Stephen Bennett is the symbol of all our hopes and fears for the recent past, present, and near-to-medium-term future of Waterford hurling.
Before looking at that click-baiting statement in more detail, let’s look at our current position. By any objective measure, Waterford went backwards in 2014. After being hot favourites for relegation in each of the previous years of the six-team division format in the National League, we fell through the trapdoor just when people were hesitant about tipping us to fall through the trapdoor because we kept on refusing to fall through the trapdoor. We went out at the same stage of the Senior championship, but there was a difference between the manner in which we nearly picked Kilkenny’s pocket in 2013 and how we clung on to the coattails of a Wexford team who would have been knackered after their efforts against Clare in the previous weeks in 2014. There were striking parallels between the efforts of the Minors over the two years – won a titanic Munster semi-final, lost to Limerick after a replay in the Munster final, went toe-to-toe with Kilkenny for 60 minutes – but while it was certainly a valiant effort, it was still a step backwards overall.
Although not half as big a step as the Under-21’s. While mulling this over, I had the thought that the loss to Cork this year was worse than the 2011 Munster final, worse than the 2008 All-Ireland final, worse than the 1998 Munster final replay. Now that it’s come to writing it, I realise that is ridiculous. However, in each of those cases we went into the game with modest expectations, and while we found we had much to be modest about it helped dull the pain. We also had events that followed that lifted the spirit: a homecoming for the ages in 2008 and thumping wins over Galway in 1998 and 2011. There was no such backlash in 2014 for the Under-21’s, merely the added dismay of watching Clare demonstrate that Cork really were no great shakes. It has been a bad year, and subsequent results have only made it feel worse.
So what has all this got to do with Stephen Bennett? Each of his interactions with the three panels spoke volumes about where we are at and where we are going. His absence from the Minor team could be reasonably said to have proven fatal to their chances. I can hear the chorus line telling me that every county has to face up to the loss of most of the Under-18’s each year, but I say it as a positive, not a negative. Despite losing so many players, Waterford still put up a great show. While one Munster title and one All-Ireland isn’t a spectacular return for our five Munster final appearances, it has been a period of high competitiveness in the province, with Clare and Limerick both winning titles as well as ourselves. Even in 2014 there is great satisfaction to be taken out of lowering the Banner on two occasions, showing that a county that has gotten it so right at underage level as to win three Under-21 Munster titles in a row is not able to live with us at Minor level. We are clearly doing something right ourselves – the chairman of the Wexford County Board said as much – and it should be something to be excited about.
Despite not being in the Minor panel then – in fact, precisely because he wasn’t – Stephen Bennett casts them in a good light. The problems start when you move to the levels where is eligible. The most alarming thing about the Under-21’s and the Seniors is how both seem to be following the same strategy, i.e. keeping possession at all costs, exemplified by the effective abandonment of the full-forward line. Derek McGrath and Peter Queally were rivals for the post of Senior manager last year, and Queally (in)famously had little preparation time with the Under-21 panel. Given that, it would have been reasonable to expect him to adopt very different policies with regard to the team. Instead we had the Waterford Under-21 team run out in a game where they were warm favourites and proceed to stink the place out with the defeatist mentality that had characterised the Seniors, culminating in the horror show which saw a short puck-out intercepted by Alan Cadogan to allow him to bury the tie, only moments after we had had our hopes raised when Cork were reduced to 14 men. It’s a sound idea, having integration between the various levels of the game. We seem to be sharing ideas between the worst-performing levels though, while the best one stands in glorious isolation.
Compounding all this was the curious use of Stephen Bennett – yep, I’m finally getting to the point. At half-time in the Under-21 game, my brother and I were casting our eyes over the panel when our collective short-sighted eyes squinted their way towards the name of Bennett on the bench. With Gleeson, Kevin Daly, and M’s Harney and Kearney all making the step-up from the All-Ireland winners, it was a surprise to see the star of the team on the bench. It’s always possible that he hadn’t impressed in training or was jaded after the long slog of a winter with Ballysaggart. But that wouldn’t explain why, when Waterford were seeking a Clark Kent to explode out of a phone box, it was Bennett to whom they turned. And as if the parallels in terms of strategies between the two adult panels were not enough, Bennett was also kept under wraps by Derek McGrath until the situation was at its most dire against Wexford. Both changes reeked of desperation, and it’s surely a bit unfair to heap so much pressure on those young shoulders. Successfully blending the new talent into the Senior panel is essential to our future, and in fairness the performances of Messrs Gleeson, de Búrca and Dunford suggest it’s not all doom and gloom on that score, but the first steps for Stephen Bennett have not been the stuff of inspiration.
The message from the last couple of years are clear. We’re going gangbusters at Minor level and making a total hash of it at Under-21 and Senior level. That’s where we’re at. Where are we going, and how can we get to where we want to get? That’s for another day.