“Being honest may not get you a lot of friends but it’ll always get you the right ones.” – John Lennon
The greatest moment of my life as a Gaelic footballer was not a win. It wasn’t a goal. It wasn’t a catch. It wasn’t a good punt pass. Indeed, it wasn’t even a moment in a game. It was 1991. I was 12 years of age. I was wearing the blue and gold of Portlaw National School and I had the honour of leading our school team down the tunnel at Walsh Park in a County Final. I scored a goal in that final, and however great a moment that was for me personally – ultimately, we lost the game – but running down that tunnel beforehand was a wonderful adrenaline rush.
From the blackness of the tunnel, Walsh Park emerged before me. And there was no place that mattered more to me there and then.
For any youngster holding a hurley or football in Waterford, running down that tunnel to take to the field was, and remains, a dream from the earliest days in which the concept of competition was sold to you on the parish field. For your school, for your club, for your county, Walsh Park is the stepping stone to Thurles, to Croker and the rarefied air of elite amateur sport. The stuff of dreams. The place most of us saw Waterford hurl for the first time, with our dads and grandads in most instances. The Sportsfield down Keane’s Road is where it’s at. It needs a major overhaul and thankfully we are on the brink of that development. At long, long last.
Eamonn Sweeney wrote a typically brilliant column in last weekend’s Sunday Independent in relation to the partial media blackouts recently instigated by Dublin football manager Jim Gavin and Irish rugby coach Joe Schmidt.
In it, he referenced a famously feisty National Hurling League Final in 1968 between Kilkenny and Tipperary, following which the Tipperary County Board “withdrew all co-operation with the media in a fit of outrage” due to the fact that many sportswriters simply wrote about what they saw that day.
Sweeney added: “This was an era when, as Brendan Ó hEithir recalled, once you heard Michael O’Hehir say ‘I can’t for the life of me tell what all the booing is about,’ you knew that (a) someone had just been flattened off the ball and (b) O’Hehir knew bloody well what had happened but wouldn’t tell you.”
From time to time, friends have to be honest with each other, sometimes to the discomfort of one or both. Such truths can be harsh and the harsh reality of Walsh Park’s current physical condition is plain to anyone who has entered the ground for a great many years.
And seeing wall supports in place on Keane’s Road is the latest reminder that the home of Waterford GAA badly needs the JCBs in this summer.
Pointing out what needs to be done at Walsh Park, as we’ve done in these pages for many years, is not a personal slight on anyone who volunteers their time to serve Gaelic Games in Waterford. Pointing out what’s not in place at Walsh Park is, and this cannot be stressed more heartily, not a personal criticism of anyone serving the Waterford County Board in any capacity, at any level. Social media, for all its ills, has also given people who go through the turnstiles and invest their hard-earned cash into the GAA’s coffers, a chance to voice their concerns about the condition of Walsh Park.
And one couldn’t help but notice on Sunday that the fencing which had traditionally been in place at the front of the Walsh Park stand was removed between the hurlers’ League defeats to Wexford and Kilkenny.
And given that most county grounds I’ve attended for ‘The Munster’ over the years do not feature such fencing, its removal at Walsh Park is welcome, particularly from the perspective of wheelchaired patrons. Sight lines were immediately improved, and that should be acknowledged. One of the primary criticisms aimed at the County Board when it comes to Walsh Park, in reality, has absolutely nothing to do with them, and represents the single greatest red herring recycled by those who feel the ground should be sold off, and replaced by a new stadium at Carriganore. And that’s car parking. Most inter-county grounds tend to be no more than a few kilometres from a town or city centre. Rightly or wrongly, precious few county grounds come with car parking, and the same applies with our main soccer and rugby stadia.
Go to Cork, go to Salthill, go to Limerick, go to Lansdowne Road and Croke Park: parking is incredibly limited within the physical footprints of such stadia, so having a go at the County Board for peoples’ bad parking habits is, frankly, ridiculous. And if multi-storey car parking was built at, say, Carriganore, just imagine how long it would take for patrons to leave the venue in the wake of a major game. Yes, a stadium at the WIT Arena makes sense from a facility-creating perspective (restaurants, bars, etc) but if the redevelopment of Walsh Park is the “only show in town” as County Board Chairman Paddy Joe Ryan told me in December, then let’s all get behind it. But let’s have a fair hearing about it and not be uncomfortable with sharing harsh words if and when the time demands it.