(NB photos lifted from The Wanderer’s Irish Rail Photos. Yes, really.)
I’ve been sitting here rather pathetically for much of time since returning from England, flitting between various websites trying to encapsulate my thoughts after Waterford’s win over Tipperary in the All-Ireland hurling semi-final. You wait 45 years for something to come along – okay, I’m not that old, but memes are pervasive in the GAA; the deeds of previous generations lie heavily on the current one – so that when it does, it can overwhelm. It’s like Godot has turned up.
I’ve been subjected to a blizzard of thoughts in the last couple of days, probably a consequence of not being there and therefore lacking a firm narrative. So to try and overcome the writer’s block, I thought I’d ruminate on what went so right after those horrific failures in 1998, 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2007 (and writing it down really hammer home the horror). I think we can discount the defeats in 1998 and 2006 because we were simply not good enough those years. This may sound strange given they were our narrowest defeats, but the manner in which we staggered through the Championship like a punch-drunk boxer was not redolent of someone preparing to get their hands on the McCarthy Cup. sid wallace over at AFR put Waterford’s efforts in 1998 into context when reviewing Ger Loughnane’s recollection of the Clare years:
No thought is given to the contrary analysis that Clare wound themselves into a frenzy over opponents who at the time weren’t worthy of it. Whatever about Waterford’s front and attitude in 1998, they were a mediocre bunch as was proved by the way the rest of the year played out. Even playing at half pace Clare were much too good for Waterford in the drawn game and only a series of freak events (best encapsulated by Anthony Kirwan scoring 2-1) allowed Waterford to steal a draw. The writer had little doubt that Clare would have finished the job off with a full complement of players available for the next series of games without the need to drill into players that they had defecated on their own jersey.
As for 2006, this was the year that we shipped our biggest Championship defeat since that replay against Clare. An uncharacteristically cool last few minutes against Cork when it looked like the treble chasers – or, if we are to believe Roy Keane, the five-in-a-row chasers – were about to run away with it moved us to within touching / heartbreaking distance, but that was not typical of a team that looked like it was out of ideas.
The teams of 2002, 2004 and 2007 though. Munster champions all, and League champions in one case as well. They really should have been good enough to close out the deal, especially when playing the likes of Clare and Limerick. It’s unavoidable after the events of the early summer of 2008 to not look at the issue of the managers. Did Davy Fitzgerald work the oracle? The manner in which Waterford imploded so spectacularly against a clearly inferior Clare team can easily be laid at the feet of a management team that fiddled while Urbs Intacta burned. Dropping Ian O’Regan into the Kilkenny cauldron was brave but ultimately foolhardy. And not being able to cope with a team that we had beaten convincingly mere weeks previous was not acceptable. Compare this with Davy’s battle plan, which if we are to believe Anthony Daly on the Sunday Game, and he’s a convincing pundit, consisted of the cojones-laden strategy of experimenting against Offaly and Wexford for the big tilt in the semi-final. Fail to prepare and prepare to fail. This time we were prepared.
Which is all true, but it isn’t the whole story. Who is to say that if Justin McCarthy had not had the luxury of being able to slap up a few middling (the likes of Westmeath and Laois don’t count as middling) teams that he wouldn’t have been ready for any of the semi-finals? Davy was able to toy with the notion of Ken McGrath at full back and a lot of heavy work in training at the expense of stick work, and it showed with some of the ten-thumbed efforts in those games. Justin had no such luxuries. When he sprung Ian O’Regan it backfired. Yet when he took a chance on a goalie in his late 20’s in 2005, it was the sowing of a harvest that we are still reaping today.
It’s corny to say it, but Davy has had all the luck that Justin did not have. It seemed so at the time, and history has proven that that draw was a gift from heaven. Davy had the wit to grab the chance, but a few random acts could have spelt defeat against either the Biffs or the Yellabellies and doomed Davy to unending enmity of everyone from Waterford for presiding over the end of our golden age. Luck was one of the things that got us through. Add in a bunch of talented opponents who were perhaps just a little naive in the semi-final, as opposed to teams high on their own manufactured outrage or the cutest bunch of hoors ever to play any game, and you have a recipe for success.
And luck got us through the Tipp game too.
Our time had to come. It could have come in 2002 or 2004 or 2007. It came in 2008. We don’t have the luxury of six pops at the final, but maybe we’ll only need one. With a bit of luck.