When We Were (U-21) Kings

Update 21/9/16: I mention below how this piece, first written 13 years ago about events 11 years before, was entirely from memory. In the days before TG4 the only way to see it would have been to attend one of the showings of it at various clubs around the county. It was probably that copy of the game that has now been put on YouTube by Freddy Kelly:

I haven’t looked it from start to finish, but you know what? It looks like the memory was pretty good. The crowds were huge, much larger than at the recent win in Thurles, and just as dominated by Waterford supporters then as it was in 2016. Johnny Brenner won the last puckout of the drawn game and hammered it, if not over the bar, then at least back with interest. Paul Flynn did give an underarm fist pump upon scoring what was the last score rather than the second-last score – close enough. And I doubt I was the only one to miss Tony Browne receiving the trophy from Peter Quinn as the multitudes could barely raise the roof any further than they were doing before the presentation. On the debit side, no one was anywhere near Ray Barry for either of Offaly’s goals. A spot of wishful thinking there. Anyway, what a wonderful blast from the past. Let’s hope it survives any copyright claims to bring tears to Déise eyes of a certain age for years to come.

It’s always better to lose in the semi-final than the final, at least in the All-Ireland series. The ensuring cliché that it’s the other way round stems from the tedious folklore surrounding the English FA Cup, where losing the semi-final would be seen as depriving that team of the opportunity to stroll down Wembley Way – actually called Olympic Way, trivia fans, although recent developments (or lack thereof) have surely led it to be rechristened Not The Way. Going so close, only to have it taken away from you . . . you’re better off not getting so close.

We’d know all about that in Waterford, getting knocked out at the semi-final stage. Defeats in the All-Ireland semi-final to Kilkenny (’98 ) and Clare (’02) were heartbreaking, but then we had the perverse pleasure of watching each of them blow it at the last hurdle. A few hurdles have been vaulted in the last six years, such as reaching a final, not losing a final and – shock, horror! – winning a final. Reaching the All-Ireland final is still to come, and obviously that has to come before we can win it, but I’d happily forgo a couple of appearances in the final if we could be certain of winning one. Just one, oh Lord won’t you buy me an All-Ireland for Waterford!

There was a time though, and in my lifetime, when reaching AND WINNING finals wasn’t complete pie-in-the-sky for Waterford. That was at the start of the 1990’s, when the minor and U-21 hurlers showed their senior counterparts how it was done.

It’s important at this stage to trace my own personal development as a Waterford supporter, to give context to the importance of the events of the summer of 1992. When I first became aware of the importance of that team in white, the traumas of the Munster final massacres of 1982 and 1983 were still a gaping wound in the Waterford psyche. Our affairs plummeted as low as losing to the likes of Kildare and Roscommon, and the long, dark teatime of the soul that was Division Three. This was where I came in, shuffling along to Division Three matches against Armagh and county finals where I would convince myself that I was a Ballyduff Upper man for a day.

There were also a couple of county finals in football for my own club, Tramore, and even a victory in the Centenary year, but I do vigorously repent my interest in the big ball game, and a polite person would not draw attention to such a crime against good taste.

The only way was up from such a position, and up we went, charging through Division Three (a hiccup against Mayo and Joe McHenry excepted) and Division Two with the glee of an escaped prisoner desperate to put the Lubyanka as far behind as possible. There was a superb victory over Cork in the League quarter-finals, memorable on so many levels. Kevin Hennessy had allegedly been spotted on the beer the night before, dismissing all objections on the basis that “it’s only Waterford”. Four points down going into the last couple of minutes, the fairytale comeback came true and Waterford finished point-goal-point to snatch the win. Never mind that we were trounced by Galway in Port Laoise in the league semi-final, it was a fantastic day, not least for the satisfaction of having Ger Cunningham glancing in our direction to see where the stream of four letter words was coming from. There’s not much opportunity to swear at a legend of the game anymore, more’s the pity.

Next up was Limerick in my first Championship game, and here we must pause. Waterford dominated for fifty minutes, and the flame of hope was kindled and fuelled. But Limerick, League winners in ’84 and ’85, and Munster champions as recently as six years before, eventually overhauled us to win by four points. Waiting underneath the Old Stand after the game, this 10 year-old buachaill, tennis-racquet-thin, couldn’t hold back the tears of anguish, and an unconscious decision was made to give up on following the Waterford hurlers.

That’s what effectively happened. In the next five years I went to one (1) inter-county hurling match, a Division One relegation decider against Limerick. We lost that one too. Not only did I lose interest in going to games, I lost interest in the Waterford team in general, going so far as to almost (but not quite) adopt Cork, the land of my fathers, as my number one county team. Ostensibly, Waterford were still my county, but to this day I could name you the entire Cork team that won the All-Ireland in 1990, yet not tell you about one of the players on the Déise team trashed by Cork on the road to that victory. An unhappy memory now, but that’s the way it was.

Not following the hurling scene in the Gentle County, and jacking in playing the game at the grand old age of fourteen (something I’ll always regret) didn’t help matters, the progress of the county at under-age level passed silently by. A more concerted effort had been under way for a couple of years, exemplified by the presence of Colm Bonnar as a roving schools coach. But this was something you enjoyed in primary school, and not of relevance to a young fogey like myself, retiring from the battlefield in my early teens. Qualifying for the minor and U-21 Munster finals raised an eyebrow of interest, but it soon fell back again at the memory that we’d certainly lose, because we always lose, because we’re crap and that was the end of the matter.

The minor championship, it should be said, was something of value to a fifteen year old who had invested so much time in television sport. Only two hurling matches were shown live on television each year, the semi-final between Galway and the Leinster/Munster champions, and the All-Ireland itself. The minors provided the curtain raiser. Wow, just how cool would it be if Waterford were on the telly? Heck, that made us famous! It was a lovely thought, even if one rendered irrelevant by the inevitable hammering we were going to receive at the hands of Tipperary, right?

Wrong. The senior match between Cork and Limerick was obviously the main news, but amidst all flannel was the story that Waterford had held the might of Tipperary to a draw. As shocks go, this was like grabbing the main line out of a power station with your teeth. My brother came back from the game giddy with excitement, raving constantly about some young tyro called Paul Flynn. Even more dramatic was the manner of the draw. Waterford scored an equalising goal at the death, only for Tipp to come straight back and score another goal. Then Flynn saved the day with another goal at the death of death. Stirring stuff, even enough to rouse the now much more corpulent fifteen year-old out of his torpor.

All eyes were focussed on the replay twelve days after the game. So much so that when, nine days later, my other brother bounded into the living room with the news that we’d won the replay, I expressed bafflement as to how this was possible. Investigations revealed that we’d “only” won the U-21 Munster title. No danger that would be on telly, you see. How shallow would those sentiments prove over the passage of time. To begin with, the game was actually given extensive coverage on Sportsworld a few weeks later. Watching Mark O’Sullivan and a Waterford mentor collapsing in a heap after the final whistle was enough to warm the stoniest of cynical hearts. Plus the U-21’s were about to take on an even greater significance . . .

But first, the minors did the impossible, beating Tipperary in the replay amidst joyous scenes down in Cork. The cutely-monikered TWA Cup was hauled back through the county, filled with ‘lemonade’, used as a vinegar bottle in takeaways, left in ditches, kicked around like a football, dropped in the Colligan – all the usual abuse handed out to trophies that only other counties ever get up to. With only Antrim standing in the way of the teams, there were now two All-Ireland finals to look forward to.

The first Sunday in September, as the All-Ireland hurling final day was back then, and there we were, trading under the name Port Láirge. It seemed that fully a third of Hill 16 contained white-and-blue flags as all forms of swaps and blags were conducted to get as many people as possible in to see a Waterford team play in Croker. Sadly, contrary to popular belief, the crowd doesn’t win you games. Port Láirge sank to a sad defeat to Gaillimh, the Tribesman pulling away with ease in the end after a plucky first half performance by the Déise lads. It was disappointing, but memories of playing Armagh in Walsh Park meant that it wasn’t a waste of our time. We had had a good day out in Croke Park and not been humiliated, and even gotten on the telly. After everything that had occurred before, this truly was riches beyond our dreams.

At this stage, I still didn’t feel confident enough to go to games, or probably I didn’t feel bothered going to games. Following them on the radio was enough. It would certainly have been taking the mick to go to the All-Ireland final having not even known the name of any the players only a few weeks previous. The U-21 final was a different cauldron of crabs. Taking place in Kilkenny, it didn’t take much effort to get to the game and you only had to turn up on the day with cash in hand. Driving up to Kilkenny, it struck me that the reason I was going was merely to ‘be’ at Waterford in ‘an’ All-Ireland final. The notion of victory honestly never entered my head.

Half-time confirmed that view. Again, the crowd wasn’t going to win the game, as this time we outnumbered Offaly fans by about ten to one – they were used to going to Croke Park for their championship appearances – and Waterford were 0-9 to 0-4 down. Still, it was genuinely pleasant to be there, part of such a big crowd behaving itself impeccably when memories of English football hooliganism were still fresh in the memory.

All these isn’t-it-fun-to-mess-around-in-boats reveries were rudely torpedoed minutes into the second half. Sean Daly (in the days before I knew him as Growler) lashed in two goals and we were in front. What happened next had echoes in the not-too-distant past for me. Watching Armagh play Dublin in the football semi-final, my Portadown colleague confessed little interest in Gaelic football before the game, but was turned into a snarling fanatic when it looked like Armagh had a sniff of glory. The same happened to me in Nowlan Park that day. The scent of an All-Ireland and I was transformed into Jaws. I was effing and blinding like a sailor with Tourette’s syndrome, oblivious to my dad’s pleas to keep it down while in the earshot of our local TD. Johnny Brenner, Tom Fives, Tony Browne and Fergal Hartley were providing stirring support to the Daly roadshow as the Growler put us ahead again with yet another goal. Three goals and no points in the second half. The fates seemed to be on our side. Waterford even had the benefit of a myopic umpire, who signalled what looked like a perfectly good Offaly point wide. I would not have believed it had it not been unfolding in front of me, but there it was and the best part of 20,000 people were rubbing their eyes in disbelief.

Offaly were clearly playing the better hurling, but Waterford seemed capable of scoring a goal every time they got the ball. The question was, who would score last and leave no more time for the opposition to recover? It was that feeling which led me to think we had it won when super sub Paul Flynn – that man again – stitched it into the net to make it 4-4 to 0-14 in injury time. Surely they couldn’t get two points?

Actually yes, they could. Two points sailed over the bar, and there was still time for Brenner to hammer the ball over the bar after the whistle had gone to signal the draw. A replay. I would have settled for it at the start, but it was upsetting after such a gloriously unexpected triumph had presented itself mere moments before.

From that day on, I was back in the Déise fold. Going to matches on a regular basis would be a long way away, but few games missed my beady gaze whether they be tournament games or the Munster championship. The beast had been awoken, and it wasn’t going to slink back into the shadows just because there was precious little around to eat.

There was also the small matter of the replay. The pundits felt Waterford had missed the boat, but I was a lot more confident, rationalising that now that we had shown that we could do it, it didn’t take a great leap forward to do it for real. There wasn’t a feeling of certainty as we trudged along the ring road back to Nowlan Park, but there was a quiet confidence. Offaly had never given us anything to worry about before (mainly because we’d never played them) so why worry now?

The replay had the distinction, from a neutral’s point of view, of being even more bizarre and inscrutable and downright exciting than the drawn game – I also kept a rein on the four-letter words, but I digress. Waterford found how to score points, putting over six in the first half, while Offaly scored two goals to provide a clear counterpoint to the mood music of the previous day. The second goal was particularly frustrating, coming right at the stroke of half-time and looking from my perspective like it should have been disallowed for a foul on the goalie Ray Barry.

The second half began with Waterford quickly trimming the lead to a point, and then set off on the most incredible period of unrewarded sustained pressure ever seen on any sports field. It was like a soccer match where one team are so overwhelmed by the opposition that they decide to play for a draw/defend a slender lead. This kind of thing makes sense in association football, but if the opposition drop back in hurling you can just pop the ball over the bar. Waterford, however, seemed chronically incapable of doing even that, racking up a series of the most outrageous misses as they struggled to come to terms with the fact that Offaly were a beaten team. The equalising score had to come eventually, but what if eventually came after the final whistle?

Come it did though, from a free if memory serves me correct. (One should note that all this is from memory, a decade of memory. About the only thing I can be certain of after this length of time is that we won.) With that, it was as if an enormous, Wile E. Coyote-style, cartoon anvil was lifted off the team’s shoulders. The lead point flew over, then Paul Flynn put us two points clear. The crowd roared their approval, and Flynn turned to the terrace to give a low-slung clenched fist signal, a gesture which spurred us to decibel levels that made the earth tremble. There was less than one score in it, but there was no way that we were going to let this one slip. Over another point went, and the screams of joy among the Waterford faithful took on an almost hysterical tone as the burden of failure was lifted, if only for a brief period of time. The Faithful County’s faithful stole away, wry smiles on their faces that such dementia could attach itself to this result. They would have their day in Croker two years later, and they didn’t begrudge us this one now.

The final whistle blew and the rest is a blur. Somehow we got onto the field, which might have something to do with the stewards opening the gates, and said stewards were engulfed by a tsunami of delirious Déisigh. So tumultuous was the, er, tumult that I didn’t even see the presentation of the trophy, and can’t even vaguely remember anything that Tony Browne said in his victory speech. Some cynics might say that that’s down to Tony’s broad townie cadences, but while TB may not have a Gladstonian oratorical flourish, he proved later on in the evening that talking to a big crowd does not faze him. It’s more likely that a combination of the ear-shattering crowd noise and the shock that reverberated through my system proved more successful in sensory deprivation than a night in a flotation tank.

Back to the Crystal City then for the inevitable civic reception. It didn’t seem that inevitable actually – was it really an achievement worthy of over-the-top celebrations? – but the people spoke loud and clear. Sitting in the Garda barracks on Ballybricken Hill while my old man sorted out some paperwork, the air was rent with the sound of car horns being sounded on the Quay. The Cablevision text service was reduced to a simple message, congratulating the boys on their victory. Waterford 0-12 Offaly 2-3. The Cork and Kerry guards (98% of coppers in Waterford are from Cork or Kerry) were tempted to sneer, but one look at our faces told them that this was not an occasion to belittle another county’s achievement. It was wonderful, and not one scintilla of guilt that I was effectively a bandwagon jumper entered my head.

Why should I feel guilty? As my brother and I stood near the hastily assembled podium near the Bull Post in Ballybricken, we chuckled at all the times we had been forced to defend our Waterfordness. Born in the city, but with our parents living in Mooncoin at the time, we were constantly ribbed for being Kilkennymen! No amount of All-Irelands was worth that fate, and this moment seemed to be a reward for sticking by the Gentle County.

The reason for looking back on those days is to compare and contrast the reaction, of myself and others, to the victories of 1992 and 2002. Some might say we were slightly pathetic to get so wound up over such a piddling victory as the U-21 All-Ireland, but it meant so much to a county who had won nothing of any description at inter-county level since 1974. My cousin, a Kerryman, informed me that he had never seen the likes of the celebrations that erupted in the Kingdom when they won the Sam Maguire in 1997. The poor things, they had gone eleven years without winning the senior All-Ireland. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and seeing the joy on people’s faces was incredible, whether it was in ’92 or ’02. Heading into school the next morning, seeing the beam on the faces of those who had been there, lads wearing white-and-blue hats, the sporadic yells of “Come on the Déise” . . . not even the rantings of a sociopathic teacher, who terrorised those who didn’t go to the game, could take the gloss off our glory.

(Now that I think about it, he went very close to doing exactly that. What is it about the more deranged GAA types that they think they have the right to harangue those who don’t share their point of view? Lives have been lost trying to find an answer to that question.)

Neither Time nor maniacs has dimmed the warm glow of that day. Only three of the players – Fergal Hartley, Paul Flynn and Tony Browne – would be present on the day a decade later that we landed the Munster Cup. But how many of the younger generation, like Eoin Kelly or John Mullane, put in that little bit extra effort into their hurling skills in the hope of emulating/exceeding the achievements of the U-21 team? Besides, these days are enjoyable in themselves. Never mind the width, feel the quality. For one day we were the happiest GAA fans in all of Ireland. Thousands of Déisigh could never have claimed that before, but for that one day, we were Kings.