It’s been a quiet month here at Come On The Déise, testament to a busy schedule in a new job and a resolute determination to not write about matters unrelated to Waterford GAA during the dog days of December In truth it’s more the former than the latter as I haven’t been following matters in Waterford GAA, which meant I missed Dave Bennett’s excoriating attack on the tactics adopted by Waterford during the All-Ireland final.
What to make of it all? It’s possible that it represents the embittered ramblings of a retired player frustrated that the new regime did not start with the new slate that he might have thought would elevate him past the players plying on their reputation. And certainly Bennett would have reason to be bitter, having been outstanding against Clare only to be dropped after what amounted to a training session against Antrim.
That would only account for why he said it, not what he said. And it isn’t hard to believe that it’s the truth. Davy Fitz would have predicated his attempts to bring Waterford over the All-Ireland finishing line on the basis of trying something different to previous regime – the old line about the definition of stupidity being trying the same thing and expecting a different result. Hence Ken McGrath at full back or the helter skelter handpassing / pivots that dominated the games against Antrim and Offaly. So how were we to manage what no one had done in three years, i.e. beat Kilkenny in the Championship? Well, meeting fire with fire probably seemed like a good idea at the time – at least, it might have done before Waterford players were to be seen bouncing off Kilkenny players like rag dolls.
So it’s entirely believable that Waterford were told to go out and give Kilkenny a bit of timber. But was it really such a big deal that “it was like 12 years of goodwill was wiped out in ten seconds”? At the time, I only noted one example of roughhouse behaviour on the part of a Waterford player, when Kevin Moran could (and probably should) have been given his marching orders. I wonder whether Dave Bennett is confusing the direction of the conversations that took place. A few months on it may seem like everyone who phoned raised the issue with him when it’s more likely that he raised the issue with everyone who phoned him.
And no sooner than Paul Flynn announces he has hurled his last for Waterford than two other aging warriors of the last decade follow suit. Less fuss will attach itself to the retirement of Tom Feeney and Dave Bennett, not least from this quarter. Neither will (or should) feel offended by that, but they both played their part. Better observers of the game will doubtless be able to put their finger on exactly why they never hit the heights of the likes of Flynn because for the life of me I could never work out why both were not absolute locks on the team sheet all throughout their careers (which, it should be noted, probably says more about my lack of hurling knowledge than that of the pundits).
Feeney always struck me as the brave type so useful in the full back line, willing to fling himself in for any ball, something best exemplified by his foolhardy lunge for the sliothar at a crucial stage of the 2002 Munster final. He had a wacky hurling style, adopting the policy of getting to the ball first then extracating himself from any jam by flinging limbs everywhere which delighted fans and infuriated referees.
At this point it seemed as if he could do no wrong, stepping up to his predestined role as replacing Seán Cullinane at full back. It didn’t work out that way though as it quickly became clear that he wasn’t the solution to Waterford’s seemingly never-ending problem at full back. With players like Eoin Murphy and Aidan Kearney emerging in the corners he slid rapidly out of the frame, and coming on in the All-Ireland final was really a thank you for those early days rather than a reflection of his place in the pecking order.
Bennett was never as prominent a character as Feeney, and at the risk of labouring the point it is probably a reflection of my ignorance of what hurling is really about that I never could understand this – incidentally, this is also why I don’t get involved in the heavyweight arguments on AFR or Up The Déise, for fear of being ridiculed by someone who regularly attends junior B matches; I blog because I am Lord and Master here. When he was a regular back in the late 90’s and early 00’s he was always the first to be hauled ashore when the team were in a pickle. When he was in and out of the team after that he would be the first to be sacrificed when the going was tough while more illustrious players seemed to be bulletproof. A ten point haul this year against Clare when everyone else bar John Mullane went missing was forgotten after an indifferent performance against Antrim when no one should have been judged on that match. He could always be relied upon for a point or two, and he wouldn’t have been human if he hadn’t wondered why a certain clubmate of his was being persisted with when you couldn’t have depended on an assist from him at times in 2008.
To me, Bennett suffered from being labelled with that most accursed of hurling scarlet letters – that of being a ‘winter hurler’, i.e. fine when the pitches are like bogs and everyone is struggling to pick up the sliothar, but too lightweight when there was proper dry turf available in the summer. This label never seemed to match the facts, but better men than me (Gerald McCarthy, Justin McCarthy, Davy Fitzgerald) bought in to it, and who am I to argue with them?
Paul Flynn made it clear in his valedictorian interview that he hurled not for the glory but because he enjoyed the sport. This certainly should apply to both Tom Feeney and Dave Bennett, as evidenced by the fact that no one is queueing up to have a chin wag with them about their experiences. They did it for the love, and for that we all owe them a debt of gratitude.
In the aftermath of defeat in the 1998 League final, we were walking back into town and passed Seán Cullinane. My brother offered a genuinely heartfelt expression of hard luck, which brought a stricken look from Cullinane that wouldn’t have been amiss had he been kicked in the crotch. It brought home to us that the last thing players want in the aftermath of defeat is human contact, not even of the solicitous sort. And more often than not in the curious melting pot that is the crowd after a big match – it still wrecks my wife’s head that the authorities feel no need to segregate – expressions of hard luck are not all heartfelt. So it was for Jerry O’Connor after last Sunday’s match as some Tipp yahoo stuck his face in Jerry’s and yelled “I think ye had better go back on strike again!” then darted back into the throng.
Taking off my po face it has to be admitted that it was a good quip, and the Cork hurlers and footballers have been asking for a ribbing for their mé féin attitude. Still, no player deserves to be accosted like that in public. This is especially true of amateurs of whom you can’t even say that being abused by Joe Q Public is factored into their wages as danger money. Jerry O’Connor would be entitled to be aggrieved at such ignorant behaviour. Except that Jerry has taken completely the wrong lesson from his experience. He says he’s going to use the abuse as inspiration for the rest of the season, and all those clowns writing Cork off are going to inspire him still further.
When are we going to be spared from sports men and women taking inspiration from people writing them off? If Jerry O’Connor gave it some thought, he’d realise he’s suggesting that he routinely gives less than 100% effort. Perhaps he watches Nigel Tufnel saying how Spinal Tap can turn it up to 11 and thinks without a trace of irony that that’s like Cork, giving it 10 until someone says they can’t do it anymore then they can reach into a reserve that other teams (those not blessed with being from Cork) can’t tap into. Here’s some news for you, Jerry – the rest of us look at Nigel Tufnel and see a self-delusional blowhard. Cork might well turn it around this year but it won’t be because of the media or opposition supporters, any more than Waterford’s dominance over Cork last year was down to Brian Corcoran’s book. It will be because a group of excellent hurlers will learn the lessons of the defeat and come back stronger.
Just in case I’m wrong though, I refer you to the title of this post. In addition, Ken McGrath is a big girl’s blouse and Dave Bennett couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo.
Back in the mid 90’s, the Phoenix magazine had a cartoon strip about the Rainbow Coalition predicated on the abrupt manner in which they came to power. It was titled A Bit Of A Shock, and it came to mind as Waterford crashed and burned against Clare last Sunday. The great truism of Waterford hurling over the last decade has been that they never hammer teams out the gate but never get hammered out the gate either, which explains the interest nationwide about each and every one of our matches. So to see them beaten barely minutes into the second half was, to say the least, a bit of a shock.
So what accounted for the enormous gap between earlier predictions of being beaten in the Munster final and being beaten in the Munster first round – discounting the fact that said predictor wouldn’t know his arse from his elbow? On a positive note, or at least a non-negative one, Clare were surprisingly good. Admittedly their forwards didn’t encounter much resistance from the Waterford backs but in previous years Clare’s forwards would struggle to put the ball over the bar if they were playing fifteen dustbins. Midway through the first half, Mike Finnerty waxed lyrical about Clare’s policy of shooting on sight. This is A Bad Thing in hurling terms and not a good reflection on TV3 going forward if this is the kind of insight we can look forward to. Still, his garbled terminology reflected that Clare were shooting and they were scoring. Post-match we had Marty Morrissey giving the usual guff about all the talk in Clare being about going well in training and being quietly confident – so quiet that not a dicky bird of it was reported by the media. Clare had no idea whether they were going well in training, but there would have been the usual sense of entitlement when playing Waterford, something they won’t be able to tap into during the rest of the Munster championship. But their hurling was several notches above the rough ‘n’ tumble stuff we have come to expect from Clare which suggested the Mike McNamara has a few good ‘uns in their team, something they couldn’t have known until they entered the field of championship play. It was a small comfort to see Waterford lose to a team not playing on the adrenalin of perceived slights.
(Incidentally, what was it with Marty Morrissey’s hair? Fading memories of an era when soccer players were all going peroxide tell me that if a bleach job goes wrong it turns out tangerine, much like Marty’s barnet. Was he trying to go yellow and call it saffron? I think we should be told.)
Part of the gap between expectation and reality can be accounted by the excellence of Clare. The bigger part of the gap can be laid at the feet of a wretched Waterford performance. For years we’ve been aware of Ken McGrath’s monumental presence in the Waterford team. Bunged in at full-forward in 2000 against Tipperary, his early departure through injury when he was leading Philip Maher a merry dance cost Waterford the game and earned Tipp the All-Ireland. Then he effortlessly filled the dauntingly large boots of Fergal Hartley to such an extent that he wasn’t missed. Yet it wasn’t until Sunday that Ken’s roll in Waterford’s recent success was so chillingly revealed. Does anyone think Clare would have had so much space had Ken McGrath been roving around like an extra man in the midfield and half forward line? If this is a foreshadow of what we can expect from life sans Ken McGrath, then it’s going to be a long and hard middle age.
It can’t be all down to Ken’s absence. Enough players had a stinker that he can’t have been carrying all of them all these years. No, really, he can’t have been. The bracingly candid comments of one of the few players who did perform, John Mullane, to the effect that some players gave up have led to the suggestion that Waterford threw the match. Certainly there was an alarming lack of vigour in the third quarter when Clare began to move away, although the way the rot was stopped in the last quarter when a 20 point beating looked on the cards would indicate that there was enough pride left for the game to matter. In my opinion, teams rarely throw matches, and then only for money. Before England played Croatia in the last match of the Euro 2008 qualifiers, people assumed that England, needing a win as they were at the time, would walk all over Croatia who had already qualified. Yet Croatia gave it their all, and you can be sure they were not motivated by a desire to let Russia qualify. Even a professional sports person has an awareness of the history of a particular club and a collective sense of belonging with his / her team colleagues. For a team who to a man share an identity from the day each of them were born to give up would be an appalling vista and, like Tom Denning, it’s one that can’t be countenanced.
There might have been a shared belief that the Munster championship is something they can’t get fired up about and once it became clear that Clare were not the team that has flattered to deceive for several years now, they eased off the throttle. This would be understandable. Understandable, but not smart. They may have stopped the rot during the course of the match, but the rot has well and truly set in to the 2008 season. Seven matches against top order counties this year have yielded two wins. Every match where there is an expectation that we might lose, i.e. not against Antrim and Dublin, we’ve lost. And it’s not as if the backdoor is a soft option. We’ll probably get past Antrim, but we have no idea what awaits us in the round after that. What we do know is it won’t be a soft option. We couldn’t be confident of beating any of them. Imagine, a county with pretensions to wining the All-Ireland yet it can’t be certain of beating Offaly. How bipolar is that?
Shot through all considerations of Waterford’s circumstances is the thought that we have peaked and are on the way down. The full back line remains a problem. We miss Ken in the half back line. Michael Walsh can’t do it all by himself in the midfield. Any team that has a big mullocker in both the half forward and the full forward line is asking for trouble. The management – yes, Liam Dunne, take a bow – is getting stale, offering the same solution to problems and expecting a different result. Watching Dan Shanahan shuffle around the pitch has been traumatic, especially when you consider the excellence he produced last year. Grim stuff all round.
One could take a contrary line. The full back line has always been a problem and we’ve gone far despite it. Ken will be back for the rest of the season and we have no shortage of wing backs. Michael Walsh doesn’t need to carry the midfield, Dave Bennett is a capable hurler and a free taker who would be worth his weight in gold if he weighed ten tonnes. Seamus Prendergast is no mullocker these days and introducing one new player in the forwards is hardly a gamble of JP McManus proportions. Management may be stale against Munster teams but our last ten knockout matches dating back to Kilkenny in 2004 have been against Munster teams so even the chance of avoiding those teams in the qualifiers is a hope that we can avoid the familiarity that has bred such contempt. Dan has been injured and is certainly not match fit, so we can anticipate a recovery from him. There’s still life, and where’s there’s life there’s hope.
It’s easier to make a more convincing case for the former than the latter though.
The Good: allow me to say I told you so. Dave Bennett started today’s match against Tipperary – was Eoin Kelly injured or was this the reverse of the referenced jiggery-pokery with team selections so beloved of Justin McCarthy – and put in a flawless performance with the dead ball, one point from way out the field being particularly special. Surely he has to start in the Championship after this. Right?
The Bad: ruminating over what to say about the camogie match yesterday, I decided to keep it simple rather than commenting on events – again, you don’t want to be seen as pervy. So I have spared myself the embarrassment of pompously observing that I knew St Mary’s had it in the bag once scores were level at half time with the benefit of the strong wind to come in the second half. Waterford were only four points down at the break having conceded a slightly unlucky goal just before half time, but I was sure that this was a good place to be in with a huge wind advantage in the second half. I was, of course, wrong as Tipperary managed to win the second half too, with only some heroic goal keeping from Clinton Hennessy right at the end kept Eoin Kelly from making it embarrassing. I remember Ger Henderson, commenting in his capacity as a Kilkenny selector, on his team’s inability to make much of a first half gale in an All-Ireland semi final (I think it was 1999) and not really being bothered, reasoning that the wind can be a hindrance as well as a help, especially when it’s so blustery. This is fair enough, but Waterford barely made Tipp work for it today, and once they got four points up again having had the gap reduced to one midway trough the half thanks to Bennett, you could sense it was curtains for a team that didn’t threaten Brendan Cummins’ goal once during the game
The Ugly: Ken McGrath’s bashed-in pumpkin face. Only joking, Ken. Against Dublin, Dan Shanahan’s form was the source of a furrowed brow, but I reasoned that he’d come good for the summer. Against Cork, headaches ensued as he put in an anonymous performance. Today saw the onset of a full-blown migraine as he huffed and puffed to no effect whatsoever, yet still managed to stay on the pitch for 70 minutes, thus teaching us nothing about the forwards languishing on the bench. Dan still might turn it on for the Championship, but it’s hard to believe his form is like a tap. We’re going to need him to do Clare again if we’re to progress.
Tomorrow’s match against Dublin sees the return to the starting lineup of Dave Bennett. The theme of the League this year – as, and this is something I have realised while blogging about it, is the theme every year – is whether you can add a few new Championship quality hurlers to the mix. Bennett was once that player, having made his Waterford debut against Laois back in 1998 and scoring 2-1 for his troubles. He’s been in and out of the team (mostly out) ever since. In that context, bringing Bennett back smacks a wee bit of desperation. What are the management likely to find out about him that they didn’t know already?
For all of that, I’m glad to see him back. I’ve always viewed his yo-yo relationship with the starting lineup with incredulity. He seemed to suffer from Peter Crouch Syndrome, a condition where a player performs well in his own given roll but is the first to be hauled ashore when the manager thinks its time to shake things up and the first to be sent to the bench after a bad overall result while more illustrious players are continually forgiven for less-than-stellar performances. Bennett can usually be relied upon for a couple of points from play, which is all you can ask from a forward, and he is another option in the free-taking department. In fact, with Eoin Kelly having had another mediocre day with the place ball against Kilkenny, that might be the New Face that we need for the summer – a reliable free taker would surely be worth several points in just about every game. Here’s hoping.