The plan with the previous post was to write an integrated Waterford-themed article about the upcoming weekend’s sport. In the end, I found myself with rather more to say about the Blues than I expected – the poster on Shankly Gates who criticised me for being “too stream of consciousness” was bang on the money; heck, I’m even doing it now! – so it almost seems exhausting to turn to the main course against Cork on Sunday after the hors d’oeuvres of Finn Harps tonight.
It’s been a rum old season for Waterford, make no mistake. It started with a calamitous defeat to Cork in Páirc Uí Rinn and only seemed to get worse with defeats to Kilkenny and Tipperary where neither of our opponents seemed to break a sweat while swatting us aside. Our displays in those games made the win over Galway and the escape from relegation at Dublin’s expense, enabled by a quirk of the National League format, seems borderline miraculous and certainly worth celebrating. Add in a thrilling win over Clare, Davy Fitz’s team satisfyingly banished from the business end of the All-Ireland series before us, and a respect-restoring effort in the Munster final against Tipp with the prospect of avoiding the Cats until the final, and things seemed to be looking up. But then we experience a couple of beatings for the Minors and Under-21’s and we find ourselves back where we started – fearful of a beating at the hands of Cork.
Waterford fans of my generation still have nightmares over the last time we faced a Jimmy Barry Murphy-led Cork team in the Championship. Buoyed by our tumultuous campaign in 1998 and a close-fought win over Limerick, and having serenely sailed through the League, adopting the attitude of our oppressors that it didn’t really matter, we went up to Thurles confident of lowering the sails of a Cork team that had become the first Rebel outfit to ever lose in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, crushed by Limerick three years earlier. Sure, they had beaten us in the League final the previous year, but we were raw and inexperienced then. Nothing was going to catch us by surprise now.
Except JBM threw in six new recruits who had the games of their lives, particularly Mickey O’Connell who would rattle over six points from the midfield. He would carry on in a similar vein in the first-half of the Munster final against Clare, then pick up his All-Ireland medal and practically vanish from the scene. Mission accomplished. Everything we did that day turned to dust, and Gerald McCarthy never recovered his mojo after that defeat.
When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stalin’s rotten state seemed ripe for the plucking yet despite the breathtaking early successes of the Wehrmacht you only had to scratch the surface to see the leviathan beneath. Halder would note by mid-August that “we reckoned with 200 divisions; now we have already counted 360”. So it is with Cork. They look spent, riven by infighting and incapable of nurturing talent in the manner of Kilkenny or even Galway – they’ve made one appearance in a Munster underage final in four years, a shocking record. But relative to the rest of us, their resources are bottomless. They don’t need to nurture talent. They’ll be able to put forth divisions no matter how Stalinesque the preparations.
It’s frustrating. Waterford head into Sunday’s match with one change from the Munster final, Thomas (Tomás? There never seems to be official word on that score) Ryan replacing Gavin O’Brien. Having bigged up O’Brien throughout the spring and early summer it’s disappointing to see him relegated to the bench, but it’s more alarming that Michael Ryan feels he can’t reach any further into his bag of tricks. No super six coming to Waterford’s rescue.
We’ve improved since that wretched effort at the start of the League. We couldn’t but improve with Michael Walsh back at centre-back, and the performances of Stephen O’Keeffe have been a modest revelation, the kind of shot-stopper who can turn a certain goal into an uncertain 65 that we haven’t had since Pat Curran. In the meantime Cork do not seem to have pushed on from that game. Three games into the Championship, there’s surely no danger of them pulling a series of rabbits from the hat like they did in 1999. However . . . did I say Gerald McCarthy lost his mojo that day? I think I did too. The sight of the immortal Jimmy Barry Murphy is scary enough in itself, and you can’t help but feel that while Waterford can go toe-to-toe with them for 70 minutes we’re passing them coming up while we are on the way down. The feeling of being in the last chance saloon, exacerbated by the knowledge that this must be it for Tony Browne, standing ovation in the Munster final and all, is getting strong. I think we might have quite a head on us by the time Kilkenny and Limerick take to the field on Sunday.