I’ve been quite sanguine about the reality of being relegated. There are still some decent games in there, and you think we’d be more likely to see a couple of wins than in the top flight. What was the worst that could happen? Well, we could only have two home games and the matches against Wexford and Limerick, the most obvious rivals for promotion, would both be away from home.
|14/02/2015||Division 1B||Limerick venue||Waterford||Limerick||
|21/02/2015||Division 1B||Waterford venue||Waterford||Laois||
|08/03/2015||Division 1B||Offaly venue||Waterford||Offaly||
|15/08/2015||Division 1B||Waterford venue||Waterford||Antrim||
|22/03/2015||Division 1B||Wexford venue||Waterford||Wexford||
Oh dear . . .
Stephen Bennett is the symbol of all our hopes and fears for the recent past, present, and near-to-medium-term future of Waterford hurling.
Before looking at that click-baiting statement in more detail, let’s look at our current position. By any objective measure, Waterford went backwards in 2014. After being hot favourites for relegation in each of the previous years of the six-team division format in the National League, we fell through the trapdoor just when people were hesitant about tipping us to fall through the trapdoor because we kept on refusing to fall through the trapdoor. We went out at the same stage of the Senior championship, but there was a difference between the manner in which we nearly picked Kilkenny’s pocket in 2013 and how we clung on to the coattails of a Wexford team who would have been knackered after their efforts against Clare in the previous weeks in 2014. There were striking parallels between the efforts of the Minors over the two years – won a titanic Munster semi-final, lost to Limerick after a replay in the Munster final, went toe-to-toe with Kilkenny for 60 minutes – but while it was certainly a valiant effort, it was still a step backwards overall.
Although not half as big a step as the Under-21’s. While mulling this over, I had the thought that the loss to Cork this year was worse than the 2011 Munster final, worse than the 2008 All-Ireland final, worse than the 1998 Munster final replay. Now that it’s come to writing it, I realise that is ridiculous. However, in each of those cases we went into the game with modest expectations, and while we found we had much to be modest about it helped dull the pain. We also had events that followed that lifted the spirit: a homecoming for the ages in 2008 and thumping wins over Galway in 1998 and 2011. There was no such backlash in 2014 for the Under-21’s, merely the added dismay of watching Clare demonstrate that Cork really were no great shakes. It has been a bad year, and subsequent results have only made it feel worse.
So what has all this got to do with Stephen Bennett? Each of his interactions with the three panels spoke volumes about where we are at and where we are going. His absence from the Minor team could be reasonably said to have proven fatal to their chances. I can hear the chorus line telling me that every county has to face up to the loss of most of the Under-18’s each year, but I say it as a positive, not a negative. Despite losing so many players, Waterford still put up a great show. While one Munster title and one All-Ireland isn’t a spectacular return for our five Munster final appearances, it has been a period of high competitiveness in the province, with Clare and Limerick both winning titles as well as ourselves. Even in 2014 there is great satisfaction to be taken out of lowering the Banner on two occasions, showing that a county that has gotten it so right at underage level as to win three Under-21 Munster titles in a row is not able to live with us at Minor level. We are clearly doing something right ourselves – the chairman of the Wexford County Board said as much – and it should be something to be excited about.
Despite not being in the Minor panel then – in fact, precisely because he wasn’t – Stephen Bennett casts them in a good light. The problems start when you move to the levels where is eligible. The most alarming thing about the Under-21’s and the Seniors is how both seem to be following the same strategy, i.e. keeping possession at all costs, exemplified by the effective abandonment of the full-forward line. Derek McGrath and Peter Queally were rivals for the post of Senior manager last year, and Queally (in)famously had little preparation time with the Under-21 panel. Given that, it would have been reasonable to expect him to adopt very different policies with regard to the team. Instead we had the Waterford Under-21 team run out in a game where they were warm favourites and proceed to stink the place out with the defeatist mentality that had characterised the Seniors, culminating in the horror show which saw a short puck-out intercepted by Alan Cadogan to allow him to bury the tie, only moments after we had had our hopes raised when Cork were reduced to 14 men. It’s a sound idea, having integration between the various levels of the game. We seem to be sharing ideas between the worst-performing levels though, while the best one stands in glorious isolation.
Compounding all this was the curious use of Stephen Bennett – yep, I’m finally getting to the point. At half-time in the Under-21 game, my brother and I were casting our eyes over the panel when our collective short-sighted eyes squinted their way towards the name of Bennett on the bench. With Gleeson, Kevin Daly, and M’s Harney and Kearney all making the step-up from the All-Ireland winners, it was a surprise to see the star of the team on the bench. It’s always possible that he hadn’t impressed in training or was jaded after the long slog of a winter with Ballysaggart. But that wouldn’t explain why, when Waterford were seeking a Clark Kent to explode out of a phone box, it was Bennett to whom they turned. And as if the parallels in terms of strategies between the two adult panels were not enough, Bennett was also kept under wraps by Derek McGrath until the situation was at its most dire against Wexford. Both changes reeked of desperation, and it’s surely a bit unfair to heap so much pressure on those young shoulders. Successfully blending the new talent into the Senior panel is essential to our future, and in fairness the performances of Messrs Gleeson, de Búrca and Dunford suggest it’s not all doom and gloom on that score, but the first steps for Stephen Bennett have not been the stuff of inspiration.
The message from the last couple of years are clear. We’re going gangbusters at Minor level and making a total hash of it at Under-21 and Senior level. That’s where we’re at. Where are we going, and how can we get to where we want to get? That’s for another day.
I’ve seen this play before. A traditional hurling county, after a long period of underachievement, suddenly (to those not reading the signs) hits their stride. A raw young team engages in series of matches where they repeatedly dominate their opponents only to repeatedly struggle to put said opponents away. They thrill the neutral and energise their own county, so long used to mediocrity or worse. Yep, Wexford 2014 are comparable to Waterford 1998.
Where that leaves Waterford 2015 remains to be seen.
As a long-standing advocate of the back door, this game typified what is best about the system. It gives counties who rarely get the chance to play each other an opportunity to do so in a venue appropriate to the occasion. It was a real pleasure to see the stand full to the rafters at Nowlan Park. Such pleasure quickly evaporated when it became clear that the Wexford faithful outnumbered us by a factor of probably 3:1. A cynic might question the use of ‘faithful’ there as there can’t have been many of these people present this time last year in Thurles when each Wexford score when they ran Clare to extra-time – another play I’ve seen somewhere else – last year was greeted with barely a ripple. You might think that. I, on the other hand, couldn’t possibly comment.
The early exchanges didn’t suggest that the Wexford support had called this one right as points were quickly exchanged between Shane Walsh and Podge Doran. What they did suggest was the Waterford support who had thrown their hat at it in exasperation at the tactics being employed by Derek McGrath and co were justified as the short puckouts that were such a blight on the midweek game against the Cork Under-21’s were quickly in evidence and quickly causing grief as Wexford pounced on the looseness for Paul Morris to slot over. A cheap free won from a sideline ball allowed Pauric Mahony to level matters but Wexford, while occasionally guilty of over-elaboration, were getting possession and over-elaboration isn’t so bad when it leads to a score as it did for a fine effort by Conor McDonald. Waterford were already having to shoot on sight to compensate for the all-too-frustrating lack of bodies in the full-forward line, Austin Gleeson slashing aimlessly at one effort from distance while Mahony was unlucky to see an even longer effort also go wide.
Not that Wexford were immune to poor shooting. History tells us that it’s a curse down there, and it was well punished by Waterford as Jake Dillon did land one from distance. Wexford worked another point for McDonald and then had all the time in the world to put Paul Morris in the clear for simple tap-In goal. It was sign of the alarm in the Waterford ranks that when Colin Dunford’s great solo run ended in him being hauled down for a penalty, there was never any question that Waterford should go for anything other than goal. We were surely going to need it. Gleeson’s effort was poor, visible even from the other end of the ground, and it felt like a good result that it was knocked out for a 65 which Mahony duly converted. Not long afterwards Shane Walsh was called ashore. Given the litany of injuries he has had, one wonders whether we have seen the last of him, which added another downbeat layer to our papier-maché model of misery.
While Wexford were cocky – their fans around us seemed so, at least – and Waterford’s negativity was given our support gas, the game had yet to ignite. If Wexford couldn’t ram home their advantage then Waterford still had a chance. There was a glimmer of a chance on the break for Waterford which led to a Wexford back committing a professional foul rather than let anything in and Mahony was able to reduce the gap. Then Liam Lawlor went on a fine run but his pass to Jake Dillon asked way too much of him and Wexford were able to clear. The next Wexford attack was immensely frustrating for Waterford, repeatedly spurning chances to clear and Wexford were eventually able to score and keep the goal lead. It was only at this point that the penny dropped with me that Michael Walsh was playing in the midfield and Kevin Moran at centre-back. There’s me complaining all year about dodgy line-ups and then I miss a move like this. What was it in aid of? It wasn’t wrong in the style of playing Walsh at full-back in the 2011 Munster final, but it didn’t add to the team, akin to swapping your bishops before a chess game. It could have been either player who teed up Mahony with a super break, and it could have been any one of the Waterford forwards who shot weakly wide.
It did indicate a way out for Waterford though – stop shooting from distance, start having the backs and midfield get forward and squeezing the Wexford backs who were having it so easy up to this point. Getting more in their faces allowed Gleeson to pounce on a loose ball to cut the gap to one, then he benefited from a run from deep by Shane Fives to slot over another score to level matters. It required a lot of the backs, something that would be significant later, but for the moment it was an amazingly quick turnaround, especially when a Mahony free left Waterford ahead, almost completely against the run of the play in the first half hour. A stunning long-range shot from Dillon showed Waterford were now on top.
This is probably unfair on the management, but it looked as if it were the players, particularly Walsh and Moran, who had wrought this change, talent reacting to changing circumstances. Wexford got one back but Walsh and Moran immediately combined to release Gleeson for another score. You could see Waterford tails were now up, Noel Connors making life miserable for Liam Óg McGovern and forcing him to hit a poor wide. The capacity for self-destruction was still there though for Waterford. The ref picked up on a jersey tug when it seemed like Wexford were going nowhere, and Waterford literally put most of the team back on the line for the free so Wexford were happy to take the point. That was as nothing compared to those goddamn bloody insane maddening short puckouts, and Waterford were once again caught out to allow Wexford to level matters. Then again, what was the point of hitting the ball long when Gleeson, upon winning the puckout, had to go backwards to the corner-back? There’s only so many times you can drive forward like Waterford were doing and right at the end of the first half, disaster struck. I was convinced that Lawlor had his hurley tugged as he approached the dropping ball. Whether it was that or a moment of lost concentration, Wexford were right in around the back and Conor McDonald could score with ease. Now it was Wexford’s turn to have their tails up, and we had reason to be grateful for a couple of shocking wides that there was just a goal in it at half-time.
We had had our moments, but could we get goals? There were hopeful signs in the early exchanges in the second half, Matthew O’Hanlon brilliantly cutting out a long pass in the first attack and Dillon hesitating when he had a small opening and was blocked by several defenders who managed to get back. Wexford showed no such hesitation at the other end as Doran lashed a puckout straight over the bar, then David Redmond galloped down the middle of the field unopposed to drill home Wexford’s third goal.
What a shambles. Surely the benefit of being negative is that you don’t have to worry about being sliced up like that? I was seriously worried at this stage that this was going to be a complete bust, and had Wexford scored with their next effort on goal it might well have done, but O’Keeffe somehow flung himself to his left to keep out the goalbound effort. Two changes immediately after a poor Mahony wide from a free, including the obvious arrival of Seamus Prendergast, showed the sense of desperation. It had the desired effect though. Mahony got one from a free and then Waterford managed to get that elusive goal. It was a cracking piece of play from Kevin MoRAN, as the presenter on Sky Sports News would refer to him, playing a pinpoint ball across to Dunford to score. Seamus teed up Gleeson to trim the gap to two, and after Wexford hit a 65 Dunford really gave them a right kick in the crotch, emerging with the ball after a magnificent pileup in the square and unbelievably we were ahead.
What an effort, but that was the thing – the effort. Are Waterford not prepared properly, or are they not good enough to the extent that they had to burn through 70 minutes of energy to keep in touch after 50? Wexford reacted quickly with two points to regain the lead, the first of the efforts a goalbound effort that was deflected over for a goal. Dunford kept up the good fight by drawing a foul, but Mahony could only send another free wide.
At the other end Noel Connors was left exposed and had to give away a foul. This drew a yellow card from the ref and rather crass cheers from the Wexford fans. Anything I say about the Wexford fans will be dismissed as sour grapes, and that’s the reader’s prerogative. The huge Wexford crowd was part of the story here though, so I think I’m entitled to some latitude. There sure is something to be said for the wisdom of crowds, and the size of the Wexford one told us that they could see something was a-brewing with this team, which is great after so many years in the doldrums. Still, did they have to bring everyone in the county who had never attended a GAA match? It seemed like every wide was greeted with a big cheer, a breach of rule number one: don’t celebrate the score until you see the green/white flag. Was I imagining all this? Possibly, although the loon who had been necking a bottle of Jägermeister throughout the game picked up on it too, yelling “YEESS!” at a particularly inappropriate time to chuckles from everyone around. He did it again moments later. There were no laughs. Tough crowd.
Such blather prevents me from facing up to the reality. It was a one score game, but Waterford were shot. Wexford stretched the lead to three when a sniff of a chance was pounced on by corner-back Liam Ryan who roared down the field to set up the point and lift every yellow belly in the ground, veteran and ingénue alike. Stephen Molumphy showed the benefit of fresh legs with a flying score, but it was going to take something improbable to save us. Stephen Bennett certainly fits into the subset of those capable of the improbable and he came on just as he had in the Under-21 game, so much pressure on such young shoulders.
A little luck also helps, as the ref played a ridiculous advantage when Wexford would probably have looked for the free and the ‘advantage’ ended up hitting the outside of the post. We were going to need oodles of it, and got some more when O’Keeffe stepped past a dropping ball and the defence somehow kept it out. Even more luck came in the form of some abysmal Wexford shooting. The game had completely broken down at this stage and it meant that there was a slim chance we could pick their pocket. Molumphy and Bennett each had half-chances but Wexford managed to close them down and force the wide. As the game ticked into the last couple of minutes Bennett had better than half a chance, but Ryan was there again to block and clear. A late chance to drop it in drifted wide and with that they finally got to the finish line with us still clinging to their coattails.
Seven minutes into the second half and seven points down, I really feared a pounding like we had endured against Cork. It didn’t happen, and for that we have reason to be relieved. The loss to Cork at Under-21 was far more grievous. And while I couldn’t help having a wry cut at Wexford above, it was gratifying to see them enjoying a win over Waterford with such gusto. We ain’t dead yet. We might be soon, but we ain’t dead yet.
Waterford: Stephen O’Keeffe, Shane Fives, Liam Lawlor (Stephen Bennett), Noel Connors, Darragh Fives, (Stephen Molumphy, 0-1), Kevin Moran, Tadhg de Búrca, Michael Walsh (capt), Paudie Prendergast, Shane O’Sullivan, Pauric Mahony (0-7, 0-6f, 0-1 65; Martin O’Neill), Austin Gleeson (0-3), Colin Dunford (2-1), Shane Walsh (0-1; Gavin O’Brien), Jake Dillon (0-2; Seamus Prendergast)
Wexford : Mark Fanning, Liam Ryan, Matthew O’Hanlon (capt), Keith Rossiter (Willie Devereux; Ian Byrne, 0-1), Andrew Shore, Eoin Moore, Ciarán Kenny, David Redmond (1-0; Garrett Sinnott), Lee Chin, Paul Morris (1-6, 0-3f), Podge Doran (0-2), Harry Kehoe (Diarmuid O’Keeffe, 0-1) Jack Guiney (0-1), Conor McDonald (1-2), Liam Óg McGovern (0-2; Rory Jacob)
HT: Waterford 0-12 (12) Wexford 2-9 (15)
Referee: Colm Lyons (Cork)
Among all the Senior, Minor and Under-21 Championship & National League matches that I have seen Waterford play live, last Wednesday’s Under-21 loss to Cork was the most disappointing result of the lot.
It’s often said that Waterford perform at their best when they are underdogs. This is despite us usually losing games where we are underdogs because, well, it’s correctly assumed before the game that we’re not as good as the opposition. What people mean when they say we perform better as underdogs is that the tag of favourites brings with it expectations that are very hard for Waterford to fulfill. And against Cork, that hit us with a vengeance. A combination of factors before the game suggested this might be Waterford’s day after four successive first-game knockouts at Under-21 level. We were at home, we had shown last year against Clare that we could compete at this level against the eventual All-Ireland champions, and we had a formidable combination of players with Senior experience and Minor All-Ireland-winning flair. To hell with the tag of underdogs, the time had come to embrace the tag of favourites and play like it.
Now there was a plan of battle that didn’t survive contact with the enemy. The worst thing is that the enemy was the one within. The first half showed that Waterford could certainly compete on a man-to-man basis. The outstanding performer on the field was Alan Cadogan, but this was not unexpected. Austin Gleeson wasn’t far behind and the Waterford backs were well on top. So on top that we were wondering why they felt the need to play with such a defensive lineup. Yep, in an example of that BS phrase so beloved of management gurus, Waterford were engaging in some vertical integration between Senior and Under-21 levels. Forwards dropping off to win possession and playing short passes around the back to keep that possession. Most players were competing well, the depredations of Cadogan being the exception and sometimes you have to accept your punishment in the manner other teams had to cope with John Mullane. It felt like gilding the lily to persist with these tactics when simply trusting the players seemed a more optimal plan.
And in one horrible second-half minute the gap between the expectations generated by the talent on the field and the reality of their application was brutally exposed. In fairness the game was probably already slipping away by the time Cork went down to 14 men, the umpires spotting a straight-red swipe on Gleeson. There was a five-point gap with only 18 minutes to go and Waterford hadn’t shown enough of a goal threat to suggest they might turn that around. But having seen the game against Clare last year slip away thanks to a red card, here was a reason to hope we might be the beneficiaries of such a decision this year. Cue the bad karma of that short passing game, particularly the evil of the short puckouts. Goalie hits the ball to back, back has his pass across the field intercepted, Cork pounce for a goal, the optimism generated by the red card is immediately snuffed out, and a county that have played in five provincial Minor finals in six years finds itself unable to produce a result at Under-21 level for the fifth year on the bounce.
The despair in Walsh Park was palpable, something you can see in the bleakness on boards.ie. It can’t have been a coincidence that both Derek McGrath and Peter Queally are adopting this dispiriting, demoralising, and borderline unforgivable mode of play. Barring an astonishing volte-face on the part of management, one for which Wednesday night is evidence of why it should happen and evidence of why it won’t, Waterford are going to go through the same motions tonight. Set against stories of Wexford selling out their (stand) allocation, we have veterans like Giveitfong talking of not going for fear of what might befall us thanks to the “crazy and self-destructive tactics”. I’ll be there, but after Wednesday night hope is on life support.
(originally posted on boards.ie)
This Waterford minor hurling team should be called the “Comeback Kids”, as in each of their games to date they have saved the day with a late scoring surge. However, if they have any ambitions of winning titles they will have to produce more consistent high intensity throughout their games.
In the first game against Clare they played second fiddle for 50 minutes and if Clare’s shooting hadn’t been so wayward they would have been out of sight before Waterford finally roused themselves. In the second game against Clare Waterford were played off the pitch by 14 men for 20 minutes in the second half but the lead they had built up in the first half meant that Clare were within reach when the late surge came.
Yesterday in Cork they were seven points behind when the surge began, but it still took a goal in injury time to get the draw. If Limerick had converted even half of their nine second-half wides there would have been no way back. While the overall wide count was similar for both sides (Limerick 11; Waterford 10) a lot of Waterford’s six first-half wides resulted from balls being overhit with wind assistance and running harmlessly out over the end line – in other words they were not clearcut scoring chances like the ones Limerick missed.
Waterford have shown in patches in all three games that they can play excellent hurling. However, they have to gain possession first, and that has been their problem. At half-time yesterday I said to my companions that Waterford had the hurlers but not the required intensity. Limerick were sharper, more alert and quicker off the mark all over the field. They were also more physical both in tackling and taking tackles.
However, when the alarm bells started ringing with ten minutes to go, Waterford finally raised their game and took control all over the field. It may be that Waterford were simply fitter, but my own guess is that, due to their earlier lack of application, they had more left in the tank in the closing stages while Limerick’s earlier exertions left them unable to contain the Waterford surge.
The Waterford defence also seemed to be upset by the constant interchanging of the Limerick forwards and at times the players did not seem sure who was supposed to be marking whom. There was also a lot of confusion over puckouts, several of which went straight to unmarked Limerick players. Waterford players were making runs expecting balls which never came. There also seemed to be a concentration in the second half on hitting puckouts to Shane Bennett which wasn’t working out (just as there was an overconcentration on targetting Cormac Curran against Clare in Dungarvan which also did not work as it was too predictable).
Last year Limerick unexpectedly moved their freetaker Ronan Lynch from full forward to centre back for the replayed Munster final and it proved a master move as Lynch was the dominant figure in the Limerick victory. While Lynch also played at centre back in this year’s semi-final against Cork and was named in this position for the final, he actually played in midfield where again he had a major influence on the game, scoring three points from play.
I thought Waterford’s decision to start two physically small players with similar styles (Darragh Lyons and Andy Molumby) in midfield was the wrong mix – even though both players did a lot of good work – and Conor Gleeson seemed to have a substantial impact when he was switched to the midfield area.
However, the key switch was that which brought Cormac Curran to full forward midway through the second half. Curran actually started at full forward but was unable to gain possession from several high balls which were sent in to him, and he was then switched out to wing forward where he improved somewhat but was still not imposing himself on the game.
I have always felt that full forwards actually do better when playing against the wind as the incoming ball holds up giving the target recipient more of a chance to get in position to challenge for it (and even if the ball is missed it is not inclined to run over the end line). When Curran did move back to the edge of the square he did really well in gaining possession or otherwise causing panic in the opposing rearguard. He scored the goal which launched the comeback. Although he missed the high incoming ball, Patrick Curran was right behind him and did really well when he dived to get hold of the bouncing ball near the ground and then hand-pass back to the inrushing Cormac who finished to the net.
Patrick Curran got his injury in this incident when his marker fell on him, driving his knee into Curran’s back. First reports indicate that the injury is not severe, and hopefully he will be okay for the replay.
Cormac Curran then set up the equalising goal when he superbly flicked an incoming ball to Shane Ryan on his right, with the team captain finishing expertly to the net. Cormac had previously been unlucky when, after Shane Bennett’s 20 metre free was blocked out, he got a great flick on the loose ball only for someone on the line to somehow keep it out. Bennett, who played amazingly well given his recent hand injury, deserves great credit for the way he nailed a late free from out on the right sideline (after Patrick Curran got injured) to reduce the deficit to three points paving the way for Shane Ryan’s equalising goal.
While the overall team performance was rather uneven, I thought that Michael Cronin did well at left corner back and Colm Roche had a good second half at centre back. Andy Molumby, Peter Hogan and Aaron O’Sullivan all paid their way with two points apiece. For the replay I would be inclined to move Shane Bennett back to wing back where he was so effective last year. I think Eddie Meaney is due a start in the half forward line, perhaps with Conor Gleeson moving to midfield and Darragh Lyons to centre forward (with a roving role). Meaney could also come in at midfield, where he did well in a recent challenge against Dublin.
There is a lot of quality in this team and they definitely have what it takes to win the replay, but they need to hit the ground running and to stay running right to the end.
How good are Wexford? It’s a question that throws up a lot of variables after their thrilling 180-minute brawl with Clare. The amount of times they had to go to the well and still came out ahead of the All-Ireland champions tells us that this was no fluke. They are back-to-back Leinster Under-21 winners for a reason, and will take some beating next Saturday.
On other hand . . . what the hell was that?! When Waterford were trying to make the breakthrough back in the late 90’s, it often felt like we needed to be four or five points better than the opposition just to break even. Wexford’s performance against Clare was this mentality turned up to 11. In both matches they found themselves with twin advantages that you’d normally expect to be decisive, ten points and a man up in the first game in Ennis and two men up yesterday in Wexford, and on neither occasion could they make those advantages stick. Even the satisfaction of finally getting over the line having played 15 v 15 in extra time should be tempered by the reality that the Clare dirty baker’s dozen were really dirty, really knackered after a quite Herculean second half had seen them somehow cling on to Wexford’s coattails. Liam Dunne routinely displayed a curious contempt for Waterford in his newspaper column over the years, always seeing us a soft touch to anyone looking for a morale-boosting win. Having dispatched the All-Ireland champions Wexford will be favourites, but if Derek McGrath isn’t drumming into his panel that these guys are more brittle than a poppadom lacework, he’s not doing his job right.
Before then, we have the underage teams attempting to keep alive the dream of the last county who have a chance of winning an All-Ireland hurling treble, a statement that manages to be both totally factual and utterly meaningless at the same time. For the second year running the Minors enter the lions den of a match against a Limerick team who will be bolstered by the presence of a large contingent following their Seniors. It’s always hard to predict with Minors, the teams being so different from one year to the next, but that quasi-home advantage still applies and the sense of injustice that is surely still smouldering in Limerick over the Hawk-Eye debacle can also be transmitted from one set of young fellas to the next. While the day has not yet arrived where we can blasé about a Munster underage title – seven hurling cups in our entire history – the fact that defeat today wouldn’t be the end of the road does take the edge off proceedings. More interesting is the prospect of a tilt at the Under-21 title. Having given the eventual Munster and All-Ireland champions the biggest rattle they received last year, and with the chance to incorporate a smattering of last year’s Minors, is it too much to hope for that we might get it right after such a woeful record in recent times? Probably, but that won’t stop me hoping.
A final thought before the trouble begins. In order to clear the decks for televised coverage of the Clare-Tipperary semi-final, the Under-21’s of Waterford and Cork were initally due to play on Thursday. This meant the game was only two days before the Seniors were due to play Wexford. In a shocking outbreak of cop-on, the Under-21 match was brought forward 24 hours. You can imagine that, if they had been so inclined, Cork could have made it very difficult for this change to take place, a change that obviously benefited Waterford. Fair play to them for their sense of fair play. And that’s the last time you’ll ever read me saying that.
You could get used to this. Not the result. It goes without saying that that was worth the effort. And not the game. While it was hard-fought, honest contest played at a decent tempo, it was too error-strewn to be called anything other than mediocre. No, what you could get used to was being able to roll up to the ground less than an hour before throw-in and be back home less than an hour after the final whistle. One of the rarely mentioned virtues of the back door is how it creates the sense of a season, a summer of hurling which is available to more than just a select few.
What you’d never get used to is the early loading of gun and discharge in the toe area. Barely a minute on the clock and the first attack saw Stephen O’Keeffe take a step too far under the high ball/get cleaned out by the forward (delete according to preference) and drop it right in the path of Neil Foyle who had the simple task of tapping the ball into the empty net. With Waterford playing with what looked like a strong wind this was a dream start for Laois. They didn’t make much use of it though as Waterford were soon on top. It was obvious from even the first five minutes that Waterford were that bit more slick than their opponents. Passes were going to hand and any loose balls were being invariably mopped up by a player in white. A couple of frees from Pauric Mahony, one from way out, soothed the early nerves.
Less relaxing was Waterford’s battle plan. The two-man forward line was back, as were the ‘targeted’ puck-outs. The former quickly made its presence felt in the form of Shane Walsh finding himself moving in on goal with absolutely no support and was eventually hustled out of it and it took Michael Walsh, of all people, to take a shot that went wide. The latter wasn’t long in making an impact either as a short puck-out after a free had been scored by Laois was rattled back over the bar so quickly that I hadn’t even the time to lift my head after noting the previous score.
Frustrating stuff, and a third hair-tearing aspect of Waterford’s play would soon become evident, but not before a moment from Colin Dunford to bring the crowd to its feet. Picking up the ball out around the 45 near the sideline, there didn’t seem to be much on but he accelerated towards the endline and turned inside his man like he were on rails before popping it up to Shane Walsh to bat the ball into the net. He followed up that trick with a sensational point from right in front of us in the stand, and it didn’t seem unreasonable to think we’d kick on from there.
But ooh, that two/one/occasionally no-man full-forward line. I can kinda understand the logic of it against a superior outfit like Cork. Operating on the assumption that they’re better than us, it’s not a bad idea to go off piste in order to confuse them. However, there are two problems: 1) it’s a one-trick pony, Cork had us sussed early in the second and took us apart; and 2) it’s really not necessary against this quality of opposition. I’m not normally one for counting wides as I don’t see them all as being equal, If the ball bobbles out on the dry surface after trying to put a man in space in the corner, it’s not as bad as slashing at it from near the corner flag. But as they piled up, most of them of the dire variety, the frustration was getting to boiling point. Watching the Laois goalie carelessly bat a long ball away, safe in the knowledge that once he got it past Shane Walsh it would be safe as no other Waterford player would be within thirty metres, there was a danger of complete meltdown in the stands.
It needed the half-backs and midfield, completely dominant as they were, to take charge and run at the Laois backs and when they did it reaped the necessary reward. Kevin Moran and Dunford combined to put Laois on the back foot and overwhelming numbers finally told, the ball ricochetting to Shane Walsh to smack in goal number two. Now kick on, please?
Nope. Cue wide number nine, and there wasn’t even 25 minutes on the clock. Darragh Fives did hit over one long-range effort and Mahony slotted over another free to move the lead to five, but the pointlessness (pun unintended) of the tactics were so obvious that a change was finally made, Ryan Donnelly withdrawn for the target man that is Seamus Prendergast. There’s been a lot of stink on boards.ie over this, and it’s fair to say that it must have been chastening for Donnelly, especially given he never had a chance because of the tactics that were employed. He should get over it though. Hopefully there’ll be other opportunities, and the management showing the willingness to make changes rather than sticking to their spiked guns raises the likelihood of more chances for everyone in the future.
Waterford ended the half on the up, a couple of good points from distance on the run and a score from a soft free leaving the half-time score at double figures, but the reaction from the crowd at the whistles was far from jubilant. Had we been told before the game, or even a minute in when already a goal down, that we’d be eight points ahead at half-time I doubt if anyone would have turned their nose up at that. So what explains the grumbles? Normally I’d until the end of this to say where each team was at, but to understand the dismay in the stand/terraces you need to get straight to the spoilers. Laois were, to put it kindly, not the team that I had imagined them to be after the near miss against Galway. Not one of their players stood in the way that an established name like Kevin Moran would do, or even a young tyro like Colin Dunford did. Sure, they were well-drilled and kept their shape throughout, which is an advance on previous Laois outfits. But there wasn’t one moment in the game where I expected a Laois player to burn off his Waterford marker or a scramble for a loose ball to end with anything other than a Waterford player emerging with possession, and for a fatalist like me to feel that way is revealing. With that foundation, to be only eight points down was extremely flattering to Laois and everyone was rightly concerned, not only for what it said about how we’d fare against stronger teams, but also about possible late pileups in the square ending in disaster.
Laois made a couple of changes at half-time and they looked to be paying dividends as they got the first two scores, each completing the sandwich of yet another shocking wide which put the kibosh on any notion that the sun was distracting anyone shooting towards the Keanes Road end of the ground. It proved to be a short-lived spurt from Laois as Seamus Prendergast slotted over from a narrow angle then Shane O’Sullivan did well to draw a foul and give Mahony the chance to restore the eight-point lead. It didn’t ease the tension in the crowd though and when Tadgh de Búrca thought about taking a quick sideline cut the hysterical reaction from the Waterford support spoke volumes.
Anyone reading match reports from neutral observers, laden as they are with bland assurances of the inevitability of Waterford’s eventual success, may wonder what all the fuss is about. The source of the fuss is twofold. By trying to keep things tight, Waterford were only succeeding in making it messy. Playing a possession game, whether via lots of short puckouts or hand passes, created so many working parts that the chances of one of them failing increasingly approaches 1. When it works, it works well as some neat approach work between Seamus Prendegast and Michael Walsh produced a goal chance, the Laois goalie managing to deflect the danger away for a point. When it doesn’t work though it’s horrid as the next attack broke down when Darragh Fives opted to play a hospital pass out wide to the helpless Shane O’Sullivan that bounced apologetically out for wide.
The second concern was the fitness of the Waterford team and, potentially, that of their opponents. We have shown an alarming tendency to implode about three-quarters of the way through games in recent years, and with suggestions that Laois were prepared preceding them any Laois surge was going to give everyone a case of the heebie-jeebies. So it proved midway through the second half here as, having swapped a couple of points, one of which from Waterford the result of Shane Walsh scoring from a sideline ball when Darragh Fives simply walloped it up the field rather than trying anything funny, Laois suddenly went nap. An 11-point lead was reduced to six in a handful of minutes. When you see a puckout being intercepted and drilled back over the bar for the second time, then the goalie gets penalised for timewasting on the puckout and the next move sees him carry it out for a 65 that is duly converted, it was not unreasonable to fret that everything was about to go completely Pete Tong.
Thankfully for us, Laois couldn’t make it stick. That cardinal sin, a foul committed on Darragh Fives after the ball has gone, allowed Mahony to restore the three-score cushion, and when a chance for a point for Laois from a free went wide and was immediately punished by Waterford, first with a free of our own then a stunning score right from the puckout by Kevin Moran, Laois’s resistance was finally broken. The game petered out with a couple of points exchanged to leave Waterford winners by an unflattering ten points.
I’ve already given Laois the once-over, so what about Waterford? It was a desperate performance. Michael Ryan couldn’t resist putting the boot in to the effect that he can’t do anything once players cross the white line if they then can’t put the ball between the sticks, and he was right – but only up to a point. To hit so many wides, really bad wides, becomes a fault of management, especially when the strategy involves denying players the outlet of corner-forwards to pick off points. Is this a repeat of Davy’s plan in 2008 of sticking with a plan that wasn’t working – persisting with Ken McGrath at full-back – in the hope of perfecting it? It might be, but it’s an extraordinarily high-risk strategy so it’s surely it’s best to just trust in the players we have to get it right.
And there’s the positive from the Laois game. Before it, I was concerned that we were on the way down and our path was about to intersect with theirs on the way up. Well, they haven’t caught up with us yet. If hurling is a game of fourteen mini-battles then we, despite abdicating a few of them, came out on top in most of them here. The manner in which Kevin Moran swatted over the point that finally ended things showed we still have some players of the highest quality. Not enough to be winning things – but enough to keep us ticking over until the future arrives.
Waterford: Stephen O’Keeffe, Shane Fives, Liam Lawlor, Paudie Prendergast, Darragh Fives (0-1), Michael Walsh, Tadgh de Búrca, Kevin Moran (0-1), Shane O’Sullivan (Jamie Nagle), Jake Dillon (0-3), Pauric Mahony (0-11, 0-10f), Austin Gleeson (0-1; Gavin O’Brien, 0-2), Ryan Donnelly (Seamus Prendergast, 0-1), Shane Walsh (2-1; Martin O’Neill), Colin Dunford (0-1)
Laois: Eoin Reilly, John A Delaney, Brian Campion, Brian Stapleton (Darren Maher), Joe Fitzpatrick, Matthew Whelan (0-2 65), Tom Delaney, Dwane Palmer (Ciarán Collier), Paddy Purcell (John Purcell, 0-2), Joe Campion (0-1, James Walsh), Willie Hyland (0-5), Stephen Maher (0-2f; Ross King, 0-2f), Neil Foyle (1-0), Charles Dwyer (0-1), Tommy Fitzgerald
HT: Waterford 2-10 (16) Laois 1-5 (8)
Referee: Alan Kelly (Galway)
(originally posted on boards.ie)
I cannot get my head around what reasoning (if any) underpins Derek McGrath’s tactics and player selection and placement. Here we were playing Laois on our home pitch with a strongish wind behind us and we employ a sweeper (Tadhg de Búrca) behind our own half back line and a two-man (and frequently a one-man) full forward line. What was this about?
De Búrca got an ocean of free ball inside the Waterford 45 metre line but what was he supposed to do with it? There was little point hitting it long into the full forward line because time and again it came straight back, but with few other options this happened repeatedly.
Given that Laois only played with five forwards, I would have had de Búrca playing in his left half back position where he would have provided an added scoring threat (he is a fine long-distance ball striker) or been more constructive with his use of the ball.
To cover the area where de Búrca would normally be playing (left half back), Austin Gleeson – possibly our forward with greatest scoring potential – is brought back to occupy a position and play a role that is totally foreign to him, and from where he poses no scoring threat. His frustration and desperation were obvious with the two snatched second half shots which led to his substitution.
What role did McGrath envisage for Ryan Donnelly when he picked him? He has come to prominence as a goal-scoring danger man picking up ball around the goal and then using his strength and pace to get into scoring positions. Yet he spent most of his time out the field, again in a role that was foreign to him.
Replacing Donnelly with Seamus Prendergast made no sense at all. Shane Walsh had already done twice what he is very good at – scoring goals from the edge of the square. Yet the introduction of Prendergast meant that Walsh was displaced to the corner or further out the field.
Walsh and Prendergast are useful ball winners but both lack pace. In my view you can only afford to have one of them on the field at the same time. Furthermore, when they are on the field they should be located close to goal with a speedy forward always in close proximity to feed off passes or breaking ball. Pat Horgan got most of his points from play in the replay against Waterford by picking up breaking ball around the D in front of the large square and popping it over the bar. Last Saturday when high balls came into Shane Walsh he was almost always on his own apart from having two markers in close attention, one to knock the ball down and the other to clear it away.
At one stage in the first half last Saturday, Shane Walsh got the ball out near the corner flag and attempted to make his way in along the end line. There was no other Waterford player inside the 45 metre line with whom he could link up. More worryingly, there was no Waterford player busting a gut to get into the goal area to help out. And this is with Waterford playing with the wind?
McGrath’s use of Colin Dunford to mark the Laois sweeper also made little sense. With his pace and close control, Dunford should have been flitting around into space or looking for passes, and then using his great strength i.e. running at defenders. It would have made more sense to me to use Jake Dillon in the sweeper-marking role (if there had to be one).
It seems to me that the key ingredient in McGrath’s tactical approach is fear. His prime concern is to guard against perceived weaknesses rather than play to the players’ strengths. We have players coming out of successful under-age teams being presented with this negativity and inflexibility and being asked to perform roles that are foreign to them and making no use of their capabilities. We should be building up their confidence rather than telling them that they are not capable of slugging it out, man for man, with other teams (including Laois).
Besides, McGrath’s negative tactics have not prevented us from shipping several hidings already this year. Furthermore, Waterford are now totally predictable and easily targetted by other teams, as Cork showed in the replay. In any case, I believe that one of the key ingredients of a successful team is the ability of their forwards to play defensively i.e. stop the other team’s defenders from hitting free ball. It is hard to do this when the other team has one (if not two) free defenders to pick up loose ball or take passes.
In terms of playing to our strengths, I think we should be employing both Fives brothers further out the field. If/when Noel Connors comes back we should place Paudie Prendergast in the other corner, move Shane Fives out to half back or midfield and move Darragh Fives into the half forward line where we desperately need more ball-winning ability.
And what’s the story with Stephen Molumphy? He seemed to be back to full fitness when he came on as a second half sub in the Cork replay. He is a player that I would always have first in the team sheet for his work rate, ball winning ability and sheer cussedness. At first glance, in bringing on both Richie Foley and Jamie Nagle with five minutes to go, I thought that Derek McGrath was just making a token gesture. On reflection, was he sending out a message to Molumphy that he is not part of his plans? If that is the case, then my estimation of McGrath’s managerial abilities sinks even lower.