Few players characterise the modern Waterford hurling story better than Ken McGrath. For a decade now, he has been the lionhearted pulse of a county historically starved of top-level hurling success.
Only Tony Browne and himself survived as starters on Sunday from the 1998 All-Ireland semi-final defeat (Paul Flynn and Dan Shanahan also featured a decade ago) and he’s tasted his fair share of disappointment.
Flushed in cheek and still in his match fatigues after Waterford’s epic victory over Tipperary, the Mount Sion man was happily coming to terms with it all in the aftermath of a pulsating battle.
“I suppose it hasn’t really sunk in yet,” he said. “When the whistle went, it was an unbelievable feeling after losing five semi-finals. I suppose we had to get one right at some stage.
“Davy’s after instilling unbelievable passion and a never say die attitude in us and thankfully enough when the whistle went there today we were on the right side with a win.”
The Waterford performance featured enormous maturity and bravery, especially during periods of the game when Tipperary came into the ascendancy, a point McGrath commented on.
“We didn’t panic all year since Davy took over. We’re trying to stick to a game plan, trying to be level headed with our passes and do the right moves and I think in the last 10 minutes we proved that.
“We just kept on hanging in there. In other years we were on the wrong side of it. Thankfully when the whistle went today, we weren’t crying into the jersey, we were walking off delighted.”
He added: “It was a 50/50 game. Not many people gave us a chance. We felt we had a great chance after having great wins over Tipperary, probably the county we’ve beaten the most over the last 10 years.
“We didn’t fear Tipp by any means. We knew it would be a massive game but as I said we were sticking to a plan. We’re after training very hard over the past two to three months and I think we proved it there today.”
So how, after all the heartache of semi-finals past did Waterford summon up such an effort as the one produced on Sunday?
“After the fifth (semi-final) defeat, we were really gutted after that one,” said McGrath.
“But when you go back training you have to have a go at it. We’re proud men, proud to be from our county.
“You’ve got to have a go; there’d have been no point in us all packing it in and hiding away from it. We’re in a final now and in saying that, if someone had said that to me this time last year I’d probably have laughed at you. But we’re happy to be there.”
The All-Star offered the following assessment of the Deise display.
“Obviously we set a high tempo from the start, the lads had a bit of space and they got the points, but Tipp were always going to come back into it, what was it, we were six points up but Tipp came back and they were level by half-time.
“But we didn’t panic, other years we probably would have, but it was a good sign in the team. We were happy enough at half-time. We played well in the first quarter of an hour but we sort of slacked off a bit after that but we knew what we had to do in the second half.
“At no stage were we panicking, to be honest with you. We were always calm on the field, Davy was calm on the line – I don’t know if he looked calm, but we looked calm, we made the right moves as well and we’re happy.”
Restored to centre-back and despite finding Seamus Callinan a tricky customer during the match, Ken was happy to be back in his regular position.
“I was, yeah after playing full-back a month or six weeks ago. (Davy Fitzgerald) told me on Wednesday I was going back out there so I was happy enough to go back out there, but I didn’t care where I was playing today as long as we were in the final, to be honest.”
Of his manager, Ken McGrath could hardly have offered greater praise for the man from Sixmilebridge.
“I suppose he came in the first day and everything started from there. He came with unbelievable enthusiasm and great passion, sure he played like that.
“And he’s got a great backroom team behind him, a pure professional set-up – the attention to detail is top notch and I suppose we were crying out for that at times – that bit more attention. He’s a double All-Ireland winner and we knew what he had in him.”
There was also a word for Fitzgerald’s predecessor, Justin McCarthy, whose reign as Waterford boss ended in such acrimony.
“We won three Munsters and a League with Justin and we can’t forget that too easily. Where we came from a few years ago – you know we were playing Division Two in 96/97.
“We give great credit to Justin but times move on, things move on. We all have great time for Justin and good respect for him and I’m sure he’s happy for us today.”
The next few weeks will be manic in the county, not that Ken McGrath seemed too fussed by what lies ahead.
“Look, we were down for so long we have to take the hype as well. For the last 10 years we’ve been watching All-Ireland finals, hoping to be there, so we’ll enjoy the hype as well. Lots of fellas are in their late 20s and early 30s so we’ll just have to cope with that as well.”
As commented on by a colleague, it should also be a busy few weeks on the Hill of Ballybricken for Ken McGrath – not that he’ll be complaining!
On and off the field, there’s considerable work to be undertaken yet by one of Waterford’s greatest hurling heroes.