Around five minutes after the final whistle blew on Saturday evening, the heavens opened. I ran like hell for the car. I didn’t want to get drenched but I also wanted to get out before the traffic. I needn’t have worried. Every Waterford supporter in the ground was on the pitch by that stage. And there were only a handful of Galway cars ahead of me on the road out of Thurles.
The crowd was at least 5-1 in favour of Waterford. They came for a coronation, which they got. The problem was that Galway looked like a team who expected as much. They too readily accepted that this was going to be a victory parade. That was obvious from the outset when Galway lacked a plan to stifle a team that was clearly better than them. They invited Waterford onto them. At one stage of the first half I thought this was going to be 2010 all over, when Tipperary wiped Galway by 25 points, the biggest margin of victory in the history of All-Ireland U-21 finals.
This Waterford side is loaded with pure class; Austin Gleeson, the Bennetts, Patrick Curran, Tom Devine, Conor Gleeson are their standout performers but the supporting cast is just as strong. Mikey Kearney was brilliant. Mikey Harney was even better. DJ Foran caused Galway all sorts of problems. They have so much talent that Waterford has the potential to dominate Munster in the coming years.
That might sound like a brave statement after the performance Tipp delivered eight days ago but, through my involvement with the Limerick underage academy over the last two years, I’ve seen Waterford’s production line up close and personal and it’s teeming with talent.
They may not have the same quantity as Cork at the younger age groups but they aren’t far off that level. Limerick may have beaten them in Munster this year but Waterford were the only minor team in the country to beat Tipperary in 2016.
We played them at minor level too last year too and it was some battle. A couple of guys from that team – Darragh Lyons and Jordan Henley – have developed massively in the space of 15 months. Lyons was midfield last year but he was excellent at corner-back on Saturday evening. Henley was wing-back for the minors last season but, despite being replaced for the Antrim game, was a competent goalkeeper all season for the U-21s, making a brilliant late save as dusk fell on Saturday evening. How much confidence will those guys take going forward from this experience?
Waterford killed Galway with goals. The two second half strikes from Shane and Stephen Bennett were worth the admission fee alone. They went for the kill but Waterford still need to develop that overall ruthlessness that defined Kilkenny over the last decade, and which seperates all the top teams. In the third quarter, when Galway finally had a cut, Waterford looked like a team who were already getting ready to accept the cup. Galway were always going to have a purple patch but the Kilkennys of this world don’t hand you that purple patch on a plate. When Galway threw caution to the wind, it did knock Waterford off their stride in that period.
Waterford were still always in control. Austin Gleeson didn’t even have to get out of third gear. He picked up a yellow card early. Another referee could have dished out a red for a pull close to the head of a Galway player. Gleeson was trying to play the ball but he still needs to plain some of the rough edges off his game. If he does, this guy could be anything.
Waterford learned a harsh lesson last year when they were turned over in Ennis in the Munster semi-final. They stored that hurt and profited from the experience but they knew once they got over Clare and Tipperary that there was nothing going to stop them.
The system is all wrong, and has been for years now. Galway reached a final after playing just one game. Antrim are routinely slaughtered in All-Ireland semi-finals. And yet everyone is else has been murdering one another in Munster over the last couple of years to try and break out of the province. If Tipp or Limerick were there on Saturday night, you’d have had a serious, serious match. Galway were completely naïve in how they set up. They let a crazy amount of ball through their half-back line in the first half. I’m not advocating sweepers but there are times when you have to cut your cloth to suit the demands and those demands were screaming after five minutes. You cannot hope to outgun marque forwards when you don’t have them yourself at the other end. Saturday evening was a glorious chapter in the modern Waterford story but it was more than just an All-Ireland; it was a big statement. It also confirmed what we have long expected; that this Waterford generation of players has a huge future ahead of them.
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