The barren stretch: Come the final whistle in Croker today there will be bedlam, whoever wins
Today's champions will end the longest barren stretch since Clare won after 81 years in 1995
Joe Rabbitte, aged 10,is leaving Croke Park after Galway have won their first All-Ireland since 1923. It's September 7, 1980. A wait of 57 years, only one shy of Waterford's current sentence, has expired and the ground is drenched in glorious celebration. Joe Connolly has delivered a speech for the ages in the native tongue. The late Joe McDonagh has sung deep from the heart. And there's the 'where's Iggy' moment when the stricken defender is called to the podium to join the rest.
But this is what Joe recalls. Leaving Croke Park he sees a lad with "long hair and a big Galway hat" shouting: 'Up the West and feck the rest'.
"I am sure he had a couple of scoops on him at the time," says Rabbitte, who spent the match on Hill 16 on his father's shoulders. "I was looking at the backs of fellas in front of me most of the time. My father would lift me and when he got excited he would drop me down. I would be up for a bit and down again."
Anything else? "Steve Mahon's maroon jersey and it black with sweat."
And, later, John Connolly and PJ Molloy coming to Athenry with the Liam MacCarthy Cup, to light the spark for the next generation. Rabbitte's personal quest to win an All-Ireland medal notably failed. The longer his career went on, the more people wondered if he'd ever get that medal in his hand. He arrived in the senior squad as an 18-year old at the end of 1989. Galway, fresh from recent All-Ireland success, were about to experience famine, not that anybody had a clue. "I suppose the rest is history," he laughs. "I was just in time for the tail-end of the celebrations. That's life."
The long gap has brought many changes and, barring a draw, today will offer up a winner who will be deeply appreciative of their altered status. This is the first time since 1996 that no player in an All-Ireland final has a medal. The winner, be it Galway or Waterford, will end the longest barren stretch since 1995, when Clare beat back 81 years of failure. From that perspective the neutral can't lose.
It is the first final without a traditional top three county since Wexford defeated Limerick 21 years ago. And it is the first ever meeting of these counties in an All-Ireland final. "They are both in the same boat," says Rabbitte. "They have produced, over the last decades, fantastic teams, fantastic young hurlers, and they have excited people all over the country with the way they've hurled. It is too long for any county like Galway and Waterford to be without All-Irelands."
The simple arithmetic would suggest that Waterford deserve the lion's share of the sympathy vote. They have waited twice as long, played in fewer All-Ireland finals in the last half century - only one since 1963 - and only two years after Galway's win in 1980 they got a hiding in the Munster final from Cork that looked almost designed to banish any notions they might have of trying to usurp the old order in the province.
That provincial tyranny has disappeared. But the last Waterford All-Ireland is from an Ireland long gone.
Yet Galway have arguably suffered more. In those 29 years they've lost the finals of 1990, 1993, 2001, 2005, 2012 and 2015. Which reveals only the bare bones of the ongoing frustration of falling short when they seemed to have enough hurlers and ability to cross the line. If they win, no less than if Waterford do, Croke Park will witness an enormous release of emotion.
This is guaranteed to be all the more charged, win or lose, by the recent loss of Tony Keady, their commanding figure of the All-Ireland wins of 1987 and '88. A short tribute is planned on the big screen, and six minutes into the final there will be an opportunity to mark his passing with a round of applause.
Rabbitte played with him for four years and regarded him as a good friend. "That is on people's minds going up to it. For a lot of people who were close to him and for that generation, especially when they do the tribute to him, that will be tough. I met Keady at the Leinster final. He said, 'How're you horse!' 'Jesus, Keady, you could hurl today,' I told him. He didn't say he couldn't, but something like, 'well, you would never know'.
"We were out one night, everyone gathered round Keady, a group of boys listening to him telling stories - whether singing, dancing, whatever you put him at, he'd attract an audience. Anyway they were listening to him talk about the great set-up Galway had in his time playing when he said it was a shame himself and Conor Hayes didn't talk to each other anymore. And he got up and went to the toilet. And people were wondering, what had happened between himself and Hayes? So they asked when he came back and he explained that Hayes never stopped giving out to him because he never let the ball into him, he never let the ball through. And the boys were looking at each other. He would be pulling stunts like that all night."
Whatever happens today, with Joe Canning now having replaced Rabbitte as the figurehead of Galway's struggle to win an All-Ireland, the loss of Keady will always be associated with this latest attempt. His former half-back line partner Pete Finnerty will be in Croke Park to accompany Keady's wife Margaret and four children, who will be guests of the GAA. Finnerty knew him for 40 years. "If we weren't in an All-Ireland it would be worse," he says, "if there was nothing to take our minds away from it for the last four weeks I think we would have gone insane. With the build-up you would be doing bits and pieces. It keeps us focused on something else. It is still very raw."
But this is where they are coming from. If David Burke goes up the steps it would be no surprise were he to pay tribute to Keady or maybe dedicate the win to his memory. "You know you can't let anything like that affect you as a player," says Finnerty. "Each lad going out is worrying about the man beside him. You can't put that pressure on them but they all came into the funeral. They showed their utter respect for him."
If they win, how will he feel? "I don't know. The first place I will look on Sunday I suppose is the sky. It would be brilliant. As Cyril Farrell used to say, when you win an All-Ireland there is no winter. There will be a winter for the Keadys unfortunately and his friends, but it will help, it will give us something else to think about and it would be fitting if we won it in his memory. And it is fitting that Gearoid McInerney (his former half-back team-mate's son) will be filling his (number six) shirt."
The years pass: nine since Waterford's last All-Ireland final appearance, not as long as the distance to the one before that. But the accumulation of years without an All-Ireland takes its toll. Just two members of the first team to achieve that distinction for the county in 1948 were alive when Waterford prepared to meet Kilkenny 60 years later in 2008. Both, Andy Fleming and Johnny O'Connor, have passed on since then. So has Pat Fanning, in 2010, the godfather figure of Waterford hurling across the generations.
Fanning's son Phil attended the '48 final at four years of age. "I remember going on a double-decker bus in Dublin," he laughs, "that is all I can remember." He has more in the memory bank from attending the All-Ireland finals in 1957 and '59, and again in '63.
"We need it a bit more than they do," he says of today's final when pressed. "Like, they have had their All-Irelands in the '80s; we are only back in contention since we got to the All-Ireland semi-final in 1998. We had terrible lean years before that."
In his estimation, the 1970s were the county's worst years. "At least in the '80s we got to three Muster finals," he says. "We beat Tipp and beat Limerick when they were Munster champions to get to Munster finals. In '89 we got to the final as well. I was involved with Tony Mansfield when we got to the Munster final in '89. In early '88 we were the first team to beat Galway in 18 months. They had won the All-Ireland in '87 and were unbeaten until we beat them in the League in Dungarvan. It made everyone in Waterford sit up and take note. They came with a full team."
Fanning went to Croke Park with his grandparents in 1948 as his father was training the senior team. His memory of '59? "It was heartbreaking in '57 to lose by a point, and when we were losing by a goal with the game coming up to full-time I could not take it any more. I was 15. I got up and left my seat and was outside when I heard this roar and I went back and saw that Seamus Power had scored the (equalising) goal. So I swore I would never leave a match again." That match went to a replay which Waterford won.
The full-back on that team, Austin Flynn, arrived in the squad in 1952 and could see that organisation wasn't exemplary. The team that won in 1948 was an ageing one. At that point in his life he was keenly interested in boats and sailing. But all changed when Fanning summoned them to a meeting in Fraher field. "And then Fanning made a famous speech, saying that 'as God is my judge I believe there is a winning of an All-Ireland in ye fellas. It will take a huge effort, you will have to give of yourself until it hurts and when you have given it everything you have to give that bit extra for the Waterford jersey'."
Fanning's core message was that it was easier for those with tradition to keep coming back. It took a special quality for counties like Waterford to do so, undeterred. Out of that sprung the group of players who brought the county to three All-Ireland finals, in '57, '59 and '63.
"A great bunch of hurlers appeared at the same time. Mount Sion had seven or eight," says Flynn. "Nowadays it is completely different. The hurling has spread throughout the whole county. I happened to be lucky enough to be around at the time when you had great hurlers. Now they talk of the size of the player and that but back in my time the players weren't fed that well so they weren't that big. Frankie Walsh was a very small man, Larry Guinan, John Kiely and Mick Flannelly were all small on the outside but inside they were about seven feet tall."
Flynn doesn't have the mobility to attend the match and will view it on television at home. What happens if they win? "If the lads could get over the line it would be unbelievably special for old fellas like me."
He was 15 in 1948 when Waterford first reached the summit and recalls returning home by train and trying to sleep lying down in the corridor. The following week the captain Jim Ware visited his school, Dungarvan CBS, with the cup. Eleven years later he remembers a local politician, on the team's return to Waterford as champions, declaring them not just the best hurling team in Ireland, but Europe as well.
Another of that period, Larry Guinan, remembers little of the matches but can recall going into the sea at Malahide near the hotel where they were staying after winning the '59 replay. "It was on the fourth of October and I remember going out swimming, I think around four in the morning with a pack of us, and Seamus Power was near drowned. And Seamus was the man that scored the goal for us in the drawn game. I remember there was a few of us that had to come out of the water. We had a few pints, I needn't tell you.
"There are not too many of us left alive, we are getting kind of scarce now. Before the rest of us go we want to see the cup coming across that bridge, it's as simple as that. We would be over the moon, absolutely. We have been heartbroken for so many years. It's gone to the point where we are getting kind of desperate for the All-Ireland, well us old fellas anyway." Guinan had recently turned 18 when they lost the '57 final to Kilkenny. "I can't wait," he says of today. "Sometimes I shake when I think about it. I'd get worked up about it."
The bruising experience of 2008, and the absence of Kilkenny, reduces a great deal of the pre-match fanfare for Waterford. The endless replays of the Don't Stop Believing track on the local radio station reflected the hysteria of the time. At one open night before 2008, Seamus Prendergast was engulfed by autograph hunters for hours and didn't get home until after 11. Many of those were neighbours of his. They could have got those signatures at any time.
Shane Ahearne played 10 years for Waterford, and in the first five, between 1984 and '88, he played five championships matches. "One match a year," he says. "Bang. Gone." The abandonment of the knock-out system has helped Waterford in the same way the move to Leinster has helped Galway. Ahearne was there when they sank as low as they ever sank, playing Division 3 hurling and losing to Mayo. But the 1989 season had them in the Munster final after beating Cork in a replayed semi-final, and three years after came the All-Ireland under 21 title and minor final appearance. Those were gains and signs of progress.
Paddy Joe Ryan, the current chairman of the county board, says they want to win this final "for every Waterford man, woman and child, to make them so proud of our county and to see we are right back where we belong. We want to erase all those bad memories, we want to wipe the slate clean."
Ticket demand is crazy. Ryan expects up to 35,000 Waterford supporters in the stadium, even though their allocation was less than half that. One day last week he received 84 calls on his mobile before 8.30pm, many of those ticket-related.
Noel Lane, the three-time All-Ireland winner, says Waterford have suffered but Galway too "have had our bellyful of it". He cites the great players on both sides, like Tony Browne, John Mullane, Ken McGrath, Ollie Canning, Eugene Cloonan, who failed to win a medal. "You have two teams trying to bridge gaps. It is going to be horrible I think for whoever loses, because the opportunity is there for them. In a county that wins an All-Ireland, particularly after a long period, say Mayo in football or Galway or Waterford in hurling, it impacts on everyone in that county, because it is part of the fabric of life."'
Two days after Galway drew the 2012 All-Ireland final, PJ Molloy, an All-Ireland winner in 1980 and '87, suffered a heart attack and had to have four stents put in. Now 65, he has learned to be calm and to control his emotions on match days. "I found it very hard," he admits, in the late 1980s and '90s to be in the stand looking down on games we could have won."
How does he see this build-up, with Galway fancied from an unusually long way out after winning the League? "Not over-confident. There is nobody going around saying we are going to win this by ten points. People are very respectful of what Waterford are bringing to the table. I have often seen more hype. It is calm enough. I would be quietly confident. I think this team has shown consistency, which is very important. There were years we played brilliant hurling and didn't repeat it."
For the neutral there is no loser today. Hurling is deeply influenced by tradition and repetition, and this is a twist in the narrative. The All-Ireland hurling final goes where no final has gone before. Come the final whistle, unless there's a draw, it will be bedlam whichever teams wins - a sight and deafening sound to behold.
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