Waterford's current crop don't suffer the inferiority complex of past teams
Shane Ahearne noticed an absence of fanfare and colour in Waterford city last week ahead of the league final against Cork. There was hardly a flag to be seen and he wasn't sure whether the blue and white balloons he saw outside a bank building had anything to do with the match. When they last played Cork in a league final 17 years ago, he was assistant coach and a similar journey through the city would have left him in no doubt but that Waterford had a big game on the horizon.
It shows how their world has changed. When Waterford defeated Limerick in Thurles in 1998, they reached the league final for the first time since 1963. Being in a final qualified as a serious statement, and the journey to where it would be considered no great shakes had begun. Today will be their third league final since 1998. Munster championships and multiple All Stars have radically transformed their view of themselves.
Fewer flags therefore reflect higher ambitions. There's no hysteria on the streets, but the smart advances of the current generation under Derek McGrath have tickled curiosity and interest. The young players who come on stream for Waterford now exude a confidence impossible for those preparing for Cork in 1998. The current players have been reared on some vintage days. The players of 1998 had seen their county lose in the Munster Championship to Kerry five years earlier, and to Tipperary by 21 points two years after that.
Derek McGrath, a 16-year-old centre forward on the Waterford minor team defeated in the 1992 All-Ireland final, was part of the league semi-final win over Limerick in Thurles 17 years ago. He signed off his county career the same year, having lost his place for the league final to Micheal White. The win over Limerick, before a crowd of almost 40,000, had the atmosphere and dazzling hurling that would become a standard when Waterford went out to play in the years that followed. During the game, Marty Morrissey in the RTE commentary box declared one Waterford move the best passage of hurling he had seen in the decade.
It mattered little, being entirely subjective, whether it was or not. What it memorably illustrated was that Waterford could work a spell on you unlike any other team. They were rapidly winning admirers. They were drawing a huge and enthusiastic following that would become a common feature of their numerous thrilling escapades in the years that followed - a mix of epic triumphs and torturous failures with little, it seemed, in between.
They felt they had the raw material. The county reached three successive Munster minor finals, which Ken McGrath played in, defeating higher-ranked counties, instilling belief in younger players who would soon be candidates for senior selection. They had players from the 1992 All-Ireland under 21 win, and the minor team that reached the final the same year. Ken McGrath played minor, under 21 and senior championship in the same month in summer, 1996 - his senior bow a respectable loss to Tipperary in Walsh Park. They were competitive, unlike the year before, but the revolution at senior level that saw Clare, Offaly and Wexford win All-Irelands was happening without them.
"We were missing out on it," says McGrath. "We were all mad to get involved. You would see the crowds up in the Gaelic Grounds for Limerick and Clare, and we were a million miles away from it. But we felt we had real potential. Guinness were sponsoring the championship and you had games live on telly - it was really glamorous."
Gerald McCarthy's arrival was the catalyst for real change. From late 1996 he laid a standard that has been maintained over the 17 years since. "Even in 1997, I think Limerick beat us by six in the championship," says Ken McGrath. "There was no one down after that game - we knew the team was coming, and we trained very hard from that October. There wasn't the sports science you see now, but the training was crazy. We were unbelievably fit. We won the South East League in the early part of 1998, and that was the first thing we had won in years. We got a good run in the league, reached the league final and it kicked on from there."
And they never went back, even though they have had some bad beatings in the championship, notably the All-Ireland final of 2008 and the Munster final in 2011, when they conceded seven goals to a rampant Tipperary. But the inferiority complex has gone. The club championship has broadened into a more varied and interesting race, from the beef or salmon of Mount Sion or Ballygunner on offer from 1994 to 2006. The success of Waterford in schools and colleges hurling is well documented, and the All-Ireland minor win two years ago, with Austin Gleeson one of the star players, served notice of the imprint Waterford were leaving at under-age.
In 1998, a league final had enormous value to a team still finding its feet and a county tormented by failure and bad beatings. "I was marking Brian Corcoran," remembers Ken McGrath. "I got a bad belt in the eye and it knocked the stuffing out of me. Corcoran cleaned up on me, but it was a good learning curve, I was only 19. That day, I think, we were well in the game. Cork got a sloppy enough goal in the second half.
"League finals are one-off games. We had the one against Kilkenny in 2007. It is a league final and that is it. Win or lose, you are playing championship some weeks later. In 2004, we played Galway and were terrible, then we played Clare the following week (in the Munster championship) and won by 19 points. Against Galway, I don't know, there was something missing. It didn't feel like a league final. I knew in training on the Tuesday that we were going to beat Clare. The training was unbelievable. Fellas were up for it."
Paddy Joe Ryan was chairman of the county board from 1994 to 2006, and returned to the role this year. Early in his first tenure, he saw the need to find help from outside and so he went to Cork and talked to Gerald McCarthy. The changes McCarthy brought were radical for a county still dragging its heels on preparation. Discipline became a central pillar of the new belief system. The following January, Dan Shanahan was left off the panel, then only 19, when he missed training because of a soccer match. Two of the team that won the All-Ireland under 21 title in 1992 - Ray Barry and Seán Daly - also lost their places in the squad for breaching discipline on a training weekend in Clonea. Waterford were setting new standards and there was no turning back. The panel also famously went on the Nutron Diet - even the chairman Ryan. "I lost four stone. I was 18 and a half stone, and I have never gone beyond 14 since," he says.
"County team costs are over three times greater now than what they were then," adds Ryan, "but the board is committed to providing the current set-up with whatever it requires." While the arrival of McCarthy meant a more progressive regime, it looks positively old-school compared to what managements bring to the table now.
Ryan is optimistic about where this team is headed. "They are really determined and they're young," he says. "We are hoping it will be the team (to win an All-Ireland). We have a good backroom team. Win, lose or draw on Sunday, we think they are going in the right direction now."
Ahearne was training the under 16 county players when Ryan called him in 1996. "He said, 'It looks like Gerald McCarthy . . . would you be interested? He needs someone to do the training'. And I said I was straight away. I was playing soccer with Kilkenny City at the time so I had to pack that in. I think Gerald brought a certain aura with him as a player and mentor, and he introduced a strict disciplinary code. Players bought into it.
"I remember in 1997 we were starting to do gym programmes. I remember the fellas would be in the gym from 7.0am to 9.0am, then down to Fraher field from 9.0am to 10.0am to hurl. There was fierce training done. On Sunday mornings in December 1997 and January 1998, we'd go to Fenor to hurl for an hour in the morning and then go to the sandhills for an hour-and-a-half of physical. That was the regime. It's a totally different set-up now, but some of the current players were barely born back then. I remember the crowds and going through Thurles with a Garda escort and some of the lads on the bus saying, 'This is new.'"
Ken McGrath shares the optimism generated by the current bunch of players. "I think they are going to go close in the next couple of years," he says. "They seem to have very skilful players. They are playing a different brand of hurling, but it is a brand they are getting better at every year. They have enough skilful players to play that game. Fitness-wise, they are very fit. We like playing Cork - they are usually good games. If you get one win in the championship, anything can happen.
"They will be there or thereabouts. Young lads expect to be there and win these games. If they can keep pushing on, anything is possible. The young lads respect Derek, they have great time for him and great time for Dan (Shanahan, team selector). The average age is 22-23. Now it won't be given to them. You have to deliver on the championship days."
The game has changed substantially since the 1998 final and McGrath's own playing days. "I look at hurling now and, Jesus, I don't know if I would make it nowadays," he says. "I loved going out and playing and, don't get me wrong, you mark a man first when you're centre back, and try and play hurling second. Nowadays, the art of defending is nearly gone. A fella can be said to play well if his man gets four points. To me, my game was get the ball and get it in as quick as I could. We had the boys to grab it and do damage.
"I remember a few years ago, I hit a ball in a certain game and was told it was the wrong thing to do, and I had been doing it for 15 years. I knew then my time was up. I didn't think I was right for the game anymore.
"In the 1990s, the first 10 minutes of any championship game was all on the ground. It has totally changed now. Back then, there were a lot more individual battles. Now there is so much core defending going on - three or four back around midfield - that those individual battles have been taken out of it. You had my father's era, my era, everyone adapted to different eras. I enjoyed the one I played in."
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