Shortly after my wife and I took up a pair of seats about four rows from the back of the covered stand in Cusack Park last Sunday, I could hear a young fella behind me asking his father: Is that Tony Browne?
He must have got the nod anyway because moments later I felt two knees going into my back. And there they pretty much stayed, wedged into my fifth lumbar vertebrae, right through the minor match and all the way up to Maurice Shanahan’s goal about 10 minutes into the senior game.
Any time I pushed back, the knees came straight back in! It was like ’98 all over again — the Clare lads getting stuck into me before a ball was ever thrown in!
If the two lads behind me did their bit to try to make Ennis an intimidating atmosphere for Waterford folk, I could hardly say their dedication to the cause was widespread.
In fact if I was to describe last Sunday’s atmosphere in one word, I’d choose ‘muted’.
I don’t know if it’s that we’re all still adjusting to this new championship format, spectators as well as players and management, but I found something — that spark — was missing. With so many games on the same day — often on at the same time — is it distracting us and diluting the whole thing?
I know with myself I was nearly thinking more about what was going on in Thurles than the start of the game right in front of us. I wasn’t in the now! But I don’t think I’m alone that way. Because we all love hurling, we want to see and know what’s going on in games that don’t directly involve our own county.
When I heard Tipp were on their way back against Cork, I nearly wanted to be at that match.
And I think those of us who have made the effort not to stay on the couch and instead have gone to an actual game can be sometimes left wondering: Have I gone to the wrong game?
We’re all probably suffering a bit of hurling FOMO — that fear of missing out. That’s something the authorities are going to have to look at when they’re drawing up the schedule: Stagger the games a bit more over a weekend, maybe add on an extra weekend, so we experience less FOMO and can see more of the action.
I made a point of going to Ennis because I knew from my own experience of playing there that the team would need all the support it could get, so it was disappointing to see how few Waterford people travelled. The overall attendance was just short of 14,000 and I’d say barely 2,000 were from Waterford.
Normally the Waterford public are great to support the team, especially when the team is coming off a decent league.
This year Derek McGrath clearly put all their eggs into the championship basket, but when you look at how little blue-and-white there was in the terraces last Sunday, it’s another reason why the approach to the league may have backfired.
In fairness to Derek and his management, they got it tactically spot-on for the first 15 minutes. Shane McNulty, named at corner-forward but more of a natural wing-back, was coming back into midfield, Conor Gleeson had picked up Tony Kelly and was keeping him quiet, and then sweeping up and controlling everything was Tadhg de Búrca.
At the other end then they obviously felt they could attack the Clare full-back line in the air and it was working a treat, with Tom Devine causing havoc alongside Brick Walsh inside with Maurice Shanahan at the top of that triangle and the half-forward line breaking onto the ball.
Waterford were completely controlling the game and keeping the Clare crowd quiet. Even my friend behind me had softened the knees.
When Tadgh went off it was a bit like Salah going off for Liverpool in Kiev — everything changed. Once Tadhg went off, John Conlon took off and took over, bringing Clare and the crowd right back into it.
Maybe we’d have hung on and won if we’d been the team at home or even in Thurles; four points up after 15 minutes, the supporters would have applauded and rallied at the sight of Tadhg going off.
Instead on Sunday I could hear the Clare people around me going: ‘Lovely.’ We didn’t have that 16th man to compensate for not having the conductor of our team.
I know Waterford won last year’s All-Ireland semi-final without Tadhg with Darragh Fives slotting into that role but I don’t know how much playing and training time Darragh had under his belt going into Sunday. He’s a bit like Paul McGrath in his Villa and Derby days, you have to manage him very carefully. He trains some sessions, doesn’t train others; sometimes they don’t even let him travel to train to help him mind himself.
The other thing Waterford had going for them against Cork last August was that they had Austin Gleeson and Pauric Mahony on the field. Waterford can maybe get away without one of their three best players, even possibly a second. But three out of three ain’t just bad, it’s a disaster, as Sunday proved, though it transpired Tadgh’s injury was only the first of many on the day.
Like Limerick upon hearing the Tipperary team for their first game, I’d say the Clare team got a further boost of confidence once they learned the Waterford starting XV and that Austin and Pauric were out. It would have deflated the Waterford support somewhat too.
It’s why I think the team Derek and the management announce during the week for the game against Tipp in Limerick is fierce important.
With Tadgh almost certainly out with his collarbone, I’d start Austin at centre-back if he can even walk. For a long time now people have been wondering what he would be like as an orthodox No. 6 — if you could say anything about Austin is orthodox.
They’ve also often thought what the team in general might be like if it played more orthodox with corner-forwards like Stephen Bennett and Patrick Curran who blossomed in those roles at U21.
Hearing they’re finally being unleashed could not just ignite but bring the crowd to Limerick. It would lift the team too.
The county has already lost home advantage. It has lost its first game. We’ve probably lost Tadgh and a few other players for the rest of this round-robin. We have nothing really now more to lose only what’s up on the scoreboard.
Go for it and the crowd may follow.
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