Once again some shower of gits is going get their hands on the Liam McCarthy Cup that had our names on it. Okay, maybe not, but times have changed sufficiently from the days of Galvin, Greene and Walsh (how marvellous it is to see them being honoured on the big day, whoever came up with this idea should take a bow; yes, even Breheny!) that you wonder what might have been for Waterford and who we should be rooting for in the main event. Although with a bit of luck we’ll be too busy celebrating to even notice.
It’s been quite a year for both Cork and Clare. Some clown had this to say about the Banner at the start of the Championship season:
[What] is it with Clare? I know they’ve got a number of underage titles from recent years but it’s a long time since they did anything worth talking about at Senior. The notorious 1998 Munster final was the last time they won anything at this level yet you’d swear it was only yesterday, the way some pundits are blowing smoke up their collective arse. You might argue that Davy Fitz will make all the difference, but based on what? Promotion from Division 1B and a mediocre run through the Championship last year, and coming within a whisker of getting relegated this year? It’s strange how Davy Fitz’s management style was seen as an impediment to Waterford yet is such a perfect match for Clare. The predictions seem to be based on alchemy, surely a meaningless metric by which to measure excellence as opposed to ‘results’.
Ah. I could stick with the idea that you can only go on the basis of recent performances, but in retrospect I think I allowed a degree of prejudice to blind me to Clare’s standing in the game. Not prejudice based on the rarely-mentioned events of 1998, but the idea that successful Clare teams are built on testosterone-fuelled backs serving up enough possession that even the two banks of winter hurlers in the forward division would be able to keep the wides to a level where they could snatch a one-point win. Clearly two under-21 All-Ireland in the last four years, which is about to become three in five – they might even win it without pucking another ball – is beginning to filter into the forwards. I underestimated Clare. Having played them already and given them a sound trashing, I doubt Cork will do the same.
So the fact that Clare are not the mullockers of old should mean I have no problem rooting for them against one of the Big Three. Alas, not that I think anyone in Clare will give a damn, it’s neverthat simple, and for reasons which have nothing to do with the rarely-mentioned events of 1998. And if I say it often enough even I might start believing it.
For starters, I’m a little bitter that Clare are emerging from a fifteen year period where, at Senior level at least, we’ve been up and they’ve been down at just the point, where the Kilkenny empire is starting to crumble. For the second half of the Noughties we had the beating of anyone, with the infuriating exception of Kilkenny and, except on one noteworthy occasion, Tipperary. It wasn’t just us. Everyone else had a problem with those counties as well, to the extent that they met each other in the All-Ireland final for three years on the bounce between 2009 and 2011. Kilkenny played in seven All-Ireland finals in a row between 2006 and 2012. When one half of the big dance in September is taken up by one partner, it doesn’t leave much room on the floor for anyone else. So what happens when those two loosened their grip? We’re the ones running on empty up front while Clare can sail serenely to the final without having to beat anyof Kilkenny, Tipperary or even Cork on the way. It’s hard to suppress the urge to hope they trip up the moment the music starts. It’ll require a particularly strong stomach to deal with that.
Then there’s the Davy Fitz factor. Now, I can say with an absolutely straight face that I don’t have a problem with him. We had some wonderful times with him in charge, and his reaction when faced with the crowd on the Quay after the 2008 All-Ireland final humiliation, genuine dismay on his face that he couldn’t fulfill the dreams of all those hopeful faces, was moving to witness. No, the issue with Davy is not the man but with what will be said should he manage to deliver that prize to his own county. Waterford will have been judged wanting by the hurling fates, both in a general sense that dictates that everything is meant to be and success is never down to luck or circumstance, and in a particular sense that the bolshie habits of the Waterford players meant we were never worthy in the first place. Should Clare win, there’ll be a lot of finger-wagging from those eager to view sport as a morality play in which we have been found wanting.
So we come to Cork. Cork, the land of my forefathers. Cork, under the tutelage of Mr Rock and Roll himself. Cork, of whom we have seen serve up so many swashbuckling games over the years, the win over Dublin being just the latest in such a line that can be traced back through clashes with Waterford in the Noughties, and Galway and Tipperary in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Purged of the malcontents who did so much to destabilise the game in recent times – I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was pleased to see Seán Óg Ó hAilpín be made look foolish after the earlier match against Clare thanks to his mean-spirited comments about “guys there being called in from places I’ve never even heard of” – Cork are now a much more attractive prospect than they have been for many a year. How could you not root for them in the end?
I realise now, a fraction over a thousand words later, what this particular piece of self-indulgence has been about. Given the history, can we Déisigh cheer for Clare? And the answer is not only that we can, but we must. All the objections I have raised, heartfelt and all as they might be, are so much eyewash in the face of one of the Big Three coming out on top once again. It’s been a wonderful year for hurling. There’s been helmetloads of drama, and so many counties have had so much to get excited about, all shot through with even more excitement at the prospects for the future. But should one of the hurling Old Firm come away with the McCarthy Cup, the sense of deflation will be acute. We might be nearly at Kilkenny’s level, but no sooner that their light gone into eclipse than we have Cork come right back, burning bright as ever. Imagine facing into next year as a fifteenth successive year of the usual suspects winning the All-Ireland. That’s not how golden ages work. Come on Clare, and let the demons of Waterford failures past be damned.
Ah, never mind. We all know the Minor All-Ireland is where it’s at. Liam who?