When Nicky English was announced as RTÉ viewers’ choice as the best Munster hurler of the past 25 years on The Sunday Game the other night, few could quibble with their wisdom.
In the rush to proclaim the modern-day game as the greatest standard there’s been, it’s easy to forget just how good the Lattin-Cullen legend was – sheer class on and off the field; to wit his remark that Ken McGrath would be among his personal post-’84 preferences was a nice touch in the circumstances; possibly remembering the unforgettable afternoon in 2002 when the Mount Sion man gave as good a display as English himself had in shooting Tipp to a third Munster title on the trot 20 years ago.
That Munster Hurling Final was the first – and probably worst – to be televised live.
Afterwards Kevin Cashman of the Irish Independent called Waterford “The Black and Tans in white”. It was gratuitous and over-the-top but there’s no denying that the Decies became hurling’s public enemies number one that sweltering Sunday afternoon on Leeside. Waterford lost their heads long after they’d lost the match and finished with 13 men and fewer fans.
What had got into them? There was a seething sense in Waterford that the team didn’t get the respect they deserved for getting to the final. They’d beaten Clare by 15 points in the first round but were given no chance against an at-best-average Cork team in the semi-final, most experts predicting another ’82/’83-type fiasco.
They took the Rebels to a replay but were still written off. Even then their subsequent victory, and the fact they’d scored five goals, was put down to the fact that ‘keeper Ger Cunningham had been suffering from concussion, and the consensus was formed that Cork (who would go on to win the following year’s All-Ireland) were as bad a team as had ever worn the scarlet shirt.
Even the fact that RTÉ had clearly planned on showcasing another Tipp-Cork classic rubbed the underdogs up the wrong way, so Waterford may well have been men on a mission to set the record straight.
Unfortunately they ended up looking anything but. From my stance on the terrace, there certainly appeared to be more action off the ball that on it. Men, mainly in blue and gold, were falling to the ground every few minutes it seemed. And they weren’t suffering from heatstroke.
Waterford, they’d been warned, had to find a way of stopping English. They initially tried to keep him away from goals and gave him some latitude – too much as it transpired; then, as their frustration grew (not least with some of the soft frees awarded against them early on), some less subtle techniques were adopted.
There wasn’t much argument when Noel Crowley got the line, though Damien Byrne’s dismissal for allegedly breaking his stick off English was a clear case of mistaken identity; something that was obvious to everyone but referee Willie Horgan as ‘Bugsy’ trudged off – complete with ‘hurl intacta’ – to a chorus of Tipp jeers.
I remember the animosity of the Tipperary fans on the way back on the train, counting ourselves lucky that only our dignity was dishevelled as they disembarked onto the Premier platforms.
English, who ended up with 8 points, would reflect several years later: “I make no apologies for saying that I believe Waterford let themselves down… Too much of their pulling they did that day was wild and dangerous. They just didn’t go out to play the ball.
“Maybe they had chips on their collective shoulders from the way that the press considered them rank outsiders. Maybe they believed they weren’t getting the kind of respect that was their due. I don’t pretend to know what was their motivation was that day in Cork. All I do know is that they were their own worst enemies.
“As games go it was a terrible eyesore… I’ve often looked at the video of that game to see if my immediate impressions were harsh on Waterford. But the reality is, in my opinion, that some of the swinging in the game was downright unacceptable. There were Waterford players who seemed to have no interest in the ball that day. And the tragedy was that we had a live television audience to witness the fact.”
Tragic it wasn’t; traumatic, yes. The manager of that Waterford team, Tony Mansfield understandably doesn’t tend to dwell on what happened, preferring to remember the superb point-scoring performance of Crowley in beating Cork, and the fact that Byrne was “easily the most committed and faithful servant of Waterford hurling that I came into contact with in those years.” Contrary to the image some, Cashman included, chose to portray, he pointed out that only three players were sent off over 87 games in his four years at the helm.
Thankfully the so-called Gentle County’s exploits during the past decade have more than repaired the collateral damage Waterford wrought – and many would say it was largely self-inflicted – in ’89.
Fast forward to June 30, 2002 and All-Ireland champions Tipperary travelled south to Páirc Uí Chaoimh once more as hot favourites, not least in their own opinion it seemed; even if English, by now manager, had cautioned against complacency.
Almost 41,000 were there to witness Waterford produce a near-perfect ‘power hurling’ performance, with the fit-again Ken a revelation at full-forward (where, strangers things have happened, he may well end up yet).
With the wind in their sails, the winners’ final flourish was something special, blowing Tipp away with stunning score after stunning score, reeling off 1-5 without reply in the last quarter, bringing their total tally from play to 1-18. The dream, scarcely imagined, was radiant reality at last.
English admitted afterwards that they could have been beaten by more. “There isn’t a team who would have lived with Waterford on that form.”
Four years before his ‘Tans’ slur, Cashman, with more than a hint of Cork-bias, wrote that there was no mystery to hurling’s power-sharing duopoly: “Waterford and Clare – and Laois, Westmeath, Wexford, Galway, and Antrim – are ‘down’ precisely because being ‘down’ is their natural condition.”
I prefer to take my pointers to the past from Con Houlihan, a man whose memory banks have always drawn a broader sweep. In ‘More Than A Game’, the veteran sportswriter’s book of selected sporting essays, there’s a chapter part-devoted to the Decies’ breakthrough in ’02.
In it he speaks of his long-time admiration for Waterford hurling, an affection dating back to 1941 when he watched them play Cork in Midleton.
“Hurling in those days wasn’t always a beautiful game; what I liked about Waterford was their sporting attitude,” he said. “And I rejoiced when the county at last won the All-Ireland in ’48”, with John Keane and Christy Moylan “my especial heroes on that team.” Later, Tom Cheasty was his “man for all seasons” from the ’59 side.
Remembering the fallow decades that followed, and the low-point of ’82 against Cork, Con commented with typical charity and understanding that “Waterford in the bad days had a succession of dedicated and competent managers who failed to draw water from the rock,” before “one of may favourite people”, Gerald McCarthy, “brought hope”.
However, “He had everything but luck.” Tony Browne had been his “talisman” and in their first season under Justin – who before that year’s Munster final had urged them, ‘Don’t be afraid: take risks, take chances, go for it’ – Tony and Fergal Hartley were soon “providing the roof over the heads of Waterford’s young stars… The dark horses proved to be very bright horses indeed,” Houlihan penned with a smile.
“All the hurling world rejoices at Waterford’s victory,” said Ger Loughnane, no less, the incidents and allegations of ’98 forgiven if not forgotten. Mr Cashman by then was pursuing other interests. A pity. He may have noticed that Waterford have been mostly “up” ever since.