TV Honan: If silence really is golden Waterford will mine nuggets on Sunday

There’s a quiet confidence in Liam Cahill’s side delivering another Liam MacCarthy

Waterford fans Shelly, Brigid and Aoife Phelan at Croke Park for the 2017All-Ireland final against Galway. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Waterford fans Shelly, Brigid and Aoife Phelan at Croke Park for the 2017All-Ireland final against Galway. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

As a giddy mini-bus from McLaughlin’s bar crossed the Blackwater Bridge at Youghal, en route to the 2002 Munster final at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Larry Gogan gleefully announced on the bus radio: “The King is back at Number 1 with a re-mix of A Little Less Conversation.”

On-board, lifelong sports and Elvis fan the late Ned Tobin’s vision was absolute. Amid slagging and laughter he declared: “I told you King, I told you I’d bring you to a Munster final. We’re gonna win!” Ned was right. Later that day Fergal Hartley and his victorious team walked The Munster Cup back into Waterford across the same bridge.

It was one of the great days in modern-era Waterford hurling, one of those days when it wasn’t a bridge too far. Other times, after Thurles routs, supporters might stop for pints in Kilsheelan only to endure some Tipp-lad twisting the knife: “Now we know why you’re called the Déise. Game after game you’re in here going; de-should’ve done this, de-should’ve done that”. Waterford hurling supporters are battle-hardened Beckett disciples: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

It’s quiet here this week. On the high path across the road from our house, neighbour and unofficial Cannon Street town crier Watty Walsh is subdued. He is quietly confident too. “They have a right chance,” he told me yesterday. If silence really is golden Waterford will mine nuggets on Sunday.

In more ways than one Waterford hurlers are in a bubble. Last Saturday in Dungarvan children wore county jerseys. They weren’t autographed. Training isn’t a spectator sport and clueless club mates aren’t hassling players for tickets. Christmas and Covid are masking the team like a Klingon cloaking device. It wasn’t always thus. A woman friend said after the Munster semi-final against Cork: “I know nothing about hurling but if the bookies were open I’d go down and bet on them now to win it out. Without the usual hype and bullshit they’ll probably do it.”

Covid induced gut-instincts aside this team has earned its All-Ireland final place. Waterford people wouldn’t want it any other way. Not for them a patronising path to a deserved medal, let alone one with an asterisk. They don’t want charity. They want to win their All-Ireland.

Waterford supporter Austin Grubb sizes up another Austin.
Waterford supporter Austin Grubb sizes up another Austin.

Waterford knows this panel is not a standalone item; Liam Cahill’s team is built on Derek McGrath’s, as his was on Davy Fitzgerald’s and before him Justin and Gerald McCarthy. Their inherited steel and smarts has been tempered over time in the furnace of defeat and victory. What’s reassuring is that Cahill brought his bench-grinder to work and sharpened their edge.

“They have shown their character and their identity through their play,” said Cahill of his players. As a blow-in from Clare, I have a pitch side view of that identity. It’s the blow-in’s blessing to know a good thing when they see it. Ask the Vikings and Normans or indeed the Déisi who landed here before them. This is some county, a place of diversity before it was fashionable.

Embraced from west to east by Blackwater and Suir rivers these players truly represent the united tribes of Waterford. Cahill is a student of hurling history. He understands the importance of inclusivity to a county’s identity and success. Look at the treasure throve of players his native county unearthed in Mullinahone, until then no more a hurling stronghold than Fiji.

Like Hucklebucking, swashbuckling was the Waterford way when Ken and John and Paul and Tony opened their shoulders in Semple. It was a sight to behold and entertaining too. Then the tactical years when thinking and tactics shortened the odds. Now there’s a team built on both traditions with its own character and sense of possibility. So it begins; another trek to Croaker and destiny.

“In years to come archaeologists will track the Waterford hurling team’s travels around Ireland,” said Ballybricken’s man-about-town Paddy Green. “Because they’ll dig up fields of chucks and ribs and loin bones near every hurling ground in the country.” Waterford supporters ate well even on days there was famine on the field. Still, even if it’s a Blaa, man does not live on bread alone. There’s a spiritual hunger here. It’s a void that makes people feel somehow incomplete. It’s an absence an entire generation never quite put their finger on. It’s the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

For Austin’s sake I’d love them to win it on Sunday. I can see his smile in a sea or perhaps a bubble of hugs and love immediately after the game. He may not really appreciate what has been achieved. Austin might be a little confused. Life’s huge moments aren’t always immediately apparent to the young.

Afterwards people will explain to him again and again just what it means to them. Although he doesn’t know it yet Austin and his family will be changed forever by a win. That’s my Waterford grandson Austin Grubb and it will be exactly the same for another Austin.

For both of them I sense it’s the Déise’s day.

– TV Honan is director of street arts and festival company Waterford Spraoi and he holds Clare and Waterford passports

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