What Goes Round……..
In the aftermath of the merciless drubbing we received at the hands of Kilkenny in the All-Ireland Final, sports writer Tom Humphries didn’t spare Waterford. In fact the vaunted Irish Times journalist put the boot well and truly in to us at a time when our spirits were at their lowest. In his Irish Times Lockerroom column on the Monday following The Sunday of our Humiliation, Humphries more or less said that the Waterford players got their comeuppance for daring to challenge the infallibility of Justin McCarthy. Implicit, no it was more like explicit, in Humphries’ writing was that Waterford players were an ungrateful, unworthy bunch who got what was coming to them. Karma, you called it Tom. It was a low blow, a cheap shot and unworthy of this talented scribe. It was low and cheap mainly because it was false but also for the timing of its delivery. Tom Humphries was well enough acquainted with what was going on behind the scenes in Waterford hurling to have known better. The very limited action taken by the Waterford players at the time was an honourable course of action which was forced on them by weak and indecisive leadership at county board level.
Imagine my surprise then when the Cork players embarked on militant action and the loquacious Humphries emerged as their main cheerleader. No more noble band of hurling brothers ever graced our green fields sayeth the Humph, yes, honourable men in search of truth and justice (unlike the wretched upstarts in Waterford). There was little honourable about the whole sordid mess which bitterly divided clubs and even families in Cork. Nether was there anything honourable about the conclusion which left a hurling hero in tatters while the real object of the players’ disgruntlement remained intact. The problem hasn’t gone away you know. (I couldn’t figure out if it was a grin or a grimace on Frank’s face in Nowlan Park Sunday)
Was it Karma at play in Nowlan Park yesterday Tom? I’m not saying it was. You were there and wrote about the game, brilliantly as usual. There was no mention of Karma. I scanned your Lockerroom column. Nothing there either. But then you couldn’t .You had championed their cause and defended their defiance. It would be the ultimate act of betrayal to turn on them now at their lowest ebb. You would only do that to Waterford…
(H/t to gain feeds over at AFR.)
One doesn’t have to agree with all of it – the Waterford panels behaviour was ‘honourable’? Er. . . – to be able to agree with the general sentiment. If what happened to Waterford in September was a case of bad karma, then what happened to Cork last Sunday has to fall into the same category, right? Tom Humphries is a great hack, but his closeness to the Cork strikers has caused him to lose a proper sense of journalistic perspective, and well done to the Tallow scribe for pulling him up over it.
The Cork hurling saga has had another twist. Initially the players won. Then the County Board won. Now? It’s ostensibly a win for the players, but all those people quoting Zhou Enlai have the right of it.
Let’s get the platitudes out of the way first. The threats against Gerald McCarthy are outrageous, and the players should feel some small sense of shame at the antics of some members of the mob that they unleashed to try and get their way. Had they done at the start what they did in recent weeks, i.e. get the clubs onside, then none of this would have happened. Instead they thought that the way forward was to make as big a song and dance as possible and . . . what, exactly? Frank, Gerald and co were going to have the scales fall from their eyes and admit the error of their ways? Imagine if some loon had decided to follow through on the threats, and with self-righteousness such a common condition down Leeside it’s not hard to imagine. Allied to suggestions that an instruction was issued that no one should attend McCarthy’s mother’s funeral, there seems to have been no level to which the players would stoop to get his head.
Having said all that, the County Board and the clubs also come out of this smelling of dung. I’ve been saying all along that we had to go with the County Board as they were the only ones with a mandate to run Cork GAA. It’s clear now that those who said that there was a democratic deficit in Cork have been proven correct. You have to smile / grimace at the way minds only became focussed in the clubs when the prospect of their hurlers being massacred by all and sundry became all too real – if the rest of us took that attitude then Cork would only ever be playing Kilkenny and Tipperary – but either the County Board misread the mood or didn’t care about it in the first place. Whether or not it was junior clubs who led the heave is irrelevant. They are Cork GAA, and their word is law. If the clubs are allowing themselves be led by an unrepresentative minority then shame on them too. Whichever it is, we’ve got too many people doing too much and too many doing nothing at all. A plague on all their houses.
So what happens now? In the short run, the answer is ‘not much’. There’s a quote from one of the bould Zhou’s contemporaries that is less well known but equally pithy. Vermont Senator George Aiken said about Vietnam that the United States should “declare victory and go home“. This seems to be the philosophy of the 2008 Cork panel, as having previously stated that Frank Murphy and the Board Executive were The Problem, we now see that they are happy to work with him – a case of we’ve come for a head and any head will do. Seán Óg says that “as regards the issue of Frank, other people need to look at that and hopefully maybe the clubs will take it forward or whatever” which isn’t exactly a rallying call, is it?
In the long run though, these spats between County Boards and panels are going to become increasingly vicious. In fairness to players up and down the land – and I honestly include the Cork hurlers of 2008 in that statement – this was probably inevitable once the GAA decided that the senior inter-county championships were going to the association’s cash cow. Even if you don’t think that the demands being placed on amateur players are excessive, and I for one don’t think anyone is forcing them to do anything, the pool of people who are willing to do it is going to shrink and the members of that pool are going to naturally feel an increased sense of entitlement and solidarity with each other. I don’t for one second believe the Cork strikers all agreed with every element of their strategy, but they undoubtedly agreed that they would discuss the matter privately then present a public face. Factor in the displays of player power shown in Waterford, Wexford and Offaly and you can see that this resolution in Cork is merely the beginning of things, not the end.
And all this before we consider the influence of the GPA. Which is something best left until another day.
The first match of the National Hurling League season can only be ever adequately assessed at the end of the hurling year.
- Win, do well in the League and do well in the Championship, this was when the ball was set rolling.
- Win, do well in the League and do badly in the Championship, it bred unjustified confidence, covered up the cracks by not exposing players incapable of the summer game and distracted from the real business at hand.
- Lose, do badly in the League and badly in the Championship, the rot had set in early.
- Lose, do badly in the League and well in the Championship, phew, we dodged a bullet there what with not having a tiring run in the later stages of the League.
And so on and so forth, for all possible combinations. With that in mind, forgive me if my mind isn’t entirely focussed on the phony war against Tipp in Walsh Park today. Can Spurs do Liverpool a small favour today against Arsenal? Can West Ham do Liverpoool a colossal favour against Man Utd? And, most intriguingly, how will Cork’s C (D?) team do against Dublin? I invariably wish that the Dubs, the great hope for a resurgence in hurling’s fortunes, can dump on one of the aristos of the game. But now I’m hoping Gerald McCarthy’s callow group of loyalists can stick it to the continuity Corkonians of Cusack, Ó hAilpín et al. Then again, what damage might such a result do to the fragile confidence of the equally callow Dubs under the new management of Anthony Daly? Intriguing is definitely the word.
I might even watch the match at hand as well. Might prove significant later on in the year.
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.
Last February I came to the conclusion that the settlement of the Cork strike represented a crushing victory for the players. How naive was this sentiment as it seems the GAA’s version of the most cunning, the most ruthless, the most brilliant of them all was content to play the long game. What seemed at the time as a bonus prize – getting an input into choosing the manager – has turned out to be a booby trap as the players have to either like the reappointment of Gerald McCarthy courtesy of a phalanx of County Board nominees or lump it. They clearly don’t like it, but given they can’t go on strike (at least not without looking completely dishonourable), it looks like they’ll have to lump it.
Ger Mac’s reappointment cannot be seen as a meritorious one. A record of five defeats and no trophies in two years of Championship hurling, including – snigger – losing twice to Waterford in the same year, would do for most managers. Richie Bennis only lost three matches in his tenure this time around as Limerick manager and got the heave-ho in a most undignified manner. In Cork, it should be a hanging offence. Yet Ger’s reward (punishment?) is a further two years in charge. The main reason he has been reappointed is to let the players know who that there can only be one master in Cork GAA, and it isn’t Donal Óg Cusack. It will be interesting to see what strategy Donal Óg and co devise to deal with this turn of events, but whatever happens should lead to much belly laughs all around the rest of the GAA world.
Typical. You wait several months for news to arrive then two absolute whoppers come along in quick succession. No sooner do I step away from my PC for a few days R&R than Justin McCarthy leaves the post of Waterford manager and David Fitzgerald is appointed to replace him. That’ll learn me for daring to leave the house. Still, it does reduce the possibility of making predictions that, a la Murray Walker, are instantly proven wrong. Leaving aside the Davy Fitz one, something that would have led to much ill-advised scoffing had I been in a position to record said scoffing for posterity, let’s stick with the defenestration of Justin and the role of the three protagonists: Justin himself, the County Board and the players.
As with the debacle down in Cork (an event from which the keester of karma well and truly farted in Cork’s face last Sunday), the only people who can have any legitimacy in the hiring and firing of the manager is the County Board. Either they publicly back the manager to the hilt or they fire him. There is no in-between. With that in mind, the County Board can be relatively pleased with the turn of events. Their public face was to back Justin and co. and to express regret at his untimely departure. It’s entirely possible that privately they told him he had lost their confidence, but there’s nothing duplicitous about this as long as they would have been willing to follow through on any implications of such an expression. It allows him to take a dignified way out while asserting their authority in the matter. If they privately expressed confidence in him but he decided to jump anyway then no harm done there. They can’t force him to keep the job. The speed with which Fitzgerald has been appointed suggests the former is more likely than the latter i.e. they had a plan B ready in case Justin did go, but the County Board can say with a straight face that ownership of the post of manager remains firmly with them and player power be damned.
The players, on the other hand, will not be keeping a straight face about any element of this affair. When David Beckham swiftly announced his resignation as England captain after the 2006 World Cup, one pundit whose identity currently escapes me was equally swift to snort that it wasn’t Beckham’s title to resign, that the captaincy was the gift of the coach and was awarded on a game-to-game basis. The same is true of membership of the Waterford hurling squad. If any member of the panel has a problem with the coach then the solution is for him to walk away from the panel and let the County Board decide whether his presence is sufficiently important for them to replace the coach. The manner in which players react to failure by ganging up on the coach speaks of a group who lack enough self-awareness to see that it is themselves who might be the problem. The most obnoxious expression of that was Dan Shanahan’s cold shouldering of Justin McCarthy as he came off against Clare. Now, this is not a criticism of Dan’s extra-curricular work for the likes of the Waterford County Council, B&Q or John Kelly Car Sales. Honestly, it’s not. Justin obviously felt they didn’t interfere with his preparation for the hurling side of life and that’s good enough for me that they didn’t interfere. But it was Justin McCarthy who presided over the transformation of Dan Shanahan from a fringe member of the panel being shown how it was done by the likes of Eoin Kelly to as acclaimed a Hurler of the Year as there has ever been. The match against Clare was the first time that Dan had failed to score a goal in a Munster championship match he had started under Justin McCarthy. For Dan to behave as if that transformation was coincidental and that this man on the sideline was holding him back and therefore worthy of such contempt was obnoxious in the extreme. The rebellious meeting in Tramore tells us that the players were comfortable to be associated with such boorishness. It wouldn’t be too much to hope that they feel a bit ashamed of themselves as the dust has settled on Justin’s departure.
And what of Justin? Gerald McCarthy plámásed us all in his weekly News & Star column during his stint in the job, which meant that when he departed many bitter tears were shed. All this despite one League final and one Munster final being the sum total of his achievements in charge, and neither of them happening in his last three years in charge. Compare and contrast this with Justin McCarthy, never the most lovable of characters. His media work consisted of a series of pre-appointment columns which amounted to a pitch for the job. There were no love letters straight from the heart. Indeed he could be extraordinarily prickly, such as imposing bans on players talking to the media. This probably contributed to the manner of his departure. It’s not wishy-washy to say that a manager, like any manager in any walk of life, has to keep his charges a little bit sweet. If he treats them as drones who serve a purely utilitarian function then he shouldn’t be surprised when they aren’t there when the chips are down. That doesn’t excuse the manner in which the players behaved. As stated earlier, if any individual had a problem it was up to him to tell the manager that he wasn’t available for selection rather than connive with his fellow players to remove him. But if Justin is as tetchy in private as he seems to be in public that it can’t be said that they didn’t have their reasons.
However grouchy his public persona might be, it’s heartbreaking to see him leave in the manner that he did. When Gerald McCarthy left with the good wishes of all Déisigh ringing in his ears, it was because there was a sense that he had fought the good fight and brought the team as far as he could. No need for recriminations in those circumstances. Had Justin left at the end of last season his successor would have been burdened with the notion that the other fella was ditched because the National League and Munster championship are inadequate. Put that way, it really shows up the idea that Justin’s tenure was one of failure. The Waterford team of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s won three Munster titles and one National League and had to rely on a last minute goal in the drawn 1959 All-Ireland to ensure their one Liam McCarthy Cup success, all in the days when the Munster winners got straight through to the All-Ireland final. It’s correct to say that the dividing line between success and failure can be razor thin, but to say that Waterford team was a success while the current one is a failure is to reduce the dividing line to the width of an atom.
It has been the classic application of Enoch Powell’s aphorism that all political careers, unless cut short by death, are doomed to end in failure. Had Justin McCarthy been struck by lightning even as recently as the day before the Clare match we would all be weeping for our lost leader. And it is in politics that we can find the seed of the best tribute that can be paid to Justin McCarthy. Joe Lee, when writing on the handover of power from William T Cosgrave to Eamon de Valera, said that it was precisely because it was so bitter that made it so dignified. It has been that very dignity as he faced the reality of those whom he had made great tearing him down that showed what a class act he is. David Fitzgerald will have the opportunity for us to say he won’t be missed, but he will certainly be a hard act to follow.
“And this guy, roigh’, he’s so annoyed with the way Waaaaterford played against Limerick, that he buys a glass of Guinness, roigh’, and he goes up to Paul Flynn, and he hands the glass of Guinness to Flynners, roigh’, and he says ‘here, if you’re gonna play like a woman, you might as well drink like one.'”
True story. It certainly accurately reflects the feeling in Waterford in the aftermath of the Limerick debacle, a mixture of resigned good humour and bitter disbelief. There has been surprisingly little recrimination, and the absence of rancour at the transfer of power has been heartening, although Mount Sion and a few others reasonably questioned the speed with which the County Board handed the reins to an outsider again.
Even more amazingly, Ger Loughnane’s sh*t-stirring comments to the effect that Gerald McCarthy had underachieved with Waterford were not met with a knee-jerk denunciation of the evil Ger Lock. While it’s legitimate to ask why Loughnane felt the need to wade into the morass – no doubt Loughnane still can’t forgive us for robbing them of the 1998 Munster title; hang on, they won it! – the overwhelming reaction has been to agree or disagree and leave it at that. Because much and all as we may hate to openly admit it, Ger Loughnane’s question is the only question that needs answering about Gerald McCarthy’s five year reign in Waterford. In the absence of any real success, the question is open to debate.
So. Was he a success or a failure? I would have labelled him an unequivocal success prior to the game against Limerick, but the sight of a team of incredibly gifted hurlers crumble under the offensive of their inferiors dented the veneer of excellence that had been cultivated over the previous four years. The swashbuckling manner in which Waterford trashed Limerick all over the park for fifteen glorious minutes demonstrated that they had the skills, and with Loughnane reminding us of the 1992 U-21 success, history was beginning to look unkindly on Ger Mac.
It’s never that simple, of course. Michael Ryan, manager of umpteen successful ladies football teams, leapt to Gerald’s defence, pointing out that the stirring events of ’98 had raised expectations down Déise way to heights that would inevitably make it difficult to breathe. Those of us with medium memories would remember being stuffed in three Munster finals in the 80’s, losing to Kerry in 1993 and the succession of self-inflicted wounds created by the interminable power struggles in the County Board. When Gerald McCarthy arrived on the scene in the winter of 1996, the memories of Nowlan Park ’92 (TM) were clouded by the miasma of mediocrity.
The first year wasn’t that hot either. Beaten by Dublin in Division 2, Limerick once again proved to be our bête noire, a calamitous first half ending Waterford’s championship campaign at the first hurdle for fifth year on the bounce. Still, the seeds of a certain je ne sais quoi (mes amis) had been laid. High profile players were drummed out of the squad for breaching curfew. This was unheard of in the GAA, let alone Waterford hurling. Remember when you were young – perhaps you still are – being told that if you didn’t turn up for training, you would be dropped, but the star hurlers could swan in whenever they liked and never suffer any proscription.
Not that I’m bitter or anything.
Anyway, McCarthy laid down the law from an early stage. It was at this point that I came in, tentatively attending Oireachtais and South-Eastern League matches and seeing a team with a growing sense of purpose. It ‘culminated’ in a sensational first half performance against Tipperary in Thurles, a fiery display of commitment and skill that served notice to all there that this Waterford team was one to be taken seriously.
None of this could have been achieved without Gerald McCarthy. Brought up in a tradition of excellence, he simply refused to settle for second best. He instilled in the players a sense of self-belief. He displayed a canny sense of man-management and a recognition that even a winning Waterford team could be improved – the fifteen that beat Tipperary in the League bore little resemblance to the one that would beat them in the Championship, as each line-up was tweaked here and there to produce an outfit that would come within a whisker of the Munster title. It was thrilling stuff, and the blame for not yielding a trophy despite three near misses could hardly be laid at the feet of Saint Ger Mac, a name he wasn’t known as in Waterford, but probably should have been.
There was nothing in 1999 to suggest there was anything wrong with the formula. A mediocre League campaign merely suggested that we were ‘wintering well’ and the victory over Limerick seemed to confirm our upward curve. The win was much more impressive than the one point margin of victory, so much so that we went into the match against Cork as favourites. Even that defeat could be blamed on multiple external factors. The referee was more bent than one of Uri Geller’s spoons, Cork’s winning line-up was a last desperate throw of the dice by a panic-stricken Rebel management, Mickey O’Connell produced the only decent performance of his life – it certainly wasn’t our fault! The euphoric post-match reaction of Jimmy Barry Murphy confirmed that we had arrived, a thought that soothed this particular tortured soul no end.
No, the day when the McCarthy Plan showed signs of weakness came in April of 2000. The dismay of the previous year concentrated minds, and the League was clearly targeted. It was a cherry just waiting to be plucked, and while it was small fruit it would have sated the hunger of a county thirty-seven years with barely a morsel. The group stages were wonderful, with thrilling wins over Kilkenny and Cork seeming to confirm that the 2000 National League was our destiny. Then came Galway.
It may seem like an exaggeration, but in that one game the edifice of hope that had been carefully constructed in the previous three years was pulled down around our heads. An incredibly lightweight Galway team waltzed around the Waterford team, and the team and management were paralysed. Waterford only lost by one goal, and Paul Flynn struck the bar with a last minute free, but it was a game we didn’t look like winning once in the second half as Galway’s midget full-forward line plundered scores seemingly at will.
The greatest flaw in Gerald McCarthy’s management scheme was exposed. When faced with an unexpected assault, the only reaction was to hope that we could weather the storm. There never was a Plan B.
There was no comeback from that dreadful day in Thurles. It may seem like 20:20 hindsight, but the rage was gone. Waterford staggered from one League game to the next in the spring of 2001, and then against Limerick served up the most schizophrenic performance ever witnessed. Hurling like gods for fifteen minutes, holding off the vicissitudes for as long as possible, then proving to be very, very mortal for the final fifteen minutes. When Limerick came back at Waterford in the denouement of the game, the self-belief of 1998 was gone. Simultaneously, the management fiddled while Waterford burned, the arrival of Anthony Kirwan in the midfield confirming the inability of the management to deal with the flames.
Ultimately it all ended in failure. It had been Gerald McCarthy’s desire to avoid it all ending in tears that brought about that tearful end by the banks of the Lee. And yet, it had been a wonderful ride, filled with the kind of memories that sustain a person through following an unsuccessful team. When Paul Flynn crashed home that penalty against Clare in the drawn Munster final…even now, the memory is enough to stop me writing and drink in the heady vapours. It wouldn’t have happened without Gerald McCarthy.
And there is something that Gerald McCarthy will always have that a demagogue like Ger Loughnane will never appreciate, and that is a sense of class. He never patronised us, admitting at the very end to bewilderment at the demons that afflicted the players while freely admitting to his own culpability in failing to exorcise those demons. And he wanted us to win so badly, telling the staff of the News & Star in the immediate aftermath of that drawn Munster final that he would have two trophies to show off to the people of Waterford with him in September. He may not have been one of us, but he was certainly the next best thing.
Justin McCarthy, you’ll have a hard act to follow.