Vincent Hogan: Scars of the past don't trouble the new breed
Published 09/07/2016 | 02:30
In the days immediately after Waterford's breakthrough Munster final defeat of Tipperary in '02, one fugitive blue and white flag rippled from a third floor Liberty Square window in Thurles.
There it remained for days, an article of faith in one man's belief that Waterford's win represented something larger than just another Sunday of loud, vibrating air in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. The person who put it there had removed a door-handle to prevent access to the room from which it fluttered in defiance.
Shane Aherne felt 10 feet tall that week.
His entire hurling life had been pitched against hurling's caste system and the broad assumption that the place you came from would, forever, represent either a blessing or a curse. As manager of New Ireland Assurance in Thurles, he'd grown accustomed to mischievous interrogation from Tipp colleagues about his inter-county career.
"Shiner, remind us again, what years did you hurl for Waterford?"
"And what did you win?"
He would laugh along, of course, but it was laughter sprinkled with broken glass.
So '02 felt liberation of a kind. It delivered Waterford's first Munster senior crown in 39 years and accentuated a sense that they could now look Tipp in the eye on something close to equal terms. Aherne (below) had been one of Gerald McCarthy's selectors in '98 when they beat Tipp en route to a Munster final, their first championship victory over the Premier county since '83.
He remembers standing on the field in Páirc Uí Chaoimh that day, trying to suppress his own emotion.
"I remember people coming over to me on the pitch after and I was trying to hide the tears," he smiles now. "You know, big men don't cry and all that!"
But that victory just pitched them into what would prove a sulphurous and unsuccessful Munster final collision with Clare that ran to two games, the second acquiring front-page infamy, before they subsequently fell by a solitary point to Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final. Cork, Tipp and Limerick all defeated Waterford in the next three Munster Championships, prompting Gerald to walk away after five promising but trophy-less years at the helm.
Truth is, if '02 had not happened, a generation might have been lost.
Austin Gleeson spoke this week of being an impressionable seven-year-old when the shining forms of Ken McGrath and Tony Browne and Paul Flynn and John Mullane set young imaginations ablaze in the county.
Far too young to be part of the first harvest, but destined - in time - for a secondary school education in De La Salle College where the magic dust was falling.
Just five years after Justin McCarthy's team won that Munster crown, a man called Derek McGrath was leading De La Salle to Harty Cup success, Waterford's first since Mount Sion in '53, and a subsequent All-Ireland crown. One year later, remarkably, they repeated the trick.
That Croke Cup-winning team of '08 included the names of Stephen O'Keeffe, Barry Coughlan, Noel Connors, Jake Dillon and the Mahony brothers, Philip and Pauric. When Dungarvan Colleges followed suit with All-Ireland glory in 2013, they had men like Tadhg de Búrca, Patrick Curran, Colin Dunford and Tom Devine on board.
Theirs was a generation reared on a scale of self-belief unimaginable in Aherne's childhood.
Bear in mind that the All-Ireland minor crown won in 2013 was claimed by young men who had seen Waterford's seniors collect four Munster titles and a National League in a remarkable pocket of eight years, the county team populated by habitual All-Stars.
In the beginning, it had been Cork who spiked Aherne's dreams as a player, then 'Babs' Keating took over Tipp and that familiar pain just found another colour scheme. And for Waterford the seductions of Munster Championship hurling became inseparable from its cruelties.
Without a safety-net, defeat equated to eviction and seven summers of Aherne's ten-year inter-county career ran to just a single championship game. They did reach the '89 Munster final against Tipp, but that day would curdle into one of infamy for them with two players sent off and their indiscipline even drawing a subsequent statement of "regret" from their own county board.
So that flag in '02 was one man's statement of identity.
"You tried to convince yourself that that fear or intimidation factor wasn't there," Aherne reflected this week on his playing career. "But it possibly was. We wouldn't have been used to beating Tipperary, that's for sure. In my time, we were maybe unlucky in that we came up against that really good 'Babs' team.
"Like you'd always get one over on the likes of Kilkenny or Cork in league games or challenge matches, but Tipp seemed to have the Indian sign on us. We just couldn't get past them."
The psychology of Waterford-Tipp is profoundly different today.
When Gleeson pointed a monster free in Semple Stadium on March 6 to secure two league points, the act seemed a statement of generational confidence. Just this week, Gleeson spoke of tomorrow's game in Limerick as one that could, conceivably, spin heavily in one direction or another.
"We could hammer them, they could hammer us," he said on Newstalk.
It was a sentence that no Waterford hurler of the 1980s or '90s could have imagined uttering.
Still, there have been pretty brutal labour pains along the way for Waterford hurling to find the eloquence and self-contentment now coursing through its veins.
Think of the player rebellions against management in '08 and '13, the mutinous meetings called in The Majestic Hotel, Tramore and the Ramada Hotel in Waterford city.
On both occasions, the players left themselves open to widespread ridicule.
Yet, they were railing against standards they simply believed could be improved. In the case against Justin McCarthy, it was an argument about training lacking intensity. Five years later, in the case against Michael Ryan, it was an argument about a regime lacking broad direction.
The latter coup was formalised with a players' statement released when the county's minors were halfway through an All-Ireland semi-final in Croke Park. That timing seemed self-centred and crass and was met with appropriate fury.
But these were men striving to break an old stereotype of fecklessness and disunity in Waterford hurling dressing-rooms.
Men who would never forget the Brian Corcoran story of '06 and two lists the Corkman recalled drawing up before their All-Ireland semi-final meeting with Waterford.
The ones that read:
'OUR WORLD - Winning, Discipline. Professionalism. Team spirit. Unity. Positivity. Performance. Taking responsibility. Setting standards.'
'THEIR WORLD - Losing. Fighting. Blaming others. Playing for oneself, not the team. Relying on luck. Bringing down others to their level.'
Corcoran's concluding question to team-mates was a caustic, 'Which world do you want to live in? Now is the time to fight for it!'
Cork would win that semi-final by a single point, but would not be victorious in any of their next five championship meetings with Waterford and have won just two of the last nine.
So the team McGrath brings to the Gaelic Grounds tomorrow seems absolutely at ease with the history bequeathed it by those who once risked ridicule in pursuit of bettering themselves.
The defeat of Clare on June 5 did not simply articulate a coherent understanding of the disciplined system McGrath has in place, it spoke too of a physical development in his players this past 12 months that the manager knew to be imperative.
Gleeson recalled this week a first-half collision with Kilkenny's Michael Fennelly in last year's All-Ireland semi-final that he was still trying to physically process during the half-time break. He described it as a "welcome to the big world" moment.
But that game decanted Waterford's ninth defeat in ten All-Ireland semi-finals since 1998 and McGrath will be all too aware that, having won three of their next four championship meetings with Tipp after the '02 breakthrough, Waterford have gone down in the last five, including four Munster finals in seven years.
So for all the recent statements made, maybe - for tomorrow - victory can be the only one that matters.
Aherne is hopeful. "I was very disappointed with Waterford in last year's Munster final," he stresses. "I just felt that we never adjusted our game. Like we stayed with Tipp, but we never really seemed to go and try to win the game.
"This year feels different. The team seems more flexible, as if it's about moving on, pushing things home."
Maybe about raising a flag.