Seventy minutes gone on May Day and everyone in the old place is riveted to their seats. Davy Fitzgerald stands alone on the sideline, arms folded. Down the way, Derek McGrath watches on. Their counties are locked at 0-14 apiece. There but for the grace. Tony Kelly picks the ball up through the mad torrent of bodies in midfield and fires a snap shot in from a distance. It's a beautiful strike and it looks true. The winner, surely? But no. It fades just off Stephen O'Keeffe's right post.
Seconds later, Shane Bennett emerges from the midfield mosh-pit with the ball. Two long strides and the teenager breaks into a clearing and strikes. Waterford, the defending champions, have their lead.
The timing and weight of the score could buckle a team. Not Clare, though. Clare have possession out in front of the Ryan stand. They work the ball up to Cathal O'Connell who somehow advances through fleeting chinks of daylight as half of Waterford bear down upon him. He is bundled over the sideline. Brian Gavin whistles for a free. The Waterford crowd are incensed. Conor McGrath eyes the town goal and calmly fires his12th point. Delirium among the 19,498. Nobody is thinking about five weeks time or about the championship. Everyone in Semple is fully locked in and invested into the now.
Onwards they thunder: into extra time, into the late afternoon, into the stretching evenings of May, into one another and into the wonderful perplexities of the summer ahead. Level at 0-15 after full-time. Level at 0-18 after the first period of extra time. Still level after 90 minutes of hurling at 0-22 apiece after Maurice Shanahan delivered a nerveless message from inside his own 65 with a free; the last shot of this final. Butterflies and bees stuff. Suddenly, Clare versus Waterford has become a trilogy. They meet again for the replay next Sunday before knuckling down for Munster championship bragging rights in early June.
“I’ll be honest: I haven’t a clue what is going to happen the next day. Because there were bodies all over the place,” said Davy Fitzgerald, still up on the vapours of the game.
“We changed the formation four times. I am sure they did the same. So it will actually be gas crack the next day. You can see I’m on a bit of a high. Why wouldn’t you be after being involved in that? Waiting for this thing to come back down a bit . . . and I haven’t the healthiest one that goes.”
It was no afternoon for high blood pressure, this final. In a way, all the negative forecasts were borne out. Yes, it was ferociously tight and congested. Yes, it was heavily tactical: Waterford’s sweeper system, long balls in, the teams concertinaed into centre field. And the old virtues – flow and pretty scoring and goals aplenty – were seldom in evidence. It burned slowly at first and had ragged periods. Both counties groaned as some of the best stickmen in the game were forced into hurried shots, stray passes and basic errors. It was 0-7 to 0-6 at half-time. When Tipp and Kilkenny met in the 2014 final, TJ Reid feasted on 2-11 all by himself. On this day, the gourmands were forced to live off scraps. The teams combined for 39 wides.
But as the match deepened, its intrigue and character grew. Leading players in the semi-finals a fortnight ago got no oxygen here. Others stepped up. David Reidy, a one-man hive of productivity, thrived in the land of Waterford giants. Pat O'Connor, Clare's cornerback, was coolness personified all day. For Waterford, Bennett was radiant with promise and danger as he steered his county through a nightmarish day with their free taking. Jamie Barron found pockets of space where he had no right to. The full-back line soaked up the best of Clare's assaults on goals. Before half-time, any illusion that this didn't matter dissolved as Fitzgerald and McGrath went eyeball-to-eyeball on the sideline.
“You asked me nothing about shaking hands with him afterwards,” grinned Fitzgerald.
“’Tis all good.”
Pretty scores were hard to produce but the match held sublime moments of individual skill, with Patrick Curran, Bennett and McGrath lighting the afternoon in the second half. Both teams had a read of each other and wanted nothing for courage.
“There is a great buzz in our dressing room because I thought our effort was heroic,” said Derek McGrath.
“I am sure it is the same with Clare. And anytime a fella gives it everything there can be no fault.”
Colin Ryan’s fabulous snap-strike in the 90th minute looked to have delivered Clare a first league title since 1978. Waterford, though, are made of special stuff. No panic, even as the last grains of sand fell through the hourglass. They scrambled to win a free. Miles out, not far from the Clare bench. Big Maurice Shanahan hunched over it. Waterford’s free-takers seemed hexed all day. This was pressure.
“He got a lot of heckling now, to be honest with you,” said Dan, the brother.
“A small bit. I’m talking from the Clare bench now, lads. From the crowd and stuff like that. That’s just the way it is, I suppose. That’s sport.”
Maurice heard nothing. The shot was clean and true. In the stands, Waterford fans celebrated. Joy unconfined and nothing even won. "It felt like championship out there," marvelled Davy Fitz.
Felt like the real thing, anyhow.