Friday 15 December 2017

Deise lower Fitzy's Banner

Waterford players and supporters celebrate as
referee James McGrath signals the end of the
game in Thurles yesterday
Waterford players and supporters celebrate as referee James McGrath signals the end of the game in Thurles yesterday
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The old ground emptied with a gasp of swallowed hysteria, leaving us scribblers high up in the press coop, condemned to bluff an understanding.

This was the Munster Championship that old-timers reminisce about with misty eyes. Two proud, inflamed teams, hurling as if there was nothing else in life worth doing. It was clumsy, intemperate, panicked, error-ridden, unrelentingly courageous and, frankly, epic.

Waterford edged it against a manager who'd guided their fortunes for the last four years and, in an oddly inappropriate little tableau at the end, John Mullane ran to celebrate directly in front of Davy Fitzgerald.

The Clare manager, sensibly, disregarded the moment, deflecting it with impressive grace. "There's so much stuff in John Mullane, it's unreal," observed Fitzgerald later. "There's no fear of that lad."

Heroes

Nor is there, for Mullane was one of their more conspicuous heroes in drawing Waterford over the mountain-top against a young Clare team that came desperately close to delivering the county's first championship win in the province since 2008.

Two remarkable late saves from championship debutant goalkeeper Stephen O'Keeffe ultimately carried Waterford into an unprecedented fourth consecutive provincial final. This is a team that keeps challenging supposed wisdom.

The game was already in injury-time when Clare substitute Darach Honan hovered up low ball and directed a sublime handpass into the path of an accelerating Conor McGrath just left of the small square.

A two-point game looked about to be jolted in the opposite direction, but O'Keeffe pulled off a stunning save and Nicky O'Connell -- his confidence spilling like corn from a sack -- missed the resultant '65'.

Then, in the third minute of stoppage-time, Clare were awarded a 20-metre free, marginally to the right of goal. They brought their goalkeeper, Patrick Kelly, up to fire the bullet. His contact was clean, but it was O'Keeffe's hurley again that got the crucial ricochet.

Seconds later, James McGrath spread his arms. A humanitarian gesture for those of us feeling dizzy.

It had been a wonderful contest, routinely tilting in opposite directions as both sides emptied themselves of all they had. Waterford's return to a more direct style looked to have them pushing clear, particularly when an unanswered 1-4 scoring burst between the 10th and 17th minutes edged them four points ahead.

Descending high ball had all manner of sirens wailing in the Clare full-back line, yet the goal came from what -- on replay -- was confirmed as a harshly awarded penalty.

Eoin Kelly had drifted in to full-forward and, as Richie Foley's long free came dropping towards the square, Kelly tugged at Cian Dillon's helmet. The full-back seemed to fall off balance, his arm reaching around Kelly's neck. McGrath saw the second act only, booking an unfortunate Dillon. Kelly nailed the penalty.

Six minutes later, Waterford had another goal from another high delivery. This time Dillon missed it and Patrick Kelly overshot the runway in his attempt to spoon the sliotar to safety. Shane Walsh nudged the ball home one-handed, like a farmer hurrying a sheep into a pen.

Davy Fitz's preference for thoughtful, carefully guarded use of possession was crying out for patience now. Clare's two-man full-forward line had begun to look increasingly isolated, especially with an adventurous O'Keeffe virtually supplementing his full-back line as an extra body.

Waterford were clearly winning midfield and Mullane's clever diagonal runs from left wing to right had his marker, Conor Cooney, employed in a thankless task of damage limitation.

But Clare were thrown a lifeline 23 minutes in when two Waterford defenders collided and Padraig Collins crossed from the left corner for John Conlon to beat O'Keeffe with a rasping finish. It was game on.

Conlon, Jonathan Clancy and Conor McGrath all looked to have the beating of their markers, though the latter's influence waned a little when debutant Stephen Daniels was moved across after Aidan Kearney's early booking.

Waterford had a better ball-winning capacity, particularly in the middle third where Kevin Moran and Seamus Prendergast were, at times, majestic in the air.

Yet, by the mid-point, their lead was a miserly two as a brace of late Conlon points left Clare looking perfectly primed for a team that hadn't hurled with any palpable freedom.

Two quick Waterford points just after the resumption then prefaced Clare's best period of the game. Between the 39th and 50th minutes, they struck five unanswered points to go in front by a point, the fifth an enormous free from deep in his own half by goalkeeper Kelly.

If Waterford's fitness, either mental or physical, was up for question, now was that moment.

Their answer, though, proved exemplary. Five unanswered scores of their own were delivered, three of them frees, the others from Mullane and the magnificent Stephen Molumphy.

REALISATION

Clare, mind, got four of the next five scores and a realisation began to dawn that the game was lurching towards a late terror-ride. Critically, for Clare, O'Connell's free-taking was now in mini-crisis.

On the stroke of 70 minutes, Martin O'Neill's point at the Killinan end effectively ended the scoring. But the fourth official had announced three minutes of added-time and they were to prove minutes scripted by Dante.

Between O'Keeffe's two wonder-saves, Honan would twice fail to get the sliotar to co-operate while in a goal-scoring position and, at the other end, Thomas Ryan had his pocket brilliantly picked as he lined up a potential kill.

"I still think there's a savage amount in that Waterford team but anybody that knows my style, knows I won't be throwing in the towel too easy," said Davy Fitz at the end.

Michael Ryan reflected: "It's a big result for us, there's no two ways about it. There's a long way to go, but we're on the road."

The rest of us just thanked the Lord we'd had the good sense to travel.

SCORERS -- Waterford: M Shanahan 0-7 (5f), S Walsh 1-1, J Mullane 0-3, E Kelly 1-0 (pen), P Mahony, S Molumphy, S Prendergast, G O'Brien, M O'Neill, R Foley (f) 0-1 each. Clare: J Conlon 1-2, N O'Connell 0-5 (4f), C McGrath 0-4, J Clancy, C Ryan (3f) 0-3 each, P Kelly 0-1f.

WATERFORD: S O'Keeffe 9; A Kearney 6, L Lawlor 7, S Daniels 8; R Foley 7, M Walsh 7, K Moran 9; P Mahony 7, S Molumphy 9; M Shanahan 8, S Prendergast 8, E Kelly 6; J Mullane 8, S Walsh 7, G O'Brien 6. Subs: N Connors 7 for Kearney (h-t), P O'Brien 7 for O'Brien (h-t), T Ryan 6 for S Walsh (60), D Twomey 6 for Foley (61), M O'Neill 7 for Kelly (67).

CLARE: P Kelly 6; C Cooney 7, C Dillon 6, D O'Donovan 8; B Bugler 8, J McInerney 6, P O'Connor 7; N O'Connell 7, P Donnellan 7; J Conlon 9, J Clancy 8, E Barrett 7; P Collins 7, C Ryan 6, C McGrath 8. Subs: L Markham 7 for McInerney (45 ), F Lynch 7 for Barrett (54), S Morey 7 for O'Connor (60), D Honan 7 for Collins (60), A Cunningham 6 for Ryan (65).

Ref -- J McGrath (Westmeath).

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