I would safely lay a wager that there were quite a few Irish hacks who’d have swapped their Beijing Olympic passes for a seat in the Croke Park press box on Sunday last.
Waterford’s victory over Tipperary was the story any GAA scribe worth their salt has been waiting to pound into newsprint for a decade, the long-awaited sequel to Clare and Wexford’s glorious re-emergences. Of course, the McCarthy cup is yet to be contested for, but the fun and the joy in the telling of most stories is usually found in the journey – and what a journey this has been for Waterford’s hurlers.
Though the world would continue to rotate and the sun would set and rise without sport’s existence, few public events capture a wider Irish audience the way a good game of hurling does. And, from an emotional perspective, the latest Waterford/Tipp epic ticked every heart-stopping box, as the white and blue, at long last, progressed to an All-Ireland decider. There are people across the county, both more aged and knowledgeable than I when it comes to the world’s greatest field game who have craved this moment for many a season.
Over the years, I’ve swapped glances and comments with many of them leaving Walsh Park, Fraher Field, Semple, ‘de Park’ and Croker. And, all too often when it’s come to All-Ireland semi-finals at least, have those glances been sorry ones and the comments even more so. A man vox popped by local radio outside Croke Park spoke of having never missed a Deise match since 1967, a feat beyond devotion’s dictionary-defined meaning. And it’s people like that whom you feel particularly happy for this week, many of whom thought they’d never again see such a day in their lifetimes.
From a human drama perspective, Waterford’s passage to a first All-Ireland final in 45 years was made all the more intriguing by the players’ heave against Justin McCarthy almost three months’ ago.
Public opinion on the course of action the panel undertook after their Majestic Hotel meeting initially weighed against a group that had produced such an underwhelming display against Clare. Blaming the manager, so many a supporter thought, was a cop-out. But what it also did was take all the pressure off whoever succeeded McCarthy and placed it all firmly on the players’ shoulders. Irrespective of results, the new man couldn’t really lose. Right from the off, Fitzgerald’s finely tuned training sessions and attention to detail won lavish praise from greenhorns and veterans alike.
Straining an ear to catch some of the wisdom he was imparting to his new troupe on the first night Fitzgerald took training, one telling remark made by the Waterford manager resonates to this day.
“I want ye to train just like ye play,” he bellowed, echoing a sentiment that has become legendary in Kilkenny under Brian Cody’s astonishingly successful management.
The comments of the recently deceased Peter Coe, father and coach of the great Sebastian Coe also sprung to mind during this Olympic season.
“Slow running makes slow runners,” he once famously declared – a thought both Fitzy and Cody would surely nod in agreement with. And there’ll be no hell dragging on either side of the Suir between now and September 7th.
As Sunday evening drifted into Sunday night, with the lights of the corporate boxes in Croker glowing ever brighter as I packed away my bits n’ bobs, a pleasing thought sprang to mind.
I’ll be coming here again in a few weeks, fingers crossed, writing the report I’ve dreamt many a night about writing. Well done lads – but there’s one more mountain to climb.
* Fair play to the returning Aidan Kearney, whose excellent performance I omitted from my coverage in this week’s sports section.