There was many a bitter tear among GAA hacks when Dan Shanahan called it a day. Who were they to turn to now for easy copy? Henry Shefflin? Well, they needn’t have worried as Dan hasn’t gone away you know:
DAN SHANAHAN insists he’s at peace with his decision to walk away from inter-county hurling, even if he clearly feels he had more to offer Waterford.
Dismayed at his lack of game time under Davy Fitzgerald last year, Shanahan retired just two days after the Deise’s All-Ireland semi-final exit at the hands of Tipperary.
The Lismore man admits the decision to retire was based partly on self-preservation. He wanted to be master of his own destiny and feared he might have been forced from the Decies panel had he been available for 2011
“If I’m being honest I probably would have (stayed on had he been playing regular),” he said.
“It’s not being a regular or starting games, it’s just a bit more game time. I thought I deserved more but I didn’t get it and I made a decision myself then to call it a day.
“We all knew Davy was going to stay on (for 2011). I knew it, we all knew for a fact. He was going to stay on. And don’t be surprised if he gets another year with the county board that are there, but that’s their decision.
“I made my decision, I’m happy I made that decision and my club is benefiting big time from it. I started back with my club and I do think I owe them a bit more.”
Would he have been pushed from Waterford if he hadn’t jumped?
“Good question, yeah. I’d say it is 50-50. I could have been pushed a bit but if you train hard and work hard like I’ve done over the years, I can’t fault myself or my effort and it’s up to the management after that.
“If they don’t think I’m good enough to be worth more than five or 10 minutes in a game… it takes five minutes to get into the game at this level and to be getting five minutes to do it…
“I did it against Galway two years ago then took them out of jail again in Thurles in the Munster final last year.”
Ken McGrath recently followed Shanahan out the exit door as the Waterford team that thrilled for the best part of a decade slowly breaks up.
McGrath endured a difficult day at midfield against Cork in the National League and after being called ashore from the sideline, he walked away from the squad.
“You could see why he called it a day,” said Shanahan, who was in Dublin to launch the An Post Cycle Series, which encourages people to cycle.
“I was at the game and felt sorry for the man when he was taken off. He played midfield that day and you’re trying to deal with Donal Og Cusack’s puck-outs and he can put the ball in your mouth.
“And Pa Cronin takes off and the two boys are switching over and back and Ken is in midfield and is trying to follow them at over 30 years of age and with all the injuries he’s had.
“That’s the management team’s decision (to start him at midfield) but why not throw him centre-forward and see how he gets on there?”
Shanahan’s brother Maurice, who is currently out with a broken finger, also considered his Waterford future over the winter.
“Maurice didn’t know whether he was going to go back but he made his decision to go back. I suppose it was hard. Maurice, by a country mile, was the best club forward in Waterford last year.
“Yet he wasn’t one of the five fellas brought on in the semi-final against Tipp. That question answers itself there so at the end of the day he had to think himself whether he was coming back or not.”
It’s popular for GAA players to return from retirement at least once but, recalling the highlights of his career, Shanahan insist there will be no U-turn.
“The lads would have said to me would I be interested in going back. I’ve met them since and I get on brilliantly with them all,” he said.
“We’re great friends and that’s very important for me. We won all the trophies bar the big one but it was nice that what we won, we won it together. That’s the main thing.”
There’s a lot in there, and not all of it as inflammatory as the meeja would like. It’s not unreasonable for a performer of Dan’s calibre to think he could have eked a few more years out of his career, and he doesn’t seem to bear a grudge towards Davy Fitz over him disagreeing with that. He did what he could “and it’s up to the management after that”. You do wonder how much extra game time amounts to “just a bit more” – one wonders whether in reality anything less than a starting position would do – but he is surely absolutely correct that ten minutes, or even less in many cases, is an inadequate amount of time to make an impact on a game. Davy Fitz is hardly alone among managers in that department though.
So far, so reasonable. However, the reason all and sundry will be reading between the lines for criticism of Davy is because his next comments undeniably amount to a criticism of Davy. It seems that if Ken McGrath had been handled better everything would have come up smelling of roses. Yet you have to wonder whether he was watching the Cork game – I’m sure he was, but he didn’t see the game where Ken was absolutely stuffed. If he couldn’t cope with midfielders moving back and forth then how moving him to centre forward – where Donal Óg’s puck-outs really would have been dropping – would have granted him the elixir of life is unexplained. Ken’s race is run. How do we know this? Ken himself said so. Unless Dan has suddenly acquired the ability to read minds, we must assume that Ken thinks so too.
And let’s assume that Davy is a maggot who gets shot of players of whom he is not fond by making their lives a misery, whether it be not giving them enough game time or playing them in impossible positions. If this is so, little brother Maurice must be thrilled to see his doubts regarding the management shared with everyone and anyone. Maurice was peeved becasue he didn’t come on against Tipperary? Let’s look at who did come on. First we had Dan Shanahan and Ken McGrath. They had to come on obviously because, well, they’re Dan the Man and Big Ken. Of the remaining three, Seamus Prendergast and Eoin McGrath both scored so they must have been doing something right, which just leaves Thomas Ryan, a peer of Maurice’s who is surely entitled to expect some ‘game time’ as well. In short, there’s nothing to suggest that Maurice not playing was the result of some vendetta against him from the management. And if there is, having your brother mouthing off about isn’t going to make them come to their senses.
We probably should be grateful for Dan. For his big trap, I mean, not just all those happy memories. Newspapers and websites will cheerfully fill column and screen inches with any ráiméis from the English Premier League if the GAA won’t provide it. But given the potential for in-fighting and distrust caused by these streams-of-consciousness, you do wish it were someone else who were the GAA writer’s meal ticket. Come on Henry, tell us what you really think of Brian Cody!
Writing about Liverpool over the years, I’ve repeatedly returned to the theme of the mercenary nature of footballers and how no matter how low you set the bar, they never fail to disappoint you. The gap between the expectation of what we want them to be and the clay-footed reality seems to grow ever wider. Only last night I was reading an article which noted how “they are distant silhouettes behind tinted windows, the other side of the velvet ropes”. So it is bittersweet to be able to dwell on someone who only ever gave to his followers, but that dwelling is because he has handed in his gun. Ken McGrath has retired from inter-county hurling.
To someone whose interest in Waterford hurling is a product of the revival in the county’s fortunes in the 1990′s and had little interaction with the club scene, Ken had a singular significance because he was the first great player that you could see coming. Other big beasts in the jungle like Paul Flynn, Fergal Hartley or Tony Browne had been part of that Under-21/Minor combo in 1992 that hit my near-comatose affection for Waterford GAA like the paddles of a defibrillator. They seemed to spring into life fully formed. The renewed interest in Waterford that sprung from those teams meant that you could see Ken coming from afar.
And what a sight he was, a giant striding purposefully towards a brighter future. Seeing the 17 year-old boy looking every inch the man against Tipperary in the 1995 Munster semi-final was to really believe that we could dare to dream. As late as 1999 he was carrying the Under-21 team against Tipperary, hammering in two goals from long distance frees and seeing a third deflected over the bar to prevent a ludicrous comeback from nine points down with minutes to go. This typified his explosive ability and explained why so many of us were so desperate to get him back into the team in recent years – you always felt we’d have a chance with him around. And now, all we will have are the memories.
But the memories! A flick-up-and-strike against Cork in 2000 which sailed over the bar. His tantalising early tormenting of Philip Maher at full-forward that same year leaving wistful thoughts of what might have been. A decisive cameo against Cork in 2002 just when he was needed. A seven-point haul as the Munster title was finally landed. That catch and salute against Cork in 2004. Countless examples of spontaneity and vitality that just took the breath away. It is often said of some sportsmen, faintly disparagingly, that you don’t know what they are going to do next. With him, it was never an insult because it was usually something no one would even conceive, let alone execute with such elan.
Few players are fortunate enough to be able to choose the time and manner of their departure, and sadly Ken was no exception. He was determined to give it one last lash after the injury-ravaged end to the Noughties. But when even a rose-tinted spectator like myself could see something was wrong last Sunday, it was probably just as well that he wasn’t under illusions. The shine on the game of hurling will be slightly dimmer for his departure. mochuda put it well in his tribute on AFR: “Very few players could make me say this but watching Ken McGrath always made me wish hurling was our first game in Kerry”. It has been our great honour and privilege in Waterford that his and our county were one and the same. Ní bheidh a leithéid ann arís.
No need for a smart-arse blog title for this. It speaks for itself. Looks like I’ll be getting De Paper tomorrow.
KevIRL over at boards.ie has suggested the following lineup for tomorrow’s match in Dungarvan:
D O Sullivan
While one should always take posts on forums with a pinch of salt (unlike the Solomonesque wisdom you get from blogs), and Kev’s team is short a player, it does dovetail with a report on HoganStand.com to the effect that Kevin Moran, John Mullane and Ken McGrath will all start. The likes of Eamonn Murphy and Pauric Mahony are entitled to be peeved that they are being jettisoned but we won’t know if they’ve made the grade unless we compare them against the established players. And am I the only one giddy with excitement at the return of King Ken? It’s hard to believe his age and illness-ravaged body is going to be what it was. But even at <insert arbitrary percentage> of his peak he’s still better than <insert arbitrary percentage> of the players playing today. If we could just squeeze another year or two out of him . . .
In other news, Dungarvan will have its first senior county match under lights tonight as Tipperary come to town. The first ever game under lights didn’t go off too well on Wednesday as the same opposition, defending Munster champions that they are, made short work of the Under-21′s. With Tipp just above Waterford in the table. we’ll know better where the footballers stand after the game. Which is probably more than can be said of the hurlers.
Ken McGrath was interviewed in today’s Indo, where it was revealed that he has been suffering from sarcoidosis – Google is your friend if you want to find out what it is, although if you can’t be bothered doing that be assured that it makes dodgy knees seem mild. Apart from putting his woes last season into context, the article contains no trace of the frustration he expressed with the Waterford setup back in September. A healthy, happy Ken. Christmas has come late.
H/t to the Waterford GAA Blog.
Early last week Mr d and I were strolling along the beach in Tramore of an evening when whom should I see towelling down in the company of his family but Ken McGrath (at least I think it was him; hopefully I’d recognise him at this stage of my life). We walked on a bit then I pointed his presence out to my wife who was delighted at the scene. Having seen her pampered heroes let England down so badly during the summer, it was refreshing to see one of ours in a state of ordinary domestic tranquility. Requests to go over and say hello were rebuffed because a) maybe it wasn’t him, and b) the players are entitled to a private life. They give up enough for free without being pestered by groupies.
And just how much they give up was revealed after yesterday’s game as Ken was not informed, at the request of his family, that his daughter was in hospital after being attacked by a dog. Nothing more need be said, except to express the hope that she makes a full recovery.
Finally got to sit down and take a spin through Waterford’s win over Clare. The first thing to say is that I can see why Clare people are so pleased with the way things panned out. A few minutes in and two points down, you’d immediately be fretting that John Mullane has brought his ‘A’ game and they’re going to eat us alive. But few robust exchanges in the trenches took the wind out of Waterford sails and excellent points from Jonathan Clancy and senior newbie John Conlon would put the spring in anyone’s step. You’d have thought beforehand that a free-flowing open game – only 20 frees in the entire match, according to the Indo – would suit Waterford’s we-don’t-need-no-steenkin’-plan style, but that wasn’t the way it was turning out, and when Eoin Kelly missed a relatively easy free you’d have started worrying about the demons. He would miss another one later on in the half and you wonder whether you’ll ever be free of those concerns.
Then there was the goal. A lot of expectation rests on Darech Honan’s young shoulders, so to see him stepping up the plate must have been inspirational for everyone associated with the Banner. Had Clare rammed their advantage before half-time you wonder whether Waterford would have had too great a mountain to climb, but Jonathan Clancy hit a poor wide which would have put them seven points clear and Eoin Kelly knocked over two frees that were far more difficult than the ones he missed earlier to keep the deficit manageable.
Much has been made of the switches Davy Fitz and co made, with the usual moaning attached that it reflects a poor initial selection. It probably would have worked out just as well had it been Jamie Nagle and Maurice Shanahan replacing the Prendergast brothers rather than the other way around, a change was needed to inject fresh legs on a heavy pitch and rattle their opponents and credit is due for the alacrity with which it was done. Declan Prendergast would turn out to be the star of the show, and what a joy it is to see such plaudits for the man who has so often been the unspoken fall guy in the past. Only last week I was writing of his broad shoulders in the face of the repetitive demands for someone to replace him, and he proved the truth of that with a fantastic performance.
Looking at the second half in the creep/jerk manner of Sky+, it’s amazing Waterford didn’t win by more. Almost all the action was flooding towards the Killinan End. The manner in which the Clare forwards made the most of the crumbs that fell their way in that frantic second half will be another source of satisfaction for them, and Waterford’s carelessness with some of their wides a source of concern for us. But in the end, we landed the knockout blows in the twelfth round. GAA folk crave the ‘insurance score’ but Ken McGrath’s point (see above) which put us three clear felt like a winner. It was a tremendous finish from Waterford, and should give us confidence that we are going to competitive once again. That’s all we can ask of them.
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)
Categories: All-Ireland, Hurling, Match Reports, Waterford Tags: Aidan Kearney, Brian Cody, Clinton Hennessy, Croke Park, David Fitzgerald, Eoin Kelly, Eoin McGrath, Eoin Murphy, John Mullane, Ken McGrath, Kevin Moran, Kilkenny, Tony Browne
Pre Scriptum: it’s a new era here at Come on the Déise. We’ve taken the plunge into the world of Sky+, and pretty darn slick it is too. Up until now, I’ve always adopted the philosophy that match reports should be as contemperaneous as possible. If you want to read a proper account of the match, there are plenty of sites for that. If you want to read an account of just when a grown man felt closest to a heart attack, you’re in the right place. However, with Sky+ the more obvious clangers can be nipped in the bud right at the start. For the moment we’ll carry on in the old vein, reserving the right to switch if trying to remember who scored what point – Eoin McGrath got 0-4! – becomes too obviously hard.
One of the more worthwhile exercises I’ve ever conducted online regards the accusation that the GAA has an unwritten rule encouraging the referees to ‘play for a draw’ – yeah, it’s worthwhile in comparision to conducting long drawn out battles with WUM‘s or checking out the results of the Boston Red Sox. It seems that since 1998, the year that is universally accepted to be when hurling began, Waterford have been involved in quite a few one score championship matches:
1998: Tipperary (won by three points), Kilkenny (lost by one point)
1999: Limerick (won by one)
2000: Tipperary (lost by three)
2001: Limerick (lost by three)
2002: Cork (won by one), Clare (lost by three)
2003: Limerick (won by two)
2004: Tipperary (won by one), Cork (won by one), Kilkenny (lost by three)
2005: Cork (lost by two)
2006: Tipperary (won by three), Cork (lost by one)
2007: Cork (won by three), Cork (won by three)
We’ve played fifteen championship matches where the refs have failed to engineer the draw so beloved of the GAA despite having an open goal, so to speak. In all that time, only three times (Clare in 1998, Limerick in 2004 and Cork in 2007) have they succeeded. Either they haven’t being doing a very good job, or they are playing it straight.
And yesterday we saw it again. Referee John Sexton announced with two minutes remaining that he would play one minute of injury time. It would surely have been politically sensitive to give Wexford one more chance past that additional period – one that is only ‘a minimum’ – to secure a draw / replay (more on that later). But he did not. The final whistle went with buttock-unclenching haste and Waterford were into their sixth semi-final in eleven years. Had it been the other way around we’d have been fuming, much as we have in the past.
Speaking of the past, it came as a surprise to realise in the build up that the pleasures of the Killinan Maher Terrace, as it is now known, had gone untasted for nine long years. This was a realisation that brought out a dose of reminiscing on the day when Mikey O’Connell put us to the sword, a day which my poor wife had to relive even though it happened three years before I met her, as I foamed at the mouth recounting how a player could score six points from the midfield then vanish from the annals of hurling, All-Ireland medal and all. Nostalgia sure ain’t what it used to be.
Waterford got off to a decent start, with Eoin Kelly knocking over his first two frees. Last time I noted the Jonny Wilkinson-esque routine he seems to have adopted (at least, I don’t remember him having as convoluted a routine before) and despite my sniffiness at the time it might well be having results. The first point from play was quite a laugh, a Wexford back clearing to the delight of their supporters – only to send the ball straight down the throat of Eoin McGrath who did the needful. Speaking of Wexford’s supporters, it was quite shocking how few fans they had at the match. Having been very impressed by the noise and the colour generated by the Wexford fans in defeat when I saw them in the 1999 Leinster semi-final in Croke Park, I’ve thought well of their fans. To see the paltry turnout for a match that everyone agreed they had a decent chance in shows how much the beatings they have taken at the hands of Kilkenny has reduced morale in the Model County.
Those who stayed away were to miss a stirring performance, one jumpstarted by as classy a goal as you are likely to see. Rory Jacob got in behind Eoin Murphy and sent the ball across the goal where it was gathered by Stephen Doyle. He cut inside and batted the ball past the helpless Clinton Hennessy. Simple as you like, and it makes you wonder why there aren’t more goals in hurling. I suppose it helps when trying to keep them out to have, you know, a good full back line. The match programme noted that Waterford were trying to keep three successive clean sheets for the first time ever in championship hurling. So much for that then.
Having snuffed out Waterford’s early lead, Wexford proceeded to open up a three point lead of their own. Waterford were huffing and puffing at this stage, and it wasn’t until a rather splendid gather-pivot-and-shot effort from Seamus Prendergast that Waterford got a score that could be said to be all their own work. At the other end of the field, Ken McGrath was beginning to get on top of things. He had fluffed his first attempt to gather the ball for the third match in a row, but his next effort was a message-bearing scythe across the dropping ball and his third a clean catch and clearance. In contrast to Offaly, Wexford didn’t seem to be putting Waterford under that much pressure. Certainly the ‘tactic’ of getting space before driving the ball seemed to be reaping greater dividends as the half wore on. Some nifty play got Dan Shanahan into space and he bore down on goal only to have the ball flicked from his hurley when he was in position to pull the trigger. This brought the usual bout of carping from the assembled fans, but to me it was the first positive contribution from Dan all summer. Having demanded his head during the week this was definitely one in the eye.
Slowly but surely, Waterford began to assert their authority. Stephen Molumphy was creating havoc in the middle third of the field and Mullane was in dominant form – except that the ref was insistent on penalising him for overcarrying the ball. The odds are that Mr Sexton was correct, but I find it hard to believe that Mullane was the only player at it. Still, the amount of possession we were getting was a good sign, in no small part due to a towering performance from Tony Browne at centre back. Waterford played it cool at this point, confident that with all that ball that scores would come, and as it neared half time Waterford had edged two points in front. Mullane might have made it three but for one of those overcarrying penalties, allowing Wexford to clear and tack on a score as the clock ticked towwards the end of the extra two minutes. I’d have settled for that, but Seamus Prendergast had other ideas. A mighty catch in the middle of the field while surrounded by three Wexford players was followed up with a well directed ball into the danger zone. The ref gave Waterford a free and Eoin Kelly teed it up. “Take yer point” said some fool on the terrace (ahem) but he didn’t listen, instead opting to smash the free into the roof of the Wexford net.
What a turnaround, 1-5 to 0-1 in the second quarter of the match, a period that had been as good a display of control from Waterford as we had seen all year. Mentally ruminating on events in the first half, two things seemed clear to me: 1) this lot weren’t as good as Offaly, and 2) a goal early in the second half and we’d run away with it. A team whose fans were afraid to turn up for fear of the beating they’d get were surely one sharp push away from collapsing entirely. Of course, it didn’t work out that way. After an exchange of points Rory Jacob got the ball in the corner. “Don’t foul him”, roared the Nostradamus of the terrace and the ball ended up going out for a Wexford lineball. What happened next was a bit of mystery – no Sky+, remember – as the sideline ball seemed to fly through the entire Waterford back line before bouncning apologetically into the net. The fact that the goal was credited to Willie Doran would suggest to me that the ball did travel all the way without being touched by anyone in the full forward line. Then in the next attack, Jacob and Stephen Doyle were given the freedom of the park to walk the ball into the goal.
Well that’s just champion. Perhaps there was a karmic butterfly effect at work here and Eoin Kelly shouldn’t have been so brazen in going for that goal at the end of the first half. Whatever it was, we had gone from being four points up to being four points down without much effort on Wexford’s part. Yanking off Brian Phelan in favour of Kevin Moran did not inspire confidence that the bench knew what they were doing. Credit at this point to Jamie Nagle for an excellent score from the midfield, earning a gee-up from Eoin Kelly in the process. It was certainly a moment to calm the nerves, and with John Mullane working out how to avoid being penalised for overcarrying and instead drawing soft frees from frazzled defenders, Waterford began to climb back up the self-made mountain again.
It was, ironically enough, from a less-than-authoratitive moment from Mullane, that Waterford moved to within sight of the summit. Turning to shoot after some good supply work from Eoin McGrath, he either mishit the ball or hesitated at the last moment, sending a strange looping ball into the edge of the square. Lurking with intent, only moments after some yahoo on terrace had demanded he “win the ball at least once, ya lazy feck” – in this case, I plead not guilty to having said that instead tut-tutting sotto voce at such obnoxiousness – was Dan Shanahan. He plucked the ball out of the air like an ripe apple from a tree and this close to goal there was only going to be one result.
There wasn’t exactly joy unconfined on the Killinan End, but it was definitely what the doctor ordered. From this point on it felt as if it would be who ever was ahead at the final whistle would win – that might seem obvious, but play five more minutes and you’d have a different winner, another five another winner. This might have motivated Eoin Kelly when another Mullane jig – followed by crazy war dance for the benefit of the terrace – earned Waterford a free. Straight in front of goal, not much more than 21 metres out and only two extra bodies in the Wexford goal, a shot at goal seemed a no-brainer. Yet Kelly popped it over the bar.
Keeping the scoreboard ticking over had to be the reason. It wasn’t long before this didn’t look so reasonable. Stephen Doyle cut in from the right again and in the ensuing scramble Wexford got a penalty. Up trotted Damien Fitzhenry and mentally you were already adding three points to Wexford’s score. This meant it felt like quite a release when his shot raced into the nets behind the goal. While Eoin Kelly’s effort was deliberate, this must have been a mishit. Why send your legendary goalscoring goalie up for a penalty to do what every hurler in the country could do on their weak side?
So were hanging in there, sometimes level, sometimes in the lead, but crucially never behind – had Fitzhenry’s penalty yielded a goal it probably would have been very different. Wexford seemed to be on top in their back division, with David O’Connor mopping up everything that came his way. Why Waterford only used one sub on a day when the sun was beating down like a hammer is something the mentors need to think about before the next game. At this point we began speculating on the possibilty of the dreaded extra time. I was convinced that extra time would be necessary, but page 3 of the match programme seemed to blatantly differentiate between the certainty of extra time in the minor and the lack of said certainty in the senior matches. So a bumper pay day was in the offing for the GAA, if John Sexton played his cards right.
And perhaps Wexford were expecting that, because when the announcement went up that there were effectively only three minutes left, Diarmuid Lyng was standing over a free awarded after Kevin Moran had effectively committed a professional foul to sniff out the possibility of a goal. Three minutes left, two points in it: plenty of time left if Wexford didn’t dally, yet Lyng took a lot of time to take the free. Molumphy had the chance to leave Wexford needing a goal as the time ticked inexorably on but his shot went wide. The clock moved into the 72nd minute and Fitzhenry still showed little in the way of urgency. This tardiness meant that it was almost anti-climactic when the ref blew the final whistle. Where was the last minute scramble, the ball hitting the bar, the back emerging triumphantly with the sliothar in his fist – or the forward wheeling away in triumph having smashed home the goal to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Not that I’m complaining, though Wexford might legitimately gripe about the ref having no soul.
And thus it has come to pass. The leprechaun has given us his crock of gold, or at least a portion of it. It’s obligatory to say at this stage that there doesn’t look like there’s an All-Ireland in this Waterford team, and I’m loath to omit that which is obligatory. Still, after the rout against Clare it would have not seemed possible that Waterford would be the only team left out of the non-Big Three counties at the semi-final stage. It’s not progress but at least we’re not going backwards and anything is better than going back.
Waterford: Clinton Hennessy, Eoin Murphy, Ken McGrath, Declan Prendergast, Shane O’Sullivan (Jack Kennedy), Tony Browne, Brian Phelan (Kevin Moran), Michael Walsh (capt), Jamie Nagle (0-1), Dan Shanahan (1-1), Seamus Prendergast (0-1), Stephen Molumphy (0-1), Eoin McGrath (0-4), Eoin Kelly (1-8, 1-6f, 1 65), John Mullane (0-3)
Wexford: Damien Fitzhenry (0-1 pen), Malachy Travers, Paul Roche, Brendan O’Leary, Mick Jacob, David O’Connor, Colm Farrell (Darren Stamp), Eoin Quigley (0-1), David Redmond (0-2), PJ Nolan (Stephen Nolan, 0-1; Keith Rossiter), Willie Doran (1-1), Diarmuid Lyng (0-5f), Stephen Doyle (2-1), Stephen Banville (Barry Lambert), Rory Jacob (capt; 0-3, 1f)
HT: Waterford 1-10 (13) Wexford 1-6 (9)
Referee: John Sexton (Cork)
Waterford’s last defeat in the 2007 season before the implosion against Limerick in Croke Park was in the final group game of the League campaign against Offaly. That day, Waterford were terrorised by Joe Bergin at full forward for Offaly as he scored 2-3 of their 3-15. Keeping him in check will be a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition of gauging the success of the gamble of putting Ken McGrath at full back. The bottom line is winning, but even if we win and this experiment fails then we can forget about going much further.