Colour and clamour, cheers and tears on a great day in Croker

Miriam Lord: The two sets of fans well-versed in disappointment got along famously

Galway hurling fans celebrated their first All-Ireland Hurling Final win since 1988 when they defeated Waterford in Croke Park by three points. Video: Ronan McGreevy

 

Several decades of hurt and hope distilled into 70 minutes. A magical potion. Two tribes battled to taste it, but only one would drink from the cup.

It was Galway’s day. For them, the drought was over.

Captain David Burke kissed the silver trophy, then raised it high. The crowd roared. Golden streamers burst from the Croke Park heavens, and the maroon-and-white faithful finally got their hearts’ desire and the chance to celebrate.

Twenty-nine years it had taken to reach this moment. All-Ireland hurling champions again.

In the stands around them and on the field of play, the vanquished Déise watched in agonised silence. For the men and women of Waterford, a proud hurling county, the wait goes on. Fifty-nine years and still counting.

Every final is special for the counties involved. But this one was an exception. Galway and Waterford – one or the other would have been the neutrals’ choice in other years. But this year, it would have been a pleasure to welcome success for either side. Both deserved it so much.

In the end, the Liam MacCarthy cup returned west of the Shannon, where an emotional reunion is guaranteed.

It was a tough, uncompromising game. Waterford fans feared the worst when they went behind early on. Would they have to suffer the same fate they endured during their last final appearance, when Kilkenny played them off the park?

Not this time, as Derek McGrath’s youthful team kept Waterford hopes alive until the dying minutes. The fans, in their white-and-blue “We Loves Our County” T-shirts, left with their heads held high and hope for the future.

Children at play

It was a great day out at Croker. The number of children at the match was very noticeable. When your team hasn’t won a title in generations, it’s easy to understand why parents bring the children. At least they will have their own memory of what it’s like to have attended an All-Ireland final.

In the build-up to yesterday’s game, so many people from the two counties talked of how their parents or grandparents were the last from their families to have experienced the thrill of this big occasion. At least now, if they have to endure more decades of championship heartache before another trip to headquarters, they have this day to remember.

The fans got along famously. But then, they both shared a long history of disappointment. During the intensity of the battle, no quarter was given when it came to displays of full-throated partisanship. But after the final whistle, when Galway’s talisman, Joe Canning, fell to his knees and let loose a passionate victory roar, there were genuine and touching scenes of congratulation and commiseration all across the venerated ground.

‘This is unreal’

There was so much to dream about before it started, when anything is possible.

A group of students from Dungarvan proudly paraded their banner along the North Circular Road. “Donald loves the Déise” it said, beneath a large image of Donald Trump. “Make the Déise Great Again.”

Meadhbh Curran (18), whose father, Pat, played for Waterford in his day, was relishing the atmosphere.

“Ah stop it. I’m buzzing. I was crying last night watching Up for the Match. This is unreal.”

On the Jones’s Road junction, Tuam native Kay O’Gorman had a handwritten sign saying “Looking for Tickets” attached to her collar with hair clips.

She was with her twin sister, Jo Healy. “Our friend was let down and hasn’t got a ticket. We’re hanging around and hoping to get one. We’ve been told when the crowd goes in, people start coming out of the woodwork and we might get one.”

These “two OAPs” wouldn’t normally be in the habit of looking for a ticket on the off-chance, but when would they see Galway in the final again?

They didn’t want to contemplate a Waterford win, but if the unthinkable happened, “I wouldn’t begrudge them if they won – not at all”, said Kay.

“It’s not like it’s Kilkenny. They’ve won enough,” added Jo.

A minor omen

Larisa Zabaznorva from Russia was decked out in the white and blue and had also been holding up a notice: “Looking for Tickets, Any Section”. She was with her partner, Liam, a passionate Waterford supporter. They were lucky. A man saw them, made sure they were genuine and then gave them two tickets at face value.

Liam couldn’t talk. “Oh, Jesus, no,” said Larisa. “He too nervous. He panicking. Oh, Jesus. He just want to get in there as soon as possible.”

Inside the omens were looking good for Galway. The minor team beat Cork in the final. Jack Canning, nephew of senior hero Joe, was named man of the match.

Tension rose ahead of throw-in. There were cheers for President Micheal D Higgins as he walked out on to the turf. As he walked along the line of players, the crowd fell silent, in that strange no-man’s-land of the mind before the start. Time for some last quiet thoughts before the bedlam.

The Artane Band stuck up, and the teams lined up behind it for the parade. The West’s Awake was belted out – the first of many spirited renditions in the days to come. Then came the misty-eyed singing of the anthem, facing the flag, when the full import of the day hit home.

And with the last notes came that swelling noise until you can’t hear yourself think – yesterday’s cheers imbued with all those past years of yearning and the wonderful present of hope.

Tribute to Keady

Six minutes into the game, sustained applause rang around the stadium, people rising to their feet as they clapped. This was the fans – from both sides – paying tribute to Galway hurling great Tony Keady, who died recently.

The sound of the crowd was testament to the all-encompassing nature of the GAA’s attraction and ability to move a deep sense of belonging and love of place among followers. It was the sound of a mixed-voice choir – female voices holding their own in the cauldron of chant.

In the final, frenetic minutes, Waterford fought to stay on terms. The Galway men always seemed that little bit quicker to the ball. When the dust settled, they had prevailed.

Galway Bay blasted over the PA system, and then everyone clapped along to Galway Girl. Michael D appeared on the big screen and sent the victorious fans into overdrive.

Burke lifted the trophy. Beneath, on the field, the minors looked on, part of a memorable double. Burke, in a passionate address, remembered Keady and also paid an emotional tribute to former team-mate Niall Donohue, who died in 2014.

On the field, Joe Canning, who scored nine points, stood beside Keady’s widow, Margaret, and wiped away the tears as his captain spoke from the podium.

He also mentioned those “people who went before me and us. The blood, sweat, tears and hurt they put in over the last 29 years. This is for clubs, this is for families, this is for the people of Galway.”

Desolate Déise

Many of the Waterford fans, although desolate, stayed to watch. There were comforting hugs and pats of the back for them from the rejoicing Galwegians.

The opening bars of the Saw Doctors’ most-famous song blared from the speakers. And the crowd let rip. “Oh I wish I was on the N17. STONE WALLS AND THE GRASS IS GREEN.”

They didn’t want to leave.

On Clonliffe Road, Colum O’Meara from Killimor was stuffing some of the golden streamers into his son’s backpack. Rían (6) was holding a little hurley, which was signed for him last week by Joe Canning, who also taped the maroon grip on it.

Colum is a hurling coach and he coached the great Joe when he was in secondary school. “I also coached his nephew Jack in the same year when he was in national school.”

He has high hopes for young Ríán. “He scored five goals yesterday in an under-8 challenge against Cappataggle. ”

Meanwhile, a disappointed Jonathan Fletcher from Kilmeaden in Waterford was making his way home with his daughter Robyn (9) and son Matthew (6). They were disappointed but not downhearted.

“Derek McGrath [the Waterford manager] was in Matthew’s creche during the week. “He told us that hopefully the clouds will be blue and white on Monday,” said Matthew. “And he said that even if you’re losing, to keep on cheering.”

Robyn and Matthew hope that one day they will play for Waterford.

Just like the boys and girls from Galway who were in Croke Park yesterday and now dream that they will wear the maroon and white for their county some day.

And that’s what it’s all about.

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