Here’s one thing you knew about Páraic Fanning. He’s Mount Sion and Déise hurling royalty. Son of Phil, grandson of Pat. A Waterford manager in waiting for the past 20 years.
Here’s one thing you didn’t know about Páraic Fanning. He turned Eamon Corcoran into the standout Fitzgibbon Cup centre-back of his generation.
It was all very simple. Corcoran had been playing wing-forward for the Waterford IT freshers. Not doing badly there but no embryo Nicky English either. Fanning took one look at him, or maybe two looks, and handed him the number six jersey for the Fitzgibbon. WIT won the trophy in successive seasons with Corcoran anchoring their defence. He was man of the tournament the second year.
Fanning was the manager. Only a couple of years older than his players. Well able to celebrate with them when there was celebrating to be done but conscious of the importance of keeping a certain distance when there wasn’t. They were a tight knit group then and they remain tight two decades later, in constant touch, albeit a little less so at this time of year now that the hurling world is spinning again. Corcoran, Fanning, Henry Shefflin, Enda Everard, Ollie Moran, Andy Moloney, Alan Geoghegan, Conor Power.
Some you’ll have heard of, some not. But they were all fine third-level hurlers and a number of them had big personalities. Fanning, according to Conor Power, who’d come to WIT from St Martin’s in Wexford, held it all together.
“He was the boss. No question about it. The lines of demarcation were clear. His coaching was top class, even 20 years ago. He was a great motivator, very well organised, very proud of Mount Sion and Waterford. And workrate was a huge thing with him.”
Now here’s the question about Páraic Fanning. The one question that matters. The only question that matters. Is he the right man for Waterford at the right time? The man to broaden the base established under Derek McGrath, get the troops fanned out from the bridgehead and deploy so many shooters in the opposition half of the field that not every bullet has to find the target, as was the issue under his predecessor?
That Fanning took good care to broaden his horizons by spending a gap year in Wexford is encouraging. It provided him with a ringside view of the advantages of the sweeper system and the drawbacks. His new team’s scoring rate this season to date — an aggregate of 14-129 in their six outings — provides further grounds for optimism, even if a couple of those games were sanctioned turkey shoots. What was no turkey shoot, not prior to throw-in anyway, was last week’s quarter-final versus Clare. Waterford nonetheless hit 0-31 on soft ground to win by 14 points, driving only three wides in the process.
It is not churlish to advert to a couple of stonewall caveats. Stephen Bennett’s haul of 0-14 from frees, for instance; the rate at which Clare are generating handy dead-ball situations for their opponents is surely in breach of EU regulations. While Austin Gleeson moreover enjoyed one of those afternoons when, not for the first time, he was unmarkable, a fine line separates being effective as a result of possessing the freedom to roam and being ineffective as a result of possessing the freedom to roam.
This does not constitute the contradiction it may sound. It is possible to visit so many areas of the field in the course of the proceedings that one is unable to impose oneself in any of them. Which or whether, a heat map of Gleeson’s positions and possessions tomorrow will make for enlightening viewing.
Talking of wandering minstrels: Cathal Mannion, of late redeployed in the centre of the field for Galway, devoured the ground to get forward and shoot a goal in Salthill last Saturday. It was a throwback to the golden era of attacking midfielders.
Remember Tony Browne, with his penchant for coming from deep to find the net? Remember Jerry O’Connor? Remember Johnny Pilkington, who had a ball hamming up a personal fitness regime apparently comprised solely of cigarettes and alcohol but who nonetheless possessed an engine that enabled him to raise an inordinate number of green flags?
You’d imagine that in this day and age, with every midfielder a 400m runner, goals from these individuals would be increasing.
Give or take Cian Lynch in last year’s All Ireland semi-final and springtime flashes from Michael Breen, they’re not. Is it a case that a generation ago, when everyone was merely reasonably fit, the supreme athletes like Browne and O’Connor stood out? There is a short but mildly interesting monograph to be penned on the subject. Anyway, Mannion ventured up the field, insinuated himself into a black hole between the lines and let fly.
It was not unlike something Kevin Broderick would have essayed 20 years ago, albeit starting from 30 metres further forward, and it provided a snapshot of exactly what his county require in the opposition half of the field. A pinch of snuff. A dash of chilli to perk up a wholesome but bland stew.
Sometime in mid-July last year Galway’s solid attacking division, formidable if predictable, regressed into a stolid attacking division, predictable and considerably less formidable. In the process the MacCarthy Cup was mislaid. Micheál Donoghue doesn’t have to be told that he cannot return this summer with the same attacking sextet or even the same attacking MO. Variety, spice, snuff, chilli and all of that.
(Of course according to MEP Daniel Hannan’s 2018 Hurling Annual Galway did win the All Ireland, beating Mackey’s Greyhounds by 11 runs in the final, with their captain Pete Finnerty being presented with the Bledisloe Cup afterwards by Maire Geoghegan Quinn.) It won’t, or at any rate shouldn’t, be a surprise if Dublin win the opener. The general public knows little about their 2019 iteration as yet but should bear in mind that Mattie Kenny was not setting out from a standing start. Much of the heavy lifting had been done by Pat Gilroy.
The plaudits continue to come in for Sean Moran and Eoghan O’Donnell. A husky, hardy defence — no opponent will take liberties with Chris Crummey — gives Dublin a foundation stone many counties would envy.
Besides, tomorrow will be a useful sighter for their championship visit to Nowlan Park in May. That’s a fixture that may well decide the identity of the third-placed team in Leinster, if you accept that Galway and Wexford — who will host Kilkenny — are one and two in the province at the moment. As you should.
The outcome will pivot on Limerick’s attitude and application nonetheless. Dare one suggest that John Kiely might be as happy if they don’t win the league? The campaign has been as fruitful as he could have wished for. Six games, four wins, one draw, one defeat, not a single off-day. That they lost to Cork was irrelevant; that they showed up was not. The good habits of 2018 continue to obtain in 2019. It is for precisely this reason that Limerick do not need to win the league, still less win it pulling a train. The inevitable “New Kilkenny” hype, which may not have done Galway any harm last year but didn’t do them any good either, would be a distraction they can happily do without.
Nor, come to that, do they need to meet Galway in the final, a too-speedy rematch from last August and a scenario that would demand the consumption of a measure of petrol best left in the tank for summer.
Tipperary these past two seasons provided the most cautionary of tales to the consequences of reaching the league final. If a team can’t win one, then at least don’t get there and flop. Limerick bow out of the league tomorrow or next week following a three- or four-point defeat. Kiely gives them all 100 lines, if only for the sake of appearances. Hey presto, everyone’s happy.
Páraic Fanning was the GAA development officer there when he managed WIT to the Fitzgibbon Cup, incidentally. It was the biggest third-level GAA club in the country at the time. Myriad teams of various codes and sexes and grades and competitions. Mindboggling logistics. Keeping the wheels turning was a job in itself. Fanning coped. And coached. And won stuff. Managing Waterford should be a doddle in comparison.