Wow. So this is what it feels like to reach an All-Ireland final. Christmas, birthdays and first kisses all rolled into one.
That sickening feeling which Waterford fans have become associated with at this time of year was gloriously absent at Headquarters on Sunday. So this is what it feels like to reach an All-Ireland final.
There was an air of disbelief at full-time. Waterford had done it after a magnificent hurling battle against the League and Munster champions.
It wasn’t easy – it was never going to be and it could just as easily have gone Tipperary’s way in a glorious ding-dong battle. But few could argue that Davy Fitzgerald’s team didn’t deserve their victory. They fought like dogs for it.
Despite Kilkenny’s awesome display against Cork, described by a learned colleague as “the defining performance of the Cody era”, Waterford’s renaissance remains the story of the hurling summer.
Everywhere one looked at full-time on Sunday, there were tears. Be it on the pitch, the stands or even in the supposed haven of impartiality that is the press box, eyes were welling up. And why not?
This was one of those performances one always hoped Waterford would produce in Croke Park – not for the sake of selling a few extra papers, not even for the supporters’ sake – but for the players’ sake. Theirs alone.
Ken McGrath sunk to his knees, joined by Tony Browne. John Mullane leapt into the embrace of a manager who has clearly struck a cord with t hese players, many of whom he went into battle against hardly an eon ago.
While Eoin Murphy was receiving treatment in the second half, Davy Fitzgerald strode towards the scene under the Hogan Stand, where a few players from either team traded handbags.
Having already bounced off Joe Dooley during a tense moment on the Semple sideline a few weeks back, one wondered what would come of Fitzgerald’s approach this time around.
But the Waterford manager offered no more than encouraging words and a defiantly raised fist, which stirred the Deise support into a raucous roar.
He believed, the players believed and the fans believed – for this was a day when their irresistible force would not be denied.
Though Tipp, as one expected, had predictably come back well after a stunning unanswered six-point salvo from Waterford, this was destined to be a day when the Suirside light would not dim.
From Clinton Hennessy through to John Mullane, Waterford’s work ethic was a joyous and admirable sight to behold.
That energy and verve surged from the bench too, with Jack Kennedy producing the sort of cameo performance they’ll talk about for years well beyond the boundary of his native Ballyduff.
The Fitzgerald game plan was executed in its vivid manifestation yet on Sunday. When you had the ball, you held it.
If you were nearby a team mate in possession, you made yourself available, particularly when a white jersey came into contact with a Tipp player. It was real nine tenths of the law stuff.
When you didn’t have the ball, you hassled, you harried, you made life hell for the opponent with ball in tow. You gave them nothing easy and became acquainted with the hairs on the neck of the fella you were marking. If he ran 60 yards, you did too.
And while such an approach yielded several Tipperary frees which Eoin Kelly converted into six points, Fitzgerald’s tactics disrupted any sustained flow which Liam Sheedy’s men tried in vain to establish.
This was the best day which Water-ford’s backs had for many a match. By keeping tabs so well in open play on both Lar Corbett and Eoin Kelly, and rendering Seamus Butler, Hugh Maloney and John O’Brien redundant, Waterford laid the foundations for victory.
Reverting Ken McGrath into his natural slot, despite 20 tough minutes against Seamus Callinan, worked a treat.
The Mount Sion man was comfortable in his natural slot from the off, and within two minutes, a trademark catch was followed up with a beautiful low ball into the path of John Mullane, who fired over a magnificent point.
Mullane, the most agitated man in Croke Park during the final minutes of this absorbing fixture, ran himself into the ground, producing another energy-sapping, chest beating effort.
He has been outstanding all year long and has truly emerged as a leader on the pitch. He also appears to have established a great rapport with Fitzgerald, as evidenced at full-time.
Eoin McGrath again featured prominently and is clearly in the form of his hurling life, firing over three super points and covering several miles in so doing.
As for Eoin Kelly? At the moment, it’s difficult to look beyond him for the Hurler of the Year gong, not that he’ll be too preoccupied with that.
Yet again, Kelly produced a five-star display against Tipperary, opponents he clearly revels in facing and he’s now scored 40 times in four games this summer – a remarkable feat.
Stephen Molumphy produced his best performance of the year, so too did Eoin Murphy, Declan Prendergast and Kevin Moran, while Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh was magnificent in midfield.
Tipp’s midfield duo of Shane McGrath and James Woodlock were, despite McGrath’s brilliant efforts, well shackled for most of the game by both Walsh and Jamie Nagle, surely Waterford’s ‘rookie’ of the year.
Switching Walsh with Molumphy into attack proved a masterstroke, as did Kennedy’s introduction – with the Ballyduff man producing a glorious 20 minutes, his finest in senior colours by some distance.
The euphoria at full-time was completely and entirely justified, but the tempered comments of Fitzgerald, Kelly and McGrath afterwards were particularly noteworthy. For this is still a year without a title to Waterford’s name.
There can be no greater hurling obstacle to clear than the one posed by Noel Hickey, Brian Hogan, Eddie Brennan and co.
Kilkenny are chasing their own history and they will enter the September 7th final as justified favourites, given their magnificent pedigree at this time of the year.
Aiming for a remarkable sixth title in nine seasons and a three-in-a-row which will consolidate their sporting immortality, Kilkenny’s drive and hunger remains unquestioned.
But come the first Sunday in September, they will encounter opponents who have been beating on a Jones’s Road door for a decade, now hell-bent on victory.
To lift Liam McCarthy will require arguably Waterford’s finest ever display. But after producing their greatest performance of the modern era on Sunday last, the Deise will enter the final full of respect for their decorated opponents. But fear them they shall not.
So this is what it feels like to reach an All-Ireland final. Great, isn’t it?