Fourteen years ago, my siblings and I went to O’Moore Park to see Waterford take on Laois in the National League. We went in anticipation of a thumping win having won four-from-four up until that point, and Laois were in a pretty sorry state. I’m not sure if my suggestion in the match report I wrote at the time, that their Under-21 footballers were playing that day, was correct. My memory tells me they were playing a challenge match in preparation. But what I can say with some certainty is that we outnumbered their supporters by anywhere from five- to ten-to-one. As it happened, that day is as close as they have come to beating us in the last thirty years, a run of ten straight wins across League and Championship. Things were bad for Laois. And they were about to get worse.
Five years ago, the first of the next generation arrived in our family and he happened to be born in Laois. This gave me cause to consider their place in the GAA firmament again. Would my nephew have cause to support his father’s county, like we had done in our youth when Waterford were a complete mess and Cork, the land of our forefathers, were bossing it in both hurling and football? Things can change. After all, in the time it had taken us to reach adulthood we had gone from being stuffed by Cork at every opportunity – three defeats in the early-to-mid 1980’s averaging a 24-point loss a game – to a level where we have won as many games as we have lost against them since the turn of the millennium. But it didn’t seem likely in the case of Laois. Could they turn it around from a point where they had lost to Carlow in the first Championship season in which my nephew had been on this planet?
Looking back on those two memories now gives one a hollow feeling. The lack of hoopla in the county in the lead-up to the game on Sunday against Cork – I’ve only seen two cars flying flags, and that may have been the same car twice – testifies to the lack of confidence. The parallels with Laois all those years ago are stark. There were no more than 5,000 Waterford supporters at the Championship opener against Clare last year, so there’s not going to be any more than that this year. Cork fans will likely be cock-a-hoop after a year which saw them come within a whisker of winning the All-Ireland. How close were Cork? Had James Owens, who notoriously blew the final whistle right at the end of injury time in our match against Kilkenny last year, been in charge of the drawn game against Clare and done the same thing, Cork would be All-Ireland champions. That’s how close. As with the Laois fans on that day in O’Moore Park, we’re going to be outnumbered by a factor of several on Sunday. As with the Laois fans on that day in O’Moore Park, the underage team are likely to get a bigger following when the Minors take on Clare in the Munster semi-final than the Seniors will get this weekend.
I fear a battering, the like of which we haven’t seen against Cork in a generation – literally; the last time we took a proper beating from them at Senior level was in 1990. Are we on the cusp of a crossover, on the way down while Laois, Leinster Under-21 finalists two years ago and Leinster Minor finalists last year, are on the way up? Will I be living vicariously through the happiness of my nephews in the way I thought they would be doing through their father only a few years ago? I’m probably being overly pessimistic. In case you haven’t heard, we’re the All-Ireland Minor hurling champions. Still, everything changes. Might as well brace ourselves for the possibility.