Maturing Waterford serve notice of revival
Waterford 2-21 Dublin 1-19
The last time Waterford met Kilkenny they shipped four goals in a 2014 League match, lost by 20 points and shut the door on the outside world for an hour afterwards to ask hard questions of themselves and where they were going.
It felt like the low watermark for this team, a cathartic feel to proceedings as Derek McGrath reflects now with the comfort of progress to an All-Ireland semi-final against the All-Ireland champions embellishing their impressive transformation so much more.
"We had fairly strong words in the dressing-room afterwards, not looking for faults just looking for what direction we wanted to go.
"We had an idea as a management, myself and Dan (Shanahan) in particular, where we wanted to go into the future. We've gone that direction and it has been relatively successful."
McGrath sees it as an apt "parallel" now, less than two weeks out from crossing paths again with those same Kilkenny players that put them to the sword so brutally that day.
They'll go to Croke Park a different team, more compact, more assured in what they're doing. And maybe this All-Ireland quarter-final victory will give them more faith in what they're doing than any of their previous eight victories and draw that took them to a League title and Munster final.
For the first time since before their 'winner-takes-all' League match against Wexford in March, they were favourites.
Not an easy dynamic when you're not used to it and when many of this team were perhaps burdened by it in a Munster U-21 semi-final against Clare only 11 days earlier.
McGrath listened to conversations back home and recoiled from the general theme. "Waterford supporters, I wouldn't say dismissed Dublin, but it was a case of, 'Are you going today? No, I'm waiting for the semi-final'.
"And I'm saying, 'We're playing a team looking to get into their third semi-final'. When you say this you are accused of being a cute manager, building up the other team."
They coped with new-found favouritism first and eventually thrived on it, the twin attacking forces of Maurice Shanahan and Shane Bennett wreaking their own brand of havoc on Dublin. Between them they scored and created goals for each other, the timing and impact of both in the second half perfectly calibrated to see them home.
Shanahan finished with 1-12, missing just one attempt from nine placed balls while Bennett won four frees for Shanahan to convert and turned over Peter Kelly in one memorable second-half moment to set up a score for Gleeson. This in his first ever Championship start, still five months short of his 19th birthday.
"He is an enigma in terms of his whole approach to the game," said McGrath. "I thought today was the first time he really brought his work ethic higher than it had been in other games."
They still needed the rugged presence of their few grizzled veterans to ensure they saw port through the few storms Dublin managed to whip up.
Kevin Moran had Shane Barrett shadowing effectively for much of the match and took time to get up to his usual load, but Michael 'Brick' Walsh foraged and hassled and made his presence felt with so many telling tackles and assists. His work for this team at close quarters has been immense, freeing up so many others to go and play as Colin Dunford will testify for his first point, Waterford's third in only the fourth minute.
Waterford set up differently in the first half, starting Gleeson at midfield and resisting the 'safety in numbers' approach to defence with only Moran tasked with the free role.
But critically they went to default after the break and turned a 0-13 to 0-12 deficit into a seven-point (1-19 to 0-15) lead on the three-quarters mark.
"Dublin left a lot of space in the first half and it looked a bit more conventional than it was, just the way Dublin had set up," reflected McGrath.
The sides had been level seven times in the first half before Dublin edged ahead, Danny Sutcliffe enjoying his best spell of the summer to land the last two points before the break.
Ryan O'Dwyer, Dotsie O'Callaghan and Niall McMorrow all made their presence felt and Dublin, you felt, had the measure of a Waterford defence that lost Noel Connors to a 'dead leg'.
But the first goal, two minutes after the restart, was the game-breaker. Cian O'Callaghan showed just too much of the ball to Maurice Shanahan who nipped in to dispossess his marker.
Shanahan swivelled around and had the presence of mind to spot Bennett making his way into space. Bennett controlled it, looked like he was going to pick it up but then smashed it forcefully on the bounce past Gary Maguire. For the first time their lead was three, 1-13 to 0-13.
Gleeson stormed into the game, pointing from a puck-out and winning a free from another one for Shanahan to score either side of a Mark Schutte point for Dublin.
Jamie Barron drove relentlessly at Dublin putting them on the back foot and this, Dublin manager Ger Cunningham conceded, was the critical period.
"They went back to their sweeper system and looked comfortable. It (Waterford's second-half start) set the tone and we were chasing the game," he reflected.
Tadhg de Búrca, for one, was certainly more comfortable sitting in behind Darragh Fives who was picking up Schutte. They were vulnerable in the air however and Dublin sought to exploit that, Schutte's catch and turn from O'Dwyer's cross-field delivery giving him the opening to beat Stephen O'Keeffe, who still got a touch, for their only goal on 53 minutes to reduce the gap to 1-19 to 1-15.
But a Gleeson sideline from another penetrating Barron run nipped any momentum in the bud and Shanahan closed it out when Philip Mahony's clearance was deftly touched on by Curran into Bennett's path to restore a seven-point advantage.
Liam Rushe was red-carded at the end for striking Shanahan in the face with the hurl, Cunningham offering the defence that the hurl had been pulled in the build-up.
"He went to make a run and fellas ... your hurley is being pulled and there's fella blocking your runs. Liam reacted. Unfortunately, it's the fella who reacts who gets picked up," Cunningham reflected.
McGrath admitted he harboured private concerns that a loss here would paint the season in unfair light on Waterford.
"The perception would be 'they flattered to deceive,' when it was really put up to them by Tipp and Dublin, the chinks in the armoury were found. There was an element of that driving us as a management but we'd never say that to the players."
Now their season really has width at both ends. They haven't fizzled out, they haven't gone away.
Scorers - Waterford: M Shanahan 1-12 (2fs, 2 '65s), A Gleeson 0-4 (1 s-l), Shane Bennett 1-0, C Dunford, K Moran 0-2 each, J Dillon 0-1. Dublin: P Ryan 0-5 (5fs), M Schutte 1-2, D Sutcliffe, D O'Callaghan 0-3 each, R O'Dwyer D Treacy (2fs) 0-2 each, C Crummey N McMorrow 0-1 each.
Waterford - S O'Keeffe 7; S Fives 6, B Coughlan 7, N Connors 6; P Mahony 7, T de Búrca 7, D Fives 7; J Barron 8, A Gleeson 8; M Walsh 8, Shane Bennett 8, J Dillon 6; C Dunford 6, M Shanahan 9, K Moran 7. Subs: S Daniels 6 for Connors (30), P Curran 7 for Dunford (54), T Devine for Dillon (68), Stephen Bennett for Bennett (71), E Barrett for Gleeson (71).
Dublin - G Maguire 7; S Bennett 6, C O'Callaghan 7, P Schutte 8; C Crummey 7, L Rushe 6, J Boland 7; J McCaffrey 6, N McMorrow 7; P Ryan 6, R O'Dwyer 8, D Sutcliffe 8; D O'Callaghan 8, C Keaney 5, M Schutte 7. Subs: P Kelly 5 for Barrett (47), C Boland 7 for (55), D Treacy for Ryan (63).
Ref - J Ryan (Tipperary)