No fairytale ending
December 31, 2008
Having finally broken their semi-final hoodoo at the sixth time of asking, the way was clear for Waterford to grace Croke Park on All-Ireland final day. But the Deise's biggest game in 45 years proved to be an unmitigated disaster as they crashed to one of the heaviest ever All-Ireland final defeats.
Like the famous line from the Rambo movie, Kilkenny proved to be Waterford's worst nightmare on a day that will haunt the county's supporters for many years to come.
Appearing in their first All-Ireland hurling final since 1963, Waterford failed abysmally to do themselves justice against a rampant Kilkenny team who completed their three-in-a-row mission with a stunning 23-point victory. Although Waterford went into the final as underdogs, no one could have forecasted such a one-sided affair for which their shell-shocked manager Davy Fitzgerald was prepared to take the blame.
"I will hold my hands up and accept it if I got things wrong in planning our tactics," said Fitzgerald, who twice savoured All-Ireland glory with Clare during a glittering playing career, but was unable to repeat the trick with his adopted county this year.
"There will probably be people out there now wanting to have a go at me but I can take it. I did my job in the best way I thought possible, but maybe I will now have to look at myself and accept at least some of the blame for what went wrong out today," he added in the immediate aftermath of the game.
What Fitzgerald would not accept, however, was criticism of the players who he stressed had given him their all since he took over as manager midway through the season.
"Many of these lads have given 10 wonderful years to hurling and to Waterford and it is important now at this critical time that the people of the county give them the support they all so richly deserve.
"There is nothing worse for them than that dressing room now. The last thing they want, need or deserve is to be criticised by fans.
"In fairness to the players, they went out and tried their utmost right to the end despite the inevitability of the defeat that was staring them in the face."
Fitzgerald claimed that no team in the country would have lived with Kilkenny, who also inflicted heavy defeats on Offaly, Wexford and Cork en route to their 31st All-Ireland success.
"We had a game plan which unfortunately didn't work for us. If people are waiting in the wings to have a go at me, then let them. But I won't accept criticism of the players who have honoured their commitments to me in every respect. I will not say one bad word about them nor will I accept it from anyone else about them either."
Former Hurler of the Year Tony Browne, a man who has endured many heartbreaking moments in his 15 years of service to the Waterford jersey, simply felt the Munster side 'froze' on the big occasion.
"Whether it was stage fright or whatever, the fact is that we just froze on the day and Kilkenny didn't waste the opportunity to capitalise on that. Give these fellows any kind of advantage and they'll just blow you away," the veteran Mount Sion clubman ruefully reflected.
"They are awesome. They are the best team I've encountered in 15 years playing senior inter-county hurling."
Signing off, Browne expressed confidence in Waterford's ability to bounce back from such a crushing defeat.
"With the exception of a few of us, the team is a relatively young one and there are good players on the fringes determined to make the breakthrough. The real challenge for them will be to come back after this defeat and I believe they will be up to that."
2008 was certainly a roller-coaster year for Waterford hurling. After seeing their National League and Munster crowns slip away by June 1, Waterford were in crisis and Justin McCarthy's position as manager became untenable after the players made it known that they wanted change.
By forcing the Corkman - who delivered three Munster titles and one National League crown during his seven-year reign - to step aside, the Waterford players backed themselves into a corner. But under new manager Davy Fitzgerald, they came out fighting and upset the odds to reach the All-Ireland final.
Waterford's championship campaign started as it ended - in deep disappointment. While short a number of key players, including the injured Ken McGrath and Eoin Kelly, it could hardly be used as an excuse for their 0-23 to 2-26 defeat to an unfancied Clare in the first round of the Munster championship at a sparsely attending Gaelic Grounds. Apart from John Mullane and Dave Bennett, none of the Decies' big names covered themselves in glory and they were a beaten team after Niall Gilligan's 20th championship goal made it 2-17 to 0-16 with 20 minutes remaining.
Little did anyone know at the time that within days one of the Banner County's most famous sons would be charged with the task of reviving Waterford's championship interests. The recently-retired goalkeeper was fortunate in that All-Ireland qualifier draw allowed Waterford to gradually build their confidence back up after the disappointment of the Clare defeat. They had an easy one to start with against Antrim (who they beat by 6-18 to 0-15 at Walsh Park) before overcoming Limerick's surprise conquerors Offaly by 2-18 to 0-18 at Thurles. That game is best remembered for Eoin Kelly's magnificent contribution of 2-13 from full forward, while Jamie Nagle made his first championship start at midfield.
Waterford received a big scare from south-east rivals Wexford in the All-Ireland quarter-final, edging a tight contest by 2-19 to 3-15. Once again, Eoin Kelly was highly influential as the Deise recovered from the concession of an early goal to lead by 1-10 to 1-6 at half-time. Wexford scored two goals in a 90-second spell after the restart to turn a four-point deficit into a two-point lead. But a Dan Shanahan goal, which was followed by three unanswered points, put Waterford back in the driving seat and they withstood a late Model County rally to prevail.
Tipp represented another step-up in quality for Davy Fitzgerald's men in the All-Ireland semi-final, and they showed the necessary improvement to pull off a shock 1-20 to 1-18 victory. The underdogs signalled their intention by racing into an early 0-6 to 0-0 lead, but Tipp recovered well to go into the break on level terms, 0-10 each.
Four times after the resumption the favourites stretched two points clear and appeared to be on the verge of seizing control. But Waterford responded with yet another goal from Eoin Kelly, only to allow Seamus Callinan in for a similar score within 60 seconds at the other end.
Once again, Tipp were expected to kick on, but Waterford never lost sight of the prize and finished the stronger. The outpouring of emotion which followed the full-time whistle showed just how much it meant to the Waterford players to finally get the chance to play in an All-Ireland final after faltering at the semi-final stage five times in the previous nine years, including twice against Kilkenny in 1998 and 2004. The irony of it was that when it was least expected, they succeeded at long last.
All-Ireland fever gripped every homestead in Waterford in the lead-up to the county's biggest game in decades. With Kilkenny going for the three-in-a-row and Waterford bidding to end a 49-year wait for Liam McCarthy Cup glory, the stakes couldn't have been much higher. And with local bragging rights also on the line, there was more than just an All-Ireland title to play for.
But what promised to be one of the greatest days in Waterford GAA history turned out to be arguably the most depressing. The scores were level after Henry Shefflin and Eoin Kelly swapped frees inside the opening two minutes. However, after 15 minutes Kilkenny were five points clear and six minutes later, the margin was 12 after Eddie Brennan scored two goals in as many minutes.
Kilkenny went in at half-time with a massive 17-point advantage, and despite making wholesale changes for the second half, there was no response from Waterford who had to wait until the 46th minute for their first score from play by John Mullane. The Cats never let up and the full-time whistle couldn't come quickly enough for a chastened and well-beaten Waterford side who were mauled by 1-13 to 3-30.
A crestfallen Fitzgerald was at a loss to explain why Waterford didn't perform anywhere near their full potential, but vowed they would make amends in 2009.
"That is the real killer, the biggest disappointment as far as I am concerned. However, I can vividly remember the day when Clare were beaten by 20 points by Tipperary in the Munster final but that Clare team then went on to win not one but two All-Ireland titles.
"That's the challenge now for Waterford and my belief in their ability to overcome the challenge is absolute. This defeat hurts like crazy but we will be back. Believe me."
Such defiance will be needed if the Deise are to put the memories of last September's horror show behind them in the season ahead.
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