'We couldn't care less what people think of us'
AS manager Michael Ryan prepares to take Waterford into a crucial Allianz SHL clash with Galway on Sunday, he has a frank message for those who have been constantly predicting an imminent slump in the county's fortunes for quite a few years.
"We don't mind in the slightest being written off. People can keep at it as much as they like and it still won't make any difference to us. We believe in ourselves – that's all that counts," said Ryan.
Waterford, who will be at home to Galway in Walsh Park, are standing on the peak of Division 1A after four rounds, with only two points separating top from bottom in the six-county group.
"I said it before the start of the league and I'll say it again – everything will be decided in the last 10 minutes of the last round. You'll get all sorts of swings during Sunday's games, but an awful lot will hinge on what happens in the last 10 minutes of all the games. It could even come down to the last puck. It will be a great day for spectators," he said.
Waterford are in an unusual position that although they lead the group on five points and are well-placed to book a semi-final place, they could also end up facing a relegation play-off.
Granted, that would require an unlikely results sequence, but it underlines the volatility of a league where none of the six counties have won more than two games and four have lost two games.
The pre-season view was that far from topping 1A after four rounds, Waterford would be headed for a relegation play-off. As 4/6 favourites to slip down to 1B, the hurling world had once again decided that they were in decline.
Instead, Waterford beat Clare and Tipperary, drew with Cork and lost to Kilkenny, leaving Ryan very pleased with how they are progressing.
"Others might have thought we'd struggle but we never felt that. We were aiming for a place in the semi-finals (top three, plus 1B winners qualify). We knew it would be hard, but it was going to be hard for everyone else too. There's no room for mistakes in a group as strong as this," said Ryan.
The departure of John Mullane was the latest example of the evolving process in Waterford and may have led outsiders to form a mistaken view of what's going on in the county. As star names that had done so much to raise Waterford's stock over a decade departed over the last few seasons, there was a feeling that the back-up might not be quite up to the required standard to replace them.
However, sustained growth at Colleges level produced four Harty Cup wins for Waterford colleges in seven years, including this season. Indeed, Dungarvan Colleges extended their run on Monday when they beat St Kieran's, Kilkenny by 10 points in the All-Ireland semi-final.
"Waterford had 11 lads on the teams that reached the Fitzgibbon Cup semi-finals this year. There's a lot of good work going on in Waterford and it's showing," said Ryan.
"I never had any doubt about the quality of the players coming through to senior level, but you must also remember that we have a lot of very experienced lads still on the scene. There's a good mix there."
Now in his second season as manager, he has a better knowledge of the players and their capabilities and is hoping that will be a plus point this year.
"We're playing a different brand of hurling to what was there before. That's not to say there was anything wrong with what other people did, but every manager has his own way of doing things. I'd be no different."
Despite Waterford's excellent start to the year, Walsh remains acutely aware that while they lead the way and Galway prop up the table, it's no more than a reflection of how incredibly tight the margins have been all season.
"The way I'm looking at it is that we're playing the reigning Leinster champions and a team that drew an All-Ireland final last year," he said.
"Galway might not have hit their best form yet this year, but they still beat Kilkenny. We know what they're like when they get their game going. They need to win to avoid being in a relegation game, so we know what to expect."
Ryan is hoping that home advantage will provide Waterford with added impetus, just as it did last Sunday when they reeled in Tipperary on the home run before winning by a point.
"The crowd were great in the last 10 minutes. I have no doubt it was worth a point or two for us, so I'm hoping they will out in even bigger numbers on Sunday."
With the side doing so much better than many expected, the incentive is there for the public to back the latest drive to show the sceptics that Waterford hurling is certainly not in decline.
"We never believed it was anyway," said Ryan.