Tuesday 20 August 2019

John Mullane: 'Hostility of Walsh Park crowd can tip the scales in Déise's favour for must-win tie while weary Cats may use another life'

Waterford’s Maurice Shanahan in action against Clare’s Patrick O’Connor during their League quarter-final. Photo: Sportsfile
Waterford’s Maurice Shanahan in action against Clare’s Patrick O’Connor during their League quarter-final. Photo: Sportsfile

John Mullane

With the incredible drama that unfolded in the most bizarre 24 hours of Champions League football ever, the hurling championship kicks off in unusually muted circumstances.

One venue that will be far from quiet, however, is Walsh Park with a massive scramble for tickets as Waterford play their first Munster SHC tie in the city since their facile 2003 defeat of Kerry.

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I was sitting in the stand that day as I served a suspension and I was also watching on as a 15-year-old the last time a meaningful Munster game was played in Walsh Park in 1996 against Tipperary.

I'll never forget watching my hurling hero Nicky English as his stellar career was winding down while a superstar was born for Déise supporters that day as Ken McGrath debuted as a fresh-faced minor.

A crowd of 16,000 squeezed into Walsh Park with an electric atmosphere as Tipp edged their way through but the round-robin series of the mid-noughties allowed me to sample the venue's electricity.

Davy Fitzgerald's first game as an inter-county manager in 2008 with a comfortable victory over Antrim was one occasion but an epic victory over Galway two years earlier stands out in my mind.

Galway were All-Ireland finalists the previous year and I'll never forget the crowd egging us on. We built up an early lead but were only clinging on at the finish as our supporters dragged us across the line.

The crowd will have a similarly influential role to play tomorrow if Páraic Fanning is to kick-start Waterford's campaign with a home victory over Clare and get a crucial two points on the board.

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This is a must-win game for Waterford. Win and it creates serious momentum heading into the next three games and leaves them in with a great shout of grasping one of those coveted three qualification places in Munster.

Lose and Waterford will find it difficult to pick up the pieces and resurrect themselves. That's the importance of this game for Waterford and shows just how powerful a boisterous, hostile crowd is.

That can be intimidating for opposition and there's no doubt that it can play a part in some key refereeing decisions as we saw across the province last year.

The 'ghost goal' against Tipperary in the Gaelic Grounds - which turned our season upside down - is a prime example and that would never have been given in a raucous place like Walsh Park.

Clare joint-manager Gerry O'Connor was also right in saying that home advantage brings added pressure and expectation though and if you don't hit the ground running, you're left playing a dangerous game of catch-up.

The Banner's decision to stay in Waterford tonight is an interesting one and while I wouldn't be happy with forgoing the comforts of my own bed the night before a match, I can see the logistical merits with the early throw-in (2.0).

I can't see the league quarter-final meeting between the pair in March - when Waterford hit 31 points and coasted home by 14 - bearing any resemblance to tomorrow's struggle for supremacy.

How much were a Clare team without John Conlon and Shane O'Donnell really at it? I wonder, while losing centre-back Conor Cleary that day to a harsh red card, which rules him out of the action tomorrow, is a hammer blow.

They find themselves without the pillar of their defence and with Jamie Shanahan injured for the summer, Clare are without two of their mainstays, while Conor McGrath, Ian Galvin and the under-rated David Reidy are also unavailable.

Their options aren't as rich as last year with massive gaps to fill but I hear Jack Browne is expected to operate at centre-back and he could pick up Pauric Mahony once again and renew their recent club battles.

Training in Walsh Park is a massive plus for Waterford as each player knows every blade of grass of a pitch which is in immaculate condition with local landscapers carrying out trojan work.

The county board have come in for some unwarranted criticism in recent months but they should be applauded for the way they have gone about their business.

No stone was left unturned for this glamour tie and the ticket shortage will be quickly forgotten as long as Waterford get off to the best possible start and can work their way out of Munster.

If Clare can escape with victory, they are in pole position with two games at Fortress Ennis to come. Whatever about the importance of winning home games, picking up points on the road is like getting four numbers up in the lotto.

I expect Conor Prunty to fill the No 3 shirt and go toe to toe physically with John Conlon, while the returning Conor Gleeson is likely to be designated to man-mark Tony Kelly wherever he goes.

Austin Gleeson's positioning will be interesting but I would persist with him at half-forward and it will be intriguing to see what Clare do to counteract his influence having run riot in the league clash.

Waterford may revert back to the sweeper system and if they do, I wouldn't be one bit surprised to see O'Donnell pick up Tadhg de Búrca as he's tailor-made for that demanding and thankless role.

The middle third will be like the M50 and that congestion could lead to a lot of scrappy play on a tight pitch. Clare's discipline will have to be on point or they will beat themselves once again.

If Waterford get to the pitch of things from the get-go, they have the personnel to trouble Clare. Waterford's need is greater and with Clare minus a couple of crucial players and fighting against a hostile crowd, the Déise can prevail.

Tonight sees a hotly-tipped Dublin side face Kilkenny and if they are ever going to beat the Cats in Nowlan Park, this is their opportunity as Brian Cody's squad is riddled with high-profile injuries.

I just wonder how the Dubs will react to the expectation on them after the league though and there's an element of pressure on them to deliver tonight, a mantle they have struggled to carry in the past.

It doesn't matter what 15 Kilkenny men take to the pitch, when they put on those black and amber jerseys in Nowlan Park they come alive and you know what you're going to get out of every one of them.

If it comes down to the two forward lines, Kilkenny have too many match-winners up front and TJ Reid and Colin Fennelly can help them defy logic once again.

Tipp are a dangerous animal and anyone writing them off needs a reality check. I expect Liam Sheedy's second coming to reap a fruitful summer and they have the firepower up front to edge them over the line in a ding-dong battle with Cork.

Carlow and Galway is the only game with an obvious script but the handicap of Galway -15 is very disrespectful. With Joe Canning out, Colm Bonnar's men should be capable of covering that and proving their Leinster place.

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