SINCE his debut senior season in 1991, Tony Browne has starred in many big occasions for Waterford hurlers.
Never before, however, can he have produced a display as stellar as in this, the Munster final replay, in rain-splashed Semple Stadium on Saturday evening.
Tony celebrated his 37th birthday on July 1, but in the dying seconds of extra time, he was the man outlasting everyone else, defying time, defying the elements, defying Cork.
Just six days ago he scored the injury-time goal that earned Waterford this replay. Now, as Cork came forward in wave after wave of attack, themselves in search of an equalising goal, it was Browne who was stepping into man every threatened defensive breech.
Three clearances in one minute alone, the 88th of the game, the third of those a fine catch of yet another high centre as Cork looked to capitalise on their two giants up front, Aisake Ó hAilpín and Michael Cussen.
The final say was the most crucial of all; showing great patience, fantastic control, Cork worked the ever-dangerous Cathal Naughton into position for a final shot.
It was a rocket, hit right on the meat from well within goalscoring range, but it never reached its intended target as Tony put his body on the line and took the full force of the shot on his helmet. The ball rebounded to safety, and Cork were finally overcome.
"An amazing game," said Browne. "And to go to extra-time — nip-and-tuck the whole way. It was an honour to be involved in that type of game and to see our younger lads working like that. They never gave up and kept going at it. There was just such an atmosphere there that we were never going to lose it. It was another Cork/Waterford classic, and I’m shattered. !But what a fantastic win for Waterford."
The pity is that this game, yet another terrific advert for hurling, didn’t have the day it deserved, didn’t have the crowd it deserved, didn’t have the respect it deserved from those who made the decision to play it on a Saturday at 7pm.
Not since 1983, (with Cork justifying their red-hot favourites tag and blowing Waterford away for the second year in a row), has there been such a pathetically small crowd (22,763) for what is one of the biggest annual events on the GAA calendar.
What a slight it was to these two great warrior-laden teams to schedule this game for the shadows, to stage it at a time and on a day when interest was bound to be down. There was Tony Browne himself, there was John Mullane with three invaluable points from play; there was Eoin Kelly with eight; Shane Walsh, Kevin Moran, young Brian O’Halloran and Richie Foley from a sideline, all coming up with a score each.
There was Shane O’Sullivan with another magnificent midfield display, Brick Walsh with an almost superhuman performance at centre-back, keeper Clinton Hennessey with a point-blank save from Michael Cussen, corner-backs Noel Connors and Eoin Murphy with goal-saving interventions.
And there was big Dan Shanahan, on only in extra-time but with the game-deciding goal, in the 83rd minute, beating Donal Óg Cusack with a fine shot to the corner after sublime work by Kelly and another sub, Eoin McGrath.
"I was a bit pissed off that I didn’t get on near the end of normal time," said Shanahan. "But I did my bit when I came on. I know where the net is — when I get my chance, I take it."
For Cork, heroes also, in defence especially, none more so than Shane O’Neill and Ronan Curran. With both of those off the field for extra-time, however, O’Neill injured in the 35th minute, Curran in the 70th, it was a bridge too far for the Rebels. They worked so hard, created four clear goal-scoring chances (including a penalty won by Cussen, John Gardiner’s shot deflected over by Shane O’Sullivan), but 13 wides, against just six by Waterford, hurt their cause.
Ultimately, however, what cost Cork, what saved Waterford, was Tony Browne. Cork came up against Father Timeless.
Quick summary of the game: At half-time it was Waterford leading by four points, 0-8 to 0-4, Cork having had seven wides to none for the Déise, missed three goal-scoring opportunities; second half, and courtesy of a freaky Ben O’Connor goaled free from 21m in the 46th minute, out on the right touchline, a searing shot that streaked past Hennessey, it was Cork in the lead for the first time (1-8 to 0-9) and looking more likely winners. Four points in a row, however, showed the true character in this Waterford team, and as the game came to a close, they were now the ones looking most likely. So it proved, in extra time with Dan Shanahan’s goal, Tony Browne’s defensive heroics.
Last word to Browne: "It’s a great feeling now because we have a bit of silverware on the table, but we’ve done this before. There are some great teams waiting in the wings, we’re just hoping to get to another All-Ireland final and maybe do ourselves proud this time. There’s a hard road ahead."
Certainly, but what is they say about old dogs?
CORK: D Óg Cusack; S Murphy, E Cadogan, B Murphy; J Gardiner (0-2, 0-1 penalty, 0-1 65), R Curran, S O’Neill; T Kenny, C Naughton (0-2); B O’Connor (1-5f), M Cussen (0-1), N McCarthy; K Murphy, A Ó hAilpín, P Horgan.
Subs: R Ryan for O’Neill (35), P O’Sullivan (0-2) for Horgan (half-time), L O’Farrell for K Murphy (66), L McLoughlin (0-1) for Curran (end of normal time, injured),
WATERFORD: C Hennessy; E Murphy, L Lawlor, N Connors; T Browne (0-1f), M Walsh, D Prendergast; S O’Sullivan, R Foley (0-1 sideline); S Prendergast, K Moran (0-1), E Kelly (0-8, 0-6f); S Molumphy, J Mullane (0-3), S Walsh (0-1).
Subs: B O’Halloran (0-1) for S Prendergast (49), M Shanahan for S Walsh (61), J Nagle for Lawlor (68), D Shanahan (1-0) for Mullane (end of normal time, injured), E McGrath for Molumphy (80).
Referee: B Gavin (Offaly).