The “fall off in performance as the year wears on” that Derek McGrath was warning about last week: Is it going to materialise at all or was the sly young fox simply peddling a line that many of us media simpletons obligingly bit on?
This much we know for sure. Waterford will at worst be hurling up to the last weekend in July. Year Two of McGrath’s reign has yielded not only a National League title but also real, tangible, verifiable progress in the championship. Waterford may or may not be the team of tomorrow. For the moment they remain the team of today.
From midway through the second half the outcome wasn’t in doubt. The Déise, having taken time to find their groove without losing their heads in the search, were ticking over smoothly, poised and patient and composed. Their opponents looked a beaten docket. No fire, no fury, no indignation. No Corkness.
There was a brief flurry of excitement when a toppling effort from the wing by Pa Cronin was belatedly adjudged to have gone over the crossbar before Stephen O’Keeffe pulled it down, another upon Luke O’Farrell’s late dismissal, and after Patrick Horgan sank a 69th-minute penalty a ripple of excitement coursed through the old place as the board for injury time was hoisted with the number four blinking on it.
Were Cork about to bring off an outrageous heist? As it transpired, no. Waterford attacked again and Brick Walsh set up Tom Devine to bundle in the winners’ third goal. As with the Modeligo man’s goal in the league final it was no thing of beauty. Now as then he hasn’t the slightest reason to apologise.
Thus Devine maintained his improbable new incarnation as a goalscoring substitute while a manager whose system demands a 20-man game duly made sure he got his subs on and got them on in good time. Waterford’s four pairs of fresh legs between them hit 1-3. It wasn’t so much that they turned the issue — the issue was firmly in their grasp at it was — as that they put it to bed. Were this a baseball game Devine, Shane Bennett (two points from three shots) and Patrick Curran (a point) would have been McGrath’s closers. Highly effective ones.
The county’s team of the noughties had stars in abundance but not a lot in the way of depth. The current outfit hasn’t a lot of stars but has depth in abundance. It’s a combination that has taken them a ridiculously long distance in a short space of time.
What would Waterford do differently here as compared to in the league final? It wasn’t the burning question of the day but it was an apposite one nonetheless. They couldn’t come back with the same hand as last time out, a la Cyril Farrell and Galway in 1986, and they didn’t. Yesterday they hit Cork with goals. Consciously. “And now for my next trick...” The timing was crucial.
The opening 20 minutes had been a blur of red and white. Movement all over the place, Stephen McDonnell embarking on a run that took him almost to the Waterford endline, Aidan Walsh winning plenty of ball on Austin Gleeson but off beam with his shooting. Cork led by 0-6 to 0-2 and were well worth it. Worth a little more than that, even.
Then in the 26th minute Gleeson lifted a divine ball over the top to Maurice Shanahan, who turned and hung it up past Anthony Nash. A couple of minutes later Jake Dillon came steaming through to take Walsh’s lay-off and set the rigging bulging. Waterford led by a point at the break, 2-6 to 0-11. Cork had, it would gradually emerge, shot their bolt.
Technically and literally the summer isn’t over for them. Putting it in practical terms, however, the jig is up. Yesterday was a day for a statement, an afternoon to banish the bad odour of the league final. In the event they gave it what they could and came up well short.
They at least managed what they so utterly failed to achieve five weeks earlier and produced a performance on the day. Well, kind of. A more truthful account of it would be that they produced a performance in the first half before dying a lingering death thereafter. If they were a little unfortunate to be trailing by a point at the end of the opening period, having done more of the hurling, they were in no way unfortunate to be trailing by four at the final whistle.
Although Pa Cronin proved a splendid understudy for Seamus Harnedy, landing five points from five shots, the latter’s industry was missed nonetheless. The best forwards are pests. They’re always going around poking their noses into other people’s business, looking in windows, popping up in places they have no right to be. You’d hate them as next-door neighbours. In Harnedy’s absence Cork had nobody up front bar Cronin to annoy Waterford.
In the Boat Race every year the two coxes call for a renewed push at key points: Passing the Harrod’s Repository or whatever. Here the stage was set for Cork, heartened by their own eagerness and appetite in the opening 35 minutes, to push on upon the restart.
You know, the kind of post-interval push Kilkenny have made an art form of. An increase in stroke rate and a power surge that results in a scoring burst that kills off the opposition.
A push ensued alright but it came from the men in white and blue. Shanahan a free, Shanahan another free, Colin Dunford a point on the burst up the right-hand touchline. A one-point game had become a four-point game. That was more or less the way it would stay to the end.
Talking of Shanahan: Pauric who? Pauric Mahony wasn’t there to do his stuff from placed balls. Waterford didn’t miss him.
They had Maurice Shanahan. He started poorly with two early wides, yes, but he quickly found his feet and from there on, quite apart from his goal, he did so much more than merely converting the frees, valuable a job as that is. He was target man, leader of the line and, in the space of two minutes in the second half, creator of scores for Stephen Bennett and Kevin Moran. Star of the hour on a team of medium-sized stars who cast a glow all of their own.
The man from WLR FM popped up in the press box afterwards to inform us that Waterford had had no fewer than seven U21s on the field at various stages of the proceedings. The team of today, yes. And maybe, just maybe, the team of tomorrow too.
The merry-go-round continues to whirl.