Legend has it that on the Monday after Edmund Van Esbeck had retired from his post as rugby corr at The Irish TImes, what should the sub-editors of D’Olier Street hear first thing but the bould Ned roaring “COPY!” at them. What had moved him to get back in the saddle after a series of tributes so fulsome from the sheepskin coat and hip flask brigade they would have made Tony McCoy blush? It seems that Neil Francis had used his Sunday newspaper column to slag off the sheepskin coat and hip flask brigade, and that could never be let slide, retirement be damned.
Maybe it’s the Tramore man in me, a trait shared with the late Ned, but having decided before the game that I wasn’t going to write about the National League final and pondered whether I was going to bother in the future at all, the muse was brought back by not wanting to let insults slide, both real and virtual. The real ones were to be found at Semple Stadium. A couple of Cork fans behind us decided that sharing a county with Jimmy Barry-Murphy meant they were as good at hurling as Jimmy Barry-Murphy and spent their entire time sneering at everything Waterford. Austin Gleeson’s stunning point – the one where he gathered the clearance on his own 45 then ran down the wing and hit a glorious effort off the hurley, not the one where he struck a sideline ball over the bar from out past the Cork 45 – was naturally greeted with great whoops of delight from the Waterford faithful. This led one of the Cork boyos to opine that “you’d swear they’d won the All-Ireland”. When a third Cork man, who arrived twenty minutes late stinking of drink, expressed the opinion that Maurice Shanahan was a ‘cissy’, enough was enough. We moved our seats at half-time.
As for the virtual sort, I made the mistake in the aftermath of suggesting on boards.ie that Waterford were “the real deal“. This was a bridge under which the Cork and Kilkenny trolls could not resist residing. Once again, people who have never won All-Ireland medals themselves felt the need to lecture other people who have never won All-Ireland medals on what it takes to win All-Ireland medals.
If you are thinking that I’m suggesting that such obnoxiousness is a characteristic of the supporters of other counties, then I would direct you to the rather shocking comments of Derek McGrath after the game:
McGrath never quite relaxed but the strangest sensation for him was feeling that warm afterglow of public delight.
“That was very difficult for me to overcome because I would have been naturally sceptical of fans having watched fans applaud decisions. One day I was sitting in the stand and Dan [Shanahan] was taken off and a fella beside me stood up and applauded and I would have been naturally sceptical or paranoid over how harsh it is for people with their families in the stands.
“I think we’ve got over that and we’ve just embraced the fans themselves and tried to get them on board. I think they’re returning. Obviously victories help and even personally, my own son is nine years of age. He left the Kilkenny game last year after 45 minutes, we were 17 or 18 points behind, such was the level of, not abuse, but the level of insensitivity. That goes with the territory, I’m acknowledging that, but he hasn’t been at a match yet this year. [But] I got to talk to him on the phone so he’s delighted at home.”
What is wrong with these people? This is all rather sour, but it’s a surely a civic duty to call out assholes wherever you encounter them and wherever they might be from. And now all that is said let us rejoice, for there was much to rejoice about yesterday.
You don’t have to be an asshole to wonder whether an individual win truly represents progress, but I’d seen three Waterford games so far this year and each, in their own way, contained signs of life which, after the rolling calamity that was 2014, was good news in itself. A Tipperary troll on the GAA Discussion Board – there, that’s the Big Three hat-trick – had said after we were promoted that Waterford would “struggle to step up“, yet here were having taken down both Galway and Tipperary. The team has a settled look, right down to the silly dummy teams that the world and her husband could see through and, of course, the two man full-forward line. Given Cork’s much reported problems in at full-back, it was an interesting choice. Trust Shanahan and Stephen Bennett to advantage of those alleged weaknesses? Unwise not to ram home such an advantage with a conventional lineup? A case of not giving two hoots what the opposition get up to? Whatever it was, it led to a solid start with Waterford leaping into a three point lead. The tactic seems to be to pack so many bodies into the half-back/midfield area that we can win the ball and find a man in enough space to be able to pick out the one of the front two or put it over the bar. It worked a treat with one of those early scores, Shanahan letting the ball go over his head before using his strength to get into space and take the point when even a goal looked a possibility. Cork responded with a few scores of their own but against the wind this was encouraging stuff.
Amidst all this, it helps to have a bit of old school virtuosity. Gleeson’s sideline cut was one of those moments. A Waterford wag had exhorted him to put it over the bar. How we laughed. Over it went though, and I was reminded of a blog post from ‘crottys lake’ where he noted that when “trying to explain Waterford’s rise this year, lazy pundits have put it down to a new defensive system devised by Derek McGrath, which of course is rubbish, there are some seriously talented young players in this setup and it was only a matter of time before we began to see the results”.
There was little chance that Waterford were going to let rip. There weren’t going to be many goals given the tactics employed so a team wasn’t going to be broken by a flurry of them, and while there were some splendid long range scores you’re going to get a few frustrating wides. Even at this early stage though the pattern was Waterford taking three steps forward for every two Cork managed. Although speaking of goals, we were mightily relieved at our end when Séamus Harnedy managed to slip his marker and advance towards the danger area. Somehow though Stephen O’Keeffe kept it out and the defence were on hand to scramble it clear. I don’t mean to slag any of his predecessors in goal, but I think it’s fair to say we’ve never had a truly outstanding shot stopper so to see this was yet another encouraging sign, Had that gone in it would have been three steps forward for Cork in one movement, As it was, Jamie Barron drilled over a long range effort after he was found in acres of space by a super Shane Fives catch while Cork were held back by a couple of poor wides, one a free from Pat Horgan who had scored a million points (approx) from dead balls against Dublin. Mahony had been pretty much perfect with his frees and a score with the last puck of the half meant we had an unflattering four point lead to show for our efforts.
Mulling on it all at half-time, safely ensconced away from the Three Stooges, the feelings of ennui returned. It’s all very well managing expectations, but the expectations have a pesky habit of shifting. This was far in excess of what I could hoped for at the start of the campaign, yet if we blew it from this position it would be devastating. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the loss at the same stage to the same team in 1998 left scars. We had them over a barrel and somehow let them wriggle free. It probably is an exaggeration to say that it left a lingering feeling that we would never be able to show the killer instinct required, but the sense that we had missed what was literally (at the time) a once-in-a-generation opportunity was as solid as concrete. Sixteen years and fifty weeks on, here we had a change to exorcise that ghost. Could we take it?
Although the wind had been swirling it seemed to be mostly against us in the first half, so you’d hope we’ve be able to get right into them early in the second half. Instead those nightmarish half-time musings seemed to look like a self-fulfilling prophecy as several efforts fell apologetically short or drifted wide with no one in a white jersey within an asses roar of the ball. When Colin Dunford hit a wide on the run when he had time to steady himself and take an easy score, the dreaded word rose unbidden – panic. Stout hearts were called for here, and there were a couple of instances of Barry Coughlan doing what a good full-back should do by simply adopting a none-shall-pass philosophy, while Tadgh de Búrca continued to sashay the ball out of danger. A couple of cheap frees for fouls on Bennett and Jamie Barron respectively also helped to steady nerves, and when Mahony pointed both it meant that despite all that wastefulness we were still winning the second half. Three steps forward…
The 1998 moment had passed so surely it was time for a 2012 moment where Cork, facing defeat against dogged opponents, emptied their formidable bench and turned the tide. Yet it didn’t happen, which brought some heretical thoughts to mind, i.e. they didn’t have players of the calibre of John Gardiner or Cathal effin’ Naughton in reserve. Cork had started the game with Alan Cadogan whose flaying of the under 21’s last year was the point from which this year’s low expectations really start. He had to go off injured after only ten minutes which suggests either excruciating bad luck or he wasn’t fit to begin with and they had to take a chance with him. The players who had come on early in the second half were not having the desired impact and slowly but surely Waterford began to pull away.
The only comparison I can make is the 2002 Munster final, a time when a seemingly close game ended in a romp for Waterford. This was not the same thing though. That was an ever-mercurial team, as they would demonstrate time and time again throughout the Noughties. Had you asked them to go out and flatten Tipperary again the next day, it’s highly unlikely they would have done so. Here, Waterford had overcome those early second half wobbles and were in complete command in all areas of the field. A storming Kevin Moran point left us two scores clear as the game ticked into the final quarter and now Cork knew they were going to need goals. They nearly got one when Conor Lehane thundered a shot against the crossbar, but it spoke volumes that the follow-up ended in a terrible wide. A few minutes later a Gleeson sideline ball dropped in the danger area and was gathered by Michael Walsh. He got the ball away and somehow it ended up in the back of the net. It later transpired it was a bobble of a shot from Tom Devine that went past Anthony Nash via a Cork hurley. It was impossible to see from our vantage point – have I mentioned we moved away from a group of balubas? – although I’m not sure what my excuse was last time round against Tipp when I couldn’t see how Colin Dunford’s shot had gone in despite it happening right in front of me. Either way, wait until you see the green flag. Once that was up, the celebrations could begin in earnest.
The game wound down with a few consolation scores for Cork as tried to thread the eye of the needle while Waterford added a few more points of a more swashbuckling nature. Okay, maybe not, but we’re entitled to a little hyperbole and stretching the lead out to ten at the final whistle was not without consequence, as this represented Waterford’s biggest ever win over Cork in the National League. You read that right – not once in sixty-one previous League matches against Cork have we managed to do them by a double digit margin. By way of contrast, they’ve managed to do it to us on ten occasions. On a personal level, I had missed the 2007 final so this was a first for me, a case of getting the monkey of 1998 off my back. Two of the inter-county Senior titles out of the way, only one more to go.
Which brings us to the All-Ireland series to come. Amidst all the mentions of certain pivotal moments in this era for Waterford hurling, another one comes to mind – the 1999 moment when Cork, reeling from a thrashing at Clare’s hands in Munster after winning the previous year’s League (see: the 1998 moment) and an unremarkable defence of the League, took a gamble with six Championship debutants for the Munster semi-final against Waterford. Mickey O’Connell would have the game of his life with a staggering six points from the midfield. Cork would go on to win the All-Ireland that year while Waterford would endure a few more fallow years under Gerald McCarthy. It might have all been so different, but that’s the way it is with Cork. They may not be like mushrooms, but thanks to their effectively limitless (from a Waterford viewpoint) resources they could conjure up a ghastly revenge for us.
For now though, to the victor the spoils. Now where are the Cork assholes so I can grab my Déise badge and noisily kiss it inches from their faces? That should get the creative juices flowing.
Waterford: Stephen O’Keeffe, Shane Fives, Barry Coughlan, Noel Connors, Tadhg de Búrca, Austin Gleeson (0-2, 0-1 s/l; Martin O’Neill), Philip Mahony, Jamie Barron (0-1; Gavin O’Brien), Kevin Moran (0-3), Colin Dunford (Brian O’Halloran, 0-1), Pauric Mahony (0-11, 0-8f, 0-1 65), Michael Walsh (0-2), Jake Dillon (Shane O’Sullivan), Maurice Shanahan (0-2), Stephen Bennett (0-1; Tom Devine, 1-1).
Cork: Anthony Nash, Shane O’Neill, Aidan Ryan (Damien Cahalane), Stephen McDonnell; Lorcan McLoughlin, Mark Ellis, Cormac Murphy, Daniel Kearney, Aidan Walsh (0-1; Brian Lawton), Bill Cooper (0-1), Séamus Harnedy (0-2; Jamie Coughlan), Rob O’Shea (0-1), Alan Cadogan (Paudie O’Sullivan), Conor Lehane (0-5), Patrick Horgan (0-7f).
HT: Waterford 0-11 Cork 0-7
Referee: Johnny Ryan (Tipperary)