(originally posted on boards.ie)
While Waterford (especially the defence and midfield) put in a great effort, I thought that, apart from the first and last fifteen minutes of normal time, Kilkenny were the better team and could have won the game comfortably with better shooting. For me, there were three main problems with the Waterford performance – too many execution errors, inexperience (understandable in a team with a lot of young players) and poor attacking tactics. As regards the first of these, I counted 44 errors (excluding missed shots) by Waterford players up to half-time in extra time (this was when my recording of the game stopped – I had not allowed for extra time in both games and the full game is not available on the TV3 Player). These mainly involved attempted passes and puckouts going astray or being intercepted, but also included incidences of poor ball control and taking of bad options. This is far too high an error count against opposition of this quality.
I found it hard to fathom Waterford’s attacking tactics. They repeated the Tipperary error of playing too many high balls into the Kilkenny defence where the Waterford forwards were unable to compete. I think too much blame is being placed on the forwards when the real problem was the quality of incoming supply. Waterford did very well in working the ball out of defence to a free man in midfield, and then repeatedly spoiled it with poor deliveries into the forwards. I have said this before, but the emphasis should have been on low diagonal ball into space rather than high balls delivered to target recipients who invariably had at least one Kilkenny defender up their backsides. We needed to stretch the Kilkenny defenders, and especially the older players (who make up four of the six) with a view to tiring them out.
I also could not understand the ploy of leaving Seamus Prendergast on his own in the full forward line. One of the runners (Brian O’Sullivan or Jamie Barron) should have been assigned to stand with him at all times in order to move onto breaking balls or taking passes when Seamus got possession. Having Seamus chasing balls played into the corner was absolutely ridiculous. I am still trying to figure out what role Jamie Barron was expected to play, but whatever it was, it didn’t seem to be working out. We never exploited his pace and ability to run at defenders.
While Michael Ryan deserves great credit for the spirit he has infused into the team, I have great doubts about his team selections and placements and the tactics being employed, and would suggest that this is an aspect of his backup team that requires strengthening (assuming that he is reappointed as manager).
Having being given the hairdryer treatment for not being sufficiently worshipful to Clare after our first defeat in the year’s Championship, it is incumbent upon me to congratulate Kilkenny on their victory. The miles on their clock are beginning to show, but while Waterford may have shown amazing spunk in constantly getting up off the canvas, Kilkenny showed what great champions they are by never once getting flustered by this opponent that, contrary to the evidence of every encounter in recent memory, refused to give up. It’ll be fine, just tack on a few more points there. They didn’t win nine of the last fourteen All-Irelands for nothing. Who would have guessed?
And let’s have a big hand for the Kilkenny supporters around me on the terrace. Sure, during the match tempers got frayed, and there was one baluba who seemed determined during the first half to act as if the Kilkenny players couldn’t lift their arms without him being their puppet master. But I get the feeling he was told to wind his neck in by his friends at half-time, and everyone else was magnanimous after the final whistle. You could argue that it’s easy to generous in victory, but I didn’t sense any insincerity and it would also be easy to start crowing at the people who had spent most of the past two hours celebrating every score you had conceded. Credit where credit is due, they did themselves and their county proud.
The Minors came within a whisker of being a victim of the kind of smash-and-grab that we nearly perpetrated against Kilkenny. I wasn’t at the game, but you don’t need to have been there to know that losing an eight-point lead with ten minutes remaining is never good. At least they have a second bite of the cherry and we won’t have to face Limerick in their own back yard, outnumbered by at least 20 to 1. While it requires a spectacular piece of mental gymnastics to rationalise having the replay of a game initially staged in Limerick take place in a neutral venue, I can just about give it credit. The Senior final is played at one of four venues capable of holding them – Thurles, Cork, Limerick or Killarney. If the Senior participants agree on a home-and-away arrangement, the Minor game follows. Otherwise, the games are played at a neutral venue. The logic works – just. What I don’t understand is why it has to be Thurles. There isn’t going to be more than a few thousand at it and the game is going to be swallowed up in the immensity of Thurles. Venues like Tipperary, Bansha and Fermoy all spring to mind as places that can be easily accessed by the supporters of each county. Maybe demand will be greater than supply, but is that such a bad thing? The Under-21 final was played in Fraher Field in 2009 and the buzz preceding the game as there was a scramble for tickets justified the decision to play it a small venue. I can’t shake the feeling that the Munster Council object to their showpiece occasions being played at the diddy venues. Bansha just wouldn’t be grand enough for the insecure Munster mandarins in Limerick.
Speaking of insecurity, Munster and Limerick, how wonderful it was to see the supporters of the Shannonsiders rejoicing in their first provincial title in seventeen years. I couldn’t suppress a wry smile at the scale of their joy though. For the last decade we’ve been routinely told that winning a Munster title means nothing if you don’t add the All-Ireland. Funny how no-one saw fit to mention that on Sunday. More seriously, in the wider scheme of things winning a Munster title isn’t all that for Limerick. A Limerick man in my presence once bemoaned winning five Munster titles between 1974 and 1996 yet not winning the All-Ireland. He got pretty short shrift from the pre-2002 Waterfordmen around him. A seventeen-year famine? First world problems. It’ll be interesting how they react should this sixth Munster title since 1973 not yield the McCarthy Cup. It’d be great if I didn’t get to see the results of that scenario.
And finally: is this the last time we’ll see this?
I gotta feeling sang the Black Eyed Peas before the start of extra-time in the Clare-Wexford game, and I had a feeling that something pretty special was coming down the tracks for Waterford. This wasn’t based on anything quantifiable, just a sense that Kilkenny’s trajectory had dipped to a point where we could finally aspire to touching it. Arriving at Semple Stadium though, I got the feeling that I was alone in this as a sparsely populated Killinan End suggested that the plain hurling people of south-east Ireland were not expecting anything out of the ordinary. How wrong they were . . .
A good start is obviously useful, but what is rarely mentioned is the usefulness of a bad start by the opposition, and we got both in spades here. We chuckled at Kilkenny hitting a wide within thirty seconds of the start of the game, already setting them halfway to the tally they produced in the 2008 All-Ireland final, and tried to think nothing of Waterford’s well-worked points to open the scoring and were engaging in all manner of tis-but-a-flesh-wound dismissiveness when Jamie Barron failed to take a great goal-scoring opportunity after being teed up by Maurice Shanahan, Eoin Murphy arriving in his path at the moment of striking. Kilkenny extracted maximum punishment from that miss when they came up the field and took their point . . . hang on, they didn’t. Another wide was swiftly followed by yet another wide from the Cats. You couldn’t tell whether this was down to bad shooting or expert hustling by the backs – in retrospect I’m inclined towards the latter – but whatever it was the ‘feeling’ was feeling pretty good. These Kilkenny gods had feet of clay. When Darragh Fives sent over a long-range effort to leave us three points ahead, they knew they were in a game.
It had been a bright start, but Richie Hogan finally adjusted the radar to open their account and Waterford began to go down the road that Seán Cullinane had warned against before the game, that of sending high ball into the Kilkenny back line. I’m a long-standing advocate of backs getting the ball and driving it, but even a numpty like me could see that this was meat and drink to Jackie Tyrell and JJ Delaney, especially with Seamus Prendergast having to plough an extremely lonely furrow in the forward line alongside the more lightweight talents around him. There was nothing lightweight about the backs though as Darragh Fives added two stunning points. The whole back division from 1-9 was nothing short of magnificent, routinely bursting through standing up to the standard Kilkenny tactic of hooking their arm and hurley around the onrushing player. One incident saw Seamus Prendergast stagger from such a clinch and be given an ‘advantage’ by the ref, only to lose the possession a split second when no advantage could be reasonably said to have accrued. James Owens did not have a good game. The only place where ‘advantage’ should apply is within 20-30 metres of the goal where a goal might accrue from such an advantage. Backs want frees to clear their lines. Forwards wants free so they can get cheap points. Owens’ determination to treat it as ‘a man’s game’ was of no use to Waterford. And that is to say nothing of the clanger he would drop right at the end.
But that’s for later. For all of the heroics of the backs Kilkenny were not going to keep on missing the chances they had for the entire 70 and they slowly reeled us in as each clearance was sent back with interest. Seeing Darragh Fives plough into Paul Murphy out on the sideline was viscerally satisfying but it reflected an underlying frustration that was beginning to show. He was to suffer more ‘advantage’ frustration when no free was awarded as he attempted to clear then was penalised for overcarrying. Some advantage. This allowed Kilkenny to take the lead and it was clear that Waterford would need to make demands on the backs over and above the call of duty here. They were going to have to carry everything out of defence and negotiate a forest of Kilkenny ash if we were to have any chance at all. A splendidly worked equalising effort for Jake Dillon typified what was needed – low ball and taking on your man every time rather than letting it in first time.
Now seems like a good time to digress. There was so much to be happy about with this Waterford performance. I’m not going to indulge any trolling suggestions that this was a golden opportunity missed or that we left it behind us. And it was particularly satisfying to see how they reacted to the realisation that what they were doing wasn’t working. It is surely counter-intuitive to take on your man in the manner I have just described. In effect, you are asking a player to look for trouble. But we had to adjust or we’d be killed. And adjust they did. Too many times in the past there has been no plan B for Waterford. Watching the craft with which Waterford applied themselves to this task, and the way they made the most of the limitations of the players available, it makes one almost wistful about what Michael Ryan might have done had he access to the superior forward line that we had throughout the Noughties.
Back to the game, and there was time for one of those typical sickening blows that seems to befall the weaker teams (also known as ‘losers’). A free out for Kilkenny brought a dark mutter from me that it was going to drop short and that’s exactly what happened, leading to a penalty. Up stepped Richie Power and his shot was brilliantly saved and the rebound went over the bar. Top result there. But wait. The ref is going into the umpires. This is rarely good, and it wasn’t in this case as the result of their deliberations was a green flag. It was most frustrating, and boos rang around the ground as they went off at half-time. I managed to have enough self-possession to realise that something must have happened to allow the goal be given. Maybe Stephen O’Keeffe had his hurley behind the line when he had gotten stick to ball? During the break a man nearby said he had phoned home and confirmed that the ball had struck the stanchion and come back out. So credit to the official for the correct call. The bastards.
I still felt we were in this. The backs had been outstanding. Prior to this year, Jamie Nagle had made nine Championship starts and rarely looked like more than a souped-up winter hurler, yet here he was imposing himself upon forwards with Celtic crosses lying down the back of the sofa. It was going to require a superhuman effort, but we had at least one bona fide superhuman in the person of Michael Walsh, so why not? Unfortunately there was no sign in the early exchanges in the half that any of the forwards had what it took to top the superhumans in the Kilkenny back line and when Henry Shefflin entered the fray not long after Richie Power had opened the second half scoring, you realised that the superhuman ratio was skewed heavily against us. One of our big hopes of recent years, Stephen O’Keeffe, was standing up to the pressure, cleverly batting a point-bound effort away from the danger area. Risky, but worth it when done right like this. Not long after a towering effort from Kevin Moran cut the gap to a single score again and then it was the turn of Darragh Fives to score from the back line, another product of taking on your man and giving team mates the room as a result, this time the spade work being done by Jake Dillon. This was what was needed to beat this lot. Did we have what it took to piece it all together?
Alas, for the next twenty minutes the answer was a decisive ‘no’. Seamus Prendergast weighed in with a fine score, but it increasingly looked like Sisyphean nature of the task was going to prove too much. The game was being played entirely between our goal line and their 45. The backs were pushing that stone back up the hill and, as per the myth, it was rolling right back down again. Kilkenny’s shooting was still wayward, and I was now certain that was mostly down to the constant harassment of the Waterford defence. They were getting enough shots in though that it didn’t seem to matter in the wider scheme of things. When Power tapped over a free with tem minutes to go to stretch the lead to five, Waterford’s task was clear – score more points in the last ten minutes than they had in the first twenty-five of the half, and not concede anything. Just the five impossible things to do before breakfast, eh?
And yet they did it. Jake Dillon tapped over a free – incredibly one of only two dead balls we’d score from all day – then Ray Barry got his second score since coming on. Only a goal in it and suddenly anything can happen, especially now that Tony Browne was on the field. I note that there was no patronising ripple of applause from the Kilkenny supporters as he came on. Proof, if ever any were needed, that they knew they were in a game. It was Barry who did the third impossible thing, pouncing on some loose back play to flash the ball over the bar and reduce the gap to two. Kevin Moran thundered over another long-range effort and suddenly getting this back seemed not impossible, or even improbable, but likely. Where they got the reserves of energy from, I do not know. They got it from somewhere though and when O’Keeffe and Nagle combined to send Moran down the right wing, memories of the thrilling finish against Tipperary in the League came flooding back as, just as he did that day, he turned his marker inside out before dropping a delightful stroke over the black spot to level matters.
So transformed were Waterford that I didn’t expect them to hold out for extra-time. They were going to go for the win, and for one gloriously tantalising moment the chance was there. Paudie Prendergast won the puckout and set off towards goal. He should have kept going. Even James Owens would have struggled to see an advantage if he were fouled. Instead he tried to play in Seamus Prendergast and the chance was lost. Kilkenny cleared and when Shane Fives flubbed an effort to gather the ball Matthew Ruth was straight onto it to slot over the winning score. But wait. The Kilkenny players were surrounding the referee. Initially I thought he had failed to play the advantage, which would have been supremely ironic given his performance prior to this, but it quickly transpired that he had blown the final whistle at some point before Ruth’s strike. Now we all had a good laugh, and strictly speaking he’s entitled to do this. But no-one in Waterford would have objected had he let the play go. Ruth’s attack was clearly of a piece with what had happened moments before and it takes a peculiar form of narcissism to think that that was the exact moment to blow the final whistle. Had it happened at the other end we’d have been raging. Poor refereeing, and I imagine something for which he’ll get his knuckles rapped.
If one chooses to view it as the outcome of fate rather than the ornery nature of one man, we bloody well deserved this. You knew in your head that the tank had to have been emptied in those last ten minutes but the heart they had shown meant that the heart refused to believe this one was gone. The head asserted itself in the opening few minutes though as Kilkenny effortlessly reeled off a string of points to go five points clear. The effort that Waterford had put in to drag themselves back into contention was clearly too much and even the backs, with the exception of the peerless Brick Walsh, were now second to every ball. The hope was still there though, and when Seamus Prendergast finally managed to discombobulate JJ Delaney and get the ball back across the goal Jake Dillon was there to bat the ball into the empty net. Naturally there were suggestions of a square ball but given Prendergast had knocked it back across the goal it seemed likely that Dillon was in situ before that play. As a Clare man behind us put it, he would have been offside in a soccer match – but this wasn’t a soccer match. Consultation between the officials confirmed this and, to paraphrase Chumbawumba, we had gotten knocked down but gotten up again. Could they keep us down?
Yes, they could. Two points early in the second period of extra-time stretched the lead back to four. Jamie Nagle gave a reminder to the All Star committee that will soon be forgotten of the quality of his season with a fantastic score from a long-range free but, in cricket parlance, we weren’t going this in singles so when Maurice Shanahan was fouled within 30m of the goal with only four minutes to go you knew he had to go the whole hog. His shot into a crowded penalty area was saved but somehow Ray Barry got onto the rebound and staggeringly we were level again.
I really thought we were going to do this. This was like the first Rocky film, a supposed nobody standing up to the champ for 15 bruising rounds, simply refusing to be knocked down. Unfortunately (spoiler warning!) the champ did enough to win on points that day and so it proved here as Kilkenny reacted with a flurry of punches to go three points clear again. You really have to doff your cap to that champion spirit, never once losing their focus despite all the miles on the clock. There was one more moment of enormous satisfaction for Waterford when Stephen O’Keeffe, now 100% in possession of the goalie shirt, somehow got this stick to a low shot from point-blank range to deflect the ball out for a 65. The Kilkenny fans had been celebrating, leading one Waterford man to wryly remark “steady on lads, it’s not over yet!” and when the 65 went wide it really wasn’t over. Come on Fates, we deserve this! The puckout seemed to be going out of play but in the scramble the ref decided to give a free-in even though the clock had ticked well past the two minutes he had decided had come in only ten minutes of play. One more chance . . . cleared. Game over, and spectacular rejoicing from the Kilkenny faithful for their deliverance.
You couldn’t argue with the final outcome. Kilkenny had scored ten points in extra-time. But there was so much to celebrate from Waterford’s perspective. The management look like they are capable of identifying a game plan. They’ve learned much about the players at their disposal, their strengths and limitations, and have earned more time to apply those lessons. The backs went toe-to-toe with the best team in the history of the game and never once took a backward step. So many players – O’Keeffe, Lawlor, Nagle, Fives and Fives – showed they absolutely belong at this level. There are problems in the forward line, no doubt about that. But how could we not have problems? We’ve lost players of the calibre of John Mullane and Stephen Molumphy this year and it asks an awful lot of the senior players to integrate the new boys in the absence of talent like that. We should have the latter back next year. And the former . . . he intimated on Championship Matters that he was missing it. A positive thought.
Not as positive as the fact that we’re still alive as a team of note in the game. Kilkenny’s trajectory is on the way down. There’s a golden age in the offing and we are in a position to be part of it rather than watching it from the wings like the last time. Quite a change in expectations from the start of 2013. Roll on 2014.
Waterford: Stephen O’Keeffe, Shave Fives, Liam Lawlor, Noel Connors, Jamie Nagle (0-1f), Michael Walsh, Darragh Fives (0-3; Tony Browne), Kevin Moran (0-3), R Foley (0-1; Paudie Prendergast), Jake Dillon (1-2, 0-1f), Seamus Prendergast (0-1), Shane O’Sullivan, Brian O’Sullivan (0-1; Ray Barry, 1-3), Maurice Shanahan (Martin O’Neill; Shane Walsh), Jamie Barron (0-1; Eoin Barrett)
Kilkenny: Eoin Murphy, Paul Murphy, JJ Delaney, Jackie Tyrrell, Tommy Walsh, Brian Hogan, Kieran Joyce, Michael Rice (Michael Fennelly, 0-1), Eoin Larkin (0-4, 0-3f), Richie Power (1-5, 1-0 pen, 0-3f), Matthew Ruth (0-1), Aidan Fogarty (0-2, Lester Ryan), Colin Fennelly (0-4), Walter Walsh (Henry Shefflin), Richie Hogan (0-5)
HT: Waterford 0-6 (6) Kilkenny 1-6 (9)
FT: Waterford 0-15 (15) Kilkenny 1-12 (15)
Referee: James Owens (Wexford)
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)
I think it’s a good idea to nail your colours to the mast before the first Championship as to what team you think should take to the field so that I can’t be accused of being wise after the event should the team that does line out bellyflop in a spectacular manner, and that’s what I was planning to do. Imagine my surprise when Michael Ryan gazumped me by releasing the team on Tuesday rather than the Friday before the game that seems to be the norm these days. This is a good thing. Spare us the mind game nonsense and allow us to have a natter about the choices made before the event.
|Darragh Fives||Liam Lawlor||Noel Connors|
|Jamie Nagle||Michael Walsh||Paudie Prendergast|
|Shane O’Sullivan||Kevin Moran (capt)|
|Maurice Shanahan||Seamus Prendergast||Brian O’Halloran|
|Jamie Barron||Pauric Mahony||Jake Dillon|
Although you could argue that there wasn’t much in the way of ‘choice’ available to Michael Ryan and co. The most obvious place where he had to make an either/or decision was in goal, where we see Ian O’Regan make a Lazarus-style return to Championship hurling after a nine-year absence. I’m normally one for saying that the only objective measure of performance is how you did in the League. This isn’t because I think the League is a crucible in which legends are forged – it clearly isn’t – but because there’s no other measure that makes any sense when dealing with unseasoned players. Stephen O’Keeffe has only played two more Championship games than O’Regan and is hardly an undisputed choice (nor would Adrian Power be if he were still in the mix), so why not stick with the incumbent who kept two clean sheets in the last two games after O’Keeffe has been to blame for the loss to Kilkenny? To which I respond that I find it hard to believe that those two games were enough to answer the questions that have always clung to ‘Iggy’ since that wretched day against Kilkenny in 2004. If we are going to maximise our potential, it has to be with players who have the capacity to be good rather than good enough, and I still think O’Keeffe is the former and O’Regan the latter.
At least in this case Michael Ryan had a choice, because the rest of the team has the alarming appearance of being output of a check on who were the last men standing.
The spine of the team looks good. Liam Lawlor has staked a decisive claim at full-back and what a relief it is to be able to say that after all these years (no disrespect intended to Declan Prendergast). Brick Walsh is the best centre-back in the country, Shane O’Sullivan and Kevin Moran are a top midfield pair, and Seamus Prendergast is a reliable ball winner who also invariably weighs in a couple of scores in each game.
For the rest of the team though, it’s a question of looking at who is not there. The lack of goals was a feature of Waterford’s play throughout the League and a lot of the satisfaction from our performances would have been underpinned by the idea that Shane Walsh was likely to make a return for the Championship, scorer of 3-11 in his last six outings. Yeah, this was good but it was going to be better come the summer! How deluded can you be? The presence of Pauric Mahony in the full-forward line does not inspire confidence. I don’t know which thought is more depressing – that he might not start there and the team sheet is purely notional, or that they’re going to give him a few minutes to see how he gets on. In Championship terms this is an entirely new full-forward line. A lot seems to be riding on Jamie Barron and Jake Dillon making a smooth transition to the biggest stage. Maybe they will, but it’s going to be a white-knuckle ride for all concerned.
At least the absence of Shane Walsh is not a surprise. More alarming is the impact the recent injury to Shane Fives has had on the team. Thanks to his excellent form, it all looked very neat after the League with him in one corner, Noel Connors in the other, and any permutation from Moran, Jamie Nagle, Darragh Fives and *genuflects* Tony Browne as wing-backs. Then Shane Fives comes a cropper and suddenly it all goes wrong. Darragh Fives is slated to go into the corner, and you have to admire his stoicism in the face of once again being asked to make do (he could probably get some pointers on this from Declan Prendergast) but remove one piece from the Jenga tower and suddenly it looks precarious. Again, you wonder whether that’s how they’ll line out – Prendergast in the corner instead? – though the best that can be said for such jiggery-pokery is that they hope it might confuse Clare. Good luck with that.
We have had rotten luck with injuries – you can add Stephen Daniels to the tale of woe as well – and any county would struggle to cope with the loss of players of the calibre of Stephen Molumphy and John Mullane. We saw against Cork last year how shallow the pool of talent is, and it hasn’t gotten any deeper in the intervening period. So I’m very nervous about Sunday.
For all of that, what is it with Clare? I know they’ve got a number of underage titles from recent years but it’s a long time since they did anything worth talking about at Senior. The notorious 1998 Munster final was the last time they won anything at this level yet you’d swear it was only yesterday, the way some pundits are blowing smoke up their collective arse. You might argue that Davy Fitz will make all the difference, but based on what? Promotion from Division 1B and a mediocre run through the Championship last year, and coming within a whisker of getting relegated this year? It’s strange how Davy Fitz’s management style was seen as an impediment to Waterford yet is such a perfect match for Clare. The predictions seem to be based on alchemy, surely a meaningless metric by which to measure excellence as opposed to ‘results’. Maybe we’ll see some of that alchemy from Waterford on Sunday. Jamie Barron and Jake Dillon to be the bestest corner-forward pair since Cúchulainn and Fionn Mac Cumhaill took on a team of Scottish giants at hurling/shinty. Their team captain? Tony Browne. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
In my heart, I thought Waterford were going to win the All-Ireland this year. This was based on two utterly ridiculous ideas. The first was a bit of déjà vu experienced in the run-up to the game, a perfect vision of myself standing in the bottom left of Hill 16 and seeing a Waterford half-forward galloping clear towards goal, egged on the thrilled Waterford fans. He gets within range and languidly bats the ball over the bar. With that, Eoin Kelly – yes, I can see who it is now – wheels away in triumph. We’re four points up in injury time, the fabled insurance score. We had done it. This vision was allied with a longer running theme, that of Chelsea win the European Cup. Repeatedly Chelsea had gone to the well and been repeatedly denied. And just when their star was beginning to dim, they get every piece of luck going to finally land the big one. Was it too unreasonable to expect such a fate to befall Waterford?
And arriving at Thurles, you got another sense that something big was brewing in the world of hurling. We came in along the Two Mile Borris road having spent the previous evening/current morning at a wedding in Carlow and recent experience told me that coming off the motorway with about an hour to spare would be time enough. A crowd of 20,000 or so would be plenty, especially given the habits of our betters in Kilkenny and Cork of waiting until September before opening up their wallets. So imagine my surprise as the traffic was bumper-to-bumper right at the motorway. Even more surprising was to get to the ground and find not a single stand seat available. And you know what? It was great to see. I’ve been to enough games in recent years where you could hear individual voices echoing around the venue to be able to take a simple pleasure from the thought that there was going to be a close-to-capacity attendance. Hopefully everyone saw something in Waterford that I hadn’t rationalised up until this point.
We scampered up the Killinan End a few second after throw-in and a barely-overheard radio commentary suggested that “it went in off the post” so it felt almost like a success when we got in and saw that no-one had scored. Such a pessimist/realist to think that early goals would always go to Cork. They took the lead soon enough with a simple tap-over for Patrick Horgan but John Mullane soon had us level as he hooked over a score from under the stand. The early stages felt a little bloodless with Shanahan and Horgan swapping frees and Waterford giving Cork a bit too much room in the half-forward line. Such space nearly proved damaging early on as Horgan got in for a shot but Liam Lawlor stood tall/got his arse in the way to block the goal-bound effort and get the ball clear via the goalkeeper. It was a brief respite as Pa Cronin scored a splendid point from a long way out and it was obvious that Waterford were struggling in the half-back line. Jamie Coughlan added another score and it was he who was given the freedom of the park to stroll through the half-backs and around the full-backs and drill the ball past Stephen O’Keeffe. It was bad, even if only because they didn’t chop him down when it was clear he was motoring.
I was seriously worried at this point that we were going to be stuffed. The fate of the underage teams in recent weeks has added to the fear of 5-31 style results and missed efforts from Mullane and Shanahan, the latter from a free that had the Cork intelligentsia on the Town End whooping with delight, added to the sense of impending doom. You need someone strong in the circumstances, and who currently competing in London is more citius than Tony Browne who landed a long-range free to steady a few nerves. I’m going to save a few superlatives for the inevitable retirement post.
It helps as well when management do something clever and around this time John Mullane moved out to the middle of field allowing Waterford to staunch the loss of blood in that part of the game. Kevin Moran flexed a few muscles, a thunderous clearance allowing Shane Walsh to bat the ball to Maurice Shanahan for a score then another fine effort from Moran, this time a rampaging run, caused consternation in the heart of the Cork defence before Maurice Shanahan opted to tap the ball over. A super effort from Paudie Mahony from under the stand reduced the gap still further. Points had been exchanged from frees but Mullane’s bossing of the midfield continued to keep Cork on the back foot and a wonderful catch allowed him to set up Stephen Molumphy for the equalising score from distance.
It scarcely seemed believable, all done with an economy of effort – no wild pulls, no rushed shots, no crappy wides – that would have done the great Waterford teams of yore proud. It is perhaps typical of our low expectations that when Cork reacted to Shanahan putting Waterford ahead from an easy free by retaking the lead themselves, Cian McCarthy scoring a great point from out wide then Horgan knocking over a simple free just before half-time, I was still thrilled with the way things had panned out. We were dead and buried. Now a hammering was improbable. How’s that for a glass-half-full way of looking at things?
The half-time buzz on the terrace was about the remarkable sight of John Mullane out in the middle of the field. It seemed blatantly obvious now that you were looking at it – employ Mullane’s incredible ball-winning skills in the heart of the action where they could do the most damage. When Cork midfielder Daniel Kearney was replaced at half-time, I couldn’t suppress a snort of indignation as the thought rose up that someone was being sent on to dish out some timber to our new Lory Meagher. This was (mostly) a jestful thought, and in fairness to Michael Ryan and co it wasn’t a long-term strategy. Just as playing the best centre-back in the country at centre-forward during the League was never a runner, playing the best corner-forward of his generation in the midfield was a nice wildcard, but Cork would be wise to it now so it made sense to revert to normal for the start of the second half. The point was emphasised early on as Thomas Ryan went from being anonymous to actively poor, making a hash of a splendid through-ball from Seamus Prendergast. Oh, for Mullane to have had that chance. He was taken off and Eoin McGrath came on, a decision that made me frown. Had Gavin O’Brien been so bad in the Munster final that he was being ignored in favour of what not so much a blast from the past as a mild breeze from the Stone Age?
The early exchanges had been even enough, Cian McCarthy scoring a fine point from range only for Walsh to manufacture a great score at the right end and Shanahan to level matters after Molumphy had eschewed all efforts at finesse by barrelling through the Cork defence and earning a rather soft-free. Horgan restored Cork’s lead after being set up by the evergreen Seán Óg Ó hAilpín before Walsh nearly engineered a goal from nothing, his tap-down producing a half-chance for McGrath and the follow-up from Walsh ending up in the side netting. It would have been an astonishingly good goal to have gone in, but it was a sign that Walsh was well on his game and he demonstrated it again as he came deep shortly after Shanahan pointed from a 65 to put Waterford in front.
Now recall all the blarney at the top about channeling the spirit of chav mercenaries and fantasies that would have put Gerard Manley Hopkins to shame. It was all nonsense of course, but the feelings were real enough and now Waterford were about to put together a period of play that was tangibly real. Allied with the dreams, hope swelled in my heart, not just about this game but about the possible ending of 53 years of hurt. A point from Paudie O’Sullivan levelled matters but Waterford were clearly on top. The full-back line looked unperturbed, Moran and Molumphy were driving forward at every opportunity, Paudie Mahony was now looking like the summer hurler we always hoped he could become, Shanahan was keeping the frees ticking over, Walsh was a hair-trigger ready to wound Cork at every opportunity and Mullane . . . he was Mullane. A super solo effort from Mahony put us in front, Shanahan engineered and scored from a free and a point of impudent genius from right in the corner by Himself put Waterford three points clear with only fifteen minutes to go. I didn’t just think we had a chance. I thought we had them.
It’s easy to see what went wrong in retrospect, although even at the time things happened that dented such a feeling of confidence. Shane Walsh going off to be replaced by Shane Casey was worrying. Shanahan missed a decent free chance and Mullane hit a wide when perhaps there were better options available. Either would have been the insurance score. Okay, there was still plenty of time to go but in a relatively low-scoring affair it would have been advantageous to put Cork in a position where they might feel the need to go for goals. What had happened though, and you would have needed to have been a soothsayer to have seen it coming, was that Cork had emptied their bench in the manner of a baseball team determined to start a fight. It was one-part desperation on Jimmy Barry Murphy’s part, two-parts plan – the players that came on could not have been plucked randomly from the team sheet. But whatever it was, the contrast between the quality of the fresh legs Waterford brought on was stark. Cathal Naughton – remember how he broke our hearts in 2006? Will we ever forget? – got a fine point then we had to rely on a fantastically composed piece of goalkeeping from Stephen O’Keeffe to prevent a Cork goal. There was one more moment when Waterford could have landed a sledgehammer blow, Kevin Moran’s pinpoint clearance should have created a two-on-one situation but McGrath couldn’t take the ball and the chance was gone and with it, were we only to know it, the match.
Cork were now totally on top and everywhere there seemed to be a red jersey with a number 2 on its back. Waterford were forced to drag down Luke O’Farrell to prevent a goal chance and Horgan slotted over the free. O’Farrell put over a score himself after another great run from Naughton and the teams were level. Horgan and Naughton added two more points and we were two points down only three minutes after being ahead by that much.
Amidst the turmoil, Tony Browne departed to be replaced by Richie Foley. I managed to get arsey that the Cork fans didn’t afford him the standing ovation that the Tipperary fans had done in the Munster final but I quickly realised this showed the game was probably still on. In previous years I’ve scoffed at any suggestions that he might be about to pack it in and I’ve been proven right. Now I think this might be it. To play into your forties just doesn’t seem possible, even for him.
Ó hAilpín struck a blow for old men with a point and after Horgan and Shanahan swapped points from frees we needed a goal. Casey had a chance to pull the trigger but inexplicably opted to bat the ball towards goal and it went harmlessly wide. There was a half-chance for McGrath which bobbled out for a 65 although everyone had eyes for the sight of Mullane in heap with a Cork back. Had he been fouled? We had no way of knowing and the 65 was still to come so there wasn’t time to get bitter over it. Foley took it and it was clearly too high but hit the post and bounced into the one part of the small square where there wasn’t a Waterford forward loitering with intent. The clearance was whipped out for a sideline ball and the ref, perhaps hedging his bets over the Mullane incident, allowed the sideline to be taken but it was blocked and that was that.
Being the world’s greatest fatalist, it says much about Waterford’s performance that I was convinced we’d close it out when we so purposefully hit the front midway through the second half. It seemed to me that barring a calamitous fluke, Cork were not going to get the goal they needed. We had looked so good, but I hadn’t banked on Cork being able to bring on a number of players who were almost as good as what was on the pitch – perhaps even better, some of them are bound to start against Galway. And it’s worrying for the future that we can’t match that ability to blitz teams with fresh legs. Still, we’re still a good team and even if we can’t match the likes of Cork from 1 to 15 we have talented hurlers. Stay competitive, and maybe we’ll have our Chelsea moment after all.
Waterford: Stephen O’Keeffe, Noel Connors, LiamLawlor, Stephen Daniels, Tony Browne (0-1f; Richie Foley), Michael Walsh, Kevin Moran, Stephen Molumphy (0-1), Philip Mahony, Maurice Shanahan (0-9, 0-6f, 0-1 65), Seamus Prendergast (0-1), Pauric Mahony (0-3), John Mullane (0-2), Shane Walsh (0-2; Shane Casey), Thomas Ryan (Eoin McGrath)
Cork: Anthony Nash, Shane O’Neill, Stephen McDonnell, Brian Murphy, Tom Kenny, Eoin Cadogan (John Gardiner), Seán Óg Ó hAilpín (0-1), Daniel Kearney (Darren Sweetnam), Pa Cronin (0-2), Niall McCarthy (Cathal Naughton, 0-2), Cian McCarthy (0-3; Lorcan McLoughlin), Jamie Coughlan (1-1; Stephen Moylan), Paudie O’Sullivan (0-2), Luke O’ Farrell (0-1), Patrick Horgan (0-7, 0-4f)
HT: Waterford 0-11 (11) Cork 1-9 (12)
Referee: Barry Kelly (Westmeath)