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Ciarán Murphy: Whether you’re from Waterford, Donegal or anywhere else, playing intercounty is a fairly noble ambition

We’re often guilty of patronising the likes of Mickey Quinn and Eoin Cleary, asking what motivates them to keep going. It’s the same for any player

Sitting in the stands at Fraher Field last Saturday evening, watching Waterford host Clare in the Munster senior football semi-final, it was hard to convince oneself that you were truly at the big event of the GAA weekend.

It was the lesser of the two Munster semi-finals, which was itself the lesser of the three provincial football championships that had games last weekend, which in turn was overshadowed, at least in the run-up, by the start of the hurling championship.

I had been down in Waterford for a good portion of last week, and found myself at 5.15pm in my cousin’s house in An Rinn, brought face-to-face with the prospect of literally driving through Dungarvan at the same moment the county’s footballers would be throwing in against Clare.

My cousin’s husband was going in with his son, so I felt I couldn’t in all good conscience not go. I sat in my car at 5.30pm and was taking my seat just as the ball was being thrown in at 6pm. No hunt for a parking space, no queue at the gate. Fraher Field is such a beautiful ground, with the Comeraghs in the background and the river Colligan flowing out to the sea behind the road goal. Yet with a place in the Munster final up for grabs, the feeling in the stand was not one of anxious anticipation.


As Clare eased into an early first quarter lead, the Waterford fans in attendance were nevertheless happy to win whatever moment came up next. If Clare got four or five points in succession, any score for the home team that broke that run was celebrated for the win that it was, in that moment.

Clare had been duly warned by Tipperary’s defeat a few weeks ago not to give Waterford a chance to settle into the game, and led by Darragh Bohannon, Emmet McMahon and Mark McInerney, they soon moved into a daunting lead. But each individual tussle was still contested fiercely.

What was immediately apparent was Clare’s physical superiority, an inevitable product of a lengthy period in Division Two, where players stick around intercounty panels long enough to get sustained, multiyear strength and conditioning work done.

Some Waterford players had that individually, but it wasn’t uniform – a just-as-inevitable product of the sort of player churn that teams in Division Four go through. A smattering of Waterford’s most talented footballers took down Cork in the Munster hurling championship the following day, and in any given year another four or five might opt out for personal reasons or to go travelling, and none of that seems unreasonable or even surprising.

Clare were far too good for Waterford, but they now face the daunting task of Kerry in a Munster final, and the gap between Kerry and Clare may be just as wide as the gap between Clare and Waterford (and that’s leaving Tipperary out of the equation altogether).

As I was leaving, I happened to bump into Clare’s All-star nominee in 2021 and 2022, Eoin Cleary. He was down with his wife supporting his erstwhile team-mates, but weighing up his options for a first summer of his adult life without intercounty football as he rehabs an osteitis pubis injury that’s plagued him for the last three seasons.

The following afternoon, I was speaking at the Granard Booktown Festival at an event hosted by Mickey Quinn, one of Longford’s greatest ever footballers. He also happens to be an incredibly positive person, a secondary schoolteacher in St Mel’s in Longford who does a lot of work with mental health initiatives and with young people across the county. Longford are on the challenge game circuit now, waiting for the Tailteann Cup to start and gearing up for a tilt at that.

Rewatching Donegal leather relentlessly into Derry on Saturday night, running nonstop all over a team that seemed to have raised the bar for aerobic conditioning, you couldn’t help but wince at the effort required to get to that pitch. Jim McGuinness asked them for everything, and that team obviously gave it to him.

Those Donegal players at least had the carrot of an Ulster title, even a tilt at an All-Ireland if they got a fair wind behind them, and at worst, a Saturday evening in Derry city with the eyes of the nation upon them. We marvel at that effort, while at the same time decrying any Division One or Two team that aren’t putting it in.

On the other hand, we’re often guilty of patronising the likes of Mickey Quinn and Eoin Cleary, asking them (and ourselves) what motivates them to keep going. Quinn is certainly closer to the end than the start of his career, and whether Cleary will be back is an open question – that he owes Clare absolutely nothing is already a settled matter.

But you don’t have to spend long in their company to realise it’s the same thing that keeps Ryan McHugh, Paul Mannion or anyone else interested for as long as they can make a commitment to a team. Win the moment in front of your face, be the best footballer you can be, try to bring a few others along with you for as long as you have it in you. Whether you’re from Waterford, Donegal or anywhere else, that’s a fairly noble ambition.