The tunnel running under Croke Park’s Hogan Stand is, in the wake of a big summer Sunday, a hive of frenzied activity, excited folk and headline seeking scribblers.
The victorious and vanquished protagonists emerge from their dressing rooms en route to the players’ lounge for the post-match meal and usually stop to share a few words with family, friends, and the dreaded print media.
Players in the euphoria of triumph tend to be a little more forthcoming than they might be, say, 10 days before a game. And that’s perfectly natural.
Seeing all that good work bear fruit over 70 minutes acts as a mild relaxant for many a hurler and footballer and, for a few blissful minutes, scribbler and subject are like drinking partners. Minus the drink, obviously, but you can see the picture I’m painting here.
Players, even in the midst of disappointment, will opt to share a few words with a familiar face and the journalist in question often acts as a one-man press pool for his colleagues.
This one scribe approach, at least from a regional reporter’s perspective, more than fits the bill as thoughts turn to the following morning’s considerable workload.
We do our in-house pow wow for a few minutes, avidly noting the quotes the chosen one of the group has eked out from our heroes before returning to the Croker press centre.
Some hacks stay in their press box seat in the by then empty, cavernous surrounds of HQ, while others find a quiet spot indoors, be it in the foyer or the writers’ room and get to work.
Sunday, September 7th 2008 was a slightly different evening from a reporting perspective. My native Waterford had just played in their first All-Ireland since the days of Lemass and JFK and they’d been beaten.
Correction: Waterford weren’t so much beaten by an astonishingly good Kilkenny team. They were disassembled – out-hurled, out-thought, out-muscled and out-foxed in every way, shape and form by the All-Ireland champions.
The pall that surrounded the Deisemen as they death marched towards the players’ lounge that evening was pervasive. You wanted to pat a player’s back, shake a hand – for all the good it would do them – but you wanted to offer some form of solace towards them.
Having just suffered the sort of beating that John Galvin, Jim Greene & co had dished out to them in successive Munster finals, this was uncharted waters for the current hurling generation.
Prior to the All-Ireland reversal, you’ve got to go back to the 1998 Munster final replay defeat to Clare to record a Deise reversal approaching a similar scale to September.
Nobody, not even the most understated Kilkenny player in the weeks leading to the ’08 final, predicted a hammering of the scale inflicted on Waterford.
That they had at long last got the semi-final monkey off their backs now represents the greatest anti-climax of the current team’s existence.
The aftertaste of the black and amber tidal wave that engulfed them down Jones’s Road must still linger in the system.
The memory of playing in an All-Ireland final ought to be positive in some context. But, John Mullane aside, no-one in white and blue played anywhere near their potential.
The emergence of Mullane as a leader, a point hammered home in De La Salle’s subsequent march to club glory, may well prove the silver lining from the storm clouds of September 7th.
However, the wound inflicted upon the team’s pride must still be running very deep; and the question on the lips of most hurling observers right now when talking of Waterford surrounds the nature of that wound: shall it prove fatal?
Ask Shay Given or Paul O’Connell what the best cure for a defeat is and they’ll both tell you it’s a team’s ability to get immediately back on the saddle a week later and return to winning ways. In other words, you don’t have time to dwell on defeat. The world keeps turning. More mountains must be climbed.
In the inter-county context, you don’t get the same opportunity that the pros do, so what turn Waterford now takes is of absolutely huge significance if they are to remain at hurling’s top table.
Some believe the team’s time is up (which hardly represents a change of tune for some) yet, in one sense, it is. Dave Bennett, Tom Feeney and the great, enigmatic talent of Paul Flynn, won’t be around in 2009.
The personnel turnover from the 1992 generation is almost complete, with one notable exception of course.
But minus Flynn, a sad reality which the county faithful had been anticipating for a couple of seasons, denies the team its greatest rabbit out of a hat producer.
The composition of the match-winning framework has now fundamentally shifted and a new hero for the masses must emerge – and soon. That of course will not be easy, as marksmen of Flynn’s quality and destiny altering brilliance are few and far between.
From the ashes of a devastating All-Ireland final defeat, the immediate challenge now facing Davy Fitzgerald is not how to undo the sizeable knot Kilkenny have created for every other county. He must keep Waterford competitive.
He must take out the blades and sharpen them again. He must get that deep wound of defeat stitched up properly; then, in a few months from now, after the stitches are taken out, find himself questioning how deep it was.
In the post-match press conference on All-Ireland day, Fitzgerald looked like the family silver had been swiped from under him. This wasn’t the scenario he’s had in his head that morning as the team departed its Ashbourne hotel.
Bizarrely, a Sunday evening episode of ‘The Simpsons’ on RTE Two was running on two TV screens either side of the long table he sat behind while reporters’ tape recorders whirred. It was the oddest of juxtapositions on the oddest of hurling days.
While surely in the depths of abject disappointment, the Waterford manager spoke eloquently, articulating with great precision despite the cartwheels his stomach was surely performing. He said, and rightly so, that no-one had died and that the world would keep turning.
He had to front up well. It’s often said that the true nature of a sportsman is revealed in defeat and if that’s the case, then Fitzgerald had already kicked into the mindset that the job now demands of him.
And with the experience of such an earth-shattering defeat now added to his psyche, one imagines some tactical alterations should surely surface.
Should Waterford cross paths with Kilkenny again next summer, the Deisemen surely won’t partake in the sort of aggression that went on before the throw-in on All-Ireland day.
All around me in the press box that day, many reporters who’ve been covering games for a lot longer than myself wondered what the hell Waterford were playing at.
Kilkenny, who are to Croke Park what Michael Phelps is to gold medals, were not going to be intimidated by that sort of carry-on. Never have been. Never will. Not for one single second.
It was a massive miscalculation against a team that’s more chameleon than cat-like, as no-one in the modern game can mix it like Kilkenny do.
To overcome the challenge of Cork, Brian Cody altered his hurling template and introduced the swarm defence system which the leading Ulster counties had pioneered in football at the turn of the century.
‘If you score, then we’ll outscore you; if you hit, then we’ll hit harder’ is a crude way of analysing a team that achieved hurling perfection this year. But no team, even Ger Loughnane’s Clare vintage, has ever imposed itself on the opposition the way the current Kilkenny team has.
So Davy Fitzgerald must now make a tactical shift all of his own. Overt physicality may work against some opponents, but no good shall come of it against Kilkenny. That ought to be burned into his soul.
Now the question of karma was also discussed in the light of Waterford’s All-Ireland final hammering.
As one of a growing number of panels to demonstrate what’s known as ‘player power’ last May, which led to the removal of Justin McCarthy, some believed they’d got no more than they deserved.
That’s certainly what Tom Humphries and Tony Considine intimated in their post-final pennings, though the latter may have other reasons for having stuck the knife in so deeply. But let’s not rehash the whys and the wherefores behind that, so well are they known.
I don’t think any player, even those who had the most strained of relationships with Justin McCarthy, took any satisfaction from what went on at the head of the summer.
The Munster Championship defeat to Clare wasn’t too surprising; some players had wintered a little too much and the spirit of the unit clearly wasn’t where it should have been.
For the first time in recent memory, it appeared that some players just weren’t putting it in the way we’ve grown accustomed to over the past 10 years. Something clearly wasn’t right in the camp. The whispers emanating from training looked like they had some credence.
The abiding image of the day, that of Dan Shanahan dodging the outstretched hand of Justin McCarthy, will surely be re-run a few more times ahead of next June’s Munster semi-final, just like it is here.
Shanahan, who followed up his greatest inter-county hurling year with arguably the most disappointing of his career, will probably be asked a question or two about that moment in the build-up to the Munster semi-final.
The same goes for McCarthy, who isn’t the most comfortable or co-operative of performers with the press, and it will be interesting to note how he deals with the ‘meeja’ in ’09.
So, in many ways, the story which began with the players’ heave against the Passage West man is not quite done with yet.
But to give both sides of the divide their due, precious little linen has been washed in public over the past seven months. That the players will cross paths with their former manager so soon after their heave against them should make for a fascinating occasion.
Waterford will surely aim to hit the ground running for the National Hurling League campaign. Just as Fitzgerald miscalculated in his pre-All-Ireland tactics, McCarthy got it wrong in his preparations this time last year. Badly wrong.
Fitzgerald will listen to his players intently once they re-assemble for training. Physically, one imagines the Deisemen will be considerably further down the preparatory road than they were going into last season’s NHL.
Trying to temper players’ hunger for hard work will be a tricky task, as Liam Sheedy now knows given how well Tipperary began last year. The timing of Waterford’s peak displays has been a sticky wicket for successive Deise managers.
Now, with a full term at his disposal, Davy Fitzgerald must attempt to strike the right balance. Restoring pride, after so tumultuous a fall in September, will surely top his agenda.