Life as the middle child is never easy. The first Waterford-Clare game was endured, and the championship game next month is anticipated, but yesterday was an inconvenience, supposedly.
A scheduling challenge and little else — look at the attendance in Semple Stadium for a league final replay, 14,210!
As it turned out, Waterford-Clare II was a little sizzler. Goals, a late surge by the winners, controversy.
Tony Kelly’s late, late winner — struck on the run from way out on the wing — sealed a memorable contest.
At 3.29:59, it was viewed as a version of a fibre-rich cereal.
Necessary without being pleasant. A little after five o’clock it was a full Irish.
Clare will be happy this morning with their tight win, but the disappointment in the southeast will revolve around a surprising call by referee Diarmuid Kirwan to give the Banner their equalising free in injury-time.
Waterford seemed to have earned a clear free in the same passage of play which would probably have nudged them two points ahead, and Kirwan’s call incensed the Déise management, though manager Derek McGrath was measured after the game when asked about the ref’s call.
“Look, it’s a mistake, I suppose, but we make enough mistakes ourselves on the line. I don’t think anyone makes a deliberate mistake,” he said. “That’s the way it goes in sport, I could give you all the cliches you want, but that’s the nature of it.”
The man who won it for Clare acknowledged that they were chasing the game from the throw-in.
“I suppose we gave ourselves a mountain to climb really with giving away two bad goals,” said Tony Kelly.
“Look, we knew if we kept plugging away that eventually we might claw it back and we did get it back to one or two points. But even at that stage there was only one or two minutes left. Look it, I suppose when the chances come you have to take them.
“They got a chance last week and Maurice stuck it, and we got the chances this week and we took them. So you have to take your chances when the time arises at those crucial moments in games.”
McGrath also called yesterday the game that nobody was expecting, which was sharp enough. The sense of a contest in a holding pattern lasted all of 15 seconds, until Patrick Curran careered along the Clare end-line and buried a goal. A flying Tony Kelly point was followed by a Kevin Moran effort, blasted over from half-way. Why, it was just like the old times, until it became the new times all over again. The new game remains with us. The now-traditional complaint about the short passing, particularly from the puck-out, is the risk being run of an interception, and the calamity that might ensue.
Jake Dillon’s goal for Waterford yesterday came about from just such a puck-out interception, and Clare went long after that a few times — until they went short again. One malfunction isn’t indicative of a systems failure. By the same token, Waterford went long with a puck-out in that first half, and Austin Gleeson fielded to score — that didn’t mean Stephen O’Keeffe spent the rest of the game wearing the rims off the sliotars, hitting the ball as far as he could, though.
The positions? You might as well consult the rules of Quidditch. Podge Collins seemed to start not as a spare defender, but as a full Franz Beckenbauer, nobody-behind-but-the-keeper, step-out-and-carry-upfield kind of sweeper.
In terms of further innovation, check out the points scored by Darragh Fives, Pat O’Connor and David Fitzgerald from long range — natural defenders coming upfield and nailing the shots that those further upfield were struggling to find space for.
On 48 minutes, Waterford were six up and had four on the bounce. Enter Tony Kelly for a terrific finish, and a goal to kickstart Clare’s challenge. A storming Darach Honan point and there were two in it easing into the third quarter.
Waterford were able to keep Clare at bay, largely through Curran’s nerveless free-taking, until that dramatic end game and Kelly’s winner, but both sides can take plenty of comfort out of Semple Stadium.
Clare, for instance, were on the back foot after that early goal, and for much of the game, but they were able to involve Tony Kelly in the game more than the last day and reaped the rewards. For success later in the year, though, you’d feel they need John Conlon in the whole of his considerable, brawny health.
Waterford improved their shooting — their first wide of the second half came on 67 minutes — and also hit goals. They created another couple of goal chances as well, largely due to Tom Devine’s bullocking drives through the middle. Expect him to figure in June.
Both sides should absorb telling lessons, too. For the second game in a row, Clare escaped a red card, with Podge Collins very lucky not to be sent off for a loose pull early in the second half, while on the other side Noel Connors will be happy referee Kirwan was so far from the play when he connected with Aaron Cunningham’s face mask.
On both buses heading for the motorway yesterday, then, they’ll be feeling confident about... what date again?
“June 5th?” said Clare boss Davy Fitzgerald. “We’ve seen two unreal battles. Jesus, what more is going to come on June 5th? Because we know they’ll probably say to themselves ‘they beat us by a point. They’re not going to beat us the next day.’
“We’re going to say to ourselves ‘no matter what, we’re going to have to fight even harder.’ So it’s going to be crazy out there but I’m looking forward to it.”
Well, we all are. Now. Just as a dour 50 minutes last week plunged the hurling world into gloom, a reasonable facsimile of the championship in Thurles has everybody optimistic about the summer all over again. On the other hand, from now on every time a side sets up with a sweeper, people will ask why it can’t be as entertaining as this final replay.
Apologies for reducing a game played for a national title, after all, to the status of narrative maintenance, but that’s what happens in a trilogy. The middle volume is about holding the audience for the final resolution.
Yesterday’s game had a touch of The Two Towers about it also. Influenced by its predecessor and shaping expectations for its successor, it faced an uphill battle for acceptance. Thanks to a dramatic conclusion, though, it carved out a fair identity for itself.
Credit too to the men who overcame personal tragedy to be in Thurles. Clare selector Louis Mulqueen’s mother passed away in recent days, as did close relatives of Waterford’s Jamie Barron and Patrick Curran.
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