Ciarán Murphy: Waterford must push away hand of history
Kilkenny’s ‘lion in winter’ routine is getting pretty tiresome at this stage
Waterford’s Maurice Shanahan reacts in front of Shane Prendergast of Kilkenny after scoring a point in the All-Ireland hurling semi-final. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Hard as it may now be to believe, there was a time when GAA books were few and far between. Up until the late Nineties, they weren’t being released with anything like the frequency they are now, and the books that were written were mostly compendia of ‘the greatest’ games, a history of the most famous Munster hurling finals, or local histories of successful teams.
Undaunted, I gobbled up everything I could lay my hands on. One such book was Owen McCrohan’s Mick O’Dwyer: The Authorised Biography, published in 1990, which I loved. It had one passage in particular which came to mind when watching Waterford and Kilkenny on Sunday. The book laid out beautifully how important the two Mickos, Mick O’Dwyer and Mick O’Connell were to the people of South Kerry.
And it contained a description, first published in a National League programme during the winter of 1989, of a young midfielder by the name of Mike O’Connor on the occasion of just his second ever senior game for his club Castleisland Desmonds. “The venue was Waterville, the conditions were damp,” O’Connor wrote. “At 19, 12-stone weight and in the full flourish of youth, I was given the job of marking Mick O’Connell.
“A combination of pride, fear, nerves and anticipation drove me light-headed across the field. I recall vividly those momentous seconds before the kick-out. [Our goalkeeper] James Cronin steered it beautifully, a low trajectory carrying about 70 yards. I knew my kicker. I judged it perfectly. My head was awash with exhilaration. I would beat Micko to the fetch.
“As I reached towards the silver grey clouds, my hands grasping to hoover in the leather, I felt a slight weight against my shoulders. I was squeezed ever so slightly forward. By the time I recovered my composure from a horizontal position on the heavy clay, Micko was striding away in a haze of spatter, like a stag galloping along the shores of Lough Leane through the autumn sunset.”
It’s a beautiful description of the density and the power of one man’s greatness. The second the young O’Connor allowed himself to think about catching that ball, the chance was gone – the weight he felt against his shoulders might just as well have been the heavy hand of history.
For sportspeople, and sports teams, greatness is hard-earned, but once it is yours it becomes a pretty powerful weapon in your armoury. That weight of achievement can spook your opponent.
Instead of just doing, they’re thinking. And once you’re in their head, you’re half-way there.
For 60 minutes last Sunday, Waterford didn’t think . . . they just did. The conviction with which they played was thrilling. With 10 minutes to go, they had Kilkenny right where they wanted them. The champions looked beaten. And yet, even then, did they feel that slight weight against their shoulders? Was their manager’s decision to drop farther and farther back into defence a natural caution, or a subconscious reaction to the greatness of the team they faced?
Galway have had quite a few storming first halves against Kilkenny over the last few years, before being overtaken in the third quarter. If, as I have often done bitterly over a post-match pint, you have to ask questions as to why Galway didn’t adapt and prepare for being ahead at a vital stage in the game, surely, without the benefit of hindsight of course, you should ask the same of Waterford.
The fact of the matter is that so far this year Galway have led Kilkenny, changed nothing, and not won; and Waterford have led Kilkenny, changed their game defensively to try to hold on to their advantage, and not won. So what does that tell us?
It tells us that Kilkenny are bloody hard to beat, and that this ‘lion in winter’ routine that they have going on now for the last five years is getting pretty tiresome.
We all say they’re not as good as they used to be, but seriously . . . these Kilkenny winters are closer in length to a nuclear winter than a Siberian one.
It also tells us that maybe tactical changes are just a small part of the problem. That the issue here is not the challenge ahead of you, but the looming figure in the rear-view mirror. And being in the midst of the Waterford crowd last Sunday, you could sense the unease. Like Mayo football fans at an All-Ireland final, every mistake was treated like it was fatal. That can transmit itself down onto the field.
Dublin drew with Kilkenny in the Leinster semi-final in 2013, and went out and beat them in the replay. So it’s possible.
Waterford can certainly make a few personnel changes, and they can throw the shackles off and go for it again, in the style that made last week’s game an instant classic, but really what they have to do is play the team, not the legend.
Ignore that slight weight against their shoulders, and, as the marketing men would say . . . Just Do It.