The most glorious Winter’s Tale for Limerick.
For the privileged few in Croke Park today, it was an odd experience. No crowds, no colour, no Artane Band. For the players, it was even stranger. They were cheered on by socially distanced supporters as they left their counties separately this morning, they took to an empty stadium for one of the biggest games of their career, and not even their families were present to cheer them on.
None of that will matter for the people of Limerick this evening. For them, this is the best Christmas present imaginable. After the disappointment of last year, they have firmly cemented their place as the best team in the country.
In 2018, the scenes in GAA HQ were incredible. Limerick fans were brought to tears as Declan Hannon lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup with The Cranberries ‘Dreams’ blasting through the PA system after a 45-year wait.
There was no replication of that atmosphere and emotion today but for the players involved, this win will mean just as much. There were no last-minute dramatics, their win looked assured from early in the second half. There was no fairytale comeback for Waterford as there was against Kilkenny. Within five minutes of the second-half whistle, Limerick had tagged on four points, two of which came from Seamus Flanagan.
The sprinkling of criticisms that Limerick have faced this year were silenced. This performance was trademark Treaty. Their half-back line dominated the aerial battle, Kyle Hayes covered every inch of the field while Tom Morrissey and Gearoid Hegarty provided the scoring platform. Not to mention the sheer class of Cian Lynch and Aaron Gillane.
One of those criticisms was their lack of goals in previous games despite numerous opportunities and that issue cropped up in the first half of the All-Ireland Final. In Limerick’s defence, Stephen O’Keeffe produced a double save to superbly deny Kyle Hayes and Cian Lynch after beautiful build-up play involving Graeme Mulcahy. An earlier opportunity saw Lynch snuffed out by Tadhg de Búrca on his run to goal.
Limerick’s physical strength provided a considerable test for the Waterford backs. That challenge might have been magnified for the Deise when de Búrca limped off after 21 minutes had it not been for the unerring performance from substitute Iarlaith Daly.
A feature of Limerick’s games this year has been their dominance following the water breaks but it was a period Waterford looked to attack in the first half. Austin Gleeson, who has been transformed under Liam Cahill this year, charged into the game with Stephen Bennett coolly slotting over every attempt from placed balls. They narrowly outscored Limerick seven points to six during the second quarter.
Despite Limerick winning many of the one-on-one battles in that first half, Waterford found themselves just three points adrift at the break. That was thanks in no small part to Bennett who came into today’s final with 1-44 to his name. It could have been a level game had it not been for a significant save from Nickie Quaid on the stroke of half-time.
The glorious link-up play between Morrissey and Hegarty in the half-forward provided the entertainment in the early stages of the second period and the latter must surely be in contention for Hurler of the Year considering his haul of seven points from play on the biggest day of the year. Calum Lyons has been one of Waterford’s best players this season yet even he had no answer for the St Patrick’s man’s dominance. By the second water break, John Kiely’s men had opened up an eight-point lead.
Peter Casey’s introduction only served to highlight Waterford’s defensive woes. His direct-running style frustrated the full-back line and resulted in a straight-forward score for Gillane.
While most of what Limerick touched today turned to gold, much credit must go to Waterford. New manager Liam Cahill has gotten the very best out of his players despite making some tough decisions at the start of his reign. Prior to this year, the Deise hadn’t won a championship game since the 2017 All-Ireland semi-final. Three years and four months later, they are All-Ireland finalists.
Yet, there was no doubting who were the better team today. An 11-point difference was justified by the full-time whistle. Of their 30 points, 24 came from play with a range of nine scorers.
It may not have been an All-Ireland Final for the ages, but given the year that has been, it was a treasured one. Liam MacCarthy may not be heading Shannon-side due to the COVID restrictions but it matters not.
This has been Limerick’s day, Limerick’s year, and, perhaps, this is the beginning of the Limerick-dominated era.
FT score: Limerick 0-30 – 0-19 Waterford
Limerick: Nickie Quaid; Sean Finn, Dan Morrissey, Richie English; Diarmuid Byrnes (0-1), Declan Hannon (Capt.) (0-1), Kyle Hayes (0-1); Darragh O’Donovan, Will O’Donoghue (0-1); Gearoid Hegarty (0-7), Cian Lynch, Tom Morrissey (0-5); Aaron Gillane (0-10, 6f), Seamus Flanagan (0-3), Graeme Mulcahy.
Substitutions: Peter Casey for Mulcahy (48), David Reidy for O’Donovan (59), Pat Ryan (0-1) for Flanagan (62), Adrian Breen for Gillane (68), Paddy O’Loughlin for Hayes (70)
Waterford: Stephen O’Keeffe; Ian Kenny, Conor Prunty (Capt.), Shane McNulty; Calum Lyons (0-1), Tadhg de Búrca, Kevin Moran (0-1); Jamie Barron, Kieran Bennett (0-1); Jack Fagan, Neil Montgomery, Stephen Bennett (0-10, 9f); Dessie Hutchinson (0-1), Austin Gleeson (0-5, 1 s/l, 1f), Jack Prendergast.
Substitutions: Iarlaith Daly for De Búrca (21), Darragh Lyons for K Bennett (39), Conor Gleeson for Montgomery (44), Patrick Curran for Moran (52), Shane Fives for Kenny (54).
Referee: Fergal Horgan.