Flashback: Waterford v Cork, Munster SHC Final 2004
By William Dunne
“I think it was the best game, and standard, of hurling that I’ve ever played in.”
Those are the words of former Waterford captain Ken McGrath, as he reflected on the unforgettable moments that shaped the dramatic Munster SHC Final of 2004.
When the hurling championship of 2004 had reached its conclusion, it was the meeting of Cork and Waterford in a packed Semple Stadium on June 27 that stood out from the hurling calendar.
In 2003 both counties met at the same stage in Thurles, but on that occasion it was Cork who claimed the Munster title by four points and there was a score that needed to be settled from a Deise point of view in 2004.
“You had a Waterford team at its peak, you had a Cork team at its peak,” said McGrath.
“That final to me, was as good as any game played and it would stand over any game played even played now.
“We felt we had a point to prove. We were champions in ‘02 after beating Tipp. In ‘03 we lost to Cork. Mullane scored I think 3-1 the same day.
“We didn’t play well in ‘03 and it was basically the same teams for the two years. It was a massive game for us and we were really looking forward to it and we were very confident going in.”
Led by manager Justin McCarthy, Waterford were seeking to make amends over the defeat 12 months previously, but after three minutes they were a goal down.
About 25 metres out from goal, the sliotar popped up into the air and was pulled on by debutant Garvan McCarthy. The sliotar extraordinarily found its way to the back of the net after trickling underneath goalkeeper Stephen Brenner.
“It was a bad mistake out of Stevie (Brenner) but these things happen at times in games. That game was so fast and the ball was moving at so much space you couldn’t think too much about what went on,” says McGrath.
“I remember that goal, and even running out the pitch saying ‘right, this is one of these things that can happen’.
“But we were after training very, very hard in ‘04. We were much fitter than we were in ‘03 as well, and fellas couldn’t wait for that game.
“Cork started that game with unbelievable pace and I remember trying to catch Tom Kenny at one stage and the more I tried to catch him the further away he got from me”, the three time All-Star laughed.
Tom Kenny, who lined out for Cork at midfield that day, remembers feeling uneasy with the unpredictable nature of the Waterford attack.
Following their poor opening 15 minutes, Waterford rallied and got back in contention due to two superb goals from Eoin Kelly and Dan Shanahan.
“They had very marquee, maverick players like Paul Flynn, Dan Shanahan and Eoin Kelly,” said Kenny.
“You could study them before a match or at half-time and say 'this is what they’re doing'.
“Then they could come out in the second-half and do something totally different yet still be successful at doing it. It’s very hard to play against them.”
Cork remained in the lead by three points at the interval. Waterford managed to get two cracking first-half goals, yet they still trailed.
"It was absolutely crazy."
They went out for the second period eager to close the gap, but were dealt a hammer blow, two minutes into the half, when John Mullane was sent off after striking Cork’s Brian Murphy with his hurley.
“At half-time we just said, ‘look, there is more in us’,” the Waterford captain recalled. “We didn’t hurl to our full potential yet and we can’t let this slip again.
“If we lose two Munster finals in a row to Cork it would be hard to get over. Fellas were mad to get out after half-time. We were eager to get back out and perform again.
“I suppose Mullane could have been too eager to get out,” he joked. “Then the game took on a life of its own in the second-half. It went up another two or three levels. It was absolutely crazy.”
It was a devastating moment for the De La Salle forward as he duly walked to the dugout to watch the remainder of the final from the sideline.
McCarthy’s men were forced to regroup with 14 players and kept within touching distance of the reigning Munster champions until the 51st minute when Waterford were awarded a free roughly 35 metres out from the right.
Out of the 50,000 or so people within the grounds that day perhaps there was only one person who saw this opportunity as a potential goal chance - Paul Flynn.
“I think the players to a man all stepped it up and kept on working harder and got back into the game,” McGrath says.
“Then the turning point again, I think Dan caught a great ball and maybe got a lucky enough free off Sean Óg (Ó hAilpín) and Flynners buried it. That was the turning point in that game really.”
Neither side went ahead by more than a point until the 69th minute when Cork were seemingly through on goal but for a vital Declan Prendergast intervention.
The ball eventually found its way to Declan’s brother Seamus, who sailed over a wonderful score from the right for Waterford’s insurance point.
“It was unreal,” said McGrath about hearing the final whistle. “You always want to play in them games. It was brilliant, and look, being the captain, it was special.
“You’re on a high straight away and I suppose back then crowds were allowed on the pitch. It was like a mini All-Ireland really for us. It was definitely the best game that I’ve ever played in.”
McGrath lifted the Munster Cup and Waterford were crowned champions for the second time in three years. But as one chapter in the 2004 hurling championship was over, another one was about to begin.
"That Munster final was a turning point."
Cork went on to beat Kilkenny in the All-Ireland SHC Final to claim the Liam MacCarthy Cup, and Cork's Tom Kenny believes that the defeat to Waterford was the wake-up call that the Cork team needed.
Walking down the square in Thurles, Kenny recalled a peculiar moment after bumping into some of the Tipperary panel that he felt revitalised his thoughts at the time, and instilled belief in him that the year was only beginning for that Cork side.
“We went for a drink or whatever and we ended up bumping into a few Tipp lads. Then the qualifier draw was made and we were drawn against each other.
“Conversations flowed from like Cork players wanting to play in Thurles and Tipp lads wanting to come down to Cork and eventually it was settled on Killarney.
“It was nearly a good way to take your mind off it. Probably that Munster Final was a turning point and the subsequent game in Killarney. We realised that we needed to be more clinical.
“We had some very good performances after that so I think it probably opened our eyes that we needed to be more clinical or the year would slip away from us,” Kenny concluded.