Waterford 2-23 (29) Tipperary 3-12 (21) – Part I: The Build-Up

“The view in the Premier County is that we’ll be disappointed if we don’t win by 18 points.”

Ticket, Tipperary, 2002

Surprisingly not the words of Babs Keating, although no doubt he said it at some point to someone in some snug in some part of whatever part of Ireland he lives in. These words were uttered by the manager of my local in Liverpool, a good Tipperary man – a phrase I’m not using in the pejorative sense. One has the luxury of being generous.

He was saying it in jest, but only partly so. No one would make such a comment unless they had some inkling that it might come true. Getting more serious, he was quite adamant that Tipperary were on the verge of dominating hurling for a decade. They have 24 outstanding hurlers vying for supremacy, you see, and with Nicky on the line, may the celestial body placed up His backside never stop shining, the only question was which player would first eclipse John Doyle and Christy Ring’s record of eight Celtic crosses.

There’s no one better at trumpeting their own teams magnificence than Tipperary folk. Babs was describing Eoin Kelly as the perfect player, lethal off either side and flawless from the dead ball. John Carroll is the perfect full-forward, skilful and strong, perfectly complimenting his more lithe partners around him. An Internet Tipp character, who trades under the name of GalteeMountainBoy, has never tired of observing that Philip Maher has redefined what it means to be a full-back, his sumptuous skills consigning the traditional hulking full-forward to the scrapheap of history. With all this and more, how could Tipperary lose to a team entirely dependent on two forwards for their scores? Stop Flynn and McGrath, and the 18 point vision would become a reality.

But what about Kilkenny, I enquired? What about them, I was asked. Had we not been told after their triumphal march to the All-Ireland in 2000 that the future was Black & Amber, that the county with ten Leinster minor titles on the bounce was now producing the countries best hurlers in the same way that Henry Ford produced Model T’s? Pah, I was told, mention not those sporting simpletons to me (I’m paraphrasing, obviously). “They wouldn’t have won ten All-Ireland’s if they were in Munster”. Would Tipperary lack the hunger? A shrug. Who needs hunger when you’ve got skill to burn?

This kind of pub talk didn’t worry me. I had seen Waterford play Cork and we had been very good, if a little lacking in finesse. As I returned to Waterford the day before the game, I confidently predicted to my brother that this was going to our year. It was the last time I said anything as silly as that until . . . well, you’ll see. What depressed me was surfing the Internet that evening. The consensus was almost total: it was going to be a very close game, but Tipperary were going to win. If the game was going to be so close, then how come no one was willing to hazard an opinion that Waterford might just get across the finishing line first? Everyone was just being polite. They all thought that Tipperary were likely to win well, and if Waterford were to get close, Tipp would slap us down with righteous fury.

The antidote to all this politeness is to get an opinion from a man who thrives on being rude. Ger Loughnane was adamant in The Star that Waterford were going to win. The hunger was there, and Justin McCarthy’s tactical nous – and Ger Lock knows whereof he speaks with regard to Justin – would see Waterford home. Ger’s animosity towards Waterford re the Colin Lynch affair is well known, so to see him predicting and wishing a Waterford victory demonstrates that a) we had a chance; Loughnane has always struck me as the most prescient of pundits, perfectly happy to trash players where others (stand up, Tomás Mul) are terrified to offend, and b) the spectre of ’98 had been exorcised, something that would be sub-consciously helpful to the players as they took on the Les Premier Invincibles – French lessons are greatly appreciated, by the way.

Anyway. Reading the papers before the game is part of many people’s ritual for any big match. Not for me though. A quick glance is usually enough to divine that no one thinks we have a chance. Well, they all thought we had a chance, singular, but Tipperary had ninety-nine chances. Babs Keating’s hammering of us in The Sunday Times was predictable. Say what you like about Babs – and we all do – but he never pulls his punches, Besides, there’s a method in his foaming-at-the-mouth madness, and the message was a lot more subtle than ‘Waterford are crap’. If Tipp won, he was likely to be proven right. But if Babs, who is grossly overweight, was wrong, he could claim that Tipperary would have won if only he was in charge and that Nicky English doesn’t know which end of the hurley to hit the sliothar with. His agenda was not anti-Waterford, but to take a few sly digs at the Tipperary mentors.

So Babs’ witterings didn’t perturb me in the slightest. It was the comments of more rational observers that worried me. Dermot Crowe in The Sindo felt that Waterford would spend most of the game trying to “contain the monster”, while Enda McEvoy in The Turbine was equally sanguine about Waterford’s chances. Neither of these writers would want anything other than a Waterford victory, particularly Enda who cut his journalistic teeth with The Munster Excuse (that’s enough lame newspaper nicknames! – Niall’s editorial conscience) so it didn’t auger well for our chances that these men, who would be only too happy to talk up the Déise, found no reason to do so.

Peter Finnerty went for Tipperary though. Enda Colleran was notorious in the 80’s on the telly for getting his football predictions hopelessly wrong, especially regarding Ulster. Peter Finnerty is clearly following in a fine Galway tradition.

Finnerty stuck his oar in on the telly after the Limerick-Cork game in the qualifiers. This wasn’t a very heartening sight. The game I mean, not Finnerty. Cork trashed and tossed like a beached whale for much of the game, struggling to cope with the outrageous mediocrity of their opponents. I had invested a lot in the notion that Cork were a whole lot better than almost everyone, especially those from Cork, were saying they were. In the end, Ben O’Connor’s superb late point won them the game and we could at least go to Leeside in the knowledge that the team we had drummed out of the Munster Championship were good enough to reach the second round of the qualifiers. Whoopie-doo.

The trip to Cork was eerily quiet. Perhaps the World Cup final had led people to head down to Cork early so as to watch the football from the start. Perhaps there was none of the blarney of ’98, when the fact that we were playing the Munster and All-Ireland champions was deflected by the knowledge that it was ‘only’ Clare, leading us to a zealous over-confidence. No baggage playing that lot. Or perhaps we just overstated the extent to which County Waterford seemed to be in a slumber. Either way, it seemed quiet. Too quiet . . .

There are only three certainties in life. Death, taxes, and the Waterford woman living on the outskirts of Youghal on the road to Killeagh will have plastered her house with white and blue bunting and will be sitting on her wall/standing in her doorway waving at the cavalcade passing in front of her house. And there she was. Made me feel better immediately. Had she not been there, the psychological impact would have been devastating. And not in a good way.

Click here for Part II