Alan Kirwan has been one of the unsung heroes of the Ballygunner side during the success of the last 10 years.
Since breaking into the squad around the time of the three in a row, Kirwan has developed into one of the county’s top defenders and has garnered a reputation for himself as one of the best man-markers around.
Therefore, it came as no real surprise when Ger Cunningham plunged for the former Waterford IT Fitzgibbon Cup winner when looking for a captain at the start of the year.
Despite being played at centre-forward for much of the season, Kirwan was re-deployed to full-back for the county final replay where he was designated the onerous task of keeping tabs on Dan Shanahan.
Kirwan limited the big Lismore man to a solitary point in the replay, a deed that was crucial as the Gunners edged out the men from the west to claim their 11th county title.
With five county medals now to his name, it’s a feat he’s justly proud of.
“Ah yes, but we have lost a few as well,” he interjected!
“When you lose a few you appreciate the ones you win all the more. When you’re playing you just want to win as much as you can. I don’t think of county medals in terms of numbers. I just concentrate on winning and then I’ll count them up when I’m finished playing.”
Unlike most of his team mates, Kirwan did not win much as an underage hurler.
Kirwan grew up in a period where the Gunners played second fiddle to very strong Mount Sion sides.
This lack of underage success as a juvenile has become a motivating factor for the full-back.
“It’s not as if I didn’t enjoy hurling as much as the rest of the lads who were winning medals, but we weren’t winning anything and when Ballygunner won the senior in 1992, I wanted to be playing with the likes of those lads. That became my motivation rather than trying to win Under-14 or Under-16 titles.
“My ambition became to play senior and to win senior medals as opposed to winning underage medals. It’s the same in any club where it is all about producing senior players.”
For many Ballygunner people, the highlight of their hurling lives came in November 2001, when after several near misses, red and black ribbons finally adorned the Billy O’Neill Cup when the Gunners overcame Blackrock in the Munster final.
“To date, it is the highlight of my hurling career. It’s a great feeling for everyone in the one club, for the people you socialise with; to see all their parents and relatives and everyone just so happy.
“It was some feeling. I think it was after Christmas before the buzz died down. We were walking on air for a few months.”
In contrast to 2001, Ballygunner left Thurles disappointed in 2005 after losing to Sunday’s opponents, Newtownshandrum by a single point. Kirwan recalls the feelings of disappointment.
“It was very disappointing,” he said. “Before the game, we were in a very similar position to this Sunday in that no one expected us to win.
“For a lot of people outside of the team, it was a bit of a surprise that we got within a point of them. The people in the know gave us a fair chance and it will be the same this weekend; we have a 50:50 chance of winning.
“It was disappointing to lose by one point. It would have been less disappointing to lose by five points than one point, especially when Ben O’Connor scored two sideline cuts which was virtually unheard of at the time.”
Was revenge a motivation given the defeat to the same opponents at the same stage four years ago?
“It doesn’t really matter who you play against because you have to play your own game,” said Alan.
“You can’t just flick a switch and change your style of play for different opponents. You have to go into a final concentrating on your own strengths and hopefully that will be good enough on the day rather than changing everything around to suit the opposition.”
Not many pundits would have predicted that after losing the county quarter-final to Tallow last season, they would be preparing for a Munster final 12 months later.
One wondered did Alan expect to be still skippering the team in active service at this time of the year.
“I didn’t rule it out,” he said. “After being beaten in so many County finals, (Ballygunner lost six finals in eight years) it was probably a blessing in disguise that we were beaten in the quarter-final.
“It gave lads a few extra months off. We were probably getting to county finals too regularly, and lads didn’t appreciate them.
“It was taken for granted that we were getting there and them we weren’t performing in county finals because we weren’t used to battling it out or working for our wins.
“It was a mixed blessing that we were knocked out early in that we came back with a new approach and a new mental attitude.”
Ballygunner were written off by many earlier this year as a team in transition and it was a mild surprise that they won the county championship, but Alan didn’t quite see it that way.
“Ballygunner teams are always in transition. There’s always players coming and going.
“In a club the size of Ballygunner, there will always be minor players and Under-21 players coming through.
“I don’t think there’s ever going to be a clean sweep of 10 new players coming in but there’s always going to be two or three and that’s progress. It’s up to the rest of the players to up their games in order to hold on to their positions and at the moment we have cover in every position. So, you have to perform or you’re out.”
Waterford hurling supporters of all ages and loyalties will certainly be hoping that Kirwan and his Ballygunner colleagues perform on Sunday.
Ger Cunningham, Alan Kirwan and company know what a difficult task awaits them on Sunday. But with a calming, authoritative influence in the number three shirt, the Gunners could ask for no better leader to guide them towards another historic success.