Today’s Examiner is reporting that John Meyler has become the front-runner in the race to become manager of the Waterford hurlers, although as the image above shows Jamie O’Keeffe over at Hung For A Lamb had read the tea leaves correctly a week ago. If picking the Waterford manager is indeed a ‘race’ then it’s the 800m, long enough so that it’s not a sprint but short enough that the lead can change very, very quickly. Keep an eye out for Wilson Kipketer or Sebastian Coe coming up on the outside.
More headwrecking is trying to work out what game the Waterford County Board is playing at. When Jason Ryan was mooted as a possible candidate it represented the thrilling possibility of a complete break with the past, a past which has seen us come up short. If you view Waterford as occupying the same kind of ground as Limerick and Clare, we would be the ones who would do something dynamic rather than recycling the same old faces. Yet not only does it look like we’re going to the same lucky dip of managerial talent that probably has Steve Bruce somewhere near the bottom of it, we’re going for the guy who has won nothing of note. And that Clare fella won his Grand Prix with Waterford. Maybe we should box off Justin McCarthy before Kerry poach him.
Tenuous link alert: one thing Waterford and Liverpool have in common over the years has been giving their managers ‘time’. It has become an article of faith that a manager should be given sufficient time to make his stamp on the county panel / club. And another thing they have common is that eventually, in my lifetime at least, it almost always ended in tears. Only Bob Paisley got to leave in the manner of his choosing. None of the managers of Waterford or Liverpool of recent vintage (NB Waterford’s recent history began in 1997) can be said to have been failures, with the obvious exception of Roy Hodgson. All soared to heights far greater than where they had started out, and there were trophies galore. But when they failed to reach the ultimate height, that of winning the All-Ireland / Premier League, subsequent attempts to reach that height took on an increasing air of desperation. A point of no return was reached and because of the mythology of giving the manager ‘time’ it became doubly painful to let go.
Doubling down on the tenuous link , Waterford United find themselves in a similar position. Having gone through managers with the same regularity that most people change their underwear, the new regime under John O’Sullivan were clearly of the opinion that any new manager need to be given ‘time’. Any suggestion that the manager should be dispensed with would be greeted with references to Alex Ferguson – if he hadn’t been given ‘time’ . . . and if you’re going to stick with this philosophy then Stephen Henderson certainly won’t be leaving the club, despite rumours to that effect at the time of writing. Henderson might well feel aggrieved should he be sacked. His appointment made perfect sense given the miracle he wrought in getting Cobh Ramblers into the Premier Division in 2007 and he’s kept the Blues near the top of the First Division in his two years at the helm, reaching a cup final as well. He could reasonably argue that the current form is the exception and not the rule and that he has to given ‘time’ to stamp his vision on the club
But I can’t shake the feeling that Stephen Henderson is experiencing that sense of panic that engulfs a manager when he reaches the tipping point in his career. This feeling was particularly acute when Justin McCarthy’s time as Waterford manager came to such a shuddering halt. Having been hit by the hammer blow of losing to Limerick, the Waterford team must have felt a sense of ‘oh no not that aul thing’ when they went through their training routines in the spring of 2008. Even the most imaginative of managers will have only so many tricks up his sleeve, and when the tricks begin repeating themselves with no discernible change in output you know the time has come to move on. I didn’t see it with Justin until it was too late. I’m seeing the same scenario unfolding with Stephen Henderson. Time to go before things get really poisonous.
When I started with the results archive, I was wondering whether anyone had done it before and was thus reproducing something that was already out there – discovering recently that there was a blog for my club didn’t inspire confidence that there wasn’t something concealed by the web. And not long after my first efforts went online, I heard that RTÉ’s South East correspondent Damien Tiernan was writing a book about Waterford hurling. Great. He was bound to have the time and resources to gazump my piecemeal efforts.
But it transpired that the book would be about the last twelve years, that era when Waterford were as much to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness as any amount of All-Ireland winners. This was sincerely great news, because a) it barely touched on what I was up to (you didn’t need to trawl through newspapers to know Waterford’s results from that period), and b) it was bound to be rubbish. Sports books of this style are rarely insightful, stuffed to the gills with boy-done-good stories and rehashing the misery of failure. Tiernan would presumably be hidebound by an RTÉ hacks need to be non-controversial. And with a name as naff as The Ecstasy and the Agony, how could it possibly go right?
The book is nearly here, and the work-in-progress title has somehow survived the production process. What is more surprising is there is a danger the book might be interesting, at least if the content of Tiernan’s interview with Justin McCarthy is anything to go by. At the time my sympathies lay almost entirely with McCarthy, not least because of the dignified way in which he handled his departure. But he clearly is no longer as sanguine as he was at the time. You really need to read the whole article in the Irish Examiner to get the full impact of his bitterness, but Michael Moynihan’s opening paragraph captures the flavour pretty well:
JUSTIN MCCARTHY has broken his silence on his departure as Waterford hurling manager, describing the players as “bluffers” who did not give him credit, stating it wasn’t a “f**king creche” he was running when manager in the southeast.
Please Justin, don’t hold back. You can see his point, the way in which the players ganged up on him at the infamous meeting in Tramore having plámásed his hurling talents to all and sundry over the years. Had he said all these things at the time he would have had a lot of receptive ears, especially when set against the sight of Dan Shanahan snubbing him as he left the field against Clare (something we’ll get back to in a moment). But he also earned a lot of respect for refusing to set off a civil war in the county. He couldn’t have clung on in the way Gerald McCarthy did as the County Board had decided not to back him, but he could have made life very awkward had he chosen to.
But he didn’t, and to come back now after all this time suggests that it is his experience in Limerick that has focussed his mind rather than these feelings being truly contemperaneous. What is especially unhelpful to his cause is the reaction of the players. As part of his own opus, Big Dan has chosen to show contrition for the Gaelic Grounds episode, labelling it “the biggest mistake of my life”:
“I didn’t know then that that was the start of me getting some amount of s***. If I’d even said to him after the match, ‘Justin, I’m sorry I didn’t shake your hand,’ things might have gone differently, but I didn’t.”
“It’s a bit disappointing to read that.
“All of us in Waterford would be well aware of Justin’s contribution to our success in recent years. I don’t think we were unwilling to give him credit for the games and titles that we won.
“I remember in 2002, when we won the Munster hurling title after a gap of 39 years, Fergal Hartley praised Justin at length from the podium in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, for instance.
“I’d say you could go back through the records and find plenty of other examples of players praising Justin and his management team after games.
“I know it ended badly between Justin and the team but a lot of people in Waterford would have good time for him and would give him plenty of credit for all that he did for the county.”
This really was the perfect riposte, to the point where he could plausibly say that it wasn’t a riposte at all for he felt so little animus towards Justin that a ‘riposte’ was not even necessary. In a week when the ultimate exponent of player power, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín, finally ran out of road, it was a good one for the Waterford players. And Damien Tiernan will be feeling pretty chuffed too.
Update: An Moltóir has written his initial impressions on the book here.
Update II: Kieran Shannon hits back, announcing his own personal bias as the ghost writer of Justin’s autobiography then making the valid point that:
In contrast to his namesake and fellow Corkman, Gerald McCarthy is portrayed in very flattering terms, with Ger Loughnane’s thesis that he underachieved with Waterford going without mention, let alone examination. Another glaring inconsistency is that while the mishandling of the 2008 All Ireland final is brilliantly detailed by Tiernan, the character and workings of Davy Fitzgerald escapes the same scrutiny that Justin’s were subjected to, an imbalance Dan Shanahan may address in his book released later this week, because, unlike Tiernan, he no longer has to deal with the man.
Fair comment. We all adored Gerald for telling us how great we were, in contrast to Justin’s habit of saying managing an inter-county team wasn’t an effin’ creche. Yet it was Justin who won a Munster title within a few months of Gerald’s departure. Am I sitting on the fence? These splinters are dead comfortable.
Come on Tipperary hurlers, play the game. Waterford and Cork‘s hurling panels have both staged heaves against their manager, and now Clare and Limerick are doing the same. That Sheedy fella must have some skeletons in his closet that demand a principled response. Won’t someone please think of the children?
Turning the dial away from Silliness FM, the week’s events on Shannonside represent an escalation in a process that manages to be both inevitable and impossible to predict. It would be tempting to dismiss either spat as unrelated incidents, that the respective County Boards should simply back their managers to the hilt and that’ll be the end of the matter. Indeed, Clare already seem to be going down that road with chairman Michael O’Neill being rather bright and breezy about it all.
Tempting, and entirely misguided. International rugby squads once famously assembled the night before a match without much in the way of anything as shallow as training or preparation, and this was probably true back in the day for inter-county squads. This meant that camaraderie was purely based on internal county loyalties. Nowadays though, GAA panels spend months on end in each other’s pockets. No doubt Justin McCarthy would be of the opinion that there is no ‘panel’ once the season ends and he can start from scratch the following year. Strictly speaking he’d be correct but you can’t expect players, especially ones from a county who were lambasted by all and sundry like Limerick’s were after losing to Tipp last season, to so casually walk away from each other.
It’s a classic case of the law of unintended consequences. When the back door was introduced, the GAA didn’t foresee that county panels would become so much more militant as a result. And it’s only going to get worse.
Does adrenalin speed your reaction times up to the point where time seems to slow down? I’m not sure if it is scientifically the case, but there is plenty of anectdotal evidence to suggest this and there was one such anecdote yesterday in Thurles. As Declan Prendergast – and I’m sure it was him, not Michael Walsh – emerged from his own half with the ball, soloing towards the Galway goal with all the grace of a gazelle with a lion on its back, who should I spy tearing up on his right hand shoulder but John Mullane. It was almost as if time telescoped as Mullane moved towards the event horizon of a black hole. Prendergast batted the ball towards him, Mullane caught in his stride and barely broke it as he sent the ball in a curving arc over the bar. And all hell broke lose among the Déisigh.
I’ve been following Waterford’s efforts closely for over a decade now – hurling started in 1998, doncha know – and plenty has happened in that time. We’ve had close games, a few big wins, a few big defeats, drew some, and lost games we should have won easy. But at no point have we won a game where we were behind the 8-ball for most of it. The only occasion that comes to mind where we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory was when Paul O’Brien scored a late goal against Tipperary in the 2004 Munster semi-final. And even then we had led for most of the game only to be overtaken in the last ten minutes. Against Galway yesterday we were probably behind for 60 of the 70 minutes, and were six points down midway through the second half of a low scoring, goalless encounter. To turn that around was the stuff of fairy tales.
The day had not gotten off to the most auspicious of starts. Taking the wrong roundabout coming off the Clonmel ring road sent us on the Fethard road. It had been a while since we had taken this particular cross-country jaunt beloved of those convinced they can trim thirty seconds off the journey. No problem with going through Fethard then. It was just that it got really wacky when we found ourselves in New Birmingham. Who knew there was a place in Tipperary called New Birmingham? We certainly hadn’t, which informed us in no uncertain terms that we’d come too far. Turning around brought us in conflict with a road race where the wretched of the earth were shambling along in the middle of the highway causing us to do swerves that would have impressed John Mullane. Next time we’ll make sure we stick to the main road.
We arrived in Thurles with flaming arrows poking out of our wagon and found the town eerily quiet. In retrospect, I was probably looking forward to some culchie craziness to make our English guests – my brother-in-law and Mrs d’s second cousin, although a much closer relation than that status usually implies - come away thinking the Micks were all mad when in crowds. God forbid they might think it no different to a regular league match at Anfield or Goodison Park. Making our way into the ground you then started worrying that they’d be certain it was nothing like Anfield or Goodison Park as the decrepit nature of the venue blazed forth for them to see (although the Red part of me wonders whether the Toffee would have felt right at home, ho ho). As it happens the authorities made the sensible decision to close the Killinan End thus forcing everyone together and minimising the gaps that might have reduced the atmosphere. Allied to some relatively decent seats, certainly by relaxed Ticketmaster criteria, I began to relax myself.
It wasn’t as if I had high expectations, and when the dust had settled my brother would confess that the main reason for going was what he saw as giving a send-off to this generation that have given us such a wild and wonderful time. With 15 minutes to go he would muse that this was going to be the last time Tony Browne would pull on a Waterford shirt. Then again, all things might well pass but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen today as Dublin failed to bring a tremendous season for them to the next level and reach an All-Ireland semi-final. Quite apart from hoping Dublin would make such a breakthrough and having those hopes dashed, there was a slightly queasy feeling at what would be said when Justin McCarthy’s new team did better than the team who had shafted him last summer – not that I begrudge Justin his happiness, but I can do without the trolling on the subject.
So having got through usual pre-match pleasantries, i.e. Amhrán na bhFiann, which I’m relieved to report didn’t leave me embarrassed at such a brazen display of nationalism in front of the post-imperial visitors , I was trying harder than usual to keep cool. This wasn’t made any easier by the presence of as big a bunch of balubas as ever to grace a sporting event sitting directly in front of us. They weren’t obnoxious, they were simply clueless about the game of hurling in general and the etiquette of match-going in a non-segregated environment (which, as expected, freaked the English folk out no end) in particular. They would applaud the ref for giving a free to Galway when he had given it to Waterford. Every Waterford wide was greeted with cheering and leaping to the feet which is fine in the last five minutes but totally OTT in the first five. One yahoo even had a Dublin beanie hat on, doubtless an expression of true love from some Jackeen brassie he had met in the boozer a few hours before. In fairness to the lads none of their clownishness was directed at those around them, but it was a source of constant irritation throughout.
Not as big as Waterford’s first half performance though. After the initial period of fencing Galway got on top. Looking at the programme beforehand I was struck by the lack of marquee players up front. When you consider how the likes of Noel Lane, Brendan Lynskey, Martin Naughton, Anthony Cunningham, Eanna Ryan and some fella called Joe C spring to mind even twenty years on, Galway’s attack – with the exception of some fella called Joe C – didn’t strike fear into our hearts. They’ve never had a problem racking up big scores since those days, the problem has usually been lightweight back lines. And to see Waterford being horsed out of it by the Galway backs was a source of great concern. Only Stephen Molumphy seemed to be getting any change out of the ball, and Ollie Canning’s limpet imitation on John Mullane was working a treat from Galway’s perspective. Points were exchanged from frees before Galway got the first point from play, an excellent strike from Aongus Callanan after an under pressure Clinton Hennessy had sent the ball straight down his throat. It was just as well that Eoin Kelly had brought his free-taking hurley – and it should be noted what a relief it is that this aspect of Waterford’s game is no longer such a source of angst – because Galway were well on top, helped along by a point from a sideline from Joe Canning. But the double-edged nature of such a talent would be illustrated by a period midway through the half. 0-5 to 0-2 up, Galway embarked on a shocking series of efforts, two dreadful wides bookended by two sideline cuts that were brilliantly struck but drifted wide. Waterford reacted to these let-offs with a couple of frees, one of them a really soft one when John Mullane was hit by what looked to me a clean shoulder, and a great point from Kevin Moran to almost miraculously level matters.
There was no disguising Galway’s ascendancy though, however scrappy it might be. Galway began to edge clear, helped by a point from Joe Canning when he was pulled all over the shop by Declan Prendergast and resorted to kicking the ball over the bar from a long way out. The unusual nature of the point disguised just how easily he had made the space. Waterford would be grateful for a great save from Clinton Hennessy which illustrated to the newbies the value of the reaction of the crowd in gauging what had just happened – abrupt ooh = wide / 65; ripple of applause = point; huge roar = goal. Anyone taking notes would appreciate this later on.
Canning knocked over the 65 and another ‘point’ from him soon after would cause consternation. Shooting from an acute angle the ball looked wide from where I was – admittedly as far away as it is possible to be and still be in the New Stand – but was signalled over after some hesitation from the umpires. What followed did no credit to either Waterford or the ref. Eoin Kelly in particular can consider himself fortunate to have escaped censure as he flew off the handle. The ball may well have been wide but the display of histrionics was unnecessary and could have seen him booked, or worse. The ref though displayed a surprising level of procrastination, heading in to have a consultation with his umpires when he was surely in no position to second-guess them then allowing the point. Either chalk off the score or get on with it. Eoin Kelly could probably claim on the sly that such pressure helps when the next 50-50 decision comes his way, and it looked right suspicious when Kelly went down in a heap right under the Old Stand on the 45m line. He scored from the subsequent free and we went in at half-time grateful to be only four points down and praying that the swirling wind was a factor.
Initially it looked like it might be the case with Mullane flashing a goal effort narrowly wide, Eoin Kelly scoring one of those ridiculously precocious over-the-shoulder efforts and Kevin Moran tacking on another fine point. But this was a false dawn as Galway struck back with three quick points, one of them the result of a free when Eoin Murphy simply chopped Damien Hayes down in a blatant professional foul. Joe Canning must have pondered having a go for goal to extract maximum punishment and Galway would come to regret such caginess.
The post half-time blowback had now evaporated and Galway moved six points clear. The Shanahan brothers came on – Maurice and Dan respectively, which demonstrates how the pecking order has changed – and Maurice made a nuisance of himself from the word go. Not enough of a nuisance to impact the scoreboard, although he could claim frustration when his good play put Mullane in the clear only for the effort from a narrow angle to go wide. Or did it? Instinct again told me it was over and we got another display of petulance from Waterford as it was waved wide, this time slapped down with righteous indignation by Diarmuid Kirwan. It looked like heads were beginning to drop as the good work by the backs wasn’t translating into scores at the other end. It was around this point, as alluded to previously, that maudlin thoughts about the imminent departures from the white and blue began to play around in certain skulls. Waterford managed to trim the gap to three but Galway quickly moved back to the insurance score clear, and even the English second cousin could see that Waterford were going to need a goal, something that I suggested was not going to come.
At some point Dan Shanahan had moved in to full-forward. In a sport which consists of 14 mini-battles all over the field with the final result dependent on the collective tally of those battles a simple switch can have a spectacular impact. It’s doubtful whether Noel Hickey would be as discombobulated as Eugene McEntee was, but the brief period where Dan made a difference was explosive. First he gathered a high ball and drove the ball goalwards. Narrowly wide but 10/10 for the effort. Then it happened again, only this time he got the ball clear. I couldn’t see who it fell to or how it ended up in the net – after-the-event nod in the direction of Shane Walsh here for a fine finish – but the reaction of the Waterford crowd on the Town End told us all we need to know. Suddenly it was a one point game. Galway had a chance which drifted hopelessly wide allowing Waterford to come back down the pitch, earn what looked like a soft free even at the time, thus allowing Kelly to level matters up right on the stroke of the 70 minutes. Extra time loomed but Prendergast and Mullane brought up that thrilling, scarcely believable denoument. There was time for Joe Canning to leap into a phone box and don the outside-the-suit underpants but his tricky effort slipped wide sparking wild celebrations – what was that about not celebrating opposition wides? – as the two minutes of injury time fizzed into the bottom of the egg timer.
The final whistle blew and Thurles reverberated to disbelieving Waterford celebrations. During his bout where Waterford supposedly boozed away the chance of beating Dublin in the League, Bernard Dunne found himself well behind on the judges scorecards as it went into 11th round. He had to land a knockout blow and he did. This was similar. We hadn’t exactly been battered by Galway and while they were well ahead it could still be won with a knockout punch. It didn’t seem at all likely though as we went into those last rounds, which was what made it so special when they landed that late flurry of blows and Galway didn’t get up off the canvas. No one in Waterford will be under the illusion that Kilkenny will be quaking in their boots after this. But each individual Championship success has value when you are from Waterford, and the manner of this one will rank it up there with the very best.
Waterford: Clinton Hennessy, Eoin Murphy, Declan Prendergast, Noel Connors, Tony Browne, Michael Walsh, Aidan Kearney, Kevin Moran (0-2; Dan Shanahan), Shane O’Sullivan, Jamie Nagle (Maurice Shanahan), Seamus Prendergast (0-1), Stephen Molumphy, John Mullane (0-1), E Kelly (0-12, 0-11 f), Shane Casey (Shane Walsh, 1-0)
Galway: Colm Callanan, Damien Joyce, Eugene McEntee, Ollie Canning, Fergal Moore, John Lee, Eoin Lynch, Ger Farragher (0-2), Kevin Hynes, Aongus Callanan (0-2), Cyril Donnellan (Kevin Hayes), Andy Smith (0-1), Damien Hayes (0-3), Joe Canning (0-9, 0-5 f, 0-1 65), Niall Healy (Joe Gantley, 0-1)
HT: Waterford 0-7 Galway 0-11
Referee: Diarmuid Kirwan (Cork)
A lot has happened since I last posted – that’ll happen when you take two weeks off in the summer. Expect a mish-mash of confused thoughts over the next few days as I try to make sense of it all without having experienced any of it first hand.
The first thing that springs to mind is how, after all the jigs and the reels, it has been a tremendously successful period for Davy Fitzgerald. There was a lot of pressure on both managers after the shambles of the drawn game, a match that was bad to listen to on a car radio in Durham and was likely infinitely worse in the rain-soaked flesh. Therefore it was inexplicable that Justin decided to make no changes to the Limerick team. How can a team score 1-8 in any 70 minute match and be considered worthy of such a vote of confidence? Davy Fitz, on the other hand, rang the changes. Playing Gary Hurney ahead of Dan Shanahan was not at all obvious and left him open to abuse should Waterford fall short. Leaving Ken McGrath out was unavoidable but there have been situations in the past where Ken was not much better than a cripple but Waterford managers have recoiled from the prospect of playing without him even as an impact sub. And the positional switches clearly worked wonders with John Mullane making mincemeat of the Limerick defence, adding 50% to his points tally from the weekend before and generally traumatising them to the extent that they had to keep on fouling him. Yep, after a fraught week Davy Fitz can feel pretty smug.
And so on to the Munster final, what will be our sixth appearance there in twelve seasons. To put that figure into context, it’ll only be the 24th time we’ve contested the final. It bears repeating again and again and again – this is a golden age for Waterford hurling. Rather than bemoaning the lack of All-Ireland titles or even finals, let’s rejoice in what has been achieved.
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 meeja often get criticised for whipping up storms of indignation where none would otherwise exist. Conflict is grist to the mill of your average hack. Which makes it all the more impressive that Justin McCarthy has kept his counsel on the manner in which he was frog-marched out of the county on which he had lavished such riches. When you see the understandable manner in which Gerald McCarthy lashed out at those who traduced him in the recent strike in Cork, it makes Justin’s silence all the more remarkable – and classy.
This is not to say that I’d rather that Justin was still in the Waterford hot seat. His time had run his course, and like many a successful manager before him the ideas that had invigorated players at first seemed stale nearly seven years on. The manner in which he left still sticks in the craw though. Having hit the ground running in previous stints with Antrim, Clare, Cork and Waterford, it doesn’t seem fanciful to think he could do the same with Limerick, All-Ireland finalists a mere two years ago. If he does, the stick the Waterford panel will receive will be merciless. The only consolation would be that Justin won’t be the type to rub salt into the wounds.
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.
When the Waterford hurlers staged their heave against Justin McCarthy back in June, comparisons were made with the infamous strike the Cork hurlers and footballers staged last winter. While there were superficial similarities, the core issue was quite different. The Waterford hurlers were rising up against an individual. The respective Cork panels were revolting against the entire body politic of the GAA; indeed, they were at great pains to emphasise that they had no issue with the personalities involved (that didn’t stop their supporters casting online aspersions against Teddy Holland, but in fairness to the Cork players they didn’t waver from their position and they can’t control the trolls, nor should they be expected to). You can argue about which is worse – I know where my vote on that matter is – but the differences between the situations are clear and unarguable.
Well, the situation in Waterford now has a companion in the departure of John Meyler as Wexford hurling manager. Faced with a situation where the players refused to play for the manager, the County Board decided to fire the manager.
It’s not unheard of in GAA history – Brian McDonald memorably faced an open letter from the Mayo football panel where they excoriated his management style, not least the indignity of pushing a car round a car park as training – but the proximity of two senior panels behaving in the same manner suggests it is becoming more common. At the risk of sounding like one of the tinfoil hat brigade, it’s easy to speculate that many managers are relieved of their duties after their counties exit from the Championship after a quiet consultation with the players, or at least the superstar ones who are to be found in even the lowliest of inter county panels.
So this looks like the future in the GAA, and it ain’t right. Watching the Wexford panel warm down after they had beaten Waterford in the League this year, there didn’t seem to be any personality issues as they cheerfully engaged in an activity that makes players look utterly daft. It’s only when the Kilkenny train smashed into them that the personality issues became a problem. As per above, we can instantly dismiss the statements for and against John Meyler online. If players had a problem with Meyler it was their responsibility to walk away from the panel, not collectively spit their dummy out.
The one consolation from the Wexford situation is that it makes the manner in which Justin was dispatched look almost dignified – this report on RTÉ tells a tale of county tearing itself apart. With the players in each county no longer a bunch who show up after the saving of the hay but a coherent group throughout the summer, it would be a strong County Board that could drive a wedge between any panel set on a course of action.