WHERE to start, who to start with?
Nobody would dispute the immense contribution of Ken McGrath, imperious at centre-back, and Dan Shanahan, inspirational in attack, to this remarkable Waterford victory at Croke Park yesterday.
Yet, as influential as they were and others like Dave Bennett in the first half and Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh in the second half, this was essentially about resilience and admirable strength of character from 20 players who combined to bring about the downfall of the Tipperary team which had ended their Munster ambitions.
And, perhaps best of all, the last of the four Guinness All-Ireland quarter-finals was the one that the championship — and the game of hurling — badly needed.
And for that, credit Tipperary for their part in an enthralling contest which ended in a welter of excitement after a late John Carroll goal revived their hopes — only to see Justin McCarthy’s side gallantly survive.
If this was one of those rare occasions when the Decies realised their potential, it still took a considerable part of the game to make it happen.
The fact is, while Shanahan got the opening score soon after the start, Waterford trailed all the way to the 24th minute before drawing level for the first time. And it would be fair to say that but for poor finishing from Tipperary it might have been a very different story.
Significantly, Waterford were coping as well with the threat from Eoin Kelly (through Eoin Murphy’s vigilant marking) as they could hope for. But their own Eoin Kelly was anonymous, clearly suffering from a lack of serious match practise.
On the other hand, with Paul Flynn unable to start because of injury, it was notable that Bennett did a marvellous job of the free-taking, hitting six points in the first half. There were other positive signs, in the form of Eoin McGrath, in arguably one of his best outings for the county, and the menacing play of John Mullane.
However, above everyone else in the team, the forward who created the biggest impression was Shanahan, through his ball-winning ability and infectious enthusiasm. And he was to come up with their only goal, at a later stage of the game when it really mattered.
Tipperary’s main strengths lay in their full-back line, where Paul Curran excelled, and at half-back, where Eamonn Corcoran did an amount of covering on the right flank. At midfield, Paul Kelly was to spoil good play with unusually poor finishing, while Shane McGrath never quite matched his Munster final form.
Up front, Carroll promised a good display with his second-minute goal, taken in style, on the run, but his hard work didn’t yield a decent return. Newcomer Francis Devanney had no chance once Ken McGrath settled down to hurl powerfully and John O’Brien made no headway against the consistent Tony Browne, until a stage in the second half when he was surprisingly withdrawn.
The net effect was that the supply to Eoin Kelly and Lar Corbett, whose pace troubled Declan Prendergast at times, was irregular and the commanding play of Tom Feeney at the edge of the goalmouth meant that there were very few goal chances.
Yet, Eoin Kelly might have produced one in the 12th minute, when Brian Phelan made a vital interception, but he had the ball in the net from a brilliantly taken penalty in the 26th minute. That put Tipperary three points in front but the teams were again level in the 33rd and the 34th minutes, before Ken McGrath had the satisfaction of putting Waterford 0-13 to 2-6 ahead at half-time.
That was from a penalty (won by the irrepressible Shanahan) which he hit well but it was brilliantly tipped over the bar by Brendan Cummins.
Having lost Bennett with an ankle injury in injury-time, they resumed with a new midfield pairing of Eoin Kelly and Michael Walsh, while Jack Kennedy took over at centre-forward. Earlier, James Murray had come in for Phelan at left half-back and he was to utilise his strength and experience to very good effect in the second half.
Additionally, Flynn was to be introduced for 25 minutes and provided three invaluable scores.
Tipperary were out of luck when Corbett created a good goal chance in the 39th minute which drew a good save from Clinton Hennessy at the expense of a 65. Eoin Kelly, who was disgracefully booed, calmly put it over the bar, but it just about kept them in touch.
Shanahan’s goal came in the 42nd minute, from a skillfully struck angled shot and while the game still had a half-hour to run, it helped Waterford build a momentum which was to sustain them to the finish.
Eoin Kelly was starting to contribute and the success of his partnership with the inspired Walsh was to see Tipp replace their two midfielders within three minutes of each other.
Now it was all about Waterford trying to maximise possession, which by and large they did — protecting their lead with valuable scores — while putting up a defensive wall for which Ken McGrath laid the foundation. Browne, too, did outstanding work and quietly but effectively Murphy kept tabs on Eoin Kelly.
With 15 minutes to go Waterford were seven points in front and looking good, but only the success of their defensive covering was keeping Tipp at bay as they maintained their challenge.
They were to be rewarded with a second goal from Carroll in the 65th minute and, with a bit of luck, they could have thrown the game wide open had Diarmaid Fitzgerald not aimed a shot across the face of the goalmouth after blocking a clearance from the goalkeeper.
After that, anything looked possible and Waterford fans breathed a sigh of relief just before the final whistle when Walsh sprinted clear of a crowded goalmouth with the ball in his possession.
Deliverance at last and fully deserved.
Scorers: Waterford: D. Shanahan 1-5; D. Bennett 0-6 frees; E. McGrath, P. Flynn (0-2 frees) and J. Mullane 0-3 each; K. McGrath (free) and M. Walsh 0-1 each. Tipperary: E. Kelly 1-8 (1-3 frees, 0-2 65’s); J. Carroll 2-0; L. Corbett 0-2; P. Kelly, J. O’Brien and W. Ryan 0-1 each.
WATERFORD: C. Hennessy; D. Prendergast, T. Feeney, E. Murphy; T. Browne, K. McGrath, B. Phelan; S. O’Sullivan (capt), D. Bennett; D. Shanahan, S. Prendergast, E. Kelly; J. Mullane, M. Walsh, E. McGrath. Subs: J. Murray for Phelan (30 mins); J. Kennedy for Bennett (injured, 37 mins); P. Flynn for O’Sullivan (46 mins); S. Molumphy for S. Prendergast (60 mins); P. O’Brien for E. McGrath (injured, 64 mins).
TIPPERARY: B. Cummins; D. Fanning, P. Curran, P. Ormonde; E. Corcoran, C. O’Mahony, H. Moloney; P. Kelly, S. McGrath; J. Carroll, F. Devanney, J. O’Brien; L. Corbett (capt), D. Fitzgerald, E. Kelly. Subs: W. Ryan for Devanney (44 mins); S. Butler for O’Brien (57 mins); C. Morrissey for McGrath (62 mins); K. Dunne for P. Kelly (65 mins).
Referee: B. Kelly (Westmeath). Steadily growing in stature, Barry Kelly did a good job of refereeing, being firm, decisive and well up with play.