Mea culpa and all that. In my defence for the earlier litany of pessimism . . . actually, there’s no defence. Not because I should have been able to anticipate the turn of events based on the available evidence, but because this is Waterford and Cork. Logic has long ago gone out the window. Games between the two counties are like NBA matches – dispense with anything bar the last five minutes because the teams are likely to be level, or close enough, at that stage. Might as well cut out the middleman.
One thing I did get right, alas, was the crowd. No getting away from it, we were outnumbered by four or five to one. It came as a relief therefore that they closed the Town End terrace where the Cork proles usually congregate with their Stars-and-Bars flags. Sitting as were down that end of the Old Stand, I don’t think I would have been able to cope with the intensity of the occasion had the Rebel yell been in full flight from there as the game came to its tension-soaked conclusion. In addition, the people surrounding us were a reasonable bunch. This may have been because some wise soul opted to put all the screaming One Direction lovers in a section in the New Stand, where they booed every free from Pauric Mahony. Classy.
Then again, it didn’t seem to have any discernible negative impact on his efforts as he landed all the soft ones and quite a few difficult ones. Having a reliable freetaker is important all the time, but it was particularly so as Waterford practically yielded the Cork third of the field with Jake Dillon, nominally playing as a corner-forward, occupying the centre-forward position. Brian O’Sullivan got some early change out of his marker in the corner with one good score and a miss from an acute angle, but Waterford were going to be relying on a lot of long range efforts, whether from play or from frees. A couple of frees from O’Mahony and great long range effortx from Jamie Nagle and Tadgh de Búrca – yes, corner-back Tadgh de Búrca! – saw Waterford move into an early four-point lead.
It was working admirably in some ways, and a horror miss from an easy free for Pat Horgan made you wonder whether it might be our day, but the downside of a strategy of hitting from distance, no matter how much time and space you create, is that you are going to miss a few and the wide count was beginning to mount as the second quarter began. It was just as well then that, in general, Cork were not at the races. Looking back at the game, I wonder whether Derek McGrath’s biggest regret will be not being more gung-ho in a half when he couldn’t have anticipated how lethargic their opponents would be. Cork were second to every ball and giving away cheap frees. One where Eddie Barrett was upended when he was going nowhere fast (was that when he received the injury that would end his game and possibly his season?) should have ended up with a booking, so casual an effort was the tackle. Austin Gleeson was blocked on two successive occasions and still managed to come away with the ball, and an elaborate passing routine out of defence, which included a few ropey hand-passes that might have ended up in frees on another day, went unpunished thanks to several Valium-induced efforts at intercepting. Waterford’s game was coming together, and when Mahony slotted over a simple score moments after Richie Foley had made things unnecessarily complicated, Waterford were five points to the good. When that great evil, a short puck-out, ended up with Jamie Nagle sending over another long-range effort, it was looking very good indeed.
Speaking of very good, Austin Gleeson was tottering his way through his Senior Championship debut like a new-born foal. Self-confident enough to have three shots at the posts from sideline cuts, failing with two but landing the most difficult one from the ‘wrong’ side, he was generating more heat than light under dropping balls but at least was competing well. In contrast, Cork didn’t seem able to do anything right, an attempt at a targeted puck-out from Stephen O’Keeffe succeeded in finding Pa Cronin only for him to take his eye off the ball and have it roll apologetically out for a sideline to hoots of delight from the Waterford crowd, and a foul on Brian O’Sullivan way out the field by Shane O’Neill was indicative of the lazy attitude that must have had JBM tearing his hair out. Mahony administered the needful from the free, and while Waterford were fortunate to get away with only conceding only one point deep into injury time after Horgan opted to go for a point from a close-in free – you had to smile at the genuinely witty chants of “NASH! NASH! NASH!” that went up from the teenyboppers opposite – it was Gleeson who put a smile on our faces with a splendid point with the last puck of the half to give us a deserved, if slightly below-par given the wind and the strangely subdued Cork performance, half-time lead of six points.
It had been encouraging stuff, but no-one was getting carried away. We have been in a similar position at half-time against Clare last year and had fallen away badly in the last quarter. In addition, and it can’t be emphasised enough, Cork were shockingly poor. Can you imagine how mortifying it must have been for the Cork players to go into their dressing room and face God made flesh telling them how rubbish they had been? The tempo was duly upped from the off with an immediate score from a free. Pauric Mahony responded quickly with a point from play, the ball drilled right over the black spot to show a man enjoying how well the free-taking responsibility was going down. Cork struck right back with a fine effort from Alan Cadogan, and even though Brian O’Sullivan got his second score of the day to keep the scoreboard ticking over, two more points from frees from Horgan moved Cork to within four, the second a long-range effort after a careless lunge by a Waterford player in the middle of the park. We had reason to be relieved when Cadogan cleaned out Richie Foley but his effort went wide when it seemed easier to score, the langers cheering as if it was over. Satisfying, but Waterford were having to put in a greater shift just to stay in touch with their opposite numbers.
Then came The Goal.
One of the great stories of Irish rugby is how Gerry McLoughlin scored a try at Twickenham after dragging the entire English pack along behind him. When you see it on replays, it’s never quite as impressive as ligind would have it. Not having seen replays of it at the time of writing, perhaps Austin Gleeson’s goal wasn’t that good. In real time though, it was the best goal ever scored. The lily of perfection was gilded by a contentious moment leading up to it. The linesman signalled for a sideline ball to Cork out around the 45 and the ref indicated it should go to Waterford. The Cork crowd, smarting after a few decisions seemed to go against them (and in fairness, my impression is that the majority of 50:50 decisions went our way throughout the match), erupted and the ref seemed to change his mind leading to a predictable eppy from Dan Shanahan. You needn’t have bothered, Dan. The sideline ball was hit straight to Gleeson who flicked the ball into his possession and set off towards goal. As with Ginger McLoughlin, it seemed like he left a half-dozen Cork backs labouring in his wake before rifling an unstoppable shot across the bows of Anthony Nash from an impossibly acute angle.
(Update: replays confirm I undersold it. It was the best goal ever scored.)
It was an astonishing strike in itself, but it’s about so much more than a great piece of skill. When the ball hit the back of the net the next decade or so of our lives were compressed into a single moment, and you had to like what we saw. It’s too early to say that the King is dead (take your pick of a half-dozen kings from the last decade), long live the King. But in one single moment, you could see Austin Gleeson tearing defences apart in that manner for years to come. It’s a lot of pressure to put on such young shoulders, someone who is young enough to be my son. But let’s dare to dream. If you weren’t giddy after that, check your pulse.
Back in the here and now, Waterford tails were now up and at ‘em. Shane Walsh almost broke clear of the Cork backline but sensibly settled for a point to push the lead out to nine and Jake Dillon had a good chance to make it double figures but dragged his shot wide. Cork were creaking and really needed something quickly. Unfortunately, they got it. Cadogan managed to get in bhind the Waterford defence and while his bouncing shot was brilliantly saved by O’Keeffe, they couldn’t get it clear. It was dumb luck that the ball eventually bounced into the path of substitute Bill Cooper – the type of name you’d expect to hear in 19th century FA Cup final reports rather than the 2014 Munster championhip – in a position where he couldn’t miss and Cork were right back in it.
One of the most alarming happenings in Waterford hurling over the last couple of decades was the manner in which they collapsed from such a promising position last year against Clare. They lost energy and they lost heart and were eventually beaten by eight points, a margin that flattered them. It was a collapse that, whatever you think of the rights and wrongs of what subsequently happened, probably did for Michael Ryan. And for ten dreadful minutes it looked like we were heading down the same road here. Are there fitness issues in the Waterford camp, compounded by the notorious shortage of training sessions? A lot of effort had been put in during the early stages of the half to keep Cork at bay and it was beginning to show. That would be bad, although not as bad as the possibility that heads were dropping as Cork roared back into life, aided by the crowd that made it practically a home game for them. Points flew over from all angles to ever increasing acclamation from the Cork support. Cadogan was rampant, almost scoring another goal but somehow O’Keeffe/a back/both managed to deflect his shot out for 65, which was naturally popped over by Horgan. The gap was down to one by the hour mark and it seemed impossible that Waterford could hang on.
Yet somehow, from somewhere, Waterford found the reserves to stop the rot. Seamus Prendergast came on and while he wouldn’t be the person you were looking for to lead the line alone up front in these circumstances – only the most pinpoint accurate of balls was likely to find him – he did manage to hold on to possession and slow the Cork charge when he did get the ball. Some creative use of the ball from the likes of Walsh and Kevin Moran (i.e borderline fouling of it when in a jam) further gummed up Cork’s gears, and it was the former who escaped from being boxed in before drawing a foul and allowed Mahony to drag the lead out to two with just five minutes remaining. The spoiling tactics had the desired effect but Cork still looked the more likely to score. A really soft free allowed them to trim it back to one and the knackered back division could only watch as Cork worked the ball across the lines to make the space and draw level. With Gleeson suffering from cramp, and there may be questions about the timing of Shane Walsh’s withdrawal late on if Gleeson’s problems had already manifested themselves, then Waterford were effectively down to 14 men.
Incredibly we nearly landed a knockout blow as Cork chased the game. An attack broke down in the middle of the field and O’Sullivan raced onto it. There was a point on but Prendergast was in acres of space in the corner and it was correct to try and put him in. Probably a bit too correct because Damien Cahalane called it right and agonisingly managed to get a hurley to the pass. Prendergast wouldn’t have to wait long for another stab at it though, catching Mahony’s pinpoint ball into the corner and driving it over the bar to restore the lead. The match ticked into injury time and I was convinced there were three minutes announced as Anthony Nash came out to drive the ball forward. Austin Gleeson would have one last contribution to make as, despite his injury, he whipped the legs out from under Nash as he cleared the ball. One wonders whether Brian Gavin would have been as decisive as he was in awarding a free where the ball landed had the scores been level. You’d like to think so because it was absolutely the correct decision, allowing Horgan to level matters again. It looked like there was time for one more twist, but thirty seconds into the third minute the whistle was blown. Had I imagined the three minutes? Perhaps, but either way no one was complaining.
It was an opportunity missed. You can’t be nine points up early in the second half and claim otherwise. But it was disaster averted as well. Had the game gone on for another ninety seconds, the odds are we would have lost. The team were ‘bet’, simple as that. And there is so much to be positive about. 1-21 is a better haul than anything managed in the League. While Mahony weighed in with the lion’s share, and having our free-taker display some form is something to be pleased about on its own, seven different players weighed in with points from play. And we’ll always have The Goal.
Final word, for a fortnight anyway, on the sheer mayhem that is the Waterford-Cork circus goes to a Blues supporter:
Waterford: Stephen O’Keeffe, Tadgh de Búrca (0-1), Liam Lawlor, Noel Connors, Jamie Nagle (0-2), Michael Walsh, Barry Coughlan (Shane Fives), Kevin Moran, Eddie Barrett (Richie Foley), Colin Dunford (Ray Barry), Paudie Mahony (0-11, 0-9f), Austin Gleeson (1-2, 0-1 s/l), Brian O’Sullivan (0-2), Shane Walsh (0-1; Seamus Prendergast, 0-1), Jake Dillon (Donie Breathnach)
Cork: Anthony Nash, Shane O’Neill, Damien Cahalane, Stephen McDonnell, Christopher Joyce, Mark Ellis, Lorcan McLoughlin, Daniel Kearney (Brian Lawton), Aidan Walsh (0-2, 0-1 s/l), Conor Lehane (0-1), Cian McCarthy (Bill Cooper, 1-1), Pa Cronin (Stephen Moylan), Alan Cadogan (0-4), Seamus Harnedy (0-1; Jamie Coughlan), Pat Horgan (0-12, 0-8f, 0-1 65)
HT: Waterford 0-13 Cork 0-7
Referee: Brian Gavin (Offaly)