in the corner we were sitting between the old stand side and the City End terrace – it’s a crying shame that I don’t feel able to put ‘City’ in sneer quotes any more – but was stiff enough on the other corners of the ground. The wind would certainly prove crucial in the second half. Then again, Waterford were now beginning to show some of the form that had gotten them this far. They were now putting ‘em under pressure, forcing them out to the midfield where James Woodlock lobbed over a fine score to restore the seven point lead. A good advantage from Barry Kelly saw him call it back when no advantage accrued to allow Mahony to score from the free, then a cracking point from Dunford on his weak side lifted the spirits a bit more. Two further frees from Mahony followed, the second moved in from a narrow angle after some dissent which cheered us up no end, and suddenly the gap was down to three. Tipp managed a couple of good scores before half time, but that was the thing – they had to be good scores as Waterford were now well in their face, and it was Waterford who ended the half on the up, Mahony scoring after another storming run by Moran, showing that the support was now there for such a run, and another from a free for a high tackle on Dunford which showed the increased strain Tipp were now under.
Only three points in it at half-time. It seemed scarcely believable after the free-wheeling manner in which Tipperary had leapt out in front. The second half began with Tipp getting into an awful flap in trying to clear immediately beneath us and while they eventually did they were showing none of the tiki-taki stuff of the opening quarter. Mahony and Callanan exchanged points from frees before Michael Walsh batted the ball down to Jake Dillon to lash the ball over. A long-range effort from Callanan looked to be about to drift wide of the left-and post but just squeezed in, although it was noteworthy that the wind was catching such efforts at that end of the pitch. Everything Tipp were doing was under pressure while Waterford were bursting away from any challenge with incredible vigour. One move saw de Búrca and Philip Mahony power out of defence and release Jamie Barron to fire a point over on the run. Forget about blanket defence, this was classic direct hurling. Leave your man for dead, drive it forward in the direction of a team-mate and trust him to win the ball. In contrast, Tipp were having to shake off the hounds for every score, a fine Jason Ford point coming after what seemed like the entire Tipp forward line were pursued back and forth across the field like a bitch in heat. The Tipp subs were coming on in waves to try and hold back the tide as Walsh again knocked the ball down, this time into Shanahan’s path, to cut the lead to one.
I’m going to reach for the hyperbole bomb now. The intensity Waterford were bringing was like a certain team more frequently seen around these parts. Both the spirit and the flesh were willing and able to reduce opposition hurleys to matchsticks if that was required. What was missing was the wizardry up front, so it was almost too much to take when we saw some of that. Tipperary were dispossessed while on the attack for the umpteenth time, Kevin Moran thundered out of defence and played it up to Colin Dunford. He controlled the ball brilliantly, turned his man and raced off towards goal with a Mullane-like flourish. His strike was not so Mullane-like but it somehow squirmed past Darren Gleeson in the Tipp goal. A huge free from Mahony stretched the lead to three, and even when Tipperary manage to breach the Waterford wall, Stephen O’Keeffe was on hand to block the shot. Tipp were racking up the wides in the face of this onslaught, two shots drifting out to the left suggesting they were not calibrating for the wind, which was hardly surprising given the frenzy that faced them every time they got the ball. Another Mahony free after Shanahan had been fouled meant a four point lead, and Waterford had outscored their shell-shocked opponents 1-15 to 0-7 in the second and third quarters.
You couldn’t keep this up for the whole game so it was a pity that the clock down at the other end of the ground that ticked over to 70 minutes in the 60th minute was wrong. Tom Devine, who I am told by someone from up that part of the world would be pronounced Di-VINE, not De-VEEN, had a chance to finish it when he pounced on a loose ball after a strong Shanahan run, but his shot towards goal was blocked by one of the three or so defenders who managed to get in his way. In truth, justice was done as he clearly placed the bas of the hurley on the ball then picked it clean off the ground. Tipp finally ended a barren scoring run with a long-range free then a cheap free allowed Callanan to trim the lead to two and with at least eight minutes left. Shane Fives tried to get things firing again with a huge effort from the halfway line but it dropped short and Tipp were able to clear. The players were clearly flagging and while this didn’t lead to any shortage of effort – one incredible play saw Kevin Moran fling himself full length to block the ball and somehow emerge with it from the ground – another Tipp free left the gap at one. Brian O’Halloran, on as a sub and with fresher legs, perhaps should have done better soon after as he and Dunford combined to make the space for the shot. A couple of Tipp efforts fell short, with one leading to a crescendo of anticipation which showed that, contrary to any suggestions you might see from them, they really wanted this one. Thankfully they did fall short and they showed O’Keeffe comfortable under the high ball in a goal where he dropped a horrible clanger a few years ago.
Tipp did finally manage to get one right to level matters, and the dreaded extra time loomed. The next few minutes were utterly frantic (read: I put away the notebook, this was too much to deal with) and when Shanahan was fouled, a rather soft award in my opinion, you felt there weren’t going to be many chances after this one. It wasn’t a gimme from way out on the right but Mahony held his nerve to get our noses in front. I doubt if I have ever seen a Waterford free-taker land every chance, yet that was what he had done. Another thing to be optimistic about for the future. There was time for one more moment of madness in the game as yet another long ball drooped short in the Waterford square. Shane Fives found himself with the ball but facing the goalie at point-blank range. He did the sensible thing and lashed it out towards the corner flag where . . . . I couldn’t tell what had happened. It looked like it had gone out for a sideline, but the umpire signalled for a 65. It transpired later that the ball had hit the flag and the ref had correctly awarded a sideline ball. The whole discussion about it ate up more time and when the sideline ball came in he quickly awarded a free out to an explosion of relief all round.
At the risk of sounding hyper-critical, it was alarming how Waterford played those last few moments, twice lashing the ball out of play for a sideline as if it were rugby and that would be the end of the game. Never trust a ref not to act the maggot and play more than the ‘at least’ injury time announced. As it was, the second clearance did indeed bring the final whistle and a spectacular result for Waterford. The lone Tipp lad in our section who lustily roared for tap-over frees was given a rousing send-off as he made his escape, and when the Waterford players approached us it looked like they were coming to take our acclaim. It felt immediately strange – wait, we’ve won League semi-finals in recent years, nothing to get too excited about – but as it happened they were merely doing their warm-down. Ah feck it, we all thought, they’ve been magnificent as we applauded them heartily. What a turnaround from the last visit to Nowlan Park when Colin Dunford’s two goals into the same end were the lonely counterpoint to a dispiriting defeat. At the start of the year I would have not expected promotion, and if we got it then we’d surely get pounded by the Division 1A team we’d face, and if we somehow overcame them we’d get pounded by whatever team finished higher up that division, and if we somehow overcame them . . . I hadn’t thought that far ahead. Now that I can think ahead, I dare to think even further ahead. I’m going to get healthy, look after myself, cut out the junk food and get more exercise. Because I want to be there for when those further thoughts become reality.
Waterford: Stephen O’Keeffe, Shane Fives, Barry Coughlan, Noel Connors, Tadhg de Búrca, Austin Gleeson, Philip Mahony, Jamie Barron (0-1), Stephen Bennett (Brian O’Halloran), Kevin Moran (Eddie Barrett), Pauric Mahony (0-13, 0-11f, 0-1 65), Jake Dillon (0-1), Maurice Shanahan (0-3), Michael Walsh (Shane O’Sullivan), Colin Dunford (1-1).
Tipperary: Darren Gleeson, Paddy Stapleton (James Barry), Conor O’Mahony, Paul Curran (John Meagher), Michael Breen, Padraic Maher (0-1), Ronan Maher, James Woodlock (0-1), Shane McGrath (Gearóid Ryan), John O’Dwyer (Shane Bourke), Brendan Maher (capt), Jason Forde (0-1; Conor Kenny, 0-1), Séamus Callanan (0-8, 0-6f, 0-1 65), Patrick Maher (1-0), Niall O’Meara (0-2).
HT: Waterford 0-11 (11) Tipperary 2-8 (14)
Referee: Barry Kelly (Westmeath)