Everything is different in Dublin. When you’re in Thurles, part of the attraction is that the whole town seems to have been built for the games. You nearly feel special.
When you reach Dublin, however, the influx of provincial folk barely makes a ripple. You nearly feel cold. It also makes it much more tense.
The sense of occasion is replaced with a sense of dread, a fear of the finality of it all. It’s not just the place though. The hurling is different too. It’s just all business when you reach the other capital.
That hurling wildness that Wexford’s Derek ‘Gizzy’ Lyng refers to changes in Croke Park when August comes around. It’s a wildness of desperation as opposed to one of expression. The sense of freedom that goes with the Munster Hurling championship gives way to a brutal fight for survival and progression as the stakes are raised.
Cork and Waterford have given hurling a lot over the past 15 years. But while the epic Munster finals of 2003 and 2004 and the thriller in Thurles in 2007 might be more memorable for some, I’ve always had a soft spot for the clashes in Croke Park.
Four games in three years from 2005 to 2007. Four games decided in the last ten minutes.
Four games rich in drama, euphoria and heartache. Things are just different up there.
The most vivid memories of all four encounters were the tension and the goals.
The tension was all consuming on the terraces, in the stands and on the field.
Right from the throw-in markers were put down.
In 2005 it’s Tony Browne, a man who seemed to always do the right thing, pulling on a ball aimlessly over the sideline while taking a piece of Niall McCarthy with it. In 2006 it’s Eoin Kelly bouncing off Jerry O’Connor without the Newtown man breaking stride and in 2007 it’s O’Connor again, this time tangling with Stephen Molumphy.
What Waterford had then that they might lack now is forwards who kept you up at night, worrying. Up in the stands you always feared what Flynn, Mullane, Dan and Kelly could do to you. But you also trusted the Cork backs to contain them.
O’Sullivan, Murphy, Curran and Seán Óg.
And if all else failed there was Dónal Óg. But there was always the worry, always the tension. The only thing capable of lifting that? Goals. Moments of pure elation that purged all of the angst away and let you temporarily take leave of your senses. Once they went your way that is.
2005 and 2006 went Cork’s way. In 2005 it was the great Brian Corcoran’s ingenious piece of improvisation. The drop-shot that arrowed beautifully into the far corner, turned a stalemate into a three point lead and broke Waterford’s resolve.
In 2006 it was the carefree enthusiasm of youth. Joe Deane finally got a run on the Waterford defence before slipping the ball to Cathal Naughton who paid no respect to the magnitude of the situation as he blasted it home. One point down; two points up.
But there was more to come in this one, as Brian Gavin incredulously gave Waterford a chance at the death to level it. But Dónal Óg was there and again Cork survived, and progressed.
The drawn game of 2007 saw Cork re-discover their knack for scoring lots of goals as Kieran Murphy and Neil Ronan filled their boots. However, they’d also began leaking them at the other end but it was only another intervention from Gavin that saved Waterford, after a stunning save from Cusack.
Inevitably it would be Dan Shanahan who would have the last word in this saga.
In the replay, his 57th minute goal was his fourth in the four games and signalled the death knell for Cork’s challenge. However, for Waterford the victory was to be a Pyrrhic one, with Limerick catching them a week later.
In the movie ‘Field of Dreams’ Archie ‘Moonlight’ Graham brilliantly describes his brief flirtation with the major leagues, how close he came to making it. After his half an inning in the field he thought that he’d be back again: “Back then” he says “I thought, well, there’ll be other days. I didn’t realise it was the only day.”
Ken McGrath lying prostrate on the ground after the ’06 game is the image that best exemplifies the fine margins when you reach Dublin. He’s crestfallen, broken, inconsolable. He’s a man that knows that while there may be other days, this was probably the only day.
As for this weekend?
Losing in a semi-final is a personal torture for players. Both teams have experienced it. You might be close but you might as well be nowhere.
It’s all business now. There is no other day. Only Sunday.
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