WHEN Johnny Ryan blew the half-time whistle in the 2014 Dublin-Waterford league relegation final, the four members of the Waterford management surrounded Johnny as effectively as a Tyrone or Armagh blanket defence would have done when they first started gobbling up opposition forwards.
Johnny had sent off Shane O’Sullivan 10 minutes earlier and the Waterford boys arrived with the intent of a crew looking to rattle the referee. Moonlighting as Johnny’s new best friend, I marched over to have my say too.
“Fuck off lads, ye know the rules, I know the rules, and Johnny definitely knows them,” I said.
“G’way now and don’t be trying to buy frees in the second half.”
The lads told me to clear off back to Clare.
As we were walking towards the tunnel, Dan Shanahan kept up the tirade.
“Shut your mouth, you big, long yoke,” I replied. “If you keep it up, you’ll get what you got in 1998.”
Dan instantly shot back: “G’way there boy, I landed you on your hole that day.”
I reloaded the chamber and kept firing: “You did, yeah, with a sneaky trip from behind, that was all you were good for. You hit no wallops, but you’ll get one in a minute if you keep it up.”
After the match, Dan and I were hugging each other. You couldn’t but like Dan.
No matter what he ever did or said, Dan has always been able to draw people in.
That even applies to his appearance. When Dan and Derek McGrath were on The Sunday Game recently talking about the infamous ‘Ghost goal’ in 2018, Dan was sporting a beard as thick as a bush.
“Look at Dan,” I said to Eilis. “He’s like Dr Richard Kimble before he shaved off the beard.”
“Wha?” she replied.
“Your man out of The Fugitive,” I said. “The fella on the run who dived into the huge water-dam to escape from the FBI.”
It was just a reflex observation which I said to Eilis for the craic but Dan and his generation of brilliant Waterford players nearly always seemed to conjure up images of these film or comic book characters, ordinary guys who often appeared to wear capes on the field.
That Waterford team never won an All-Ireland but they were a swashbuckling, flamboyant group who brought so much more to the game than just their skill and quality.
The brilliance of their hurling was only one element of their unique brand and identity; the shaved heads; the tattoos; kissing the crest on their jerseys; how they wore their collars up; how they stuck their chests out.
They were certainly the first modern hurling team to transmit, display, and smack of that urbane, hippy, happy, and ostentatious attitude.
The fact that so many of those Waterford players hailed from the city can’t be separated from their identity. There is that natural cockiness associated with a city culture and the Waterford lads were never afraid to turn to the crowd and preen.
Their appearance and how they engaged the crowd, both their’s and the opposition, made Waterford seem more like a soccer team than a hurling side.
Having a soccer culture in the city probably added to that underlying personality of the team.
Paul Flynn was a brilliant underage soccer player. So was Kevin Moran. John Mullane was always a huge Waterford United supporter. Waterford United players were hardly going to be throwing their jerseys into the crowd so when Mullane got the chance after the 2002 Munster final, he took it in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
That breakthrough win in 2002 was a landmark victory for hurling in the province because it also announced Waterford as a serious force on the national stage for the rest of the decade.
Fergie Tuohy and I travelled down together for that Munster final. As we strolled back to the car afterwards, fully intending to head home, we decided to go into the city for one pint. We wound up in this bar celebrating all evening with Waterford fellas. The craic was so good we went to the Imperial Hotel and asked Allen Flynn, who also runs the Old Ground Hotel in Ennis, if he could give us a room on the cheap for the night.
T had been just four years since the fallout from the 1998 Munster final but there was no animosity or ill-feeling that evening as we all got lost in that happy blur of enjoyment and satisfaction.
We may not have had any direct or emotional investment in Waterford’s success but Tuts and I could instantly relate to the absolute purity and beauty of that moment when you finally make the breakthrough.
As players, maybe we saw it differently, but some people in Clare still have no time for Waterford. They lay much of the blame of what happened in 1998 at Waterford’s door.
“We’d have gone on and won the All-Ireland if that crowd hadn’t started whingeing after the replayed Munster final,” was the gist of the accusation.
That was the nature and tone of the whole soap opera that summer. It was the reason Ger Loughnane said that “nutters’ would be ringing up Dessie Cahill’s radio show the following evening, which they did in their droves to accuse Clare of acting like a cell of Grim Reapers in a bad mood.
That may have been how a small percentage of the Waterford people portrayed us but there was always a good relationship between both sets of players. I think our collective personality as groups was broadly similar too.
I remember shaking hands with Tony Browne after the drawn Munster final in 1998.
“Well done Tony, t’was tough out there, a couple of pints will be welcome tonight.”
“Will ya go for a couple of pints tonight Antnee?” he replied.
“By Jaysus I will Tony.”
I might have gone for one or two but I wanted Tony thinking I was going to sink 10 or 15 pints. If I got a chance to use my experience ahead of a replay the following Sunday, I was certainly going to take it.
Maybe some of the Waterford lads took the bait, but we were just more experienced than them at the time. Dan admitted in his book how some of the players got caught up in the hype from the previous day by extending a Monday drinking session longer than they’d planned.
At the same time, we were inside in Cusack Park listening to Loughnane with froth dripping out of the side of his mouth.
Even though Tony was at the centre of that fallout from the 1998 replay, it certainly never affected my relationship with him. When we were on the 1999 All-Stars tour to Boston, I ended up in a Chinese restaurant with him one night alongside Niall Gilligan and Paddy Reynolds, the former Meath footballer.
At one stage, Gilly must have thought he was an ambassador for ‘Save the Shrimps’. He was passing this huge fish tank when he decided to open the hatch and release a shoal of shrimp and octopus. I don’t know how Gilly thought he was saving them by releasing the shrimp onto the floor but next thing we knew we were all running out the door.
This waiter tore down the street after us. Browney hared past me. “Wait up Tony,” I roared. “I might need help if this lad catches me.”
The Waterford lads were always great craic. I’ve become great friends with John Mullane now. His company is gold-dust but everyone can hear the sheer force of his personality on the radio airwaves now where his jack-in-the-box and Action-man enthusiasm mirrors how he hurled.
Mul became a near hate figure in Cork when he gave a two-fingered salute to the Rebel hordes after scoring the third goal of his hat-trick in the 2003 Munster final.
He stirred the Rebel blood again a year later with a straight red card in the 2004 Munster final but, deep down, any genuine Cork supporters would have always appreciated the magic Mullane brought to the game, and the electricity he generated in the stadium when he was on the ball.
Of course, fellas never always fit the caricature they’re kitted out with too. People have Mullane down as being half-cracked, like most of us were when we were hurling, but Mul is a real family man.
I’m on a WhatsApp group with him and he posted up pictures last Sunday from time spent with his daughters in west Waterford, where their last stop on the way home was for a bag of chips in Dungarvan.
What nobody can dispute though, is the X-factor Mul and so many of those Waterford players had on that great team, a status reflected in how they were, and still are, referred. Mullane. Ken. Tony. Flynn. Dan. Brick.
Paul Flynn and I often had our words on the pitch but he was a genius.
I was on the goal-line when he stood over a 20-metre free in the drawn Munster final. I’ve never seen a bullet like it. Flynn’s aeroplane celebration as soon as it hit the net encapsulated how that team acted and thought — they knew they were good and they weren’t shy in sharing that feeling with everyone else.
N the GAA, we can often be too austere or serious, especially now when too much fun and personality has been siphoned out of players.
But even when that attitude was beginning to take hold in the 2000s, when the word ‘process’ was beginning to supersede passion, the Waterford boys always let it all out.
On my first day as Clare manager in 2004, Dan really put me to the sword when he bagged a hat-trick of green flags. The fist was waved out at me a few times after his second and third goals.
We didn’t start Jamesie O’Connor the same day because he had a hamstring injury but we brought him on and then had to take him off again. When Jamesie was coming off, Tony ran over to the dugout. “Bring ‘em all on Dalo, bring ’em all on, we’re fucking ready for all of ’em.”
There wasn’t any malice in those words or actions but as always I loved the dynamic between us, because we were mostly the same, driven by that fusion of pride and honour, with a burning thirst for success, and a deep yearning to dine at that top table.
When Dan was part of Derek’s management, he was the same guy — full of drive and energy, always in your face, but the first guy to embrace you afterwards.
There was always deep respect there. Like Mullane, I’m very friendly with Ken McGrath now. Before Ken opened his sports shop a few years back, he and his wife Dawn travelled up to Ennis to meet me. I tried to give them the best advice I could about the difficulties of opening a retail unit in a tough climate.
I got Ken down to talk to the Clarecastle U14s afterwards. When I heard he was coming up to cover the Clare-Tipperary game last year in Ennis for RTÉ, I invited him over to Clarecastle to watch the Champions League final.
Given their Munster famine prior to 2002, it’s an incredible honour for Ken and so many of his team-mates to have won four Munster titles. It’s just a shame they never won an All-Ireland.
And yet, they’ll be remembered far more than some lads in Kilkenny with four or five All-Ireland medals. That’s some legacy to leave.
Some Waterford people may resent that we have won three All-Irelands in the last 25 years, while they’re still in the midst of a great famine. The Munster final replay in 1998 may have soured relations for some people but the genuine hurling folk in both counties also acknowledge the separate struggles we endured for so long before we won anything.
When Waterford reached the 2017 All-Ireland final, I was torn beforehand. In Clare, we’ve always had a natural affinity and connection with Galway, the fact that we’re west of Ireland neighbours.
The relationship between the counties may have a harder edge since the back-door was introduced but most Clare people would still always support Galway whenever they reach All-Ireland semi-finals and finals. I was delighted for Galway in 2017 but I would have been just as happy if Waterford had won the same day.
The current squad may win the big one yet. They have excellent players and one of the best young managers.
If they do win an All-Ireland, I’ve no doubt many of those Waterford players will have been inspired by the character, brilliance, class, and brash personality of their esteemed predecessors.
That may be that generation’s greatest legacy.