Another turning point;
a fork stuck in the road.
Time grabs you by the wrist;
directs you where to go.
So make the best of this test
and don’t ask why.
It’s not a question
but a lesson learned in time.
So take the photographs
and still-frames in your mind.
Hang it on a shelf
In good health and good time.
Tattoos of memories
and dead skin on trial.
For what it’s worth,
it was worth all the while.
It’s something unpredictable
but in the end it’s right.
I hope you had the time of your life.
– Green Day, ‘Time of Your Life’.
Maybe the recession has altered people’s priorities, but given the personalities involved it’s been as low-key a build-up to a Waterford Munster hurling championship match I can remember in a decade.
Ten years ago the hype was massive on the back of the ’98 breakthrough. The local elections were on and the current county mayor, Dr Tom Higgins, as well as canvassing to get onto the council, was busy trying to get the reigning hurler of the year half-fit for the following Sunday.
Tony Browne had twisted his ankle in training and it seemed as though the whole of the city and county were on tenterhooks about his prospects of making the semi-final tie with Limerick in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
He got an injection two hours before the throw-in, strapped it heavily and hobbled through the pain barrier. Waterford, with Paul Flynn on fire, won – just – having been seven up before Brian Greene’s second-half sending-off sparked an all-out Limerick offensive that came up a point short.
By the next round against Cork Browne’s ankle was knackered, however, and the previous year’s All-Ireland semi-finalists were knocked out by the eventual champions.
It would be three more years before Waterford won another provincial tie, beaten by Tipperary in 2000 and most gallingly by Limerick the following year in what was to be Gerald McCarthy’s last match in charge.
It wasn’t until Justin took over that the great expectations his namesake created were finally lived up to.
Three Munster titles and a National League were won in the six subsequent seasons. But there was to be no appearance on hurling’s day of days, Limerick tearing the 2007 script to shreds.
Appearing on RTÉ’s ‘The Road to Croker’ a few weeks after his unseemly split from the Decies last June, Justin described his tenure as one of “overachievement”, saying the Waterford players’ innate mentality wasn’t a winning one, compared to his native county’s.
“Maybe it was too severe. Maybe I have a one-track mind, only trying to win all the time. I didn’t want to come second. I wanted to be first. I tried to push that on players constantly. It doesn’t always wear well. Some of the older players mightn’t like it,” he submitted.
The reality is that a lot of the players, old and young alike, didn’t like coming second so often at the penultimate stage. They’d come a long way, granted, but they didn’t think Justin, having had six cuts at it, would ever bring them all the way. Staleness had set in.
Despite the overwhelming vote of no-confidence passed by the players, the Corkman insisted “it could have been sorted out” were it not for “a few hasty decisions. No one stood back. I would have loved to discuss it with the players but they said they didn’t want to.”
When they texted around to gather themselves the Tuesday after the Clare defeat and trained on Tramore beach in full public view, it was a statement of intent as well as discontent.
As they ran up from the Backstrand, gathering their thoughts for a meeting in the Majestic Hotel, they knew it was sink or swim time. Treading water might get them past Antrim, but it wouldn’t win an All-Ireland.
So they took the plunge and as the waves of public opprobrium washed over them, inhaled a collective deep breath and waited for the mini tsunami to pass. Within a week Davy Fitzgerald was in situ, arriving, as Ken McGrath put it, “like a whirlwind.”
Able to use the siege mentality that had inevitably developed, the Clareman’s energy was a perfect fit for a bunch of players who needed someone with the same sense of urgency.
Quickly uniting a group who’d been in danger of drifting apart, he crammed in belated conditioning work and, with the help of a kind draw, enabling steady improvement rather than any dramatic transformation, they did what Justin couldn’t quite manage.
Then everything was blown to smithereens last September 7th and the critics pounced: the Waterford players had paid the price for seizing power.
Whatever morale had to be rebuilt after the divisive manner of McCarthy’s exit, it was nothing compared to the task Fitzgerald & co faced after Kilkenny crushed Waterford into the Croker dirt.
Had they ‘overachieved’ or underperformed? Both, to be honest. The story of a season, and in many ways seven years, even if Justin didn’t see it that way.
Still, the players’ powers of recovery appear remarkable as ever. After a gruelling pre-season, they’ve arguably never been fitter.
The League was used as a launch-pad; the one match they really looked up for, understandably, being Kilkenny in Walsh Park, which they won with a championship-level of performance. If they can repeat that on Sunday they’ll take some stopping.
The panel looks a lot stronger, so much so that deciding on a settled side could be an unusual problem. (Waterford’s supposed starting XV played the ‘B’ team behind closed doors in Walsh Park at the weekend, with some of the performances on either side reportedly leaving the selectors with plenty of rethinking to do.)
The imponderables, and Limerick’s chances, are mulled over in our various preview pieces elsewhere. But one thing’s for certain, the first 15 minutes won’t be for the faint-hearted.
The players are familiar foes, and only to that extent is it a grudge match per se. As for the one billed ‘Waterford versus Justin’, that’s more a game of ‘grudging respect’. Or at least it should be. There’ll be a lot of strange and conflicting emotions at play for sure. Justin’s youngest are mad Waterford fans, for example. Think about that for a minute.
The handshakes, hopefully, come the final whistle will be worth watching out for. He might have been prepared to discuss the players’ concerns when all was lost, yet it was McCarthy’s reluctance to listen and his isolation of individuals that couldn’t be overcome. Man-management was not his strong suit, but his credentials as a coach were undoubted.
Yet, whatever the Waterford team achieved in his time here, they did so together. The players who he sent into battle so often have refused to badmouth him. Their relationship had run its course, and they’d always appreciate what he did for them. Simple and complex as that.
Justin should reciprocate those sentiments sometime on Sunday evening, win, lose or draw. The unique and wonderful Waterford mentality did a lot for him too.