Well that was all-too-brief. Tramore Hinterland is no more, the reasons why to be found on the paper’s Facebook page. If you want to find out whether ‘Howard’s Way’ went out with a bang rather than a whimper (given it’s about the tedious topic of the back door in hurling, probably the latter), you still have a few days to cough up €1.50. Many thanks to Jamie O’Keeffe for the opportunity.
It was tricky reading the interview with Joe Harney in these pages a couple of weeks back. My eyes kept on being drawn back to the picture of a Waterfordman holding a Celtic cross. Speaking to a customer a few years back, I noted on his order form that he was from Ballydurn and I confessed that I had no idea where it was and wouldn’t have heard of it but for Peter Queally – the former inter-county hurler, not the beef baron of the same name. “Joe Harney is from Ballydurn” he replied, and no more needed to be said on the matter. By dint of that one thing, Ballydurn mattered.
Eventually you manage to cut through the hero worship and read what he had to say, and his disappointment with the modern game came through, not least his comment about the back door system. According to Joe, “the back door system has resulted in too many meaningless games being played on the county scene”, and he’s probably right. It’s hard to love the back door. As Harney intimates, much of the lustre of the championship has been lost. My formative years following the hurling All-Ireland saw some truly memorable clashes between Cork and Tipperary, the latter resurgent after going nearly a decade without winning a single championship match. Each game was an epic and at the end victory really meant something because you knew the other team were not coming back. “Corkbet and the hay saved” was the mantra used in Tipp to denote a satisfactory summer. Nowadays, even in those increasingly rare areas where saving the hay still matters, you’d have to say “Corkbet – unless the beggars come through the back door – and the hay saved.” It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
Closer to home, both in terms of time and space, the Waterford Minor hurlers will be glumly contemplating the vagaries of the system in their competition. Once the dust had settled on a thrilling one-point extra-time away win over Clare, the county who have beaten us in the last two Munster finals, they would looked at the next step – playing Tipperary in Thurles – and wondered “that’s meant to be our reward?” Should Clare come through the other side of the draw and Waterford go out to Tipp there will be some grim satisfaction in the Banner county at our fate, having beaten Waterford in the 2009 first round only to lose to us in the semi-final as Waterford returned through the back door. Although before Clare get too self-righteous about what went down that year they’d do well to remember that, all other things being equal, we’ve been one of the biggest losers from the back door. It’s hard to know which was worse – seeing a team we’d already beaten win the All-Ireland (Cork in 2004) or losing to a team we had already beaten (Limerick in 2007). Both were hard to take, and the attitude of Joe Harney is understandable when viewed in that context.
All other things are not equal though. Joe Harney’s hurling upbringing would have been in the shadow of John Keane, a man who practically single-handedly turnedWaterfordfrom whipping boys into contenders. Up until his arrival on the sceneWaterfordwere regularly on the sharp end of some awful beatings – how’sWaterford0-0Limerick10-3 in the 1920Munsterchampionship for a scoreline? – and occasionally didn’t even field a team. Throughout the Keane era, defined by his presence both as a player and as a mentor for the team in the late 1950’s,Waterfordstayed competitive to the point that eventually our number came up in 1948 and 1959 and it must have seemed to that generation that it would always be this way.
That wasn’t the way it worked out, and for my generation the championship was an annual routine of hoping you’d draw Kerry then try to keep the score down in the next round. Our games were even more meaningless than today’s phoney war games inMunster, and no amount of memorable hammer-and-tongs clashes betweenTipperaryandCorkshould be allowed to disguise that. It was into that reality that the back door was introduced. And far from damning the back door with faint praise by saying the current format is a marginal improvement on what went before, I believe that what we have is as good as it is going to get. A century of rivalry means that games within the provinces, even if they are not winner-takes-all affairs, still matter. For all of the pessimism I introduced to the discussion by highlightingWaterford’s potential fate in the Minor championship this year, at no stage in their game with Clare would either side have said yerra, let’s take a dive and avoid meetingTipperaryin the semi-final. And history has a way of glossing over the horror of winner-takes-all – notice how it isn’t called loser-takes-a-fall. Anyone who has forgotten what that is like should check out our loss to Tipperary in the Under-21 championship last year, when 14-man Waterford slashed a ten-point deficit to two points only to have a strong penalty claim denied in the last minute and see Tipp sweep up the field and score another goal. It was incredibly frustrating, and this was only Under-21 level. You may find that invigorating in the same way some people like jumping off the Guillamene on Christmas Day. The rest of us are content taking a couple of dips in high summer and hold the masochism, thanks very much.
For a sport to thrive, you need to be able to aspire to something. How many people inWaterfordpicked up a hurley to emulate the feats of John Keane, the man who no less a giant of the game than Mick Mackey said was the greatest hurler ever was or will be? We may lack giants like that in these more pedestrian times, so I’ll settle for not having to scale Everest every time we take to the field. Better a few meaningless matches than the prospect of no matches at all.
For more about John Keane. check out David Smith’s biography, The Unconquerable Keane – John Keane and the Rise of Waterford Hurling.
Ali Carter’s ultimately futile plan to frustrate Ronnie O’Sullivan in last weekend’s snooker World Championship final by drawing him into a safety battle at every turn moved Dennis Taylor to observe that some people actually prefer the attrition of safety play to virtuoso break-building. He didn’t seem convinced as he said it so let me give Dennis the benefit of my, uh, wisdom – some of us much prefer the grind of safety battles, a spectacle which could be so soul-destroying for the player on the wrong end of it that Roman emperors would have considered it to be unnecessarily cruel. In the fortnight that saw the retirement of Stephen Hendry, the greatest player to ever pick up a cue and as steely-eyed a champion as you are likely to find in any sport, it would be remiss not to dwell on Hendry’s defining legacy – turning the sport into one for well-oiled potting machines and driving away the spectator who revelled in the gladitorial tension of the sport before his arrival on the scene. Barry Hearn, tasked with reviving the sport, should take note. Simon Cowell has cornered the market in humiliation TV. Time for snooker to wrestle it back.