The last time there was a big Munster senior hurling championship game in Waterford, back in 1996, Ken McGrath was still a minor.
He was also a senior, though. A teenage debutant in that clash with Tipperary.
“I remember being nervous alright, above all being nervous about the speed of the game I’d be playing. One of the other lads on the panel had said to me — nearly in passing — that the speed of championship hurling was a big step up from the league. The way they were talking it was like it was going to like nothing else I’d ever come up against it, and I started building that up then in my own head.
“I definitely built it up too much — ‘this is going to be so fast’ — compared to what I’d done already.”
McGrath had already played two league games, against Offaly and Galway, and had survived.
“I’d been comfortable enough, in fairness. But the point the lads were trying to make, I suppose, was that there was a step up insofar as there was a difference in league and championship then. At that stage fellas would still be getting themselves fitter as the league wore on, playing themselves into shape. Now the difference isn’t nearly as big — a player who does well in the league won’t be caught in the championship on the speed of it, anyway.”
The other side of it was McGrath’s youth. He played minor and U21 for Waterford the same year — in the same month, as a matter of fact — so his attitude was free and easy: “I felt relaxed as well, in fairness. I was young, and I had nothing to lose.”
He also had a short trip to the venue. McGrath was still living at home with his parents in Hillview, a five-minute stroll from Walsh Park.
“We walked down, yeah. We’d have met in Walsh Park anyway as a team before the game. There’s a big difference between then and now in terms of getting players together for a game, and even a couple of years after that game we would have been meeting for breakfast and spending a few hours together, but it was much more laid-back then. I just went down the road, had a cup of tea in the venue and then out for the game.”
In time McGrath would win All-Stars in the half-forward line and midfield before settling in as a classical centre-back, but he was posted to left-half-forward in 1996, with Raymie Ryan for company.
“Raymie was hard but no messing, we just got on with it. I’d played in a couple of Munster minor finals, and by the end of those games the crowd is pretty big, but the minor game obviously isn’t their focus. Out on the wing, next to the crowd in Walsh Park, I was aware of the noise and so on but it didn’t bother me. And 16,000 was a good crowd, but it’s not 82,000 either.
“Expectations weren’t that high in Waterford, but we put up a good enough show and lost by only a goal in the end.”
McGrath chipped in with a point from play, celebrating by flaking his hurley off the ground (“What was I at, eh?”).
“It wasn’t as fast as I was building it up in my head, but at that stage it couldn’t have been, I had it built up to be like light speed or something.
“I regretted that, because I might have played a bit better if I’d relaxed. I wasn’t brilliant but I did okay.”
Even in a decade which had health and safety far beyond the horizon, a minor playing senior championship was a news story, and Marty Morrissey duly nabbed the newcomer for RTÉ’s television coverage.
“We saw the interview again a couple of years ago on Laochra Gael,” laughs McGrath now.
“We would have gone down to the Granville Hotel, on the quays, for a bite to eat after, they were always very good to us. But it was June 2 and we were gone out of the championship. Year over. You were looking in at the championship from the outside all over again.”
Experiences like that don’t bring any team on, McGrath points out, though the cut-throat nature of that championship structure also had positives.
“The straight knockout created an unbelievable atmosphere, for one day it was fantastic — but lose, and it was all gone.
“You can’t develop like that as a team or as a player. The next year Limerick beat us in Thurles, gone again. No development.”
Over the years Walsh Park suffered in comparisons with other stadia which were upgraded and renovated, but McGrath offers a strong defence of the home pitch.
“The playing surface was always good — it’s a very smooth pitch, very level. There were no bumps or hollows.
“It can play narrow at times, fair enough, but we would all have grown up playing in Walsh Park, so we all loved playing there.
“When people came down to play you’d be conscious that it should be better in terms of the facilities and so on. We should have had a better stadium. But the surface was good, I think everyone would concede that.
“We loved training there because it always meant summer training. With Justin (McCarthy) and Gerald (McCarthy) as managers we’d have trained everywhere over the years — St Molleran’s, Aglish, Clashmore, all over, but come April you were back in Walsh Park and to us that meant one thing — championship time.
Would it have made a difference over the years if Waterford had had the benefit of home games?
“It wouldn’t have hurt, but that day in 1996 the official attendance would have been 16,000. Two years later we played Tipperary in Páirc Uí Chaoimh and the place was a sell-out, so when we got on the coat-tails of Clare and Limerick Walsh Park mightn’t have been big enough, a lot of the time, for the support we had.
“I remember in 2004 I was captain and we lost to Galway in the league final, and then, after our first game in the championship against Clare, I was interviewed on WLR right after the final whistle — the adrenaline still going — and I was giving out about the crowd we had that day, it was 27,000. 27,000!
“I was saying on the radio ‘the people who didn’t come can stay away’, but you’d take that these days for a Munster final. I had lads coming up to me for weeks ‘I had a confirmation that day’ and so on.”
The Mount Sion man adds that a big crowd in Waterford is also a welcome boost for the local economy: “All we’re getting is what’s fair, what we’re owed. People talk about Walsh Park but it’s no less a stadium than Cusack Park and a lot of other venues. “It’s in the middle of the city and people are really looking forward to having a championship game somewhere they can stroll to and have a drink after and not have to worry about driving for two hours.
And there’ll be games to entice them back with the new championship system.
“I think it’s brilliant,” he says. “First of all the best three teams come through in Munster and Leinster, and there are no excuses.
“Four chances to prove yourself, and this year it’s the same for Waterford as it is for every other team because we have the two home games.
“Four of my first six years we only played one championship game, so that’s six years of my career in one season, if you like.
“It’s a very good system because the best three teams come through, and you can’t name those three teams now. Over the years you’d see lads with low body fat and great to lift in the gym, but championship hurling asks questions that a gym can’t answer for you.”