McGrath hails Deise’s heroic history-makers
Waterford 4-23 Kilkenny 2-22 SHC Round 2 Qualifier
Picture the Waterford dressing-room after they had retired there at the end of normal time in this latest gripping instalment.
An eight-point lead that looked like it would give them comfortable passage to the next round had been eaten away, and a chance for salvation, through a late Maurice Shanahan free, had been spurned.
To compound their anxiety Pauric Mahony, who had delivered six from seven from placed balls in the previous 74 minutes, had just been replaced.
The management had considered putting Mahony back on just seconds after being withdrawn but resisted. Shanahan was just on the field and looked decidedly uncomfortable as he stood over it. His effort went well wide.
The hand of history was weighing so heavily on Waterford with regard to this particular rivalry that the situation they found themselves in intensified the sense that it really was 'make or break' for this team.
They're young enough of course, but if they didn't beat a Kilkenny team with ebbing powers from a lead of 2-15 to 1-10 after 59 minutes, could they really face the future with any great conviction?
They wouldn't be human if those thoughts didn't at some stage occupy some space in their minds at some stage in those brief minutes. They needed the will to say 'enough is enough'. They had been in this position against Kilkenny too often, so near and yet so far.
But the mark of Kilkenny teams under Brian Cody has been their refusal to bend. To kill them off, inevitably, a team has to do it twice.
And so it was for Waterford. After dominating for so long, leading at half-time by 1-10 to 1-5 after a first Michael 'Brick' Walsh goal for 11 years and getting more impetus from a cracking Shane Bennett strike, provided by Walsh midway through the second half, they still found themselves being hunted down ferociously in the closing stages.
TJ Reid, off cue with three frees over the night that he would ordinarily convert but still amassing 2-12, bundled in a goal after Colin Fennelly's barging run - which could have been penalised - cleared the way for him.
Ger Aylward and Richie Leahy, thrown in after his Leinster U-21 final heroics during the week, added points before Michael Fennelly set up his brother for an equaliser.
All the time Waterford retreated, just as they did in last year's drawn All-Ireland semi-final when protecting a five-point lead, and that was reflected in their failure to score for those last 15 minutes.
"I think it was a case of chasing the line again," reflected Derek McGrath. "It was a parallel to last year's semi-final… a little bit of fatigue as well."
But in extra-time they showed courage and composure to set aside that sinking feeling and respond.
Jamie Barron led the charge, latching on to Austin Gleeson's pinpoint pass and skipping through a widening gap in the Cats defence, opting against a lay-off to Shanahan on his left, to plant a superb goal at the end of the first period.
Shanahan finished it off after the break, capitalising on Kilkenny hesitancy in dealing with a Darragh Fives delivery to skip away from the cover.
The team that reputedly doesn't attack in sufficient numbers to score goals had bagged four to bring the night to a conclusion.
The impact of the bench was significant. Brian O'Halloran ran hard to win three frees, Tommy Ryan fired over two points, Shanahan got that goal.
"We spoke about the strength of our panel and that this would be the biggest test of that. Any modicum of doubt at the end of normal time was put to bed by the performance of the subs in extra-time which is really pleasing," acknowledged McGrath.
The pressure had been building on McGrath and the team since the Cork defeat so this was a relief, the manager promising "a few pints" all round on Saturday night.
"There's a sense of… you go to two league finals, you go to two Munster finals, you don't turn up for last year's Munster final, you go to two epic All-Ireland semi-finals last year… so the pressure was building on all of us, the management and players to go the next step."
Beating Kilkenny in the Championship for the first time since the 1959 All-Ireland semi-final nudges Waterford on that journey.
But this was a Kilkenny team operating too much by memory. Michael Fennelly couldn't get into it sufficiently and Richie Hogan was withdrawn before coming back on in extra-time.
Cillian Buckley, as the extra defender, was immense, Conor Fogarty not far behind him, while Joe Lyng again served notice of his promise. Off the bench Lester Ryan had as many wides as points but was most productive, while Leahy's time is coming soon.
But for the first time in Cody's 19-year managerial reign there won't be an All-Ireland quarter-final/semi-final reached; it was Kilkenny's earliest Championship exit in 21 years.
For Kilkenny, that's recession territory, especially after League and Leinster Championship exits to Wexford, which represents their poorest season under the game's most successful manager.
Cody said his own future is "irrelevant" however pointing out that the future of Kilkenny is "very, very secure".
"I think they proved tonight how resilient they are, how competitive they are, how determined they are, and also how skilful they are. They showed an awful lot tonight," he said.
"Our team has been questioned over the year by just about everybody really. That's their prerogative but our team tonight was as competitive as is humanly possible to be, and came within a whisker of winning the game."
In the meantime, given the current climate of zero tolerance for incidents involving match officials, Cody may find himself with a case to answer after laying a hand on an official in an attempt to confront McGrath on the sideline in the first half.
For Waterford, the return to form of Gleeson, who scored five magnificent points, was most welcome, while Tadhg de Burca's towering display will live long in the memory. Operating as sweeper De Burca got involved in everything and in the fading light his red helmet acted like a beacon, the perfect metaphor for Waterford's journey to safety.
Scorers - Waterford: Pauric Mahony 0-6 (5fs, 1 '65'), J Barron, M Shanahan (0-3fs) 1-3 each, A Gleeson 0-5, Shane Bennett, M Walsh 1-0 each, T Ryan, K Moran 0-2 each, J Dillon, P Curran 0-1 each. Kilkenny: TJ Reid 2-12 (1-0 pen, 0-10fs, 0-1 '65'), L Ryan 0-3, R Leahy 0-2, K Kelly, E Murphy (f), G Aylward, R Hogan, C Fennelly all 0-1 each.
Waterford - S O'Keeffe 7; N Connors 7, B Coughlan 7, C Gleeson 8; S Fives 6, T De Burca 9, Philip Mahony 7; J Barron 8, K Moran 7; M Walsh 7, A Gleeson 9, Pauric Mahony 7; Shane Bennett 7, J Dillon 6, D Fives 7. Subs: S McNulty for Connor (44-49 blood), P Curran 5 for Dillon (48), Stephen Bennett 5 for Shane Bennett (61), M Shanahan 7 for Walsh (69), B O'Halloran 8 for Pauric Mahony (74), T Ryan 7 for Stephen Bennett (79), C Dunford for Curran (85), McNulty for Connors (86).
Kilkenny - E Murphy 7; P Murphy 7, P Walsh 7, J Lyng 7; C Fogarty 8, R Lennon 6, C Buckley 9; M Fennelly 6, P Deegan 5; TJ Reid 8, W Walsh 5, C Fennelly 7; R Hogan 6, JJ Farrell 5, K Kelly 6. Subs: G Aylward 5 for Farrell (h-t), L Ryan 8 for Deegan (h-t), C Bolger 5 for Kelly (48), R Leahy 7 for Hogan (63), L Blanchfield 6 for M Fennelly (73), M Bergin for Bolger (80), R Hogan for Aylward (85).
Ref - J Owens (Wexford)