Saturday 17 March 2018

John Mullane - Future is bright for Waterford's sporting heroes and hard-pressed families

Maurice Shanahan (R) and Austin Gleeson celebrate after Waterford booked their place in the All-Ireland final. Photo: Sportsfile
Maurice Shanahan (R) and Austin Gleeson celebrate after Waterford booked their place in the All-Ireland final. Photo: Sportsfile

John Mullane

Waterford's a city and county that's fighting back.

We've had our knocks on the sporting fields and we've also had to endure the closure of Waterford Crystal in 2009, followed by the loss of 575 jobs at the Talk Talk call centre in 2011.

Conor Gleeson is consoled by Derek McGrath after seeing red against Cork. Photo: Sportsfile
Conor Gleeson is consoled by Derek McGrath after seeing red against Cork. Photo: Sportsfile

But the green shoots of recovery are visible. We have a beautiful Greenway and the announcement of a €300m redevelopment of Waterford city by a Saudi investment group is really good news.

It's coinciding with the county boasting a very good senior hurling team and I can feel the good times coming back to Waterford.

There's an old saying down here that you dig deep and aim high, and while we're a small county, we have a storied past.

Famous stars of screen and stage, scientists, politicians, military figures, poets, musicians and historians have made their mark on the national and international stage.

And now we're back in an All-Ireland senior hurling final for the first time in nine years.

Last Sunday was another roller-coaster occasion that kicked off in front of a crowd of over 70,000.

It's only when I saw the red jerseys leaving Croke Park that I realised how many people had made the trip from home.

The anxiety beforehand and excitement afterwards were palpable and the victory over Cork put paid to any negative talk about the sweeper system.

The team has racked up 11-115 in five championship games. You're talking an average of 2-23 per match there so that's hardly defensive to me.

Waterford people can be thankful that the set-up has delivered some glorious and memorable days in recent years and I'd argue that it's time we started to introduce it into our underage teams. You play to your strengths and Waterford's strength is the use of the sweeper.

And yet leaving Croke Park last Sunday, a dark cloud hung over the team. Thoughts turned to both Gleesons - who were superb on the day.

I'm delighted that Austin won't miss the final and Croke Park made the right call here, as they did with Galway's Adrian Tuohy.


We want to see our best 15 against Galway's and a final without Gleeson would have been an unthinkable prospect for Waterford.

I was never a fan of this helmet rule - as it can provide punishments that don't fit the bill or the crimes.

With all the talk of Austin and his alleged misdemeanour, what got lost in the conversation was the potential loss of Conor Gleeson for the final.

I say potential because I'm led to believe that Waterford will fight this one all the way.

I was on radio commentary with Tomás Mulcahy and both of us agreed at the time that a yellow card so late in the game would have been the right call.

James Owens opted for red but he need not have - as it was a little flick of the hurl with minimal force.

And as far as I'm concerned, when you look at the Waterford rap sheet this summer, they've been little more than petty crimes.

We didn't see any wild or dirty pulls and playing dirty is not in Waterford's DNA.

But, for me, a Waterford without Conor Gleeson is almost as unconscionable as going into battle without Austin.

And I'd go even further by stating that Conor would be an even bigger loss than Tadhg de Búrca was for the semi-final.

We had a ready-made replacement in Darragh Fives to play in that sweeper role - and he did so with maximum effect.

But what we don't have to replace Conor is a touch-tight and fast man-marker in a similar mould.

I wrote last summer that this guy is Waterford's best man-marker and in this year's championship, he's nullified the threats of Alan Cadogan, Richie Hogan, Conor McDonald and Conor Lehane.

These are performances which put him in contention for an All-Star and the Young Hurler of the Year award. And don't forget the impact of his point last Sunday, which came shortly after Jamie Barron's first goal.

He's a player who would be tailor-made for one of Galway's main danger-men - Conor Whelan, Conor Cooney or Cathal Mannion.

So, Waterford people should realise that this lad is just as vital to the team as Austin or Tadhg.

He's a guy who goes about his business in a quiet but profound manner - a reflection of the good family he comes from.

Conor's red card dampened down post-match celebrations to an extent but the county has been engulfed in an air of excitement nonetheless.

We don't get here too often so let's enjoy it and embrace the next few weeks.

But we must also heed the lessons of 2008. I remember back then that we had two open nights before the final - one at Walsh Park and one in Dungarvan.

The Dungarvan event was bananas. There must have been nine or ten thousand people down there and getting back to my car was a job in itself.

We were signing autographs and other bits and pieces for ages and while you have to oblige, and we had no issue with that, one of those open nights would have been enough.

As a player preparing for an All-Ireland final, you really have to go into lock-down and shut yourself away from the outside world as best you can.

When you get to training, train hard but try not to get distracted by outside influences.

Still, it can happen to the best of them. In 2010, before Kilkenny's All-Ireland final against Tipp, it was reported that more than 7,000 people were present for a training session at Nowlan Park.

They were there to watch Henry Shefflin as he tried to get fit after suffering a cruciate knee ligament injury.

Tipp, meanwhile, were quietly getting about their business in Thurles and they also holed up in Carton House on the weekend before the final.

We can't afford to be side-tracked because we know that we're coming up against a very good and formidable unit in Galway. They're well-drilled and carrying the hurt of 29 years on their shoulders.

Waterford have to be ready for what's coming - and Galway will hope to honour the memory of the late, great Tony Keady by ending their famine.

There's a fine balance to be struck in the build-up between enjoying it all and being clinical in your preparation.

I'd urge supporters not to suffocate the players too much between now and the final.

Galway have been here before more recently, twice in 2012 and again two years ago.

Most of those guys will have experienced all that goes with what can be a draining couple of weeks.


But it's only draining if you let it be. There's so much for players to deal with, from ticket requests to suit fittings and banquet arrangements.

A lot of this should be taken out of their hands.

All they should need to worry about is training, eating right, drinking enough fluids, recovery and getting ready for 3.30pm on September 3.

If any supporters want tickets badly enough, they'll get their hands on them, as they did in 2008.

But please don't ask players for tickets. In his autobiography, Roy Keane wrote about how difficult it was trying to get tickets for the 1991 FA Cup final, when he was playing for Nottingham Forest against Tottenham.

He was only 19 at the time and really shouldn't have had to deal with stuff like that.

I remember ticket requests putting a drain on me in 2008.

But you do feel obliged when somebody asks to try at least - and I'm the type of fella that wouldn't want to see anybody stuck.

For hurling in general, this final will capture the country's imagination.

It's the first time the counties have ever met in a senior decider and while Waterford's record against Galway in championship hurling is flawless, history will count for nothing.

But isn't it great to be looking forward to such a novel final, after the recent dominance of Kilkenny and so many finals between themselves and Tipperary?

It's sure to be a romantic ending for one of the counties involved, as Waterford chase a first senior All-Ireland since 1959, with Galway looking to end a 29-year wait.

And I predict that for the winner next month, it will be the first of two or three All-Irelands because both teams are primed to push on.

On these pages previously, I've written about a potential return to the revolution years of the 1990s, when a number of counties harboured genuine hopes of finishing the season as champions.

And I think we might be heading back there because other contenders have been enjoying underage success - and will feel confident of pushing on at senior level.

Galway were minor and U-21 champions in 2011 - and won the minor title again in 2015.

Waterford were minor champions in 2013 and won the U-21 crown last year and so nobody should really be surprised by this senior final pairing.

We know that Waterford's minor and U-21 wins came at Galway's expense but that doesn't necessarily mean that senior glory will follow.

What makes the prospect even more intriguing is that both teams mirror each other in many ways - and it could well be like a game of chess in the early exchanges.

We also have two of the most astute managers in the modern game - Derek with Waterford and Micheál Donoghue in charge of Galway.

They'll look after the off-field issues and try to manage the hype before the game - and they have big roles to play in all of this.

They are managing a county's hopes and dreams leading into an All-Ireland final - and that's a big task.

But both teams couldn't have better men leading the way to final day.

Irish Independent

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