Waterford’s 17 years on the bridge of sighs

A year after 1998 the hurling world began to change. That year’s All-Ireland semi-final could have marked a different starting point.

When it all ended Kilkenny's Charlie Carter recalled, in his biography, "I've rarely been as happy to hear a final whistle." Next weekend will be 17 years exactly since Carter's team defeated Waterford in the first All-Ireland match between the counties in 35 years and the fifth overall.

In the relatively short interim there have been another five meetings but Waterford’s sole success remains the 1959 All-Ireland final replay, the last time the county lifted the Liam MacCarthy.

At this remove, 1998 can be seen as the last year of pre-history. It was a carnival of controversy, much of it involving Ger Loughnane's Clare side, who had a fractious replayed Munster final with Waterford followed by a bizarre three-part All-Ireland semi-final with Offaly.

The last of the matches had been necessitated by referee Jimmy Cooney blowing time too early in the replay. Eventually, and against all expectation, Offaly won and went on to take the All-Ireland, having changed manager mid-season.

Waterford were part of the story too. The county had enjoyed success every couple of generations but generally disappeared in between. By 1998, with former Cork coach Gerald McCarthy in charge and a couple of successful underage teams feeding into the system they were ready to rise.

Names that would resonate in the years to come, like Stephen Frampton, Fergal Hartley, Paul Flynn, current selector Dan Shanahan and the eternal Tony Browne all came to senior prominence with the team.

Clare dominated hurling at the time and were All-Ireland champions. Their captain Anthony Daly remembers the attitude to the new challengers.

‘Wound up’

“Without being snooty, we’d have always seen ourselves as their equals if not slightly ahead even though they’d won an All-Ireland in 1959 and another one previous to that. They’d beaten us in under-21 finals in 1992 and ’94. We played them in a league semi-final in Thurles and I remember Loughnane being particularly wound up for that one: ‘we weren’t going losing to this crowd again’.”

Daly acknowledges that Waterford hadn't been top of Clare's agenda in 1998 even after the newcomers had beaten Tipperary.

“We’d built up a fair bit rivalry at senior with a few counties but we hadn’t with them. I don’t think we’d met them at all in the championship for six years. We were so wrapped up in Cork because they’d beaten us in the league semi-final and we got wired into them but we were a bit flat the first day against Waterford and taken aback at how aggressive they were.

“In hindsight they had to feel that they would be physically able for Clare because we had put a physical stamp on things. Gerald McCarthy was a tough guy as well – I remember him playing in the 1970s – and he brought those fighting qualities.”

Clare survived the challenge and easily won the replay but were soon entangled in the Colin Lynch suspension saga and their own increasingly complicated semi-final with Offaly.

Waterford, having bounced back from defeat to overwhelm Galway, faced their neighbouring rivals from across the bridge. A peculiar feature of the counties' first five championship meetings was that Kilkenny were underdogs for them all. In 1998 the county had unexpectedly won Leinster against a lacklustre Offaly, whose manager Michael Keating got himself into inextricable difficulties by being characteristically frank about his views on the players afterwards. He resigned a couple of days later.

Even Kilkenny hadn’t been immune to the strangeness of the year. Their biggest name DJ Carey had briefly retired from the game that February at the age of 27 because of pressure of business. He says that the controversy was well behind him by the high summer of championship.

‘Lot of controversy’

“I didn’t think I had my best season in ’98,” he says, “but I don’t think Kilkenny did either and I don’t think hurling did. I know there was a lot of controversy but I didn’t think the hurling that year was particularly memorable.”

Marking Carey that day was Brian Flannery, who had won an under-21 All-Ireland with Tipperary but declared for Waterford having moved there. He remembers the semi-final well and with regret undimmed by time.

“It was probably the best opportunity Waterford have had to win an All-Ireland even though they’ve been in eight semi-finals since and one final. We were the new kids on the block and other teams didn’t really know an awful lot about us – and probably didn’t rate us either.

“The biggest regret is that we didn’t win and go on to contest the All-Ireland final because we’d have had no baggage against the likes of Offaly in a final in relation to tradition so you like to think you’d have acquitted yourself well.

“Look at the scoreline that day – 1-11 to 1-10 – and then listen to all the talk about Sunday with sweepers and extra defenders. We managed to hold Kilkenny to 1-11 in an All-Ireland semi-final and somehow didn’t win.

“On the day we hurled fierce well and it was just one of those things – a mishit DJ Carey 21-yard free and substitute Niall Moloney pulled on it and it ended up in the net. That gave them the bit of a cushion that maybe made the difference.

“We were going well at half-time, had the breeze in the second half and were only two behind but that goal was a real momentum killer. But we just didn’t get the scores – even back then 1-10 didn’t win you games.

“In hindsight it’s a game we probably should have won and didn’t. It’s a regret for a generation since. However the one thing is Waterford didn’t disappear after ’98. We were back in All-Ireland semi-finals and in a final even if we never got to lift the MacCarthy Cup in that era.”

Carey tends to agree with Flannery about the opportunity lost for Waterford.

‘Fantastic chance’

“Leinster was beginning to shift and Clare’s success was coming to an end but Waterford were the coming team. They had a fantastic chance against us that day.”

They survived but in the final, Offaly were rejuvenated by the drawn-out victory over Clare and claimed a fourth All-Ireland.

“Offaly deserved the All-Ireland,” according to Carey. “We weren’t good on the day but they were just a brilliant team. Their stick work – they could make the ball talk and kept the game so simple. Other teams had great energy but Offaly made the ball do the work.”

By the end of the year, there would be a new manager in Kilkenny, Brian Cody succeeding Kevin Fennelly and the county would establish the longest dominion in the game's history leading to 10 All-Irelands in 16 years. For Carey it wasn't a huge surprise.

"I remember in 1999 I said in the team dressing-room – and I'm not being smart after the event – that Kilkenny could win six or seven All-Irelands in the next 10 years. We were about to have a huge infusion of top-class young players and there was nothing happening in Leinster. Offaly were near the end of their great team, as were Wexford and theirs. Kilkenny had a fantastic manager and were getting better and better while others were slipping."

Waterford come again this Sunday, new players hoping to establish a presence in the senior game. Flannery's advice is carpe diem.

“If you’re looking for comparisons with this Waterford team, people are saying, ‘it’s a young team and they’re going to be around for the next number of years’. But this year may be their best opportunity to win an All-Ireland because Kilkenny whichever way you look at it isn’t the team that was there three and four years ago.”

For Daly there are other lessons from 1998 and he references his part in Clare’s decisive goal in the All-Ireland three years previously when Eamonn Taaffe drove home the rebound.

"In fairness to that bunch of Waterford players and Limerick around the same time they deserved an All-Ireland but what you deserve and what you get aren't always the same. It can be down to a bit of fortune as well. I often say I wasn't aiming for the crossbar in 1995!"