Vincent Hogan: Rising above the school of hard knocks
Michael Ahearne has endured bad days with Waterford footballers but after years of hurt,
'G'wan London!" The school corridor vibrated with Monday morning energy, a swarm of voices chafing at him. Hysterical birds, chirping with mischief. "Here he comes, here he comes . . ." The woodwork teacher just back off a weekend from hell.
Michael Ahearne chuckles at the memory. Teaching isn't a vocation for precious blossoms and that morning in St Colman's, the kids were armed with all they needed to know about Division 4 of the National Football League. Waterford had blown another big adventure.
To some degree, the bad days merge into one, shedding specific identity. He picks at a few battered memories, but the process leaves him cold. A League slaughter against Louth on a wretched day in Dungarvan when they were, as he puts it, "just pathetic". A Championship wipe-out against Kerry on the same field that became "real car-crash stuff".
But nothing fed the "pub team" caricature that Joe Brolly tattooed across their foreheads quite like that lost weekend in London. It is 14 months behind them now, yet -- for Ahearne -- the memory remains vivid of slouching in the Ruislip dressing-room, his eye catching the gaze of John Kiely.
"Jesus, what happened out there?" he sighed to the Waterford manager.
Losing to London would, ultimately, cost them another shot at promotion out of the League basement. More than that, it made fun of them again. For maybe a week afterwards, Ahearne found himself reduced to fielding questions about whether the players had, maybe, been on the beer the night before.
Yet, looking back, he could trace the track of worrying little signals. When they assembled that Friday evening at Cork airport, "the attitude was a bit like fellas going off on a stag party".
He explains: "Everyone had the best of intentions, but it just felt like a weekend away. We were handed envelopes with our expenses inside. A hundred pounds sterling. Fellas were kind of giddy.
"There was a feeling of 'Let's get the oul match over and we'll have a great weekend'."
Then they arrived too early the day of the game, some of them slipping into the clubhouse to watch Manchester United play Liverpool, others killing time out on the field "doing a few headers and volleys". The sense of carelessness was palpable.
"Fellas' heads were all over the place," Ahearne recalls. "I remember seeing the London lads coming in and they looked fairly focused. I just had a bad feeling about it. Our attitude was all wrong and, when that's the case, it's very hard to turn things round like you're just flicking a light switch.
"We couldn't raise any intensity in the game. The pitch was heavy, bit of a hill on it. We'd gone in there thinking we were onto a handy one and, when the pressure came on now, everyone was waiting for someone else to pick up the slack."
No one did. London won 0-9 to 0-8.
So they went and drowned their sorrows in Piccadilly, then flew home with their hangovers that Sunday morning. Waterford footballers, back in a place so many saw as their natural habitat. The butt of a hundred easy jokes.
"G'wan London," being the kindest.
THEIR STATUS THIS week presents them with a strange and unfamiliar concept. Waterford are favourites to win a football Championship match. In their low-watt history, that hasn't happened too often and, just now, it makes them fretful. Tomorrow's opponents, Clare, were dispatched comfortably (0-20 to 2-5) when they met in the League.
Indeed, Waterford got their promotion on the back of an unbeaten eight-match run, then played a humdinger of a final against Limerick in Croke Park. They have stopped being somebody else's punch-line.
But force of habit persuades Ahearne to reference their past when chasing any secrets in their future.
He is 30 now and 10 years a county man, yet one statistic obscures all others. "I've won one Championship match in 10 years," he says flatly. "You're going in against a lot of history and tradition here.
"So we're not going to be stupid enough to disrespect Clare."
In a sense, they represent the GAA's underbelly, the coterie of county men who encounter routine hardship and incessant put-downs and whose careers remain utterly bereft of glamour. Yet, in 2000, Ahearne was on a Waterford U-21 team that beat Kerry in Killarney. Three years later, another Waterford team beat Kerry again to win become Munster U-21 champions.
So seeds were sewn, but little enough reaped.
Ahearne estimates that maybe five of the 2000 team are seniors today and no more than three of the '03 side. The arithmetic tells something of the currency of football in the county.
The Kill man actually walked away from inter-county in '03, disillusioned with what he saw as a general inertia. Current Cork hurling manager, Denis Walsh, was Waterford's manager at the time and, seemingly, fighting a doomed fight for the attention of the county board.
To this day, Ahearne feels a slight tug of guilt that he let a good man down.
"I just wasn't enjoying it, I wasn't fit," he recalls. "There was this sense of 'Ah, sure what's the point?' It wasn't being taken seriously from the top but, to be fair, I wouldn't purely blame the county board. A lot of it was down to myself.
"I had just finished college, was looking for a job and, I suppose, wasn't really in the mood for traipsing around the countryside. Denis Walsh was a very good coach with serious aspirations who I felt was struggling to get commitment from the board.
"Looking back, I felt I let him down. He rang me to know would I come back in. I said I would, but never did. I just couldn't see the fun in it."
They are in a better place now, yet it's still some way short of Gloccamorra. On the Friday before last year's Championship game with Cork, Gary Hurney and Shane Walsh did a double training session with the county's hurlers.
Though it was the footballers preparing to face the second best team in the country, the county board ran off three rounds of the hurling Championship in the weeks before.
Hurling's hierarchal place in Waterford has long been inarguable and stark. Ahearne explains: "What happened with the two lads last year would have been another one of those things that just gave off the sense to people on the outside of things being a bit of a joke.
"For a good few years, there was a feeling that the county board was just paying lip service to football. They weren't really behind us. Players would have felt the county board didn't give a damn. And that filtered down into everything.
"But John Kiely fought against it for five years and, bit by bit, it's changing now."
They now train in a state-of-the-art facility at Carriganore on the outskirts of the city and follow an utterly professional itinerary. Kiely left after last year's Championship exit and, if his replacement -- John Owens -- is a mite less colourful than the man nicknamed 'Jackson', his shrewdness is beyond argument.
There is, too, the sense of a curious wider public after the unique light shone on their story last year by Damian Lawlor's celebrated book, 'Working on a Dream'.
That book ends with their unmerciful hammering (0-8 to 1-20) by Meath in the All-Ireland qualifiers, a game Ahearne watched from the Pairc Tailteann terrace. His year had been cut short by a mystery virus that ransacked his body of all energy and, at the time, he reckoned his Waterford career was probably over.
The virus deposited pain in every joint and left him waking regularly in the dead of night, lathered with perspiration. Even a rudimentary chore like tying his shoe-laces became problematic.
The symptoms stayed with him for maybe six weeks, but the self-doubt far beyond. "I'd say I was about 70/30 against coming back," he recalls of last summer.
Yet something was still tugging him in.
THE draw offers Waterford a clearly navigable route to their first Munster final in 50 years, yet they can't help but recoil from the evidence.
Maybe life's hard knocks have implanted a strain of pessimism in their DNA. It could be that they've simply been the butt of too many wisecracks to see anything but danger in an unlocked gate.
But, to bridge that half century, Waterford need only to beat two counties they have already accounted for in the League. With Cork and Kerry on the other side, there may never be a better opportunity to step onto the big stage.
Ahearne considers the evidence and all but pushes it away with surgical gloves.
"Look," he says "there's no point saying we weren't happy when we saw the draw. But, then, Limerick and Clare would have been happy with it too. Everyone could see a chance.
"But how on earth can we look beyond Clare? When we beat them in the Championship in '07, I think it was our first Championship win in 19 years. You're almost fighting this fear of winning in your subconscious. That's why these games are huge to us. We're trying to make a little history. So the chance we have is very tenuous. And I don't think being favourites would ever sit too well with Waterford footballers.
"Remember, we were favourites going to London!"