Sunday 22 September 2019

Dermot Crowe: 'Waterford can finally reclaim old fortress after long lapse’

Walsh Park is set for a sell-out on Sunday for the first Munster hurling championship game at the Waterford city venue for 23 years
Walsh Park is set for a sell-out on Sunday for the first Munster hurling championship game at the Waterford city venue for 23 years

Dermot Crowe

Clare hurlers have helped create the perception of Cusack Park in Ennis being an inhospitable venue for away teams, while Dublin hurlers regularly trade on Parnell Park’s reputation as a difficult place for guests. Now Waterford, after a 16-year absence, will hope that Walsh Park can be a similar fortress for their county hurlers.

Munster Championship hurling returns to Waterford City on Sunday where the hosts entertain Clare in the opening round of the provincial round robin. The last Munster Championship match played there was in 2003 - a low key match with Kerry. But the last big Munster Championship day occurred 23 years ago when Ken McGrath made his debut against Tipperary. Waterford put up a brave resistance but were eliminated from the Championship, losing 1-11 to 1-14 in front of 15,655 fans.

Sunday’s opener between Waterford and Clare will be only the fifth time Walsh Park has hosted a Munster Championship game in 44 years. Many will be unable to see it in the flesh with the attendance restricted to just over 11,000.

In last big Munster Championship match there in 1996 Waterford were ranked as massive outsiders against Tipperary. Tipperary destroyed them in the Munster Championship the previous year by 21 points when the sides met in a tempestuous tie in Pairc Ui Chaoimh but 12 months later they struggled to shake them off and were relieved to get out of there with a victory.

If McGrath’s first match as a senior championship player failed to bring about a shock victory, the performance marked a turning on the road for his long-suffering county. Two years later Waterford reached the Munster final and four years after that they won their first provincial title, defeating Tipperary in the final, since 1963.

McGrath was central to their ascension, going on to become a legendary figure for the Deise. In 1996 against Tipp he was involved in a key moment approaching half time with Waterford just two points behind. Already on the scoresheet, he embarked on a solo run deep into enemy territory until held back by Declan Ryan. Instead of the home team being awarded a free it went the other way for over-carrying. From the free Tipp worked a goal from Liam Cahill, set up after some combined play between Liam McGrath and John Leahy.

At the interval Waterford trailed 0-6, 1-8. A late goal from a Paul Flynn 20m free gave Waterford hope but Tipp held on. The win earned them a place in the semi finals against Kerry in Tralee. They powered on to the final but lost to Limerick.

Tipp’s most recent visit to Walsh Park before then for a Munster Championship game had been in 1969. Their most recent visit to any venue in Waterford prior to 1969 in the Munster Championship was in 1930, a match played in Dungarvan.

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By 1996, Waterford hadn’t beaten Tipp in the Championship since 1983 - a day which marked the debut of another great player, Nicholas English. Thirteen years later, playing in Walsh Park, English was in his last season. He retired after they lost to Limerick in the Munster final.

The feeling after the match in 1996 was that Walsh Park would become a more regular venue for Munster Championship games, but it was not to be and the ground suffered from neglect. Last year it was controversially declared unfit to host any of Waterford’s home games.

Aside from Ken McGrath, the 1996 championship also saw debuts for Joe Deane, Ollie Canning and Sean Og O hAilpin. All five newcomers enjoyed distinguished careers but only Deane and O h Ailpin won All-Ireland senior medals. 

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