For a grade that appears in the crosshairs like a James Bond title sequence, U21 has much to recommend it, particularly in a spot like Walsh Park. The long-standing GAA belief that a large attendance in a smaller venue generates a terrific atmosphere (referred to by mathematicians as the Lost In Croke Park Equation) was borne out by the healthy crowd of 8,843 pushing up to the wire in the Waterford stadium.
For those within the whitewash, the particular terms of engagement at U21 prevailed for players and mentors alike. An inter-county manager at the grade has a particular mix of spiky expectations and constricted preparation with which to contend. He usually has players at his disposal who have thrived, never mind survived, at senior inter-county level, along with teenagers who may be finding the air just out of minor pretty thin.
The sense of a team may be artificial, and the number of sessions available to gel the players together is minimal, but corresponding success at minor level three years earlier — an All-Ireland title in Waterford’s case — produces plenty assumptions about the standards that need to be met.
Just as a spicy topping to the mix, a straight knockout championship and no league outlet means the notion that it’s all on the night is stronger than at any other grade: Win and there’s another warm summer’s evening together. Lose and you’re never in one space, all of you, as a team again.
With these influences and complications it’s no wonder that U21 retains a reputation for expansive entertainment: Without the time to bed in structures, but with the odd fully fledged superstar flaring occasionally, the mix is combustible. On the Tipperary 45m line last night alone, you had Ronan Maher and Tom Devine butting heads, for instance. Stationed in the corresponding spot in the other half, the coruscating Austin Gleeson.
The randomness we were used to in hurling even 10 years ago was much in evidence in Waterford yesterday evening: Pulling on the ground, for instance, soloing into trouble, striking the ball upfield without looking first (credit too to referee Johnny Murphy, who officiated sensibly and let the game breathe; two achievements that don’t always co-exist.)
And the game’s first goal was of a piece with that slight sense of chaos and urgency. Tipperary were blown for overcarrying in their own left corner, and their manager Willie Maher took issue with where Patrick Curran positioned his free — with some cause, to a neutral observer. There was quite the discussion between Maher and the officials before the free was eventually taken, and Curran’s concentration betrayed him: He topped the ball and it dropped in the square, where Stephen Bennett nudged it home.
At minor level, such a goal would be an expected cabaret turn, while at senior it’d provoke a judicial review. At U21 it comes with the territory.
The second half was dominated by Waterford, with Gleeson giving the type of performance that shows why teams now depend on systems to reduce the influence of individuals on the opposing side.
The Mount Sion man bent the game to his will with an exhibition of centre-back, pure and simple. Even though Stephen Bennett’s sumptuous flick for Peter Hogan’s goal was so good it probably had a Twitter account of its own before the final whistle, Gleeson’s irresistible power was the engine that drove Waterford’s crucial 1-6 without reply in the second half. The match ended with the ball being driven over the bar by him, fittingly enough.
Waterford’s win was probably more significant for their overall year than Tipperary’s. Derek McGrath will have left Walsh Park a happy man, with the auguries certainly better for the seniors’ All-Ireland semi-final than they were a couple of weeks ago. The mood in the south-east was certainly better: 45 minutes after the final whistle hundreds of Waterford people were still chatting to the players on the field, all except one.
Austin Gleeson was being pursued by dozens of children as he jogged off to to a TV interview: Still the central figure with nine o’clock on the horizon.