Tuesday 23 April 2019

'Páraic bleeds blue and white' - Fanning's pedigree a perfect fit as new-look Déise chase league glory

Having served his time over more than two decades in a variety of management positions, Mount Sion stalwart is now in the job he most covets.

Páraic Fanning’s Waterford are still finding their shape. Photo: Sportsfile
Páraic Fanning’s Waterford are still finding their shape. Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The clubhouse walls in Mount Sion are prolifically collaged with snapshots of old glory, but pride in Páraic Fanning runs to a deeper, less glamorous space.

When the character of Waterford's new hurling manager comes up for discussion at Marian Park, it isn't a famous victory they revisit, but a defeat that hurt to the core. On November 19, 2006, Mount Sion lost a Munster club semi-final to Toomevara in Nenagh by two points.

Fanning, in his first year as team-manager after serving an apprenticeship under Jim Greene, took a stand that day still resonating nearly 13 years later.

For "disciplinary reasons", former All-Star Eoin Kelly was left sitting on the Mount Sion bench for the entirety of a contest decided, essentially, by inches. Incensed, Kelly never played for the club again, transferring to intermediate outfit, Passage, the following January.

Mount Sion haven't won a senior county title since and, accordingly, haven't been seen in Munster.

Yet the scarring of that day is worn lightly. Fanning's stand might have come at a cost, but it was one rooted in the conviction that, sometimes, principle is maybe more important than opportunity. Every fibre of his being probably ached to bend that wretched November day in north Tipperary, but Fanning chose not to equivocate.

"It was a difficult year," remembers corner-back Brian Flannery. "But Páraic is a very strong individual. I'm not sure there'd be many club managers who would have left a then former All-Star sitting on the sideline, when there was so little in the game and their introduction might have swung it.

"If you wanted an example of somebody capable of making difficult or maybe even unpopular decisions, that situation illustrated it as well as any. Páraic certainly doesn't shy away from that stuff.

"Look, I'm sure it was difficult for him but, in general, Páraic and all the management were supported. It wasn't really an issue among players to be honest with you."

The early, simplistic view of Waterford under Fanning suggests some kind of massive wind-shift, the release of a tactical handbrake almost.

Their passage to tomorrow's National League semi-final has drawn faintly over-heated comparison with what went before, as if Derek McGrath's time at the helm was prescriptive to the point of hurling in chains.

That's not Fanning's doing. He knows, though, how the appetite for revolution can lead to extravagant assumption. So, for now, Waterford's hurling is seen as some kind of liberated opera.

He wasn't the county board's first choice to replace McGrath, Cork's Pat Ryan seemingly the chosen one until his mysterious about-turn.

But there's been little ambiguity about the Mount Sion man's appetite for the role after close to two decades of self-education. Famously, he captained Waterford IT (then RTC) to a first ever Fitzgibbon Cup title in '92 with Colm Bonnar coaching and, three years later, their roles were reversed as the Cup came to the Cork Road campus again.

By the time Fanning became Mount Sion's manager, he'd coached a great panorama of underage teams in the club and, by '08, his college friendship with Peter Barry had led him to James Stephens in Kilkenny. It was November of the following year that Davy Fitzgerald came calling.

The two knew one another from Fitzgibbon sidelines, once clashing ferociously during the epic '07 final between Waterford IT and Limerick IT in Bishopstown, a contest that stretched to two periods of extra-time. If anything, they were kindred spirits, something that made Fanning, initially, reluctant to become one of Davy's Waterford selectors.

He explains in Fitzgerald's book 'At All Costs': "When the county chairman rang asking would I talk to Davy, I'll be honest, my first reaction was, 'I don't think I could work with him'. Because I'd be a fairly strong-willed person myself!"

Yet, within three hours of Fanning agreeing to a meeting, Davy was in Waterford IT, selling his vision. And, eight months later, Waterford had won only their ninth ever Munster senior title, the two men developing a sufficient friendship for Fitzgerald to then bring Fanning with him to Wexford at the end of 2016.

Yet, Bonnar suspects there has always been a sense of inevitability about Fanning coming back to Waterford.

"I think the job might have been in the back of Páraic's mind even before Derek went in," suggests the All-Ireland-winning Tipperary man. "'Twas kind of always on his radar."

Maybe it had to be for a man who grew up in the GAA equivalent of royalty.

Fanning's grandfather, Pat, remains one of the most fondly remembered GAA presidents of all time, while his father, Phil, is long-time secretary, former chairman and now honorary life president of Mount Sion as well as a long-time GAA correspondent for the 'Waterford News and Star'. Páraic's wife, Susan, is a grand-daughter of the great John Keane, centre-back on the GAA's 'Hurling Team of the Millennium'.

Fanning has admitted that he found some decisions "difficult on a personal level" during his time as a Waterford selector given it coincided with the dying of the light as players for some of the county's greatest men, not least clubmate, Ken McGrath.

He believes that the 2010 Munster title was never properly appreciated within the county, reflecting in 'At All Costs': "What people didn't realise is that we were building a new team in Waterford. Bear in mind, that's the last Munster title we've won and, day of the game apart, there wasn't that much of a fuss.

"I remember when Waterford won their previous Munster title ('07), they ended up getting a holiday to South Africa. After this one, we ended up paying for our own breakfast after an overnight in Liverpool."

Shortly after taking the Waterford job, Fanning gave an address in WIT to 'Déise óg', Waterford's Development Squads, outlining the importance of a collective philosophy running through county teams at all levels.

The fact that Waterford on his watch have, thus far, hurled without deployment of a sweeper has been interpreted as an espousal of that new philosophy, the sight of Austin Gleeson and Páraic Mahony running amok against Clare last weekend broadly trumpeted as the first notes of a thrilling, new symphony.

Yet, it remains to be seen what Waterford's shape will be when the likes of Tadhg de Búrca, Conor Gleeson and the Fives brothers return.

Bonnar certainly believes that Fanning will learn a lot in Nowlan Park tomorrow, given - as he puts it - that Galway, are "only now getting serious about their hurling again".

The new manager has already claimed a notable victory with confirmation that Walsh Park will stage two Munster Championship games this summer and Flannery is in little doubt that, first choice or not, Waterford now have the right man at the helm.

"Páraic bleeds blue and white, whether that be Mount Sion's or Waterford's" he argues.

"And I think somewhere along the line, that does add a little bit, a Waterford man managing Waterford. Derek McGrath would have had that and Páraic has it now.

"And I think any hesitation that might have been there initially from the county board has certainly been dispelled. There don't seem to have been any difficulties in the change-over from one very particular regime to something that's a little bit different.

"Like I'm not so sure the players will be having a barbecue at Páraic's any time soon. He's not that type of guy. And you know he won't be quoting philosophers or poets, but he definitely knows how to speak hurling.

"He's made a great impression in a very short period of time."

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