Sunday 22 October 2017

John Mullane: I'll take memories of Saturday night's win over Kilkenny to my grave

Maurice Shanahan shoots to score Waterford’s fourth goal with this onehanded
effort during extra time of their All-Ireland SHC qualifier in Thurles. Photo: BRENDAN MORAN/SPORTSFILE
Maurice Shanahan shoots to score Waterford’s fourth goal with this onehanded effort during extra time of their All-Ireland SHC qualifier in Thurles. Photo: BRENDAN MORAN/SPORTSFILE

John Mullane

Some people in Waterford have waited 58 years to see a championship victory over Kilkenny, but our little Sadie only needed six months.

We didn't have a babysitter on Saturday night and so, while we normally bring our two eldest daughters to big games anyway, we took little Sadie along with us as well.

Granted, she was oblivious to it all and my wife, Stephanie, had her well strapped in, but she'd open her eyes every now and then.

We took a few pictures and they're moments to treasure from a special night - the first game Sadie's ever been to with us.

Raw emotion was etched on the faces of the Waterford people leaving Semple Stadium, but some of the Kilkenny fans were brilliant as well, and offered us warm congratulations.

The whole experience was powerful and uplifting, and there's one fella I have to mention. Johnny Whelan is a man from Kilmeadan and what a character he is.

He just epitomises what it is to be from Waterford and I'll never forget how deflated he was above in Croke Park against Kilkenny last year, when we let them back into the game to snatch a draw.

Memories

I met him after the game on Saturday night and we shared one hell of an embrace. These are memories I'll take to the grave.

What a contrast to the aftermath of the Munster semi-final loss to Cork.

Everyone was down in the dumps after that, but there was one woman who lifted me.

We were on the Marty Squad on RTÉ radio that evening and Conor Gleeson's mother told everybody not to lose faith. She said we'd still have a big say in the championship and that inspired me.

Derek McGrath was rewarded with a massive performance from his players against Kilkenny.

In a recent column I outlined how what happened in the Cork game wasn't all on him, and that it was up to the players to stand up and take responsibility.

The players led the way and went back to what they're good at, what they revel in and what's made them competitive - and that's the sweeper system.

Derek went against the grain in the Cork match, but you'd have to think now that we'd have won that match if we stayed with what we're used to.

I was talking to a good friend of mine and former team-mate, Sean 'Growler' Daly, during the week and he said that he doesn't give a damn if Waterford win a game by four points to three, it's all about winning.

I'll tell you what provided me with hope as well.

I'd never been inside Walsh Park or Fraher Field to watch an A v B game since retiring, but on the Saturday night after we were beaten by Cork I said I'd venture down.

I wanted to reassure myself, I suppose, that everything was still okay and I brought my daughters, Abbie and Katie, with me to Walsh Park.

If there were seven or eight people watching the lads, that was the height of it, but I really liked what I saw.

I watched 60 minutes and it was the best I'd seen from an A v B game, and that includes when I was involved.

Maybe, just maybe, the decision not to go hard on the league will bear fruit. Waterford might have the gas now to kick on.

A huge player for Waterford on Saturday was Darragh Fives. He struggled with injury last year and we didn't have him at the business end of the season.

Now we're seeing what a fully-fit Fives brings to the table.

Austin Gleeson, Jamie Barron, Tadhg de Búrca and Noel Connors were other standout players on the night and Derek made a couple of bold calls in team selection.

Maurice Shanahan was left out, but made a huge impact when he came on, lifting his head again after missing that late free.

Maybe coming on like that is his role now, and there's no disgrace in that. Look at what Kevin McManamon has done for the Dublin footballers through the years.

Some lads are made for starting, others are better coming off the bench.

Derek led on the line, along with Dan Shanahan, and I saw more animation in them.

Overall, it was a fantastic display and once again it reinforced my argument that Kilkenny don't like playing against sweeper systems.

By half-time in normal time they'd only scored two points from play and for any of the non-traditional counties looking to topple them, it's surely the way to go.

You'd have to admire them, though. As I said in Saturday's column, you don't have these guys beaten until you're heading back down the motorway.

They kept going right until the end, but Waterford had the legs and losing Michael Fennelly was a huge blow.

On the wider Kilkenny question and their long-term prospects, I've come in for a fair bit of stick and been accused of revelling in the supposed demise of Kilkenny hurling.

Let me tell you this now: Nothing could be further from the truth.

Brian Cody has a history of rebuilding teams in short periods of time, but any realistic Kilkenny supporter will agree that they've been on the wane for the last 18 months or so.

I've been full of praise for Kilkenny in the past on these pages, but what I always try to do is provide a balanced opinion.

Afraid

I was writing about what I was seeing with my own two eyes. Maybe other pundits were afraid to express their real views on Kilkenny hurling and while it may have come across to some people that I was putting them down, I really wasn't.

For Waterford, this has to be the start of the season, not the end. We have to learn from past experiences and you'll remember that in 2007, having finally seen off Cork in Croke Park, we lost to Limerick in the All-Ireland semi-final. Cork, then, were a bit like Kilkenny now, coming to the end of a glorious cycle.

Kilkenny are not the bar anymore, and that has to be taken into account.

I was in early to watch Tipperary take Dublin apart and Galway have been motoring well too. Tougher challenges lie in store for this Waterford team, but let's enjoy the moment for now because days like Saturday don't come along too often.

What a night to be blaa - ooh ah, Derek McGrath!

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