Here comes the summer! We’d all like to see crowds of 50,000 in Thurles on a Munster championship Sunday, but it has its costs. Where’s the pleasure in parking out by Thurles Golf Club, wading your way through rivers of vomit, taking a seat in a completely different part of the stadium to other members of your family, and being stuck in amongst a group of people who don’t know the game/incessantly bellow for the opposition/both? Last year I saw something deeply wrong with a relatively poor attendance. This year? How could you feel churlish when we felt confident enough to leave jackets in the car? Here comes the summer!
All the pre-match speculation about the lineup of the teams proved to be accurate as Waterford rejigged positions with Maurice Shanahan going in full-forward and Paudie Prendergast popping up in the corner. For Clare, both Cian Dillon and Darech Honan had made miraculous recoveries. Someone really should tell Davy that a surprise is something that no one sees coming. A good example would be him keeping his cool over a free given against his team only ninety seconds in as the referee missed Jamie Barron picking the ball off the ground. Had Davy waited even a picosecond longer he would have seen the linesman agreed with him and was furiously waving his flag to that effect and the ref, to his credit, admitted his mistake and changed the decision. What are the chances of Davy ever doing that?
What was surprising was how quickly Clare were out of the blocks. When my wife asked me beforehand what I thought would happen, I had opined that if anyone was going to run away with it, it was Clare (if this feels like preparation for a spot of reverse ferreting after my intemperate comments before the game, you’re probably right) because they were clearly a less well-known quantity than Waterford. But you wouldn’t expect such a new team, with so few Munster championship wins to their name, to take flight as easily as they did as Clare raced into a four-point lead. A 65 from Colin Ryan, awarded after his free from Barron’s foul went out off a Waterford back, opened the scoring. There followed two quick fire points from John Conlon, the first after he had pilfered the ball from between two Waterford players who managed to get in each others way, and the second from the subsequent puckout as he eased onto the ball and slotted it between the posts. Colm Galvin then had the freedom of the park to give Clare a four-point lead after only five minutes and you began to wonder whether Davy had produced alchemy of a type that would have had Isaac Newton bowing in admiration.
Everything looked awful, right down to a short puckout to Jamie Nagle who, with all due respect (and there’d be plenty due over the next hour or so), hasn’t got the most monstrous puck himself, thus leaving Waterford no further up the field than most poc fada goalies could manage. What we needed was a moment of carelessness from a Clare back to soften their collective cough. So props to the Clare back who hit a hospital ball to a teammate that was pounced upon by Jake Dillon. With the entire Clare defence on the front foot there was only thing on his mind even at a good 45 metres out from goal, and he got into position and struck a delightful bouncing bomb into the far corner. Had this happened at the other end, we’d have been passing out the sick bags. Great stuff.
Ship steadied, we now began to motor. Dillon could have had another goal when he had the room behind from an error by a Clare back in which to move but he had already decided he was going to flick the ball up and bat it over the bar and that’s what he did to level matters. A free from Ryan after Honan had been fouled put them ahead again but he also sent one from further wide. Still, that wasn’t an easy one and you could only wince as Pauric Mahony mis-hit a free from inside the 45 to drop it into the lap of the Clare goalie. It was not an auspicious day for the art of the dead ball as Waterford cleared a dreadful sideline cut from Ryan to Seamus Prendergast who scored to take the edge off Mahony’s earlier miss.
A soft free allowed Ryan to restore Clare’s lead but the remainder of the half would belong to us. Kevin Moran teed up Pauric Mahony for a fine score to level matters again, then Shane O’Sullivan and Jamie Nagle combined to romp down the right wing and give Maurice Shanahan the chance to put Waterford ahead for the first team. Unfortunately Pauric Mahony’s score had not eased his stage fright as he missed another relatively easy free but it didn’t seem to matter that much, so on top were the Waterford half-backs and midfield. One run from Kevin Moran saw him flick the ball over a Clare player and release Mahony who was fouled to give Maurice Shanahan the chance (ahem) to stretch the lead to two from the free. Another botched sideline cut from Ryan was given the a proper punishment by Waterford as we swept up the field and Mahony earned another free to give Shanahan the chance to put us a full goal ahead. The backs were winning oceans of possession and using it well, and even when Clare were getting in behind us we saw Honan being
pushed shepherded out wide where he could only drift a shot wide of the posts. An over-the-shoulder effort from Jake Dillon saw us go four points and Clare felt sufficiently spooked to bring on Peter Duggan. Right from the start he was clearly in the mould of a fixer, sent to lift the crowd and soften up the Waterford players. His first contribution was to pluck the ball salmon-like from the air . . . then be hustled out of it by four Waterford players. Spare us all from hurling’s Great White Dopes.
Through all of this Waterford’s wide count was beginning to stack up, Jamie Barron having slashed at a decent chance and Shanahan hitting a free from a goodly distance out wide, but the dominance of the backs and the precise nature of their play, all effortless creation of space and precise balls into space was music that was lulling my senses. O’Sullivan and Nagle in particular were outstanding, easily matching and even exceeding the efforts of Moran and Walsh, and there can be no higher praise than that. Even a drag by O’Sullivan on an advancing Clare forward to give away a free from which Ryan scored to trim the gap to three felt planned – don’t give them a sniff of a goal chance. When Shanahan failed to get a free for an obvious drag and was instead penalised for overcarrying, it felt like justice when the free dropped short and Tony Kelly failed to take advantage of a decent chance when Ian O’Regan’s clearance was blocked. A long-range effort from Moran went for another wide but any sense of frustration was quickly nipped in the bud as he strode onto a careless puckout and smashed it straight between the posts to get us all punching the air with delight. There was a mild moment of panic at the other end when Curran made space for the Clare forwards with his mullocking ways but Kelly ending up taking the point, and the half ended with Shanahan knocking over another free after he had been clothes-lined to leave us with an eight-point swing at half-time from those scary opening five minutes.
It’s very important to emphasise at this stage how satisfied everyone was with what had unfolded. The Waterford team got a standing ovation as they came off. The full-back line had stood firm in all cases and the half-backs and midfield were cleaning up. Yes, the forwards had been a bit wasteful but six different players had scored from play and with Shanahan firmly in the free-taking saddle it was looking very good indeed. They looked so well coached. If they kept playing like this and stuck to the game plan, what could possibly go wrong?
In retrospect, the game would be lost in the first ten minutes of the second half and there were moments that, even at the time, you could see would lead to the quailing of the stoutest of hearts. An early snatched-at effort by Barron was followed up by an even more dispiriting effort by Mahony, his effort coming on the back of a quite brilliant piece of play by Nagle where he deftly batted the ball off the hurley of an advancing Clare player and played Mahony in for what should have been a tub-thumping score. A third awful wide of the first eight minutes of the second half, this time a hasty effort from Seamus Prendergast of all people, had me making a despairing contemporaneous note – MULLANE. Had we made hay in those opening minutes of the half, gotten seven/eight points clear, forced them to start going for goals, our heads kept in the air . . . who knows?
We didn’t though, and maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference because the turnaround we were about to see was total. A great score on the run by Tony Kelly showed the Waterford forwards how it was done – eight minutes in and the first score of the half – and the gap was halved when Ryan stroked over a free after Paudie Prendergast had despairingly fouled Shane O’Donnell to prevent something worse happening. Shanahan looked to have stopped the rot with a fine long distance effort after a pirouetting Moran had been clipped by his opposite number. It looked nasty and surely hurt like hell, but the ref correctly recognised there hadn’t been a shred of malice in it and no card was issued. Overall, Mr McGrath had a very good game. Meanwhile Waterford were now firmly on the back foot, exemplified when Jake Dillon was giving away frees in scoring range for Clare. Ryan popped this one over the bar, and when the ref mysteriously whistled up for some off-the-ball action in the Waterford right-corner – terrible officiating! – Ryan had the simple task of taking the score and reducing the gap to one. Nagle was harshly penalised for a push on Duggan and yet again Ryan was on hand to level matters. Clare seemingly could only score in five minutes spurts.
Darragh Fives gave Waterford some relief with a rampaging run which ended in him being fouled to give us back the lead from Shanahan’s free but it didn’t last long as Honan got the freedom of the park to level matters. You can see another seven letter word on my notes at this point – FITNESS. People who climb mountains may only be good at climbing mountains, but Clare had really scaled the one we had put in front of them in the first half. All the dominance we had shown in the half-back line was now a distant memory as Clare rammed every ball back down our collective throat. A great run by Ryan ended in another none-shall-pass foul and it spoke volumes that this time Clare felt sufficiently pumped up that Kelly decided to go for a goal. Personally I think you’re asking for trouble with this kind of gambit. With about ten backs between you and the goal the odds are pretty low and should the opposition clear it then it can be a tremendous boost for morale, effectively a very bad wide. And thus it initially proved as someone in the square got a stick to it and Kevin Moran went to clear. However, note the words of Rod Laver. He said that a break in tennis wasn’t truly a break until you had held your serve. This was much the same scenario as Moran’s clearance was blocked by Duggan – damn these mullockers – and the ball pinged to Shane O’Donnell who couldn’t miss from point-blank range.
What a disaster. Waterford were completely rattled, Mahony demonstrating this with a crazy pull out on the 65 that was never going anywhere near the posts. A similar effort from O’Sullivan reinforced how badly Waterford were struggling, the deft creating of space by half-back and midfield before leaving the ball was ancient history. Clare were having no such problems, first to every ball and finding space with ease, Honan getting a fine score with no Waterford player within five yards of him. O’Sullivan showed there was some individual life in the Waterford dog, drawing a foul and allowing Shanahan to keep the deficit down to a single score, but collectively we were clearly a beaten team. When Seamus Prendergast tripped his marker as he emerged with the ball, it proved how the Waterford players were a step behind the mountain climbers, and the subsequent free-out was galloped onto by Conor McGrath and he had no problem batting the ball past the exposed O’Regan. Game as good as over.
Gavin O’Brien had come on for Jamie Barron and showed the benefit of fresh legs in these circumstances with a nice score, but the strength of the Clare players was overwhelming, Tony Kelly reacting with his third point of the game straight from the puckout. Jake Dillon managed to get a decent score on the run although in the circumstances he might have been better off putting the head down and going for goal. We weren’t going to win this picking off points and when Shanahan was given a charitable free about 30 metres out he was probably in two minds about whether to try and drill the ball towards the goal. Whatever it was, he flicked the ball up and completely missed striking it. It surely should have been a free out when he stabbed the ball along the ground towards goal – if not, what’s to stop a player gingerly lofting the ball several yards in front of them then striking it as it came down? – but the play carried on and could have been a crazy goal which might have undeservedly revived our fortunes. Instead
O’Brien’s Seamus Prendergast’s pull seemed to be deflected over the bar and the chance was gone.
It was to be our last score of the game. It pains me to say it, but for the last seven minutes we were a rabble. I’m not saying they didn’t try, but heads were firmly between knees at this stage. Colin Ryan could have had a goal of Mickey Sheehy/Paddy Cullen standing when Ian O’Regan’s clearance having gone walkabout dropped into his lap but his shot drifted wide. Fergal Lynch also could have had a goal but took a point to guarantee himself on the scoresheet. Colm Galvin scored a tremendous point from distance and Ryan added another free, then another score from Galvin with nary a Waterford player in sight truly twisted the knife right on the final whistle. Those last few scores breezed by in a blur – that’s the polite way of saying I hadn’t clue at this stage, please don’t treat my scorers as gospel. Given the extent to which Waterford had been on top for large periods, those scores flattered Clare – but not by much.
I’m not angry or bitter at Waterford for what happened. The feeling is one of resignation. I don’t think I was being unreasonable for questioning where the evidence of Clare’s progress under Davy Fitz was to be found. I have to admit that those who read between the lines got it right. He has some very talented players and has whipped them into shape in the way he does best. For Michael Ryan, the drawing board must look more like the writing on the wall. The backs gave the forwards a platform to win this and they failed to take it. The best that can be said now is that the back door might give them an opportunity to put it right.
Waterford: Ian O’Regan, Darragh Fives, Liam Lawlor, Noel Connors, Jamie Nagle, Michael Walsh, Paudie Prendergast, Shane O’Sullivan, Kevin Moran (capt, 0-1), Maurice Shanahan (0-7, 0-6f), Seamus Prendergast (0-2), Brian O’Halloran (Ray Barry), Jamie Barron (0-1; Gavin O’Brien, 0-1), Pauric Mahony (0-1; Martin O’Neill), Jake Dillon (1-2)
Clare: Patrick Kelly, Domhnall O’Donovan, David McInerney, Cian Dillon, Brendan Bugler, Patrick Donnellan (capt), Patrick O’Connor, Colm Galvin (0-3), Seadna Morey (Peter Duggan; Fergal Lynch, 0-1), John Conlon (0-2), Tony Kelly (0-3), Colin Ryan (0-8, 0-7f, 0-1 65), Darach Honan (0-3), Shane O’Donnell (1-0; Padraic Collins), Conor McGrath (1-0)
HT: Waterford 1-9 (12) Clare 0-8 (8)
Referee: James McGrath (Westmeath)