Kilkenny are a crushing machine, but watching Waterford refuse to back down was one of the highlights of the year
The silence was the first thing and the silence was the last thing. In the end, after Pauric Mahony’s free had been snatched out of the air by Eoin Murphy, there was mayhem. And then there was quiet.
“Well, at least Waterford put up a fight,” a man dressed entirely in the blue and white of the defeated side said as he got up to leave, which was a little bit like saying the Russian Army did their best during the Siege of Leningrad.
He walked off into the silence, into the strange lack of noise which had settled on Semple Stadium and that seemed to be the only correct response to what had just taken place.
Kilkenny had added another point after Mahony’s last free, but that had been the moment of triumph. Murphy had snatched the sliotar out of the air with the certainty of a mother who comes out to tell kids their game of football is over. It’s dark and it’s time to go to bed.
Waterford had resisted what is inevitable in life -that all good things come to an end - for most of the game.
If this Kilkenny team has no secrets, if all Brian Cody asks, as some say, is for each player to win their personal battles, to be first to every ball, hook it on and take your chances then the secret is not in their methods but their application.
They are a crushing machine, willed towards astonishing success by the intensity of the manager who prowls on the sideline and, like Alex Ferguson, manages to create a spirit of brotherhood underpinned by a key message: that to lose these battles, hell, to lose at all, is a profound and disappointing personal failing.
Like Ferguson, too, he has managed to conceal the loss of his greatest players and make those who are said to be merely functional as hard to beat as those who were truly great.
Watching Cody on the sideline can be distracting. He covers the waterfront, turning around at one point on Saturday night as he stumbled into the linesman with a look which seemed to contain some wonder at why the linesman was blocking his way when he encountered him, well, on the line.
Waterford would be stubborn, too, but beforehand it was hard to believe they would refuse to go away. If you have spent twenty years at English football grounds, then the first striking thing about Semple Stadium on a Saturday night is the quiet. There is no chanting, but there is also no piped music, which in England now masks the lack of chanting. There was no pre-match entertainment. There wasn't really any need. Ten minutes before throw-in, the wait was the most striking thing. There was silence, a quiet murmur as if we needed a ceremony to begin.
It felt too, like a gathering. If you are used to something like English football, with its rituals that make you feel like you belong, here it was different. There was just the murmur of small talk among friends, family and acquaintances. Every row of people was a short story.
In those minutes, you might have thought you were at a theatre, but this was authentic drama, driven by an intensity which is expected from Cody’s men and which was matched by Waterford.
The first half yesterday was an illuminating example of Kilkenny’s remarkable ability to distance themselves from the noise. The emotion and the spirit was all with Waterford. They got an early goal and seemed to be on a high as they sped through the first half, scoring freely and energising their supporters who had no need to fear the replay. Waterford had taken the game to the champions. There would be no retreat. Cody’s men were on the ropes. Surrounded by Waterford people and wrapped up in all of this, it came as a surprise to me, then, to look at the scoreboard and see that Kilkenny were leading by three points at the interval.
How did they do that, this crushing machine? By making everything a statement about their menace. Whenever Kilkenny had a wide as the game entered its tense and fraught final period, Waterford supporters would celebrate as if their own county had scored, as if something rare and unexpected had happened. In a strange way, it only underlined the Kilkenny threat, the sense that even when they are not scoring, they are somehow able to remind you of their superiority. The celebration contained the foreboding that Kilkenny will soon score again.
VIDEO: Kilkenny fan stopping to console distraught Pauric Mahony is everything the GAA should be https://t.co/jFm7nI3N3X
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Waterford had never appeared fazed, even in the second half when the summer seemed to depend on every dropping ball, but still it was not enough. After Murphy had jumped to gather that free, Richie Hogan added one final point to increase the lead, and also to emphasise the point. They never stop. Kilkenny have the illusionist’s gift. While everyone is wrapped up in the emotion someplace else, they are taking care of business. They move things relentlessly on while your mind is on other things. Then they disappear, yet again, victoriously into the night.