Champs manage to ride out wild Wexford storm
Waterford 0-17 Wexford 1-13
So that old bronchial sound supposedly whistling up out of Wexford was, as Liam Dunne averred, just another empty rumour.
They had Waterford in a choke-hold here and, for a time, the whole place thrummed with the energy of people palpably tired of being traduced by worthless grumblings. The defending National League champions figured out a way to survive in the end, but Wexford reclaimed some semblance of their better selves in defeat.
They went down by a hair's breadth in a game, as Derek McGrath alluded, unfiltered by any sense of equivocation on either side.
And for Dunne, ludicrously left to defend a private five-day break in Spain last week, the sting of defeat was at least softened by the clarity with which his players hurled. Had they maybe shoehorned a lot of last week's bad weather into one big, purposefully redemptive performance?
"I didn't even mention it to tell you the truth," smiled the Wexford manager after. "To be fair, we were waiting in the long grass here. I was expecting we'd beat them to tell you the truth."
They might have done, too, but for the fact that - in Maurice Shanahan - the champions had a free-taker of almost metronomical accuracy whilst Wexford spurned five scoreable frees. That apart, as McGrath put it, "there was absolutely nothing between the teams."
Wexford opened like men certainly hurling for their manager, stretching 0-5 to 0-0 clear inside the opening eight minutes. With Austin Gleeson sited in an attacking role for Waterford, Dunne deployed Diarmuid O'Keeffe to be his shadow. The move worked so well, Gleeson was restored to defensive duties by the 19th minute, Wexford now leading 0-8 to 0-2.
But Waterford never allowed panic contaminate their hurling and there was something impressively mature about the manner in which they eased their way through the storm, outscoring Wexford 0-6 to 0-0 between the 20th and 34th minutes. Old soldiers like Michael 'Brick' Walsh and Kevin Moran were fundamental to that recovery and, though a 35th-minute Harry Kehoe point gave the home team a 0-9 to 0-8 half-time lead, the expectation was that Waterford's superior physical strength would get them home from there.
With both teams supplementing their numbers at the back, goal chances were at a premium, so when a huge Shanahan free from inside his own half gave Waterford the lead for the first time after 45 minutes, it looked like this game had found its defining rhythm.
But substitute Kehoe instantly responded with a Wexford point and, when Gleeson then restored Waterford's advantage, Aidan Nolan delivered another instant response from the home team. On the line, Dunne - arms folded - quietly beamed with pride. "I thought Waterford were sort of waiting for us to die in the second half," he said later. "But the boys, in fairness, dug deep."
They looked to be hurling themselves to near exhaustion however against visibly bigger opponents and, when four Shanahan points eased Waterford 0-16 to 0-12 ahead with less than ten minutes remaining, it was hard to see a way back for Wexford.
But then, with just four minutes of normal time to go, we got the goal we presumed would be elusive. Wexford substitute, Cathal Dunbar, delivered long towards the Waterford 'square' and Conor McDonald made a great, high fetch, turned and forced the sliotar past Stephen O'Keeffe. There and then, the roof of the stand almost came away from its moorings.
One minute later, Gleeson dropped a monster free into Conor O'Leary's hands and Wexford counter-attacked brilliantly, O'Keeffe making a 60-yard dash down the right wing before offloading to the now rampant Kehoe who scored his third point of the game.
But that calmness never quite left Waterford, nor did that big-game savvy. With a minute of normal time remaining, 'Brick' won a free maybe 70 yards from O'Leary's goal and, in the mood Shanahan now found himself in, the score might as well have been already in Johnny Ryan's book.
Thereafter, it was all largely frenzy and noise, Wexford chasing a score that could have brought extra-time, Waterford - for whom Tadhg de Burca was outstanding - putting up resolute road blocks. In the bustle, Shane Fives ran over the referee like a freight train, sending Ryan tumbling to the ground.
But within seconds, Johnny had sufficient breath restored to blow the final whistle.
Afterwards, Dunne suggested he had been seen locally as some kind of dangerous heretic for believing that Wexford could ever win. "Sure 'twas hardly worth our while coming here in the first place according to everyone," he smiled. "We had a different view, but no-one was believing me."
They have seven weeks now to a championship opener against Dublin in Croke Park whilst Waterford will continue their defence of the League with a semi-final against Limerick on Sunday week. McGrath expressed contentment that his team had weathered a storm they knew full well was coming their way.
"History will show you Wexford are extremely dangerous when they're written off," he reflected.
He also expressed support for Dunne. "I'm actually pleased for Liam that they got such a good performance, because I know how hard he works," said McGrath. "I remember we were relegated in our first year and, before the club championship, I went with my wife and two children to Portugal for four days. I missed no session. But I got a text saying, 'Waterford hurling's in crisis and the manager is in Portugal!'
"So I could really relate to what he (Dunne) went through this week."
SCORERS - Waterford: M Shanahan 0-12 (9f, 1 '65), A Gleeson 0-2, P Mahony, M Walsh and P Curran 0-1 each. Wexford: I Byrne 0-4 (3f, 1 '65'), H Kehoe 0-3, C McDonald 1-0, L Chin and A Nolan 0-2 each, S Tomkins and P Morris 0-1 each.
WATERFORD - S O'Keeffe 7; S Fives 7, B Coughlan 6, N Connors 7; T de Burca 8, P Mahony 7, J Barron 7; C Dunford 7, K Moran 8; M Walsh 7, P Curran 6, J Dillon 6; A Gleeson 7, M Shanahan 9, S Bennett 6. Subs: T Devine 6 for Curran (45 mins), B O'Halloran 6 for Dillon (50), S McNulty for Connors (64).
WEXFORD - C O'Leary 7; J Breen 7, P Foley 7, L Ryan 8; D O'Keeffe 7, E Moore 6, J O'Connor 6; M O'Hanlon 7, L Chin 8; S Tomkins 7, I Byrne 6, A Nolan 7; P Morris 7, C McDonald 6, L Og McGovern 6. Subs: H Kehoe 8 for O'Connor (33), A Shore 6 for Byrne (52), A Kenny for Nolan (60), C Dunbar for Tomkins (61), D Dunne for McGovern (69).
REF - J Ryan (Tipperary).