TEN years ago, Seán Cullinane played his last inter-county championship match and the search for an heir still hasn't unearthed a convincing candidate. At various times over the 43 championship games since, Waterford followers have lamented his absence. His stock has risen as if index-linked to each failure to discover a man that looks natural in the role.
Hurling has changed a good deal since Cullinane left in 2001, but the steel that characterises good full-back play remains as important as ever. While there's much more inter-changing of positions and less adherence to the number on your back, and while players are faster and tactically astute, the presence of a strong man guarding the square continues to be craved.
A relative unknown, Jerome Maher, is named there today against the All-Ireland champions, Tipperary. Many take it as a ruse, however, and expect Michael 'Brick' Walsh to take up duty as he did when Waterford ran into difficulty against Limerick in the Munster semi-final. If he does, Walsh will be the tenth hurler to play full-back for the county in the championship since Cullinane departed. Waterford's full-back position has rarely had a happy ending for the player stationed there.
The 1990s was a golden age for full-backs and Cullinane belonged with some of the best. Like all good full-backs, he enjoyed the role and seemed to revel in it. But he did his apprenticeship first as a corner-back, introduced in 1989, and only moved to full-back during the 1996 Munster championship game against Tipperary, exchanging places with long-time custodian Damien Byrne. He made the position his own until he finished playing inter-county hurling.
"The biggest problem is that you have no natural full-back there, they are trying to make one out of the players they have," says Cullinane. "Not a lot of people like playing it. The first duty is to stop your man from getting the ball, and then the second priority is to clear it, whereas even at corner-back you have a little bit more freedom to play it. Nine times out of ten the ball drops in on the square and it's fine and the one other time you can be in trouble. Even looking at the club teams in Waterford none seem to have a natural full-back as such."
In 2005, Fergal Hartley came out of retirement to fill the problem position and played all five championship matches, taking over from Declan Prendergast who struggled in the All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Kilkenny the previous year. Kilkenny targeted the Waterford full-back line and harvested three first-half goals, laying the foundation for victory. The defeat fuelled the sense of a full-back crisis in Waterford and in 2006, after Hartley retired, there was further upheaval. Tom Feeney, who had been the initial choice under Justin McCarthy, won back the position and played well. But after Waterford conceded three goals to Offaly in a league match in 2007, he lost his place and never played for Waterford again.
Justin McCarthy put Feeney full-back in 2002 after Cullinane departed and he was there when they won a Munster championship, and in 2003 with one exception: in the Munster final against Cork he switched positions with Brian Greene. He hurled the league final in 2004 against Galway and was full-back against Clare when they had a 19-point win in the Munster championship a week later. Then he was dropped on the basis of the league final and a concession against Clare. "It was the first time I'd been dropped. It is galling and it does hurt you," he recalls. In spite of that, he is now more philosophical and appreciative of the pressure managements are operating under. "I would have played most of my hurling at corner-back up to 2002. The first two seasons (at full-back) went okay. In '04 I felt myself that year I was very sluggish, I struggled, maybe I had got lazy and didn't put in the level of training required. I made too many slip-ups and paid the price."
Declan Prendergast took his place for the Munster semi-final against Tipperary and Feeney didn't start another match that year. Over the last ten years Feeney and Prendergast have played full-back more times than any other player, each wearing the number on 12 occasions. When Hartley replaced Prendergast in 2005, Feeney was recalled to corner-back and played there all year. But he wasn't done with full-back. Hartley's second and final retirement again left the selectors facing a dilemma.
Feeney says: "2005 was one of my best seasons but unfortunately in '07 I was perceived to have made mistakes in an Offaly match and never wore the jersey since then. It's like anything; you really do need management to believe in you. Take Tony (Browne) as an example: management clearly believe he has the ability to perform. Not everybody gets that break. Not everybody gets that level of support from management. Particularly as you get older. It is critical that management see you as equal to the rest of the guys. I felt a little bit that the decision was related to the age factor."
Feeney was 33 in 2007. In 2006, after Hartley retired for good, Eoin Murphy played full-back against Tipperary flanked by Feeney and Declan Coffey, a debutant. Feeney ended up marking Michael Webster who started at corner-forward. Feeney was restored to full-back in the qualifiers against Westmeath, and Galway, but Kevin Moran played there in the final qualifier win over Laois when Feeney picked up an injury. They overcame Tipperary in the All-Ireland quarter-final with Feeney restored to full-back. He played there against Cork in the narrow semi-final defeat.
"I suppose in Waterford at the moment there is no natural full-back," says Feeney. "Brick has been brought out of position to satisfy that need, but it's a totally different role. You could have a great game but yet you could make two mistakes and that is game over for you. Unfortunately in key matches I was dropped after I would have played a decent game but made one or two mistakes and paid the price. Now it is difficult in a match because you can never really be yourself. I started off my championship at centre-back in '97 against Limerick, marking (Gary) Kirby. You get to like it. Even though you are never in love with it."
Cullinane, like Feeney, feels that Liam Lawlor did well at full-back for Waterford last year. He lost his place this year through injury but has recovered fitness. Wayne Hutchinson conceded a goal against Limerick in the opening round and was immediately moved out of full-back. Brick Walsh eventually moved in on Kevin Downes, the third player tried there on the day, and his labours helped turn the game around. "I think the last man, Liam Lawlor, did a good job last season, he would be my choice," says Cullinane. "Wayne is a very good right half-back. A loose player. Going back to putting Fergal there and Ken (McGrath), they are ball winners, going up with the hand and catching the ball, whereas with full-back you have to make sure you get it, otherwise you bat it to safety. Fergal used to win three or four of the five when playing centre-back and if he did miss one there would be people around him and it would not be too bad. Lot of the people we tried there are wing-backs and Wayne fits into that bracket.
"Young (Kevin) Downes is a throwback; a big, physical, fit player. Ideally you would want to be converting a corner-back, I spent several years (at) corner and then went full-back so I was used to tight marking, whereas wing-backs are not used to marking so tight.
"I wasn't the fastest in the world so I stood shoulder to shoulder and read the game as best I could. Nine times out of ten, if he is under pressure you can tell where he's going to hit it, if it is coming low you are out in front and if high, you get back. Nowadays, you can't stand behind your man. Richie Power or Shefflin or Eoin Kelly (Tipperary), you are not going to take the ball off them."
After Davy Fitzgerald took over his efforts to solve the full-back dilemma saw him take the nuclear option of deploying his best player. Ken McGrath hurled in the first three games of Fitzgerald's reign and conceded no score but he looked like he was being asked to hurl with one hand tied behind his back. He was named there for the All-Ireland semi-final against Tipperary but played centre-back and also in the final.
"I suppose in '08 we gave away a few goals against Clare and I missed that game through injury," McGrath states. "I was an All Star centre-back the year before and didn't get a chance to get back to that position after getting moved; it was hard going. We won fairly handy against Antrim, and I was marking Joe Bergin in the next round against Offaly. I held him scoreless and he had scored three goals in the game before. You would be mad to get into the play and to get on to the ball.
"Against Wexford in the quarter-final my own man didn't score. But Wexford got two or three goals that day. I don't think it was benefiting the team in general, and it was hard going marking Eoin Kelly in training, he was flying, and I found it very frustrating when I was getting the run-around. It wouldn't be a position I'd be running back to play.
"I thought between Prendergast and Feeney they did good jobs, it's hard. I suppose it is seen as a problem position for us, but if someone scores a goal it's magnified. I thought Feeney played some great games, it is not an easy position to fill. Brick is in the same position as me. He will do the same; he will go back for the team. It is a move I would have made in the Limerick game. I think it was a good move to make, and I would do it for Sunday to be honest with you. It is not easy for Brick, going in as centre-back, but I feel it is our best option at the moment."
The search continues and tactics like playing midfielders and half-forwards deep as defensive screens will continue to be tried to counter the threat. But they are not the only county without a five-star full-back. After the golden era of the 1990s, they've got scarce.
Sunday Indo Sport