Thursday 12 December 2019

Men behind The Nire: Waterford's finest face huge test

Jim Wall: I got a go at the hurling, I wasn't that good at hurling, I was Tony Doran style: catch the ball and throw away the hurley. Patrick Browne
Jim Wall: I got a go at the hurling, I wasn't that good at hurling, I was Tony Doran style: catch the ball and throw away the hurley. Patrick Browne

Dermot Crowe

In Jim Wall's time Waterford football experienced a momentary disengagement from reality.

For a season in the early 1970s they hobnobbed with the elite in Division 1 of the league. Wall played full-back and another Nire man, Mick Connolly, helped him mount the barricades. For a few months they faced the game's most accomplished forwards before heading back down to rejoin the lower ranks.

The chastening tales they brought back would be recycled and made last a lifetime. Their first match produced a spirited draw with Kildare. The next outing in Tralee in November, 1971, ended their honeymoon, a 3-17 to 0-3 trouncing from Kerry, and Galway were next, the All-Ireland finalists, in Dungarvan two weeks later.

To the shock of the football world at the time they drew, 1-8 apiece, and might have won had Pa Walsh's late fisted effort reached its intended destination. Seán Ahearne's free earned them a rare parity of esteem with the Connacht champions and while they picked up four points over the campaign, it wasn't enough to keep them up.

Offaly, the All-Ireland champions, were unsympathetic in Tullamore, winning 1-17 to 1-4. Waterford lost by a point to Cork. They suffered a respectable defeat to Dublin in Croke Park. In Offaly, Wall remembers the Iron Man from Rhode, Paddy McCormack, introducing himself with a dig in the ribs. That was the way of the new world. When he played with Munster he got to share the dressing room with some of the greats of the game: Mick O'Connell, Billy Morgan, Mick O'Dwyer.

But while Wall became the first Waterford man to win a Railway Cup football medal in 1972, his club was as down-at-heel as his county. They did not travel first-class. The Nire's origins are in the 1920s, like their sister club Fourmilewater, from the adjoining half-parish. It was common, as it is now, for players to line out for both. Wall had a few runs with the Waterford hurlers while Seamus Power, the All-Ireland-winning player of 1959, was in charge.

"I would say I played for Waterford (footballers) from 1968 to 1974-5, then I went off with a bad knee injury and did not come back. I played for The Nire at full-back and full-forward with Fourmilewater. I got a go at the hurling, I wasn't that good at hurling, I was Tony Doran style: catch the ball and throw away the hurley."

His son, Brian, is the most experienced player on The Nire team attempting to make history today by becoming the first Waterford club to win a Munster senior club football title. His career mirrors his father's in many respects, a long service to the county football team and a brief spell with the county hurlers, though he went a step further when playing in the Munster hurling championship against Tipperary 10 years ago.

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Another of Jim's sons, Diarmuid, is on The Nire football team, and the majority, eight in all, have played in a Munster final already, a narrow loss eight years ago to Dr Crokes. Today they are a force in Waterford football and with ambitions beyond. In Jim Wall's day they were a second-tier side.

But football, in spite of the scarcity of success and absent glamour, enriched his life. The same truths hold today. They must for Waterford football to endure. "I thoroughly enjoyed it . . . never got a penny in expenses, we did it for the love of it. Mick Connolly and I travelled to county training, we trained in a coursing field in Clonea and on the strand, using the lights from the cars. Ah, we loved football. We won the (club) intermediate in 1971 and went senior but went back down again after that. But then all these young lads came on."

Three members of the team that won the club's first silverware, the 1942 junior championship, are still alive. They include Dinny McGrath, who scored the winning point in the final over 70 years ago. "He is like a young fella trotting around," says Michael Ryan, the former Waterford county hurling manager whose son Shane is The Nire captain. "He is in his 90s now, and watches the matches religiously on television. His son Ger acts as an interpreter when the games are shown on TG4. Dinny is a little bit on the deaf side, so Ger sits beside him.

"The other two are Gerry O'Grady, who goes to the pub to play cards for the club fundraiser every Friday night, and Sonny Whelan. That was the first championship of note for The Nire. They really struggled in the 1950s and early '60s; for a few years in the '60s the club did not field a team. The footballers around the place played with Valley Rovers. Things picked up in the late '60s and they reached a county junior final. The county board introduced the intermediate grade and they reached the intermediate final in 1970. They won it the next year for the first time. Jim Wall was captain."

Ryan played when they reached the 1974 senior championship semi-finals. They went down again in 1980, won the intermediate in '83 when Ryan was player-coach, and reached the county final in 1987 for the first time, losing to Stradbally. A year later they needed to win a relegation play-off to stay up. They got to the county final in 1989 and lost in controversial circumstances to Kilrossanty, a late and hotly-disputed penalty deciding the outcome.

The goalkeeper that day was Sean Guiry, later the manager when they made the breakthrough in 1993 by winning their first senior championship. "Lord Almighty the '89 one created a lot of controversy," Guiry admits. "Video evidence proved it wasn't a penalty."

In 1992, they were trounced by a Dungarvan team heading for three in a row. The next year Ger O'Leary came back in as coach. Guiry was sub goalie and manager. Jim Wall served as a selector. They clicked. "Losing by that amount really hurt the players and they moved it up a level," says Guiry. They defeated Dungarvan in the final but the championship finished too late to enter the provincial competition. They retained their title the following year and lost to Castlehaven in Munster. The captain in '94, Ger Walsh, is a current selector. They won again in 1997, losing heavily to Castlehaven in Munster, and in 2000, when Moyle Rovers stopped them in their tracks, Declan Browne kicking the winning point.

Then Stradbally took over and waged tyranny. They lost five years running to Stradbally and in 2006 they finally managed to usurp them, with Guiry still in charge. They defeated Aherlow in a replay in Munster, their first provincial win, and reached the final where they lost to Dr Crokes.

"It was one that got away from us," says Guiry. "On the day I believed, and anyone at the game we spoke to agreed, we were the better team. We had enough possession but did not get the scores. It is a regret; you don't get too many chances to win a Munster Championship."

Guiry remained involved. They lost to Stradbally in 2007, then regained the county title in 2008 but finished too late to play in Munster. He left after losing the 2009 county final to Stradbally, returning for one year as a selector in 2013.

"I would rate the current team as good as we ever had, maybe better. To be fair over the last 21 years, we are after building three teams. Eight have played in a Munster final and they have competed in a final. Plus a lot of them have inter-county experience. I suppose the biggest day for our club was the county final against Stradbally. To me that was the day this team proved themselves. Stradbally had something over The Nire. That day they performed and gave Stradbally a handy trimming."

Since 2002 they have lost five county finals at Stradbally's hands.

Guiry feels they are well placed now to take the next step. "We don't want to be shouting but I think this team has so much confidence built up and I think they are in with a right shout. I would say we were never better equipped with forwards."

Austin Stacks, a big name in Kerry football, hold no fears. "They are playing very well," says Jim Wall of the Nire team. "They are very fit. I saw them now this evening and they are flying. The last day against Cratloe (Munster semi-final) it was a great match, they went behind but kept coming back. They have a mindset that they are going to win. I'd be confident enough. It would be huge. We have a big enough area but it's thinly populated. Rough country. Sure 'tis mountain, a lot of sheep farming."

All set then. From classy young Conor Gleeson up to the indomitable Brian Wall. The men behind The Nire.

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