Tramore Hinterland – Hurling reversion stand to reason

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This week in your only-1.5%-of-the-cost-of-the-household-charge Tramore Hinterland: why we need to get real about Waterford’s long-run chances of hurling glory.

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GAA types can exaggerate the extent to which their pursuit is a bastion of volunteerism. In a previous job an occasional customer was heavily involved with Ferrybank AFC. I asked him how he viewed the success of John O’Shea now that his former charge was probably making more money than everyone else in the club put together. He said he was delighted for John because he was a smashing lad who deserved it and his success rubbed off on the club. And it became clear to me that no one chipping in at Ferrybank or any other soccer club does it to make money. It’s possible to want to see boys and girls under their charge do well without the fear that they might grow up to become grotesque tabloid fodder.

Still, all other things being equal you respect someone more who does it for love rather than money, and when it comes to getting respect Ken McGrath’s cup doth runneth over.  Ken’s last appearance as a Waterford Under-21 player was in 1999, a game where he attempted to take on the entireTipperaryteam single-handedly. Nine points down with only a couple of minutes left, he struck two thunderous frees from outside the 21m line to the net then saw another effort from a similar distance with the last puck of the game be deflected over the bar. It was all in vain, as had most of an Under-21 career which stretched back for five years. Played 6 Won 1 Lost 5. And that win was against Kerry.

His senior career would be a lot more fruitful, but when he finally gave up the battle against the relentless march of Time after being substituted at half-time of last year’s League match againstCork, it would have been understandable had he said that he’d done enough and someone else could take up the burden of carryingWaterford.

Yet when Nicky Cashin resigned as Waterford selector last week, Ken didn’t hesitate in looking for one more spin on the merry-go-round. His presence provided a lift to all concerned, and it would surely not be an overstatement to say that this lift was worth a point or two to the team. If we assume that to be the case then Ken McGrath won the match for Waterford and has therefore given us an opportunity for an escape from relegation that would be Houdini-esque. The man is a Titan, and there is nothing he cannot do.

Dialing down the hyperbole a notch, at the very least he has given the beleaguered Michael Ryan some breathing space, which will probably infuriate some people more than it will comfort them as they blame him for all our woes. It has been said with some venom that Ryan was only chosen because we couldn’t afford anyone else which leads to an obvious retort – would you rather have a coach we couldn’t afford? Waterford may not be the most indebted County Board in the country, but the €200,000 deficit from 2011 is bad enough, and if the County Board are only accepting managers who aren’t willing to add to the deficit then it should be a cause for commendation, not censure. There’s no point in winning trophies if the price ultimately leads to the loss of the team. Just ask supporters of Rangers (Glasgow, that is, not Tramore).

There may be an element of damning Michael Ryan with faint praise in that, so let’s look more closely at the sporting reality facing him. Before theGalwaygame, he had played three competitive matches asWaterfordmanager – the Waterford Crystal Cup doesn’t count; winning it twice didn’t make Davy Fitzgerald a more prestigious boss. Those matches were againstCork, Kilkenny andTipperary. Just look at that last sentence again. The measure of aWaterfordmanager’s worthiness these days seems to be how we get on againstCork(35), Kilkenny (41) andTipperary(29). The numbers are not the amount of All-Irelands won by the respective counties, although they’re eerily close. Each number is how many times they’ve beaten Waterford in the National League.  It would be unfair to measure Ryan’s progress against that kind of yardstick. We have better records against the counties more at our level likeLimerickand Clare, but they’ve still beaten us more often than we’ve beaten them.

We’re not necessarily trapped by the historical record – Offaly demonstrated that in the 1980’s and 1990’s – so what about more recent times? It’s true that many of our wins against Cork (20), Kilkenny (11) andTipperary(8) have been in the last fifteen years. But a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then and there’s not much coming down from the hills to replace it. We had a great day in Thurles in 2009 when the Minors won only our third-everMunstertitle. Since then Clare have won back-to-backMunstertitles, giving us a couple of sound beatings in the process, and won the Under-21 All-Ireland.Limerickhad a terrific win in the Munster Under-21 championship last year as well. A rising tide seems to lifting all ships inMunsterhurling. There are not as many able seamen on our ship though.

The presence of Ken McGrath should emphasis the scale of the task facing Michael Ryan. We’ve had some legends playing with us over the years – McGrath, Fergal Hartley, Paul Flynn and Dan Shanahan while Eoin Kelly is not the force he was – and we’re not replacing them at the rate that we’re losing them. People in Waterford need to have a more reasonable view of position in the hurling firmament. We overachieved in the last decade-and-a-half. At some point there’s going to be a reversion to the mean and the heroics of even Ken McGrath might only be enough to manage that reversion.

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Another indication of the swollen sense of entitlement in Waterford at the moment is over the matter of county grounds. Ken McGrath’s senior championship debut came in a one-goal loss to Tipperary in what was a match specifically staged in Walsh Park to showcase the new venue. Looking at it now, that may come across as a slightly sick joke as the Sports Field isn’t exactly the most becoming of settings.

However, it is a huge improvement on what went before. I am old enough to recall the grim reality of the old Walsh Park, with a covered area that was literally a hay barn with ‘Graves of Waterford’ emblazoned on the side – ask your parents what that means – and toilets that consisted of a wall with a drain running along the bottom. God knows what women were expected to do. And not only are Walsh Park and Fraher Field better than what went before, they’re rarely ever filled to capacity, that Tipperary game being the last time that I can remember Walsh Park being used to its full extent. Despite this, there is much wailing about the shambles that each ground is, with Carriganore being routinely mooted as a having potential as a new venue.

I’m not saying Walsh Park and Fraher can’t be better. Proper terraces as opposed to cinder/grass banks would be nice. But they’re both suited for their purpose, i.e. hosting National League matches and club games. To look for something more is simply a case of trying to keep up with the Joneses in other counties. Should we decide to build a white elephant of our own, I volunteer to lie down in front of the bulldozers. You read it here first.

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