As Dan Shanahan recalls, a Saturday night final between Munster rivals has a familiar ring to it, but there’s more than just one piece of silverware on the line
Lights, camera, action; Waterford and Cork in Thurles on a Saturday night.
It has all the the hallmarks of a thriller, which is exactly what it was when these rivals last met in such a setting, the Munster hurling final replay almost 12 years ago. It was an epic encounter decided by a late Dan Shanahan goal that produced some extraordinary cameos.
Fixing a league final for a Saturday evening in Semple Stadium raises few eyebrows now, but Shanahan recalls a different build-up in 2010 when a Saturday night slot felt like a downgrading of a pillar fixture.
Hurling had not acclimatised to floodlit games – some would say it still hasn’t – in 2010 and the lights in Thurles had only recently been installed.
“We were disappointed with that at the time,” said Shanahan. “We had it in our heads, Sunday afternoon, big game, sun on our backs. But the crowd in Thurles that night was poor,” recalled Shanahan. “Around 22,000, maybe it was the weather but a Saturday night for a game like it just didn’t feel right. Not for a Munster final.”
The big man’s sentiments might just have been different in the minutes after however. His extra-time goal had effectively broken this game Waterford’s way. It was his last year with Waterford and consequently his last goal and he knew it.
“I was disappointed that I wasn’t getting much game time at that time. I was coming to an end of my career but when I got the opportunity it popped up for me.
“John Mullane got injured just before extra-time and Davy (Fitzgerald) came to me in the dressing-room and said you’re going on. It was a great opportunity for me to prove a point. I set up Kevin Moran for a goal but to be fair to Cork, Seán Óg Ó hAlipín was missing with a hamstring and Ronan Curran, who had a great game up to that, was gone off with an injury so there were two key players gone off.
“For the goal, Eoin McGrath, an unsung hero for us, always laid off the ball and I was lucky enough to be on the end of it. I took it early because the weather was wet and the legs weren’t the quickest but it went in. Donal Óg (Cusack) showed me his left hand side and I saw the gap and I took it, thank God it went in.”
The game ended with a Cathal Naughton effort halted in mid-flight by Tony Browne’s helmet, the veteran midfielder, Waterford’s saviour with a late goal in the drawn game, bravely putting his body on the line.
Shanahan climbed the steps with the rest of the team afterwards, something he didn’t do often but because he knew it would be his last game in Thurles he cherished the moment, one he was able to share with his younger brother Maurice.
The night was vindication for Fitzgerald’s tactics, Shanahan acknowledged, an approach at odds with the way they had previously approached the game.
Five years later he was back in a coaching capacity with Waterford as assistant to Derek McGrath as they again saw off Cork in a final to win only a third league title for the county.
“We had a bad year in 2014 so to come on and win the league a year later, there are not many league medals in Waterford, it’s the third best trophy you can get. It’s all about winning trophies. As a player you are judged on what you win. So to win a league title, it’s one of the top three. To get one as a player and member of management, very special.”
Waterford and Cork meet now, two weeks out from the Munster Championship, as leaders in the pursuit of Limerick and both will see this as an opportunity not to be passed up.
The growth and development of Waterford’s panel has been the most eye-catching element of their league with Shanahan figuring that they now have cover for almost every position.
“I’d like to think it is (the strongest panel Waterford have had). The amount of fellas that have put their hands up. Darragh Lyons has been phenomenal at midfield in Jamie Barron’s absence. He brings a massive amount of energy.
“With Conor Prunty out at full-back they slotted Iarlaith Daly back in there and he has done a brilliant job in his last two games. This is with one player (Dessie Hutchinson) on the team from Ballygunner who are All-Ireland champions, it’s a fair statement. Pauric Mahony came on last week, got a couple of points, his brother (Mikey) came on the previous week.
“Waterford are winning games without three or four key players and I don’t think that happened in previous years. Shane Bennett, who I rate as a top-class player, is not starting. When you see Pauric and Shane not starting games, that’s the calibre of panel there is,” said Shanahan.
“They are three years now under Liam Cahill, their fitness levels are up, they have unbelievable pace but one thing I would be worried about is that they are picking up injuries at key times.”
Shanahan’s other concern is what he feel could be a false value in beating Wexford last weekend.
“I thought Wexford were very poor and Cork got a really good test against Kilkenny,” he reflected.
Cork have also been expanding their resources through the competition chiefly through Conor Lehane’s return and Ciaran Joyce’s rapid adaption.
In recent years the GAA has sought to move the league final into a Saturday night slot in Thurles as the calendar tightened but with weather interruptions (2018), a desire to play both Division 1 league finals on the same Croke Park bill (2019) and Covid – when there were no finals for the competitions (2020 and 2021) – it hasn’t happened, until now.
And it has the feel of an early-season eliminator belt with a firm second place in the rankings going into championship for the victors. A league final with real meaning.