Sport Hurling

Saturday 16 December 2017

First big clash of summer more than just tale of two managers

Shane O'Donnell, Clare, in action against Jamie Barron, Waterford
Shane O'Donnell, Clare, in action against Jamie Barron, Waterford
Davy Fitzgerald
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

When Michael Ryan phoned to say that he was putting his name forward to manage Waterford hurlers, this column's response was to express surprise.

"Why?" we asked. "Has Davy stepped down?"

Ryan's voice bore a stonewalling flatness. "It's immaterial to me what Davy's plans are," he replied.

I'm pretty sure it was some time after the '09 championship, but it might just as easily have been early winter of 2010.

Either way, Waterford had again made the final four in the All-Ireland series and there seemed no compelling reason for the county board to enact change.

But Ryan's desire to lead his native county or maybe, more pertinently, his belief that Waterford – at that juncture – needed to be managed by a Waterford man, drew him into pursuing a job that was, effectively, already taken.

Tomorrow, he will patrol the same Semple Stadium touchline as Davy Fitzgerald and, if we are to believe John Mullane's suggestion in this newspaper last Monday, the relationship between the managers could "add an element of toxicity" to the first heavyweight hurling clash of summer.

Whether this is true or not, it's fair to say that the build-up to this game has been full of contradictions. Clare were popularly on offer yesterday at a prohibitive 4/7 to win, despite losing their only two meaningful clashes with Waterford during the past year.


Perhaps Mullane's retirement has altered perceptions but, if you explore the recent evolution of both teams, the greater climate of flux has quite patently existed in Clare.

By my reckoning, Davy Fitz has dispensed with two-thirds of the side hammered by 17 points against Galway in July of 2011, a game that was 'Sparrow' O'Loughlin's final in charge of Clare.

The core of Fitzgerald's rebuild since has focused on developing young talent harvested from the county's two recent All-Ireland U-21 winning teams.

This – as Limerick with their three-in-a-row ghosts will readily attest – is a process mined with danger.

Given that Clare won the first of those U-21 titles in '09, it is surely instructive to note that they have still not won a senior Munster Championship game since '08. Underage success guarantees nothing beyond the certainty of unveiling young players with a high degree of self-regard.

And that's not strictly helpful in senior championship, an environment where feet on the ground always carry more purchase than a head in the clouds.

There is also something plainly illusory about the notion that what Clare possess in great abundance (underage talent) is a resource for which Waterford now starve.

Dungarvan Colleges have won back-to-back Harty Cups as well as this year's All-Ireland Colleges title, not to mention the victories of De La Salle in '07 and '08.

The generation of Ken McGrath, Dan Shanahan and Tony Browne may not have won that elusive All-Ireland, but they did inspire a new generation.

So while, ostensibly, they can't quite match Clare's recent underage inter-county success, there should be no denying the rude health of Waterford hurling.

Ryan has, palpably, done a good job too in managing the departure of household figures like Mullane and Eoin Kelly while still keeping the senior team competitive at the top table.

They again retained their Division 1A status in the league and, if he endured a difficult baptism as Waterford manager with the early loss of two selectors, all evidence suggests that Ryan is now going to battle with a firmly united dressing-room.

The introduction of Jake Dillon and Jamie Barron to an all U-21 full-forward line maybe exaggerates a sense of callowness in tomorrow's team.

Eleven of Waterford's starting 15 played championship under Davy Fitz, and 13 saw action for him in the National League.

True, the losses of Mullane, Stephen Molumphy and Stephen Daniels will be acutely felt, but almost two-thirds of Waterford's starting 15 won Munster medals in 2010.

Compare that to Clare, for whom only Brendan Bugler and Pat Donnellan of the team named this week have even won a senior Munster Championship game.

For any hurling neutral, it will forever be a source of regret that Waterford did not win an All-Ireland in the last decade.

They were at the height of their powers in '07, but that quarter-final draw with Cork left them facing a cruelly penal itinerary.

Hindsight tells us that, in their prime, that Waterford team had the dual misfortune of running into contact with the greatest Kilkenny side of all and probably Cork's finest since the three-in-a-row boys of the '70s.

So they fell just short while being universally loved.

Maybe their greatest appeal was their difference, the fact that here was a group of predominantly urban hurlers, drawn to soccer-style celebration and a candour of emotion not commonly practised by rural teams.

I often wonder if Davy Fitz ever got the credit he deserved for guiding Waterford to that Munster crown three years ago, at a time when the core of the great side had either already gone or was in the advanced stages of decline.

Mullane I'm sure now regrets the crassness of his celebration in front of Fitzgerald immediately after last year's championship game in Thurles.

In fact, it would be a surprise if hindsight doesn't arm most Waterford people with a more generous perspective on the Clare man's time in their midst.

True, all kindnesses will be suspended for 70 minutes tomorrow, albeit you would hope that Mullane's prediction of a "toxic" climate will prove needlessly melodramatic.

Fitzgerald (left) has been nurturing a new style of play in Clare, a policy of care in possession that has not instantly thrilled the county's traditionalists.

But it was a style stamped all over their U-21s' defeat of Kilkenny last year and, given time, it is one that might be the county's future.

Irish Independent

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