Sunday 18 March 2018

Waterford bridge 58-year gap to blow title race wide open

Jamie Barron celebrates after scoring Waterford’s third goal against Kilkenny in Semple Stadium last night. Photo: Sportsfile
Jamie Barron celebrates after scoring Waterford’s third goal against Kilkenny in Semple Stadium last night. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Fifty eight years is a mighty long time. The last time Waterford beat Kilkenny in the championship, Eamon De Valera had just stepped down as Taoiseach, JFK was wondering whether he might seek the Democratic Party's presidential nomination and most Irish people had never seen a TV set let alone a television programme.

A run of failure like that can seem to take on an almost magical aura in the psyches of the losing county. In 1998 and 2004 and 2016 Waterford were edged out by their neighbours despite looking like the better team for long periods. But never have they looked so superior as they did when they led by eight points last night in Semple Stadium with ten minutes left.

When Austin Gleeson swept over his latest in a string of magnificent points to make it 2-15 to 1-10 it looked as though the Deise were not only going to end this painful hoodoo, but they were going to do it with something to spare.

Less than a quarter of an hour later Waterford found themselves in the dressing room faced with extra time after the Cats had produced what, even by their standards, seemed like a miraculous escape. When England trooped off after conceding an injury-time equaliser to West Germany in the 1966 World Cup final Alf Ramsey told them, "You've won it once. Now go out there and win it again." We don't know if Derek McGrath delivered the same kind of message but he certainly had some talking to do.

The underdogs were back at square one. All that had gone before, Austin Gleeson's points, Conor Gleeson's exemplary policing of Richie Hogan, Noel Connors' swashbuckling defending, the herculean effort of Tadhg De Burca, the goal at the end of the first half by Brick Walsh, who'd suffered more than anyone else at the hands of Kilkenny over the years, had been suddenly set at nought.

You wonder how Maurice Shanahan felt. He'd stood over a long range free as normal time expired in the knowledge that should he land it this would become one of the most celebrated scores in Waterford history. But the big man hadn't been on the field long and his effort tailed off wide, another so near but yet so far moment to add to his county's extensive collection. How many such chances for immortality could a career offer?

Yet early in the second half of extra time it was Shanahan who collected the ball after the Kilkenny defence got into a tangle trying to clear a long ball. It was Shanahan whose long legs brought him clear of the cover. And it was Shanahan who, holding the hurl one handed to forestall a hook, flicked the ball past Eoin Murphy with an insouciance which belied the huge importance of the moment. Because this was the clinching goal, the one which finally buried a Kilkenny side.

When you've been waiting 58 years and it seems that you've done everything but win, someone needs to stand up and say 'enough is enough.' And the man who did that was Jamie Barron, the midfielder who began extra-time by scampering through for two points and, when a third run saw him outstrip a flagging Kilkenny defence, went for the jugular and scored the goal which turned things Waterford's way. There had been a bit of cheek there too, a dummy giving him the space he needed to let loose the shot which started Waterford fans believing again.

It's often been suggested that if Waterford could shrug the Kilkenny monkey off the back they'd be emboldened to do even greater things. We shall see. There had been an aura of decline about Brian Cody's team and they offered less serious competition than would have been provided by Galway, Tipperary or Cork. Their touch was off to a degree which seemed almost sacrilegious. Their only resemblance to the great teams of recent times was in their refusal to be beaten. All the same, tradition matters a huge amount in the GAA and the enormous symbolic import of this win can only benefit Derek McGrath's side hugely.

Elsewhere shocks were threatened but not achieved. Meath found themselves getting a taste of their own medicine when a sublime point by Paddy McBrearty gave Donegal victory in injury-time. Clare started off at a rate of knots but by the end of proceedings in Ennis had been outclassed by a Mayo team inspired by its most experienced hands. There was no upset either in the first part of the Thurles double header but it was pretty upsetting for Dublin hurling fans. The only thing to say is that Seamus Callinan's 3-11 is a fine score against any opposition and that it's been quite some achievement to make the capital's senior team this bad in just two years.

But everything pales next to Waterford. It's not every night you see history made.

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