Back in 2000 we all went to O’Moore Park to see Waterford take on Laois in the National League. We were undefeated up that the point while Laois, If memory serves me correct, had not won a match themselves. This was reflected in the crowd as Waterford fans outnumbered the Laois fans by about ten-to-one. What was probably more impactful on the attendance was the Laois Under-21 footballers playing Meath the same day. They lost. It was not a good day for them, although it was as good as our year got as we lost the next day out against Tipp, flopped badly in the National League semi-final to Galway, then went out with a whimper in the Munster championship.
You could understand the eagerness to flock to the Under-21 banner, what with the All-Ireland Minor champions of 1996 and 1997 coming of age. Things are not quite as skewed in Waterford, but the result last weekend was an almighty wake-up call regarding our progress. I don’t feel silly for thinking we were heading towards the ultimate glory in the next few years, or even this year. If we carried on in the manner we were going, it was inevitable. Alas, the beating we took in Limerick is a huge setback. Even if one assumes that Waterford are a lot better than that, and we should still be favourites for the next game against Wexford, Kilkenny looks like a mountain we are still not equipped to climb. Then there is the small matter of Tipperary. I had assumed, and this is the part that makes me feel silly, that they had not made the progress we had made in the last 12 months. Talk about making an ass out of u and me. Okay, just me then. They’ve clearly bulked up a lot since Galway took them out in 2015 and they will be bracing themselves for a collision with Kilkenny on the first Sunday in September.
That was the reality into which we faced on Monday morning, but in 60 wonderful minutes on Wednesday the Under-21’s shaped a new reality. I’m sure there have been occasions on the past where I have cheered for Tipperary – all of them probably against Kilkenny – but never with such gusto as I did on Thursday. Limerick have a bit of a hex over us at underage, with four straight wins at Minor level, and we could do without talk of them getting vengeance for the controversial Hawk Eye incident that directly contributed to them missing out on having another go at us in the 2013 All-Ireland final. All of this pales into insignificance though at the prospect of an evening of hoopla up at the old Sports Field.
This has the potential to be the biggest Waterford game ever staged in Walsh Park. Dungarvan has a storied history with three All-Ireland hurling finals staged there in the early 20th century. (I think it’s telling that when coming up with a convenient neutral venue for Cork to play Kilkenny and London in those three finals, Waterford city seems not to have been taken into account. A garrison town thing? But I digress . . . ) No Senior Munster final has ever been played in the city, and while there have been eight All-Ireland Under-21 finals played there, it’s only natural that none of them have involved Waterford, and it wasn’t until the mid-00’s that all Under-21 matches were played on a home-and-away basis. The first Munster Under-21 final was played in Walsh Park and the 23-point trimming we took to Tipperary was evidence of how the apparatus that had kept Waterford a force to be reckoned with in the previous quarter-century was beginning to fall apart – beating Galway in the semi-final was practically a bye in those days. We played Cork in the final in 2007 and got beaten out the gate. 2009 gave a glimpse of what might have been in Fraher against Clare. They won a thriller and went on to dominate the grade ever since. Could this be our time? Scramble for tickets, traffic jams, packed venue, crowd dominated by Waterford fans, a team in their prime, a shot at a little vengeance of our own . . . it’s going to be epic.