Of the 14,410 patrons present in Thurles on Saturday, it isn’t an exaggeration to suggest that at least 12,000 of them had travelled from Déise country. As Galway manager Tony Ward predicted last week, Waterford came in their thousands to bear witness to the team they believe will, in time, deliver Liam MacCarthy. And in terms of laying a foundation for future senior success, this U21 result looks a fairly concrete base from which to build on.
There was the opening goal delivered 40 seconds after the throw-in, there was Patrick Curran’s hand-pass to set up goal number three, there was Stephen Bennett’s delicious pass to tee up his brother for goal number four, and there was Stephen Bennett’s catch-swivel-strike movement from a near-impossible angle to deliver their fifth.
There was swagger, there was confidence, there was vision, there was remarkable strength from a bunch of 20 and 21-year olds and, at the end of it all, there wasn’t a swelled head in sight.
This 16-point coronation was on par with Limerick’s victory by the same margin 12 months ago, Clare’s annihilation of Antrim in 2013 and Tipperary’s rout of Galway six years ago. In 2010, Pádraic Maher, Brendan Maher, Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher, Noel McGrath, and Michael Cahill won U21 medals six days after senior glory. In 2013, David McInerney, Tony Kelly, Colm Galvin, Podge Collins, Shane O’Donnell, and Seadna Morey won U21 and senior medals in the same month.
For this Waterford class, focus now turns to following in the footsteps of the latter two teams and conquering the one remaining — and highest — peak. “We are after winning the minor and U21, we have to step up now and try and deliver the big one,” said Austin Gleeson.
“We are just going to have to park this win and go again. We can’t listen to what is said, we just have to believe in ourselves. The ruination of a couple of players could be if they start getting big heads. That won’t happen in that dressing-room. This team more resembles a club team than a county team.
“Each lad believes in his own ability, but will never allow their feet come off the ground. If we continue to do that, God only knows where it will take us.”
Gleeson, one of eight players on Seán Power’s starting team with senior experience, was central to their opening goal. The centre-back horsed Galway forward Éanna Burke off the ball in front of the Kinane Stand, the subsequent clearance down field fell in behind the Galway half-back line where DJ Foran burst onto possession and handed the favourites the most perfect of starts.
Three Brian Molloy points (two frees) either side of two Patrick Curran minors probably would have settled the westerners were the opposition not who they were. And between the 11th and 15th minute, irreparable damage was inflicted. Foran latched onto a Míchéal Harney delivery on 12 minutes, threaded possession to Patrick Curran who sped past Declan Cronin before batting the sliotar beyond ’keeper Cathal Tuohy.
Curran’s supreme hand-pass to put through Stephen Bennett for their third goal two minutes later was another blow to the Galway solar plexus even though we were only 15 minutes in. 3-5 to 0-3 read the scoreboard, that gap stretching out to 13 by the break (3-10 to 0-6). All three goals stemmed from the breakdown of Galway attacks and Waterford powerfully pounced on those errors en route to ending a 24-year famine since their last U21 crown.
The underdogs deployed a seventh body in defence following the concession of Waterford’s third goal but the horse had long since bolted by then.
Tony Ward’s troops did start the second-half extremely brightly with Séan Linnane (0-2), Molloy, Whelan, and Éanna Burke hitting five on the bounce to leave them 3-10 to 0-11 in arrears. Thereafter, Molloy was presented with a 25-metre free. His effort scraped the wrong side of the left post and had he goaled it would have made for an interesting final quarter.
Instead, Shane Bennett flicked his brother’s pass to the net on 49 minutes, a score which stemmed from another missed goal opportunity at the other end. Stephen Bennett’s green flag on 56 minutes had a cherry on top feel to it.
Continued Gleeson: “We owe our full-forward line a lot. We knew if we got the ball to the lads inside that they would do the damage. The full-forward line we have there is unbelievable.
“It is actually scary what they can do with the ball. If we didn’t win today it would have been a disaster of a year, considering the national league final, Munster final and All-Ireland semi-final didn’t go our way. This makes up for a lot. Seeing the blue and white out there was unbelievable. This is an unbelievable feeling.”
P Curran (1-9, 0-6 frees); Stephen Bennett (2-0); S Bennett (1-1); A Gleeson (0-1 free,) M Kearney (0-2 each); T Devine (0-1).
B Molloy (0-6, 0-3 frees); É Burke (0-3); S Linnane, C Whelan (0-2 each); K McHugo (0-1).
J Hanley (Tallow); W Hahessy (Clonea), C Gleeson (Fourmilewater), D Lyons (Dungarvan); M Harney (Bunmahon), A Gleeson (Mount Sion), C Prunty (Abbeyside); M O’Brien (Ferrybank), Shane Bennett (Ballysaggart); C Roche (Shamrocks), T Devine (Modeligo), DJ Foran (Portlaw); M Kearney (Ballyduff Upper), Stephen Bennett (Ballysaggart), P Curran (Dungarvan).
A Farrell (De La Salle) for Devine (56 mins); D Ryan (Fourmilewater) for Lyons (57); B O’Keeffe (Ballygunner) for Harney (58); P Hogan (Ballygunner) for Shane Bennett (60); B Whelan (Tramore) for Hahessy (60).
C Tuohy (Tommie Larkins); C Jennings (Loughrea), D O’Donoghue (Kilnadeema Leitrim), D Cronin (Cappataggle); V Doyle (Turloughmore), S Cooney (St Thomas), S Loftus (Turloughmore); D Nevin (Cappataggle), D Dolan (Cappataggle); K McHugo (Tommie Larkins), B Molloy (Kilnadeema Leitrim), S Linnane (Turloughmore); T Monaghan (Craughwell), C Whelan (Kinvara), É Burke (St Thomas).
E Brannigan (Rahoon-Newcastle) for Monaghan (HT); J Grealish (Gort) for McHugo (42); F Burke (St Thomas) for Nevin (55); C Burke (Athenry) for Linnane (60); A Morrissey (Liam Mellows) for Dolan (60).
S Cleere (Kilkenny).