Given this blog’s utterly cack record in the predictions department, a little bit of forgiveness will need to be sought for bigging up the one observation that looks sound. Paul Flynn’s flat townie drawl and borderline stoner gaze makes him an unlikely candidate to be a successful TV panellist. So credit to RTÉ for giving him a chance, because his penchant for incisive analysis commented upon here shone through last night on Sunday Sport. It was clear he actually watched the game, picking up on important switches and personnel changes. This may sound obvious, but it stood in stark contrast to Michael Duignan’s the-boy-done-good patter. His reference to the 1988 League and how Kilkenny and Tipperary experienced different results in the final from the group stages spoke of either a geek’s love of facts or a willingness to do some research, either (or both) of which will stand him in good stead. With Babs Keating on the radio being his usual garrulous self, it was a good day for hurling comment.
And what of the match? It didn’t seem to matter until it looked like we we were about to dish out a Kilkenny-style beatdown. Then, when Cork began another one of those ridiculous comebacks that have characterised their recent efforts, it suddenly mattered. Of the last five inter-county matches involving the 2008 panel, they gave the opposition a big start on each occasion. Only once – against Kilkenny – did they fail to overhaul said lead. Were we going to be like Galway, Clare (twice) and Limerick before us and succumb to their indomitable spirit (however much you might loathe the clowns, you have to doff the cap to their never-say-die attitude), or were we going to be like Kilkenny and pile on the pain?
In the end, almost predictably, we were neither. It was good that we leapt out into a 13 point lead, it was bad that we let them back into it, it was good that we held on when the match approached Championship intensity in the last quarter – another thing Paul Flynn had the wit to pick up on. Two steps forward, one step back.
Say what you will about the Dirty Digger (and you will), Sky+ is a work of genius. Caught between the contradictory impulses to maintain this blog as some kind of semi-serious record of Waterford’s progress and the desire to forget about a sorry result yesterday in sodden Dungarvan, Rupert’s little box of tricks offered a get-out-of-jail-free card – simply rattle through the match at 30x speed. Isn’t everything brilliant?
Actually, it’s surprising what you can glean from such an exercise, especially set against the regular match reports that consist of umming and aahing between the goals because it’s impossible to create a coherent narrative when you’re wrapped up in the excitement. For a start, the quality was surprisingly good given the monsoon-like conditions. Watching it in fast-forward, there was little enough pulling-and-dragging and the game see-sawed with admirable regularity – perhaps a sign that it was a bit bloodless?
The game was also an advert for those who say that goals decide games. Galway’s goal, coming as it was when the sides were evenly matched, would prove significant. Point-for-point up until then, Waterford began to panic a wee bit when points couldn’t get them any closer to their opponents meaning each subsequent Galway score serving to tighten that logical noose. It was like a basketball match where the losers start going for three pointers allowing the winners to nonchalantly take two-points scores with their precious possession.
That was the impression anyway. Another one though was that Galway would have run away with it but for two very jammy goals. Has a player ever looked more sheepish than Eoin Kelly when the first one went in. Had that been the Championship, or even a League game with much at stake, he probably would have chopped down the posts in an effort to stay psyched up.
So once again we see the League’s capacity to be all things to all men. Win, great. Lose, meh. With relegation only marginally more likely than qualifying for the final, the last two games are going to be even more bloodless. Good luck to Davy Fitz trying to read anything into them. He might be better off watching them on Sky.
Team spirit is an illusion only glimpsed in victory
Davy Fitzgerald’s confession that Waterford may have been sufficiently distracted by the events in the Point (or whatever it’s called these days) to the point that they couldn’t concentrate on the thing that they had gone to Dublin for, i.e. playing Dublin, must rank as one of the great cop-outs of our time. Had Waterford scored a late goal or managed a mere two points extra over the course of 70 minutes then he would have been crowing about the success of their morale-building exercise.
The truth is that Waterford had a bad day at the office, one they could have had whether they consumed a few too many scoops the night before or had retired to bed with a mug of cocoa after the news. Davy’s implication that, all other things being equal, we’d have beaten the Dubs if only the team had not gone to the boxing is a slap in the face to the Dubs and one that will be used for motivation should we meet them in the Championship this year. Then, if we beat them, Dublin will be accused of being too fired up and not focussed on simply playing hurling. And so on and so forth, ad nauseam . . .
Having recently expressed concern that the Waterford team might become calcified in the quest for League success, it would be remiss not to express approval at the changes to the Waterford team for the match against Dublin this Sunday.
Of Jerome Maher, I know nothing so I will refrain from commenting except to say it is good that someone, anyone, is getting a chance (although Noel Connors may wonder what he has done wrong). Of more interest are the selections right at the heart of the defence. Adrian Power has been earning rave reviews in the Ballyduff Upper goal so it’s about time he made an appearance. Goalkeepers are the stuff of mythology in soccer, which makes sense given the highly specialised role they occupy. This is much less true in Gaelic games where the goalie is a souped-up full back. Despite this, the cult of the goalie seems to have crossed over. Cork have effectively had only two goalies since Ger Cunningham made his debut back in 1981, while the Dublin football netminders are similarly monolithic. Clinton Hennessy still has first claim on the first shirt, but it’s no harm to keep him guessing.
Then there’s the full back. The relative failure of Tom Feeney to make that position his own shows that being a good hurler does not make you a good full back and one presumes that is the logic underlying playing Kearney there. And it would be entirely correct to note that the selectors collective hand has been forced by the absence of Declan Prendergast. Still, we won’t know if Kearney will make the grade unless we try. The logic of picking him is surely impeccable.
And with that kiss of death, it’s off to Parnell Park we go.
(I include this image first because I’m pretty darn chuffed with it. So there.)
In a geeky moment a number of years back when in a job with a lot of down time (God be with the good old days), I compiled a spreadsheet showing Liverpool’s results as a function of how they did against the same opposition the season before, or the equivalent in the case of promoted / relegated teams. So it was particularly crushing on Saturday when the Reds went down to Middlesbrough – a poor result last season was followed up by an even worse result this season and the Spreadsheet of Doom tells me that Liverpool are now a point worse off than at the same stage in 2007/8.
I mention all this because a) beating Kilkenny was just what the doctor ordered after that debacle on Teeside, and b) the never-ending question about the League performances, while not about to be answered here (it is, after all, never-ending) can be given a fresh spin by the notion that in the corresponding match in 2008 Kilkenny cruised to an 11 point win. And before entertaining any guff about Kilkenny not being bothered, remember that a) Kilkenny love to beat down on Waterford and b) Kilkenny players are always under pressure to perform what with the talent waiting in the wings and the thunderstorm awaiting them in the dressing room after the game. Kilkenny gave their best today – and lost. Let’s be happy.
Especially seeing as it looked like deja vu all over again when Kilkenny roared out of the blocks rattling over three points in the first two minutes, all of which could be attributed to careless play on the part of Waterford whether it be coughing the ball up to their opposite number or poor attempts at a clearance. It was an immense relief when the Cats actually managed a wide - that’s fully 50% of what they managed in September. Waterford even managed to get few scores but there was a sense in those early exchanges that Kilkenny were far more potent, their points been smacked over the black spot rather than tap-over frees or slurping apologetically over the bar. This was until Eoin Kelly came on for the unfortunate Shane Walsh – perhaps punished for losing the ball after a mazy run in the Kilkenny 45 that was the exemplar of the jennet express – and scored a wonder point, twisting and turning on the uncovered side of the ground then rattling the ball between the posts from what must have been a good 70 metres out as the crow flies.
It was uplifting stuff, and perhaps Kelly might have struck some great heights had he not been the victim / perpetrator (delete as per bias) of some striking himself. Kelly got into a tussle with Tommy Walsh and before you could squeeze the shutter on the camera a dozen players were piling in. When the dust had settled Kelly, Walsh, Seamus Prendergast and Jackie Tyrrell had gone . . . well, until the latter pair had gone off I didn’t realise the import of the new yellow card rule. Is there any limit on how many yellows you can get? Could you run out of players? Despite the loss of Eoin Kelly and his swashbuckling scores, you felt at the time that Kilkenny were worse off. Stripping them of two of their Triple A defenders when they already had a few new faces back there meant they had to be worse off.
And as it happened, Waterford had another player determined to take on Kilkenny singlehanded. While Kilkenny continued to behave as if every point had to come with a go-faster stripe painted on it, Ken McGrath was calmly keeping Waterford in touch, slotting over long range frees with splendid monotony. His period in the backs had made me forget just what a sensational forward he is. It’s not just his scoring, it’s the manner in which he ties down opponents like a WWE wrestler being tied down by midgets. Early in the second half he chased a lost ball and flung himself full length to rattle in a shot that PJ Ryan did brilliantly to save – then knocked over the 65. wellboy has been banging the drum for ages about playing Michael Walsh at centre back so as to free Ken up for the forwards. On the basis of this performance, he is entitled to feel smug (although surely not this smug).
With Kilkenny – dare I say it – in danger of overelaborating and Ken keeping the scoreboard ticking over, Waterford had incredibly ghosted in front when they then dared to score a goal, Stephen Molumphy benefitting from an impulsive charge off his line by Ryan to kick the ball to the net.
It beggared belief. Waterford were now five points ahead and you could imagine Brian Cody going puce on the sidelines. It was a figurative battle of Cannae, the smaller army retreating before the massed hordes then catching them in a double envelopment movement – guess who has been watching too much of the History Channel recently? A three point half time lead almost felt disappointing, which demonstrated the gap between the pre-match expectations and the half time reality.
After a ridiculously long talking-to from Davy Fitz, Waterford emerged and were . . . pretty flat, actually. Maybe it was the rain but after the hammer-and-tongs first half typified by the brawl, the early second half clashes were more handbags than Hannibal. Only a handful of points were exchanged in the third quarter with a lot of players struggling to keep their feet on the now slick surface. It would take an another – ahem – coming-together to stoke the fires of the match. I’ve dealt with this elsewhere so I’ll just add that something must have happened off camera to have caused the umpire to intervene. It doesn’t excuse Declan Prendergast’s behaviour, and his reward will surely be to miss out on a National League should Waterford win it – at best.
The tempo seemed to lift after this and Waterford struck what should have been the killer blow when the rangy substitute took the opportunity to make a name for himself. Of all the moments that would have caused the perfectionist Cody to detonate – and if it seems I’m labouring the point, it’s because it’s both wise and true - the manner of Waterford’s second goal will surely be the worst. Maurice Shanahan showed good composure to steady himself for a shot but the shot itself was poor, more being lucky to hit the post while going wide than being unlucky in missing a point. But Molumphy was first to the ball (Vesuvius) then a second Kilkenny defender charged towards him leaving Dan all alone on the edge of the square (Krakatoa),who showed Fowler-in-his-pomp vision to make the space. Molumphy coolly picked him out and Shanahan Sr coolly slotted it home.
Matches cannot be subdivided into little pieces where if you can just prevent a goal for thirty seconds then multiply that by 140 you need never concede a goal. So the idea that Waterford might save us all a lot of grief if they could just stop conceding goal straight after scoring them is fanciful. Stuff happens. Still, you can’t help but grind your teeth when watching Richie Power pounce on the loose ball and cut across the goal into an unstoppable position. Kilkenny were bound to close the gap now. But Waterford held their nerve, keeping Kilkenny scoreless for the last five minutes and even getting the insurance scores to make it much less traumatic than it might have been.
It was a deserved win. We’re always told how Kilkenny have battalions waiting in reserve who could beat any team in the country. On the basis of this there is one team they can’t beat. And while Shefflin, Fitzpatrick and their ilk are still to come back, Mullane, Kelly (only ten minutes today) and Browne will be present come the summer. And never forget that winning the NHL, which this result would contribute to – watch as Kilkenny take out all our other rivals! – is result worth acheiving in itself and sod the summer. In the day that Man United landed the League Cup, just ask Liverpool fans.
Waterford: Clinton Hennessy, Eoin Murphy, Declan Prendergast, Noel Connors, Richie Foley, Michael Walsh, James Murray, Shane O’Sullivan, Jamie Nagle (0-1), Gary Hurney, Ken McGrath (0-9, 0-6f, 0-2 65), Stephen Molumphy (1-0), Jack Kennedy, Seamus Prendergast (0-4, 0-3f; Pat Hurney; Maurice Shanahan), Shane Walsh (0-1; Eoin Kelly, 0-1; Dan Shanahan, 1-1)
Kilkenny: PJ Ryan, John Dalton, JJ Delaney, Jackie Tyrrell (Canice Hickey), Tommy Walsh (TJ Reid), Brian Hogan, James Ryall (0-1), John Tennyson (0-2), Michael Rice (0-1), Eddie Brennan (0-2, 0-1 65), Willie O’Dwyer, Eoin Larkin (0-1), Michael Grace (0-1), Richie Power (1-7, 0-4f), Aidan Fogarty (0-1; Richie Hogan)
HT: Waterford 1-11 (14) Kilkenny 0-11 (11)
Referee: Anthony Stapleton (Laois)
There is nothing more anachronistic in the world of modern sport than the title of team captain. Many years ago I wrote a piece for Shankly Gates on the preposterousness that attaches itself to the choice of captain in most sports. A captain is important in cricket, less (and increasingly less) important in rugby and not at all important in any other team sport. Take a sport like American football. Once upon a time, the quarterback had a decisive roll in what the next play was going to be. Now they can barely sneeze without the say-so of the coach. As for the oft-referenced inspirational role that captains bring to a sport, are players any less influential for not being captain? It’s a splendid honour to be captain, and you get to pick up the cup on the big day should your team be so fortunate. But the impact on a team’s performance in, say, hurling is zilch.
So why am I bothered by the suggestions that Waterford are going to have two captains for 2009? Why should I be bothered at such a decision if I think the role is so meaningless? It’s not that the honour is being diminished. Having the son of Vanessa and James McGarry play such a prominent part of the presentation of the 2007 McCarthy Cup with Henry Shefflin didn’t diminish or enhance the captaincy one iota. The presentation of the trophy to two people has been quite common over the years, whether it be Kerry using two men in 2006 or Liverpool going through three seperate combos during their treble success of 2001. And for all the chutzpah of showing Messrs Houllier and Evans above, there is not going to be confusion over demarcation or anything like that since the role has no function apart from collecting the gongs. So there’s no need to worry, right?
It’s the gimmick that bothers me. Having one captain from the Western Division and one from the Eastern Division makes it seem as if there is a sense of competition between the two halves of Waterford, a culchie / townie divide. Maybe I’m being naive, but I haven’t noticed this in recent times. City players dominated the team for the the first half of this decade, with Mount Sion and Ballygunner in the ascendancy. But the last few years have seen things swing out Dungarvan way, with nine of the team that started against Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final coming from the west of the county. One of the perceived benefits of outside coaches is the elimination of parochial choices in the team. If Davy Fitz feels the need to bolster this, he’s obviously not doing one of his main functions properly.
There’s also the fear of ridicule. If Waterford win the All-Ireland, no one is going to think “jeez, having only one captain was clearly where they’ve being going wrong all these years!” But if – such a little if – they lose, the usual trolls will be scoffing at such ‘innovations’ taking precedence over developing better hurlers. And yes, these things matter. It’s important to fight, and be seen to fight, the good and dignified fight.
This may all just be a ball of smoke. There’s nothing on the web that says this is in the offing and I base it all on a report heard on WLR. But it’s a silly idea that needs to be nipped in the bud. Say it ain’t so, Davy!
Update: confirmation of the truth of this story. A strange affair, and no mistake.
It’s been a quiet month here at Come On The Déise, testament to a busy schedule in a new job and a resolute determination to not write about matters unrelated to Waterford GAA during the dog days of December In truth it’s more the former than the latter as I haven’t been following matters in Waterford GAA, which meant I missed Dave Bennett’s excoriating attack on the tactics adopted by Waterford during the All-Ireland final.
What to make of it all? It’s possible that it represents the embittered ramblings of a retired player frustrated that the new regime did not start with the new slate that he might have thought would elevate him past the players plying on their reputation. And certainly Bennett would have reason to be bitter, having been outstanding against Clare only to be dropped after what amounted to a training session against Antrim.
That would only account for why he said it, not what he said. And it isn’t hard to believe that it’s the truth. Davy Fitz would have predicated his attempts to bring Waterford over the All-Ireland finishing line on the basis of trying something different to previous regime – the old line about the definition of stupidity being trying the same thing and expecting a different result. Hence Ken McGrath at full back or the helter skelter handpassing / pivots that dominated the games against Antrim and Offaly. So how were we to manage what no one had done in three years, i.e. beat Kilkenny in the Championship? Well, meeting fire with fire probably seemed like a good idea at the time – at least, it might have done before Waterford players were to be seen bouncing off Kilkenny players like rag dolls.
So it’s entirely believable that Waterford were told to go out and give Kilkenny a bit of timber. But was it really such a big deal that “it was like 12 years of goodwill was wiped out in ten seconds”? At the time, I only noted one example of roughhouse behaviour on the part of a Waterford player, when Kevin Moran could (and probably should) have been given his marching orders. I wonder whether Dave Bennett is confusing the direction of the conversations that took place. A few months on it may seem like everyone who phoned raised the issue with him when it’s more likely that he raised the issue with everyone who phoned him.
And no sooner than Paul Flynn announces he has hurled his last for Waterford than two other aging warriors of the last decade follow suit. Less fuss will attach itself to the retirement of Tom Feeney and Dave Bennett, not least from this quarter. Neither will (or should) feel offended by that, but they both played their part. Better observers of the game will doubtless be able to put their finger on exactly why they never hit the heights of the likes of Flynn because for the life of me I could never work out why both were not absolute locks on the team sheet all throughout their careers (which, it should be noted, probably says more about my lack of hurling knowledge than that of the pundits).
Feeney always struck me as the brave type so useful in the full back line, willing to fling himself in for any ball, something best exemplified by his foolhardy lunge for the sliothar at a crucial stage of the 2002 Munster final. He had a wacky hurling style, adopting the policy of getting to the ball first then extracating himself from any jam by flinging limbs everywhere which delighted fans and infuriated referees.
At this point it seemed as if he could do no wrong, stepping up to his predestined role as replacing Seán Cullinane at full back. It didn’t work out that way though as it quickly became clear that he wasn’t the solution to Waterford’s seemingly never-ending problem at full back. With players like Eoin Murphy and Aidan Kearney emerging in the corners he slid rapidly out of the frame, and coming on in the All-Ireland final was really a thank you for those early days rather than a reflection of his place in the pecking order.
Bennett was never as prominent a character as Feeney, and at the risk of labouring the point it is probably a reflection of my ignorance of what hurling is really about that I never could understand this – incidentally, this is also why I don’t get involved in the heavyweight arguments on AFR or Up The Déise, for fear of being ridiculed by someone who regularly attends junior B matches; I blog because I am Lord and Master here. When he was a regular back in the late 90′s and early 00′s he was always the first to be hauled ashore when the team were in a pickle. When he was in and out of the team after that he would be the first to be sacrificed when the going was tough while more illustrious players seemed to be bulletproof. A ten point haul this year against Clare when everyone else bar John Mullane went missing was forgotten after an indifferent performance against Antrim when no one should have been judged on that match. He could always be relied upon for a point or two, and he wouldn’t have been human if he hadn’t wondered why a certain clubmate of his was being persisted with when you couldn’t have depended on an assist from him at times in 2008.
To me, Bennett suffered from being labelled with that most accursed of hurling scarlet letters – that of being a ‘winter hurler’, i.e. fine when the pitches are like bogs and everyone is struggling to pick up the sliothar, but too lightweight when there was proper dry turf available in the summer. This label never seemed to match the facts, but better men than me (Gerald McCarthy, Justin McCarthy, Davy Fitzgerald) bought in to it, and who am I to argue with them?
Paul Flynn made it clear in his valedictorian interview that he hurled not for the glory but because he enjoyed the sport. This certainly should apply to both Tom Feeney and Dave Bennett, as evidenced by the fact that no one is queueing up to have a chin wag with them about their experiences. They did it for the love, and for that we all owe them a debt of gratitude.
When the Waterford hurlers staged their heave against Justin McCarthy back in June, comparisons were made with the infamous strike the Cork hurlers and footballers staged last winter. While there were superficial similarities, the core issue was quite different. The Waterford hurlers were rising up against an individual. The respective Cork panels were revolting against the entire body politic of the GAA; indeed, they were at great pains to emphasise that they had no issue with the personalities involved (that didn’t stop their supporters casting online aspersions against Teddy Holland, but in fairness to the Cork players they didn’t waver from their position and they can’t control the trolls, nor should they be expected to). You can argue about which is worse – I know where my vote on that matter is – but the differences between the situations are clear and unarguable.
Well, the situation in Waterford now has a companion in the departure of John Meyler as Wexford hurling manager. Faced with a situation where the players refused to play for the manager, the County Board decided to fire the manager.
It’s not unheard of in GAA history – Brian McDonald memorably faced an open letter from the Mayo football panel where they excoriated his management style, not least the indignity of pushing a car round a car park as training – but the proximity of two senior panels behaving in the same manner suggests it is becoming more common. At the risk of sounding like one of the tinfoil hat brigade, it’s easy to speculate that many managers are relieved of their duties after their counties exit from the Championship after a quiet consultation with the players, or at least the superstar ones who are to be found in even the lowliest of inter county panels.
So this looks like the future in the GAA, and it ain’t right. Watching the Wexford panel warm down after they had beaten Waterford in the League this year, there didn’t seem to be any personality issues as they cheerfully engaged in an activity that makes players look utterly daft. It’s only when the Kilkenny train smashed into them that the personality issues became a problem. As per above, we can instantly dismiss the statements for and against John Meyler online. If players had a problem with Meyler it was their responsibility to walk away from the panel, not collectively spit their dummy out.
The one consolation from the Wexford situation is that it makes the manner in which Justin was dispatched look almost dignified – this report on RTÉ tells a tale of county tearing itself apart. With the players in each county no longer a bunch who show up after the saving of the hay but a coherent group throughout the summer, it would be a strong County Board that could drive a wedge between any panel set on a course of action.
First things first. To be present at Croke Park on All-Ireland final day was an honour and a privilege. When asked in the past whether I had ever been to an All-Ireland final, I would routinely quip that I wasn’t going to go until Waterford were there – and hence I didn’t expect to ever get there. Yet here we were, standing in the midst of the biggest throng I have ever been in, and probably ever will be, soaking up the pre-match atmosphere. I don’t mind admitting that when the team ran out onto the Croke Park turf the wave of emotion was almost overwhelming. The siblings, dotted around various other parts of the ground, would later confess to similar feelings of disbelief. We all simultaneously vowed to gorge ourselves on the heady vapours, armed as we were with the knowledge that this might be as good as it got.
Yes, to be there was a splendid thing. Arriving in Dublin around midday, the city centre was mobbed by people donning the white and the blue. Despite this, the only two people I encountered who I knew were Kilkenny folk, one a soccer man who was wearing a shirt from the 1993 Leinster final – Mahon McPhillips were probably sponsoring his trip. All through the summer I’ve forlornly noted how few people I recognise in the crowd shots that populate the Munster Express and the News & Star after a big match. A stranger in his own land if ever there was one, and these incidents only add to the sense of disconnection that nearly five years abroad brings.
Not that I was thinking that at the time, because the atmosphere was enough to banish any negative thoughts. Waterford people were everywhere, and our usual haunt – Molloy’s on Talbot Street – seemed to be the epicentre of this ubiquity. Standing there with all my nearest and dearest – not always the same thing, ho ho – watching images of the heroes of 2008 flitting past on the big screen, it felt so good to be alive. Nothing was going to ruin this day.
There must have been some portion of the deepest part of my psyche, the part which still can’t watch horror movies and in which memories of Arsenal’s title win over Liverpool in 1989 are entombed, that gazed upon all this miracle and wonder and thought “if this is the effect it’s all having on me, how must the players be doing?” The only article that I read from the voluminous match supplements in the local rags – nice souvenirs if you win; rabbit hutch liner if you don’t – was an interview with Brian Whelehan where the Offaly player, twice a winner but twice a loser on All-Ireland final day, confessed that he never really enjoyed the occasion for itself. The nerves were so shredded that it was impossible to savour anything. The fans can enjoy the presentation of the players to the President or the parade or the performing of Amhrán na bhFiann – having it performed by a singer was surprisingly moving; it allowed the whisperers (ahem) to really belt it out – but the players must hate every minute of it. How you cope with these moments must contribute to your overall performance. Is knowledge power or ignorance bliss?
The match got underway, although not before my ever-alert wife had noted Eoin McGrath shipping some timber from his marker. Kilkenny opened the scoring with a free only for Eoin Kelly to respond in kind, then Eoin McGrath carved out an opening and put Waterford in front. In front in an All-Ireland final! Or had he? The crowd on the Hill, usually a good barometer of these things, were convinced he had scored as had the scoreboard operator, but the umpire waved it wide and the scoreboard was duly corrected. Dark thoughts rose up unbidden that this might be decisive in the endgame.
It soon became clear that Kilkenny were not leaving decisions like that in the lap of the umpires, opting instead to send each and every ball over the middle of the crossbar. Points were casually pinned on with only the odd Eoin Kelly free keeping Waterford ticking over. It is not an exaggeration to say that I looked up at the scoreboard when it was 0-10 to 0-4 and could not believe that only fifteen minutes had passed. Ten scores in fifteen minutes? It didn’t seem possible, and already you could see the match was slipping away from us. We were competing well enough under the dropping ball, with Tony Browne and Eoin Murphy in particular having some success, but what was happening when they moved to clear the ball was that a tsunami of Black and Amber was bowling them over.
The astonishing thing about Kilkenny was their power. Speaking to my Laois ticket contact the evening before the match, he suggested that Brian Cody was adopting a football tactic of a swarm defence, and this was perfectly believable as Waterford’s players found themselves surrounded at every turn. Much effort may have been expended in the latter half of the summer by Davy Fitzgerald in getting the players to concentrate on acquiring space before attempting to clear, but this seemed moot when any movement along any compass point led to you running into two more Cats. Never have I seen so many attempted clearances charged down, and each failure must have eroded the already fragile confidence further. The most chilling vignette was an echo of an incident that I picked up on the League match back in the spring. Back then, Michael Rice held off the challenge of Ken McGrath with ease before knocking the ball over the bar. This day it saw Aidan Kearney racing along the endline to try and get space to clear only to be sent flying out for a 65. You watched it live and thought that it must be a foul, but the replays on the big screen showed how clean a hit it was. You barely had time to dwell on the shock of a defender being mown down by a forward before the 65 sailed over the bar.
Even in games where the gulf in class is so wide, the fact that you start level means that it takes a while for the gulf to become obvious. So you could cling to the notion that Kilkenny might ease up, that Waterford might shake off the fog and get back into it. Such thoughts were rudely disabused soon enough as Eddie Brennan rattled in two quickfire goals to finish the game as a contest. The second goal was particularly painful, Clinton Hennessy saving brilliantly at Shefflin’s feet only for Brennan to rattle ball along the ground into the net.
I had visualised a range of possible outcomes from this match beforehand, ranging from Waterford nicking victory with a late surge having kept pace with Kilkenny against the odds, to Kilkenny piling on the style in the second half and running out handsome winners by 15-20 points. Never in my worst nightmares had I contemplated this, having to settle for damage limitation midway through the first half. It’s not just that we’ve not had to face the prospect for a long time – one double digit championship defeat in 12 years. Even counties like Offaly and Wexford, who we scoffed at for failing to put it up to Kilkenny, had kept in some kind of touch for the first half. The range of positive options available to us now was almost too ghastly to envisage. Avoid a 31+ point beating. Not have a player lose the rag and get sent off. Score a point from play! When Eoin Kelly got a free just outside the large square, you almost wondered whether he should take the guaranteed point. As it was, his shot was saved and the rebound should have been buried by Eoin McGrath. You know a player at the other end would have done so, in the manner that Brennan had done.
The euphoria of the build-up meant that leaving early was never an option, and everyone else seemed to agree as the crowd stayed robust. The Kilkenny fans generally kept to themselves, the tulip who nearly caused a riot early in the first half by repeatedly asking a Waterford woman with a child whether she wanted to open her whatsit for him being mercifully the exception. Stubborn to the last, people only had to wait ten minutes into the second half for Waterford to register that blessed point from play, John Mullane finally doing the business after a build-up that might have ended in a goal. It was as if such an affront enraged Kilkenny so much that they decided to weigh in with a goal of their own, Eoin Larkin being given the freedom of the inside of the 45 to saunter in and smash the ball past Hennessy.
The 31+ point beating was not to materialise, for reasons only some of which do credit to Waterford. Nor did the feared sending-off, although Kevin Moran could probably count himself lucky late on. They did keep trying as individuals, with Mullane in particular grinding away to some effect. But the ease with which Kilkenny were stroking over points meant they never had to go for the goals that would have heaped a few more aftershocks on to the earthquake. They definitely eased off the gas, although this wasn’t entirely patronising to Waterford – as stated, the Waterford players did keep trying, and there isn’t much point in busting a gut or risking an injury when the game is already in the bag.
The one truly head-patting moment had an ironic coda. James McGarry came on for PJ Ryan to much applause from the Kilkenny faithful. It was all very nice, and I suppose Waterford hadn’t earned the right to be outraged at such a gesture. At this point I wasn’t aware that Kilkenny hadn’t shipped a goal all Championship, so it was only afterwards that I was able to chuckle at the sight of McGarry providing a firm touch to an Eoin Kelly shot on its way into the net. Not that it made any substantive difference as Kilkenny finished with a trio of quick points which said it all about the way they could have toyed with us had they been so inclined.
The worst part of it all is that the feeling is only going to get worse. In the immediate aftermath of defeat, it wasn’t so bad. It had been obvious from a loooong way out that we were doomed, which at least had the virtue of not getting our hopes up. Had we lost having come agonisingly close, in much the manner we did against Cork in 2006, it would have been sickening for days afterwards. But you’d have gotten over it before too long. This, on the other hand, is going to reverberate for ages. Quite apart from the death-by-a-thousand-cuts that will be talking about GAA online for the forseeable future, the prospects for Waterford hurling suddenly look rather bleak. The All-Ireland, the only thing that will satisfy us after the success of the last decade, looks further away than it ever did.
Still. This is what it means to be in with the big boys. To have half of the mightiest stage of them all, for those heavenly twenty minutes when anything seemed possible . . . it was totally worth it.
Waterford: Clinton Hennessy, Eoin Murphy, Declan Prendergast (Tom Feeney), Aidan Kearney, Tony Browne, Ken McGrath, Kevin Moran, Michael Walsh (capt), Jamie Nagle (Shane O’Sullivan), Dan Shanahan (Dave Bennett, 0-1), Seamus Prendergast (Jack Kennedy), Stephen Molumphy, Eoin McGrath (Paul Flynn), Eoin Kelly (1-9, 0-9f), J Mullane (0-3)
Kilkenny: PJ Ryan (James McGarry) Michael Kavanagh, Noel Hickey, Jackie Tyrrell, Tommy Walsh, Brian Hogan, JJ Delaney; James Fitzpatrick (capt,0-2), Derek Lyng (0-3), Martin Comerford (TJ Reid, 0-4), Richie Power (0-2), Eoin Larkin (1-4); Eddie Brennan (2-4), Henry Shefflin (0-8, 0-5f, 0-1 65), Aidan Fogarty (0-3)
HT: Waterford 0-6 (6) Kilkenny 2-16 (22)
Referee: Barry Kelly (Westmeath)