“And this guy, roigh’, he’s so annoyed with the way Waaaaterford played against Limerick, that he buys a glass of Guinness, roigh’, and he goes up to Paul Flynn, and he hands the glass of Guinness to Flynners, roigh’, and he says ‘here, if you’re gonna play like a woman, you might as well drink like one.'”
True story. It certainly accurately reflects the feeling in Waterford in the aftermath of the Limerick debacle, a mixture of resigned good humour and bitter disbelief. There has been surprisingly little recrimination, and the absence of rancour at the transfer of power has been heartening, although Mount Sion and a few others reasonably questioned the speed with which the County Board handed the reins to an outsider again.
Even more amazingly, Ger Loughnane’s sh*t-stirring comments to the effect that Gerald McCarthy had underachieved with Waterford were not met with a knee-jerk denunciation of the evil Ger Lock. While it’s legitimate to ask why Loughnane felt the need to wade into the morass – no doubt Loughnane still can’t forgive us for robbing them of the 1998 Munster title; hang on, they won it! – the overwhelming reaction has been to agree or disagree and leave it at that. Because much and all as we may hate to openly admit it, Ger Loughnane’s question is the only question that needs answering about Gerald McCarthy’s five year reign in Waterford. In the absence of any real success, the question is open to debate.
So. Was he a success or a failure? I would have labelled him an unequivocal success prior to the game against Limerick, but the sight of a team of incredibly gifted hurlers crumble under the offensive of their inferiors dented the veneer of excellence that had been cultivated over the previous four years. The swashbuckling manner in which Waterford trashed Limerick all over the park for fifteen glorious minutes demonstrated that they had the skills, and with Loughnane reminding us of the 1992 U-21 success, history was beginning to look unkindly on Ger Mac.
It’s never that simple, of course. Michael Ryan, manager of umpteen successful ladies football teams, leapt to Gerald’s defence, pointing out that the stirring events of ’98 had raised expectations down Déise way to heights that would inevitably make it difficult to breathe. Those of us with medium memories would remember being stuffed in three Munster finals in the 80’s, losing to Kerry in 1993 and the succession of self-inflicted wounds created by the interminable power struggles in the County Board. When Gerald McCarthy arrived on the scene in the winter of 1996, the memories of Nowlan Park ’92 (TM) were clouded by the miasma of mediocrity.
The first year wasn’t that hot either. Beaten by Dublin in Division 2, Limerick once again proved to be our bête noire, a calamitous first half ending Waterford’s championship campaign at the first hurdle for fifth year on the bounce. Still, the seeds of a certain je ne sais quoi (mes amis) had been laid. High profile players were drummed out of the squad for breaching curfew. This was unheard of in the GAA, let alone Waterford hurling. Remember when you were young – perhaps you still are – being told that if you didn’t turn up for training, you would be dropped, but the star hurlers could swan in whenever they liked and never suffer any proscription.
Not that I’m bitter or anything.
Anyway, McCarthy laid down the law from an early stage. It was at this point that I came in, tentatively attending Oireachtais and South-Eastern League matches and seeing a team with a growing sense of purpose. It ‘culminated’ in a sensational first half performance against Tipperary in Thurles, a fiery display of commitment and skill that served notice to all there that this Waterford team was one to be taken seriously.
None of this could have been achieved without Gerald McCarthy. Brought up in a tradition of excellence, he simply refused to settle for second best. He instilled in the players a sense of self-belief. He displayed a canny sense of man-management and a recognition that even a winning Waterford team could be improved – the fifteen that beat Tipperary in the League bore little resemblance to the one that would beat them in the Championship, as each line-up was tweaked here and there to produce an outfit that would come within a whisker of the Munster title. It was thrilling stuff, and the blame for not yielding a trophy despite three near misses could hardly be laid at the feet of Saint Ger Mac, a name he wasn’t known as in Waterford, but probably should have been.
There was nothing in 1999 to suggest there was anything wrong with the formula. A mediocre League campaign merely suggested that we were ‘wintering well’ and the victory over Limerick seemed to confirm our upward curve. The win was much more impressive than the one point margin of victory, so much so that we went into the match against Cork as favourites. Even that defeat could be blamed on multiple external factors. The referee was more bent than one of Uri Geller’s spoons, Cork’s winning line-up was a last desperate throw of the dice by a panic-stricken Rebel management, Mickey O’Connell produced the only decent performance of his life – it certainly wasn’t our fault! The euphoric post-match reaction of Jimmy Barry Murphy confirmed that we had arrived, a thought that soothed this particular tortured soul no end.
No, the day when the McCarthy Plan showed signs of weakness came in April of 2000. The dismay of the previous year concentrated minds, and the League was clearly targeted. It was a cherry just waiting to be plucked, and while it was small fruit it would have sated the hunger of a county thirty-seven years with barely a morsel. The group stages were wonderful, with thrilling wins over Kilkenny and Cork seeming to confirm that the 2000 National League was our destiny. Then came Galway.
It may seem like an exaggeration, but in that one game the edifice of hope that had been carefully constructed in the previous three years was pulled down around our heads. An incredibly lightweight Galway team waltzed around the Waterford team, and the team and management were paralysed. Waterford only lost by one goal, and Paul Flynn struck the bar with a last minute free, but it was a game we didn’t look like winning once in the second half as Galway’s midget full-forward line plundered scores seemingly at will.
The greatest flaw in Gerald McCarthy’s management scheme was exposed. When faced with an unexpected assault, the only reaction was to hope that we could weather the storm. There never was a Plan B.
There was no comeback from that dreadful day in Thurles. It may seem like 20:20 hindsight, but the rage was gone. Waterford staggered from one League game to the next in the spring of 2001, and then against Limerick served up the most schizophrenic performance ever witnessed. Hurling like gods for fifteen minutes, holding off the vicissitudes for as long as possible, then proving to be very, very mortal for the final fifteen minutes. When Limerick came back at Waterford in the denouement of the game, the self-belief of 1998 was gone. Simultaneously, the management fiddled while Waterford burned, the arrival of Anthony Kirwan in the midfield confirming the inability of the management to deal with the flames.
Ultimately it all ended in failure. It had been Gerald McCarthy’s desire to avoid it all ending in tears that brought about that tearful end by the banks of the Lee. And yet, it had been a wonderful ride, filled with the kind of memories that sustain a person through following an unsuccessful team. When Paul Flynn crashed home that penalty against Clare in the drawn Munster final…even now, the memory is enough to stop me writing and drink in the heady vapours. It wouldn’t have happened without Gerald McCarthy.
And there is something that Gerald McCarthy will always have that a demagogue like Ger Loughnane will never appreciate, and that is a sense of class. He never patronised us, admitting at the very end to bewilderment at the demons that afflicted the players while freely admitting to his own culpability in failing to exorcise those demons. And he wanted us to win so badly, telling the staff of the News & Star in the immediate aftermath of that drawn Munster final that he would have two trophies to show off to the people of Waterford with him in September. He may not have been one of us, but he was certainly the next best thing.
Justin McCarthy, you’ll have a hard act to follow.