I must confess I couldn’t see it coming, but the remodelled Waterford’s combination of dogged mediocrity with a latent ability to blow teams away in an instant almost heightened the thrill of Sunday’s dramatic All-Ireland Hurling quarter-final in Thurles.
Galway boss John McIntyre was marvellously magnanimous afterwards, making no excuses and hailing Waterford’s capacity to confound the experts.
Critics, and, let’s be frank, even their own ‘faithful’, continue to question this team’s character at their peril.
Looking like he’d genuinely been through the emotional mill, Davy Fitzgerald revealed the Déise management used the pre-match bad press to positive effect.
They’ll have no shortage of that sort of stuff in the short build-up to a supposedly one-sided semi against Kilkenny in Croke Park on August 9th.
The dogs on the street had it that the Waterford camp was on the verge of a morale meltdown until certain things were sorted behind closed doors during the week.
The rumour mill has been in overdrive for ages about the alleged absence of sweetness and light.
And doubtless not everyone is happy even now, which, paradoxically, is often the sign of a strong panel. But the way they refused to surrender at Semple Stadium on Sunday smelt distinctly like team spirit.
Once again, mind, Waterford squeezed through without hitting anything like vintage form; though how often have we said that over the past two summers?
Perhaps there’s a compromise to be made, I dunno, for fashioning a counter-Kilkenny brand of hurling, with an emphasis on physicality at the expense of fluidity, on making life as hard as possible for the opposition, and arguably themselves.
Incurable romanticism it may be, but I still think it’s in Waterford to both do what comes naturally and maintain the hard-headedness needed to get over the line.
To have a chance of beating Kilkenny will require the ideal blend of both. They’ll need to start the way they’ve been finishing matches (apart from the first day against Limerick) and somehow continue that all-out intensity until the final whistle.
And seven points by half-time won’t be enough, that’s for sure. Even John Mullane, though up-and-at-it as ever, had an off-day shooting-wise.
But he simply never gives up, and no matter what happens from hereon in, here’s hoping he gets all the gongs that are going at season’s end.
His outstanding winning point, collecting a lay-off from the dashing Declan Prendergast (a critical cameo from the much-maligned Decies defender) and letting fly off his left at full pelt, was pure poetry in motion.
It was fitting reward for Mullane’s selfless efforts in taking so much punishment to supply frees for the consistent-as-ever Eoin Kelly, who was much more influential out the field, even though carrying an ankle.
Twelve points is no mean feat, but there’s much more in his locker from open play as well.
Yet it was Kelly’s cousin, you-know-who, who stole the show. In just six-or-so minutes Dan Shanahan showed that he still has that special something to offer.
So what if he’ll never reach the heady heights of 2007 again – when as a certain farrier is fond of saying he was ‘World Hurler of the Year’ – but with a couple of catches the Lismore legend (and I don’t use that word lightly) set Semple Stadium abuzz.
As mentioned, Waterford’s work rate was constant (both teams’ no-quarter approach producing a fairly drab hour’s hurling) and the way they kept going for the full 72 minutes confirmed that, while some of them may be in the twilight zone, they’re fighting fit.
Captain Stephen Molumphy, this column’s man-of-the-match, exemplified that energy and toughness, covering acres of ground as a midfield runner-cum-auxiliary half-back and winning the hardest of ball, breaking or otherwise.
Though sprinkled more in grit than gold dust, it was a victory achieved thanks to notable, low-key performances throughout the field.
On goal Clinton Hennessy was calm as you like (or fret over) and made a fine first-half save.
The full-back division, with Aidan Kearney composed and snappy in the pivotal position (contributing a fine long-range clearance for the goal), was a really tight unit, as Eoin Murphy and Noel Connors helped confine Joe Canning, Damien Hayes and company as best as anyone could have expected. And sure Tony was Tony, no fear there.
Spreading the scores continues to be a concern, however.
Before Mullane’s last-gasp coup de grace, of the listed ‘front six’ only Seamus Prendergast (early on) and Kelly (well into the second half) had scored from play, a point apiece; though the latter was rightly outraged to see a lovely ‘double’ just before the break waved wide by the umpires, whose equally-culpable counterparts at the other end gave Joe Canning a score that, from the corner of the terrace, was clearly outside the posts.
In the understandable rush to hail big Dan’s impact, the only one of the replacements to get on the score sheet was Shane Walsh, whose smart first-time finish opened the Fourmilewater clubman’s championship account at long last, having had fairly desperate misfortune with injuries.
Waterford’s score-shyness can be partially put down to the ‘defensive’ brief given to the likes of Prendergast and Shane Casey, who did a heap of unglamorous spadework between them.
The same can be said of Kevin Moran, who, while not accustomed to wing-forward, drove over two fine points on the turn.
Credit to the management, whose substitutions and positional switches worked a treat, setting the tone for that finishing flourish as Waterford threw caution to the breeze behind them and went direct.
A case in point was Shane O’Sullivan, who was defiance personified when he swapped centre-back duties with Michael Walsh, a natural midfielder, in the second half, giving Waterford the foothold as Galway failed to kick on.
Sent on ahead of his famous sibling, Muiris made an immediate impression, his carefree directness putting Galway on the back foot at a stage when a few more scores would have seen them out of sight.
It was Dan’s aerial ability and astuteness, however, that swung things. Big-game experience is a huge asset and Waterford were thankfully able to call on a man with plenty of previous, and a point or two to prove as well.
Unlucky not to have found the top corner himself when he fetched and fired a cross-shot inches wide, the next time Shanahan rose to claim he was allowed an advantage by Diarmuid Kirwan and hand-passed to Walsh, who coolly shot past the advancing Callanan.
So having been half-a-dozen down at one stage of the second half, Waterford were suddenly back to within a point of a by-now-reeling Galway. Game on, and before they knew it, it was game over.
Within the blink of an eye Kelly nailed another free, followed by Mullane’s worthy injury-time winner. Just like that. What could you say only…Wow!
Few outside their inner circle will give Waterford a prayer going up to Croke Park, scene of last September’s slaughter. Kilkenny people will be quietly licking their lips, looking forward to a decider with Tipperary, who won’t have it easy against Limerick, who are looking resilient at least under Justin McCarthy.
Waterford will never have more motivation. Atonement will be a much-used word. For Waterford it will have only one meaning: Winning – no matter how stacked the odds will be against them.
It may be a game too soon for Ken McGrath, who wasn’t even jogging up to last weekend. But you never know. Fate has curative powers.
Reflecting on the All-Ireland final “nightmare” earlier this summer he said: “I think that’s why a lot of fellas are coming back this year, they want to prove that day isn’t what we’re about. There’s more in us than that.”
Just as there was more in Dan too. As there is in others. They might look unbeatable, but Kilkenny will lose some day. With rare courage, Waterford will dare to believe it or they wouldn’t have bothered coming back for more. Aren’t we so glad they did?