First things first. To be present at Croke Park on All-Ireland final day was an honour and a privilege. When asked in the past whether I had ever been to an All-Ireland final, I would routinely quip that I wasn’t going to go until Waterford were there – and hence I didn’t expect to ever get there. Yet here we were, standing in the midst of the biggest throng I have ever been in, and probably ever will be, soaking up the pre-match atmosphere. I don’t mind admitting that when the team ran out onto the Croke Park turf the wave of emotion was almost overwhelming. The siblings, dotted around various other parts of the ground, would later confess to similar feelings of disbelief. We all simultaneously vowed to gorge ourselves on the heady vapours, armed as we were with the knowledge that this might be as good as it got.
Yes, to be there was a splendid thing. Arriving in Dublin around midday, the city centre was mobbed by people donning the white and the blue. Despite this, the only two people I encountered who I knew were Kilkenny folk, one a soccer man who was wearing a shirt from the 1993 Leinster final – Mahon McPhillips were probably sponsoring his trip. All through the summer I’ve forlornly noted how few people I recognise in the crowd shots that populate the Munster Express and the News & Star after a big match. A stranger in his own land if ever there was one, and these incidents only add to the sense of disconnection that nearly five years abroad brings.
Not that I was thinking that at the time, because the atmosphere was enough to banish any negative thoughts. Waterford people were everywhere, and our usual haunt – Molloy’s on Talbot Street – seemed to be the epicentre of this ubiquity. Standing there with all my nearest and dearest – not always the same thing, ho ho – watching images of the heroes of 2008 flitting past on the big screen, it felt so good to be alive. Nothing was going to ruin this day.
There must have been some portion of the deepest part of my psyche, the part which still can’t watch horror movies and in which memories of Arsenal’s title win over Liverpool in 1989 are entombed, that gazed upon all this miracle and wonder and thought “if this is the effect it’s all having on me, how must the players be doing?” The only article that I read from the voluminous match supplements in the local rags – nice souvenirs if you win; rabbit hutch liner if you don’t – was an interview with Brian Whelehan where the Offaly player, twice a winner but twice a loser on All-Ireland final day, confessed that he never really enjoyed the occasion for itself. The nerves were so shredded that it was impossible to savour anything. The fans can enjoy the presentation of the players to the President or the parade or the performing of Amhrán na bhFiann – having it performed by a singer was surprisingly moving; it allowed the whisperers (ahem) to really belt it out – but the players must hate every minute of it. How you cope with these moments must contribute to your overall performance. Is knowledge power or ignorance bliss?
The match got underway, although not before my ever-alert wife had noted Eoin McGrath shipping some timber from his marker. Kilkenny opened the scoring with a free only for Eoin Kelly to respond in kind, then Eoin McGrath carved out an opening and put Waterford in front. In front in an All-Ireland final! Or had he? The crowd on the Hill, usually a good barometer of these things, were convinced he had scored as had the scoreboard operator, but the umpire waved it wide and the scoreboard was duly corrected. Dark thoughts rose up unbidden that this might be decisive in the endgame.
It soon became clear that Kilkenny were not leaving decisions like that in the lap of the umpires, opting instead to send each and every ball over the middle of the crossbar. Points were casually pinned on with only the odd Eoin Kelly free keeping Waterford ticking over. It is not an exaggeration to say that I looked up at the scoreboard when it was 0-10 to 0-4 and could not believe that only fifteen minutes had passed. Ten scores in fifteen minutes? It didn’t seem possible, and already you could see the match was slipping away from us. We were competing well enough under the dropping ball, with Tony Browne and Eoin Murphy in particular having some success, but what was happening when they moved to clear the ball was that a tsunami of Black and Amber was bowling them over.
The astonishing thing about Kilkenny was their power. Speaking to my Laois ticket contact the evening before the match, he suggested that Brian Cody was adopting a football tactic of a swarm defence, and this was perfectly believable as Waterford’s players found themselves surrounded at every turn. Much effort may have been expended in the latter half of the summer by Davy Fitzgerald in getting the players to concentrate on acquiring space before attempting to clear, but this seemed moot when any movement along any compass point led to you running into two more Cats. Never have I seen so many attempted clearances charged down, and each failure must have eroded the already fragile confidence further. The most chilling vignette was an echo of an incident that I picked up on the League match back in the spring. Back then, Michael Rice held off the challenge of Ken McGrath with ease before knocking the ball over the bar. This day it saw Aidan Kearney racing along the endline to try and get space to clear only to be sent flying out for a 65. You watched it live and thought that it must be a foul, but the replays on the big screen showed how clean a hit it was. You barely had time to dwell on the shock of a defender being mown down by a forward before the 65 sailed over the bar.
Even in games where the gulf in class is so wide, the fact that you start level means that it takes a while for the gulf to become obvious. So you could cling to the notion that Kilkenny might ease up, that Waterford might shake off the fog and get back into it. Such thoughts were rudely disabused soon enough as Eddie Brennan rattled in two quickfire goals to finish the game as a contest. The second goal was particularly painful, Clinton Hennessy saving brilliantly at Shefflin’s feet only for Brennan to rattle ball along the ground into the net.
I had visualised a range of possible outcomes from this match beforehand, ranging from Waterford nicking victory with a late surge having kept pace with Kilkenny against the odds, to Kilkenny piling on the style in the second half and running out handsome winners by 15-20 points. Never in my worst nightmares had I contemplated this, having to settle for damage limitation midway through the first half. It’s not just that we’ve not had to face the prospect for a long time – one double digit championship defeat in 12 years. Even counties like Offaly and Wexford, who we scoffed at for failing to put it up to Kilkenny, had kept in some kind of touch for the first half. The range of positive options available to us now was almost too ghastly to envisage. Avoid a 31+ point beating. Not have a player lose the rag and get sent off. Score a point from play! When Eoin Kelly got a free just outside the large square, you almost wondered whether he should take the guaranteed point. As it was, his shot was saved and the rebound should have been buried by Eoin McGrath. You know a player at the other end would have done so, in the manner that Brennan had done.
The euphoria of the build-up meant that leaving early was never an option, and everyone else seemed to agree as the crowd stayed robust. The Kilkenny fans generally kept to themselves, the tulip who nearly caused a riot early in the first half by repeatedly asking a Waterford woman with a child whether she wanted to open her whatsit for him being mercifully the exception. Stubborn to the last, people only had to wait ten minutes into the second half for Waterford to register that blessed point from play, John Mullane finally doing the business after a build-up that might have ended in a goal. It was as if such an affront enraged Kilkenny so much that they decided to weigh in with a goal of their own, Eoin Larkin being given the freedom of the inside of the 45 to saunter in and smash the ball past Hennessy.
The 31+ point beating was not to materialise, for reasons only some of which do credit to Waterford. Nor did the feared sending-off, although Kevin Moran could probably count himself lucky late on. They did keep trying as individuals, with Mullane in particular grinding away to some effect. But the ease with which Kilkenny were stroking over points meant they never had to go for the goals that would have heaped a few more aftershocks on to the earthquake. They definitely eased off the gas, although this wasn’t entirely patronising to Waterford – as stated, the Waterford players did keep trying, and there isn’t much point in busting a gut or risking an injury when the game is already in the bag.
The one truly head-patting moment had an ironic coda. James McGarry came on for PJ Ryan to much applause from the Kilkenny faithful. It was all very nice, and I suppose Waterford hadn’t earned the right to be outraged at such a gesture. At this point I wasn’t aware that Kilkenny hadn’t shipped a goal all Championship, so it was only afterwards that I was able to chuckle at the sight of McGarry providing a firm touch to an Eoin Kelly shot on its way into the net. Not that it made any substantive difference as Kilkenny finished with a trio of quick points which said it all about the way they could have toyed with us had they been so inclined.
The worst part of it all is that the feeling is only going to get worse. In the immediate aftermath of defeat, it wasn’t so bad. It had been obvious from a loooong way out that we were doomed, which at least had the virtue of not getting our hopes up. Had we lost having come agonisingly close, in much the manner we did against Cork in 2006, it would have been sickening for days afterwards. But you’d have gotten over it before too long. This, on the other hand, is going to reverberate for ages. Quite apart from the death-by-a-thousand-cuts that will be talking about GAA online for the forseeable future, the prospects for Waterford hurling suddenly look rather bleak. The All-Ireland, the only thing that will satisfy us after the success of the last decade, looks further away than it ever did.
Still. This is what it means to be in with the big boys. To have half of the mightiest stage of them all, for those heavenly twenty minutes when anything seemed possible . . . it was totally worth it.
Waterford: Clinton Hennessy, Eoin Murphy, Declan Prendergast (Tom Feeney), Aidan Kearney, Tony Browne, Ken McGrath, Kevin Moran, Michael Walsh (capt), Jamie Nagle (Shane O’Sullivan), Dan Shanahan (Dave Bennett, 0-1), Seamus Prendergast (Jack Kennedy), Stephen Molumphy, Eoin McGrath (Paul Flynn), Eoin Kelly (1-9, 0-9f), J Mullane (0-3)
Kilkenny: PJ Ryan (James McGarry) Michael Kavanagh, Noel Hickey, Jackie Tyrrell, Tommy Walsh, Brian Hogan, JJ Delaney; James Fitzpatrick (capt,0-2), Derek Lyng (0-3), Martin Comerford (TJ Reid, 0-4), Richie Power (0-2), Eoin Larkin (1-4); Eddie Brennan (2-4), Henry Shefflin (0-8, 0-5f, 0-1 65), Aidan Fogarty (0-3)
HT: Waterford 0-6 (6) Kilkenny 2-16 (22)
Referee: Barry Kelly (Westmeath)