Savour the moment, he said. It’s all very well implying that we should coolly inhale the heady vapours of success, but few of us know what it’s like. Two generations of Waterford hurling fans know nothing but the knowledge that we’re the county that wins feck all. And in 70 glorious minutes of hurling, those certainties come crashing down around our ears. Not only are we winners, but we’re worthy winners. Tipperary, the county that out of all the top counties glories most in rubbing the little guys nose in it, they were the team that had turned and run like whipped curs when the dormant Waterford volcano erupted in their midst.
That’s very unfair on Tipperary, but more on that later.
When the GAA decided a number of years back that the pitch invasion must become a thing of the past, I thunderously declared on some online discussion board that if we won the Munster Championship or the All-Ireland, we’d rip the barriers out of the ground to get onto the sward. Now, unexpectedly, was the chance to put such pomposity into practice. And we blew it. The thought crossed my mind as the occupants of the City end terrace went into collective meltdown, but for some reason it didn’t seem appropriate. Getting the gates opened would have involved much anguished negotiation with the po-faced ‘maor’ and Gardaí on the pitch. Inevitably these things degenerate into foul-mouthed tirades, and today was not the day for losing the rag over something that, in the wider scheme of things, was quite trivial.
Besides, John Mullane was about to make our quasi-imprisonment on the terrace a lot easier to bear. Charging up to the fence, it looked for a second like he was going to vault clean over it. He was soon joined by his teammates, and the desire to get down on the pitch dissipated as we acclaimed our heroes.
It’s funny the little things you notice at moments like this. PJ Ryan, the Chairman of the County Board, waddling up behind the team, his exalted (!) position not preventing him from behaving exactly as anyone in the terrace would have behaved, clutching at the players with almost feverish devotion. The boyish visage of Tom Feeney crept to the fore. In 1998, I had stood in the tunnel in Thurles after the heartbreak of losing the League final, and Tom Feeney emerged from the dressing room, his face red and blotchy from the tears that had flowed down his cheeks only moments before. Even then you could see he was struggling to hold back another deluge. But now, he had the serene smile of victory on his face. Eoin Kelly was gazing into the crowd, eyes twitching excitedly as he sought someone close to his heart.
And Ken McGrath. A brief discussion had taken place on the terrace wondering whether he had scored six points or seven points from play. The consensus was that he had scored seven, because six would have seemed inadequate for such a Herculean performance. Ger Canning had make the point during the game that if there were a transfer system in hurling, Ken would be worth a fortune. Before you get offended at the Tipp-like imperative in such an observation, remember that not only is he right, and Brian Cody would give his eye teeth for our Ken, but he would label Ken “one of hurling’s great artisans”, which is an accurate assessment of what Ken McGrath brings to the modern game.
And Ken’s reaction spoke for the man who has laboured for the last eight seasons to carry his team, the jibes of how if he’d been playing for Kilkenny or Cork he’d have won a skipload of Celtic crosses. Now, I only got a brief glimpse of his demeanour after the victory, but he looked like a man having a nervous breakdown, shambling around in a daze, accepting the euphoric thanks of his teammates as if he had merely brought a pint of milk to a group of brickies gasping for a cup of tea. A young lad was wandering around amidst the hullabaloo, and Ken turned towards him and offered him a palm which was slapped with reverential delight. Fair dues to that young fella, had Ken offered me his hand at that moment I would probably have soiled myself. It’s not as if Ken won the game on his own – too many duels were won by Waterford players for that to be the case – but it was the complete attacking performance. Every one of the points was a gem, and if he doesn’t add a real All-Star award to the three imaginary statuettes for the ones he should have won, then questions will have to be asked in the United Nations Security Council.
Strolling amiably in the middle of this cacophony of noise was Justin McCarthy. As the match had sped towards its conclusion, the chant went up from the Waterford faithful “we love you Justin, we do, oh Justin we love you.” Too self-effacing to try and steal the limelight, the feeling must still have been indescribable. Yet another tortured county was hailing him as their Messiah, and to see his vision of sparkling, skilful hurling being realised in such spectacular fashion must have been extremely gratifying. And he would have been forgiven if he was dwelling on all those drinks he’s going to be offered in the Gentle County for the rest of his life. Let’s hope he likes large bottles.
Amidst all the madness, it seemed as if a thought came to the collective mind: the Cup! Jaysus, we actually had to go and pick up a bit of silverware. This was new territory once again. As quickly as they had massed underneath the terrace, they had migrated to the Covered Stand for the presentation of the Munster Cup to Fergal Hartley. Trophies are only symbols of the greater triumph, but they’re a marvellous focal point for that triumph. Without much ado – mindful no doubt that we weren’t in the humour for any fannying around – the Chairman of the Munster Council handed over the Cup. Fergal raised the trophy skywards and we roared with delight. Words fail you at moments like that . . .
Perhaps Fergal was aware that Uachtaran na hÉireann was in the vicinity, although having served up such an enjoyable show we didn’t owe her anything. Or maybe he’s used to speeches with Ballygunner. Whatever it was, his address was a masterclass in how to accept a cup. No Ray Silke-style “I’d like to thank every Corofin person in history by name” meanderings or taking a pop at vanquished foes (stop squirming uncomfortably, Rod Guiney and Anthony Daly). We were putty in his hands with his quip “some speak of a famine; well this is the Real Famine AND THE REAL FAMINE IS OVER!” (Stop squirming uncomfortably, Richard Stakelum.) When he mentioned the “thousands and thousands” of Waterford people he had to thank, I ventured that he’d better not mention them all, a comment which led one woman behind me to sagely observe that “we’ll stay here all night if we have to!” Reference was made to those who got us here but weren’t there to share the moment; Billy O’Sullivan, Sean Cullinane and Stephen Frampton. No doubt they were all present somewhere.
And then the mentors. Alluding to three men he had to thank, he mentioned the Tipp man, Colm Bonner, and the Waterford man, Seamie Hannon. Then a double take as he realised there were two Corkmen he had to thank: Gerald McCarthy (huge cheer) and Justin McCarthy (Páirc Uí Caucescu trembles from the roar, people fainting, gentle smile from the Great Leader himself). After the obligatory three cheers for Tipp (yawn) the speech was over. Now the message was to get back home and party!!
We virtually had the ground to ourselves at this stage. In such a match, there is no single moment when you realise you have it won, just growing recognition and the odd event which abruptly increases the sense of expectation. One such event was with about five minutes to go when I noticed that I could see the barriers on the Tipp terrace. The denizens of the Premier County realised before we did that the game was up, and were leaving in droves, to hoots of “cheerio, cheerio” and “it’s a long way to Tipperary” from the liberated Déise. Some have interpreted this as surliness on Tipp’s part, that it was bad manners not to salute Waterford’s moment. Which is claptrap. This was our moment, and it was better to leave it to us. To my eye, most of the Tipperary players had also fled the scene of the crime, but the only reason we’d want them to hang around was to rub their noses in it, and we didn’t want to do that – not much, anyway. No one in Tipperary begrudged us this moment, and to say otherwise would be churlish in the extreme.
The cup was now paraded around the pitch. Brian Flannery set the ball rolling, charging toward the Uncovered Stand with the trophy held aloft. I doubt if it were planned, but he was an oddly appropriate choice, the outsider gone native. A newspaper article from earlier in the day had traced his development from Tipperary underage teams to the Waterford seniors. His statement that “every time I pull on a Waterford jersey, I give thanks for my second chance” was a lovely sentiment, especially when you think he might have ended up back at Tipperary a few years ago. The trophy wended its way around the ground, no rush, in fact take as long as you like, lads. Eoin Kelly got the cup and proceeded to fling it in an overarm manner towards the terrace. He didn’t let it go in the end, although for a second I thought he might. It was a great gesture though, giving credence to the notion that this cup belonged to us all, and it’s not as if we won’t get our hands on it eventually through the course of the year in which it is ours and ours alone.
It took an age to get back to the Gentle County. For a start, no one wanted to leave. You just wanted it to go on forever. The mobile phone network was groaning under the strain of Waterford folk trying to contact their nearest and dearest, and it took a while to track down my sister. Eventually she came sauntering along the side of the river and a group hug ensued. The love of the Waterford hurlers that we had forced upon her, and which for years had seemed like a curse, was suddenly a blessing. Heading back to the car, Cork people gave us the thumbs up, Tipperary folk nodded approvingly in our direction and Waterford men and women returned our triumphant grins with interest. Passing cars honked their horns and their occupants rolled down the windows to roar with joy. Then we got into the car and drove through the Jack Lynch tunnel.
If anyone was still unaware of the enormity of Waterford’s achievement, they were surely woken from their stupor by the tsunami of car horns which filled the tunnel. The engineer must have been adding a few zeroes to his asking price, selling himself as The Man Whose Tunnel Withstood The Déise Roar. Every Waterford car was a nodule of noise which, when all added together in the confines of the tunnel, was truly spectacular. All the way through we roared our delight. We were fully aware that our personal noise was barely a pinprick amidst the general uproar, but we couldn’t help ourselves. The din generated by the cars awoke an almost primeval sense of elation in us. Emerging from the far side to the abrupt silence of the outside world, a sense of exhaustion swept over me. It was as if the tunnel had unleashed a monster, and in a way it had. We just had to let that monster out with a manic display of gratification, and boy did it feel good.
The convoy slowly groped its way through east Cork and finally crossed the Blackwater into Waterford, although not before we had slowed to acknowledge the old woman in Youghal, finally getting some reward for her years of persevering with her bunting and flags. Hopefully the team acknowledged that too when they passed through a few hours after us.
We sped through County Waterford, saluting every passer-by as if we knew them personally, and the shared success meant that, in a perverse manner, we did. We certainly knew what each of them was thinking. The dim DJ on WLR was reading out text messages from what seemed like half the county, and he only got some of the player’s names wrong.
Finally, almost ten hours after we had left, we arrived back in Tramore. The knowledge that the team would be arriving in Dungarvan that night and not go to the city until Monday was a bit deflating, as it meant I would miss it all, but this was merely a question of gorging on the main course and having to skip the dessert. Besides, the highlights on The Sunday Game reminded me that the vision of the quality of Waterford’s play had not been a mirage. Even Ger Loughnane was visibly thrilled. “All the hurling world rejoices at Waterford’s victory”. And you can’t say fairer than that.
Click here for Part V