Hurling’s great. It’s so great that its advocates, of which anyone reading this is likely to be one, routinely tout its superiority to other sports. Comments along the lines of “I’d rather watch a Junior B hurling match than the All-Ireland football final” litter the intrawebs. It’s all a bit silly at the best of times, and then you have a match like this one which is not evidence of the best of times. It’s not that the game was a hopeless mismatch that made it bad. Even a massacre can be compelling if the winner turns the dial up to 11 (see: 2008 All-Ireland hurling final). Ballygunner managed to win this without ever needing to put on an exhibition of quality hurling, and it was profoundly depressing to see the hopes of the good people of Tallow dashed not by a virtuoso performance but by a team who never had to rise above the mediocre,
Karren Brady, speaking literally decades ago on Fantasy Football League, said that her hope for Birmingham City that year was to get through to the end of the season without being relegated and that they could all start at zero the following season. It may seem trite, but it did capture the essential optimism that pervades the start of every year and match (NB Birmingham were relegated to the third tier of English soccer that season) and you could see it in this match as Tallow seemed to be giving Ballygunner a game. They were struggling to win the ball but when they did get it they were engaging in all manner of deft flicks and low balls into the corner. Could the mighty Ballygunner be brought down by the sling-wielding
Birmingham Tallow? Unfortunately this was more akin to someone taking a knife to a gun fight.
Tortured metaphors aside, it didn’t look too bad for Tallow at the start, especially if you chose to ignore the result of the match between the teams in the regular season – Ballygunner 2-15 (21) Tallow 0-6 (6), if you must know, killjoy. An early free from Pauric Mahony dropped short and was initially won by David O’Brien in the Tallow full-back line only for his shot to be blocked and lobbed back in. This time goalie Shaun O’Sullivan dealt with the danger but his clearance to around the 45 led to a foul on a Ballygunner forward and Pauric Mahony tapped over the easier chance. Tallow responded with a truly excellent point, Eoin Condon picking out Thomas Ryan – not Tomás then? – in the corner and he shot over from an acute angle to level matters. Evan Sheehan had a chance to put Tallow ahead after a good catch but he shot too early and the ball went wide. Pauric Mahony then hit a very long-range free in with a low trajectory which Tallow managed to scramble out for a sideline ball. The cleared ball came to Shane Walsh who went on a mazy dribble. His shot was blocked but he mopped up the rebound to put Ballygunner back in front.
Tallow kept up their attempt to win the game by being smart, Ryan pulling low across a dropping ball and causing Ballygunner goalie Stephen O’Keeffe to fumble the ball out for a 65. It will not have escaped the attention of the new inter-county management team that this would be O’Keeffe’s only flub in the game. Paul O’Brien knocked over the 65 and the teams were level again. A longer range effort from him soon afterwards went wide and another free-in, won not long after James Murray had tried to take the creativity thing a bit too far by backheeling the ball, was also missed. It was a much easier chance, the first whatmighthavebeen for Tallow. There wouldn’t be many.
Andy Maloney had a huge impact on Ballygunner’s last county final success and he was soon in the mix here, slotting over after finding himself in acres of space out on the right. Another dropping ball from Tallow was cleared with ease by O’Keeffe and struggling to clear their lines nearly caught Tallow out moments later, William Henley’s ball out to the Ballygunner half-forward putting Tallow on the wrong foot. The ball was zipped straight back into Brian O’Sullivan but he dragged the ball across the face of the goal when it seemed easier to hit the target. At the other end O’Keeffe dealt with another dropping ball with aplomb and it was becoming unnervingly clear that Tallow were struggling to use the breeze to put him under the pressure that would be required for them to cause a shock. At the other other end Ken Kearney got into a right flap trying to clear the ball and could only bundle it out for a sideline ball. Ballygunner worked the ball across the field to Harley Barnes who hit the post with a point effort that, like Stephen Jones for Wales against France, shouldn’t have gone anywhere near the post so couldn’t be counted as unlucky. Aidan Kearney’s clearance fell to Pauric Mahony who missed the more difficult follow-up effort but Tallow were running out of get-out-of-jail-free cards.
William Henley, who had started so brightly for Tallow, was now struggling against Pauric Mahony who swept past him and gave it to Shane O’Sullivan who drew the foul. Pauric Mahony did the needful and you could see the inter-county players were starting to strut their stuff. And none more so than what David O’Sullivan did next as he set off from near halfway through the Tallow defence. No-one could get near him and he teed up Harley Barnes whose bouncing bomb from close range found its way to the net. JJ Hutchinson scored a good point from the next play and when Barnes shot was blocked Maloney was there to slot over the rebound to leave Ballygunner seven points up. In the space of five minutes Ballygunner had raised twice as many white flags as Tallow had managed in twenty-five minutes. And that doesn’t even include the goal. The road back to west Waterford was getting longer all the time.
Tallow tried to respond, a hasty shot going wide and then Paul O’Brien – you really have to keep repeating Christian names when it comes to club reports, teams usually consisting of four or five surnames – pointing from a free Aaron Pratt had been fouled in the corner. The free had been from a tricky angle and it didn’t look like it had gone over. Was this an act of charity from the officials? To make matter worse, O’Brien was visibly limping as he went back into the full-forward position. Again, this is probably a club thing where you haven’t got the resources to cope with the loss of a marquee player and was another ominous sign. Ballygunner responded briskly to this score, Pauric Mahony putting over a free after Mark O’Brien was penalised for overcarrying, a long range free after a push in a Ballygunner back, and another shorter effort after a foul on him although he was fortunate not to be penalised himself for overcarrying. Three injury-time points, three more nails in Tallow’s coffin.
The second half began with Ballygunner showing Tallow what to do with the breeze, quickly putting their goal under pressure with a long ball. Shaun O’Sullivan could only clear as far as JJ Hutchinson who was flattened as he tried to head towards the Tallow goal. Mystifyingly the referee not only failed to award a free but let play go on as Hutchinson lay spreadeagled on the floor. Tallow got the ball down to the other end of the field and O’Keeffe had to clear the ball out for a sideline but it all felt slightly phony as people looked back towards Hutchinson, a Tallow back even having to evade an onrushing Ballygunner medic as they tried to clear. When the dust had settled on that fiasco Mark O’Brien tried to gee up Tallow with a spectacular point, but his effort after a long run from his own half drifted wide. Aaron Pratt, the only Pratt on the Tallow team (sorry) did manage a fine effort to spark some optimistic yahooing from the Tallow faithful who far outnumbered those from Ballygunner but such thoughts were quickly snuffed out, Shane O’Sullivan pouncing on some loose play by Aidan Kearney to cancel that score out and Pauric Mahony knocked over another free to stretch the lead still further.
Pratt kept trying to take the bare look off Tallow’s part of the scoreboard with another point after some scrappy play by the Ballygunner backs and they engaged in the time-honoured habit of a team being stuffed by bringing on multiple substitutes but Ballygunner kept picking off the points, a free-out being well gathered by JJ Hutchinson who put Shane O’Sullivan in space to score. Eoin Condon gave Tallow supporters something else to cheer about with a deft Paul Flynn-style flick-and-gather over his bewildered marker but then struck an unFlynn-like effort wide. Incidentally my brother wants a writer’s credit for noting that at the time, to which I say it was hardly an original observation. Pauric Mahony added another free to a quality performance from the place ball and Shane O’Sullivan notched a great score from play, bringing a tricky ball under control at the second attempt then striking the ball over his shoulder. They were twelve points up, they could afford to be cavalier.
Tallow tried to keep their spirits up, exemplified by Paul O’Brien hobbling half the length of the field to take a free from which he duly scored what would be their last score. But neither side was truly bothered, exemplified by a Ballygunner sideline daisycutter that a good half-dozen players wouldn’t bend their back for. Tommy Daly, on as a sub for Tallow, released Kieran Geary into space but he got right under his effort on the run and it went wide. Maloney had no such problems from a similar distance after being put clear by Pauric Mahony, who added another free not long afterwards.
The game couldn’t have been flatter if it had been passed through a mangle. At one point Bob McCarthy went to give the ball to Wayne Hutchinson for a sideline only to throw it away. Normally this kind of behaviour should lead to a twenty-man pile-up. Instead it barely brought a flicker of recognition from Hutchinson. Another example of the dunderheaded nature of the game was when Tallow got a free about 30m out. Ryan chose to go for goal when a point was the easy option. The shot was blocked out for a 65 which the ref refused to allow be taken short for no discernible reason. Now Tallow went for a point and it was only a superhuman leap from a Tallow forward that prevented it going high and wide. And Ballygunner cleaned up with ease. It summed up the chasm between the teams. All that was left was for Naoise Waldron to stick it to the Ballygunner mentors for not picking him to start – I jest, please don’t write in – with a point, Kevin O’Brien to drill the ball wide after a nice Tallow move (it was, in fairness, a definite goal chance), Pauric Mahony to score another free and Shane O’Sullivan to score another point from play. And that, mercifully, was it.
It shows how much time I have on my hands that I’ve managed to cobble together a couple of thousand words from this horrible mismatch, although if you’ve read down this far then you have too much time on your hands. It was a demoralising experience. I’m not so passionate about a desire for new teams or winners out West that Tallow losing will keep me awake at night. But I am passionate enough about Waterford to be concerned about our county champions and how they will do in the Munster and All-Ireland club championship, and the sad truth is that the Gunners do not inspire confidence. This game probably doesn’t tell us much, but their repeated mis-steps and rank bad luck in the Munster championship mean that I was looking for a swashbuckling performance from them which, even discounting the quality of the opposition, I didn’t get. I got something though – the knowledge that there is such a thing as a hurling match that isn’t worth the time and money invested in it. Who knew?
Ballygunner: Stephen O’Keeffe, Alan Kirwan (Stephen O’Keeffe), Willie Kiely, Barry Coughlin, Philip Mahony, Wayne Hutchinson, Robert Cunningham, Shane Walsh (0-1, Stephen Power), David O’Sullivan, Pauric Mahony (0-10f), Shane O’Sullivan (capt, 0-3), Andy Maloney (0-3, Barry O’Sullivan), Brian O’Sullivan (Barry Mullane), JJ Hutchinson (0-1), Harley Barnes (1-0; Naoise Waldron, 0-1)
Tallow: Shaun O’Sullivan, Aidan Kearney, David O’Brien, Ken Kearney, Mark O’Brien, James Murray (capt), William Henley, Kieran Geary, Thomas Ryan (0-1), Evan Sheehan (Johnny Kearney), Eoin Condon, Aaron Pratt (0-2), Kevin Curley, Paul O’Brien (0-3, 0-1f, 0-1 65; Tom Feeney), Brian Henley (Paul Coughlin)
HT: Ballygunner 1-9 (12) Tallow 0-3 (3)
Referee: Michael O’Brien (Portlaw)