TONY BROWNE: We’ve been too nice in Waterford, and we’ve paid the ultimate price

You could say that right from the off Waterford were off. Before the ball was even thrown in down in Limerick last Sunday, or indeed before a ball was ever thrown in this summer.

I’ll start with our last game first, even though it was probably just symptomatic of the issues that have plagued our whole championship.

I know too much can sometimes be read into warm-ups but it didn’t surprise me when John Kiely said afterwards that he just knew once his team’s was complete that they were ready to go.

I noticed myself there was a striking difference in the stickwork of the two sides. Because Waterford were going to be playing a more direct orthodox game, they changed their warm-up, extending a lot of their drills that bit longer since they’d be hitting the ball that bit longer, but a lot of ball in those drills went wayward or were spilt.

At the other end of the field, the Limerick lads were pinging their stickpasses from 30, 40 yards. They looked sharp, ready. Waterford looked stale, flat.

It carried into the game itself. It was the first time in championship under Derek McGrath where Waterford’s workrate was well off what you would expect from this group of players, regardless of who was and wasn’t missing.

Derek McGrgath with selector Dan Shanahan
Derek McGrgath with selector Dan Shanahan

We never seemed to mark a man all day long. Defenders were standing 15 yards off their men. Tom Morrissey was allowed the freedom of the park, from our 65 right back to his own 21.

At times it was like himself, Kyle Hayes and Gearoid Hegarty were playing in an exhibition game, not a Munster championship match. When you’re playing in the halfback line, a dilemma can turn into a nightmare: do I hold or do I go with my man?

If you hold shape, your performance is in other people’s hands; somebody else — maybe a half-forward, or a midfielder — has to take the responsibility of picking your man up. That didn’t happen last Sunday.

We were also murdered by a very simple puckout strategy of Limerick’s.

Basically Limerick formed a T, with their halfbacks and midfield forming one line across the field and then their forwards all forming a central spine from the full-forward spot up, one standing in front of the other, ready to break to either side.

It meant Nickie Quaid had a square box on either flank that he could just drop the ball into and it would bounce into the paw of a Limerick forward. Normally this management team are excellent at disrupting the opposition’s puckout, most notably Anthony Nash’s last August, but nothing was done about Quaid’s.

We’ve been too nice in Waterford, and we’ve paid the ultimate price

I actually think playing with an extra midfielder rather than an extra defender would be the best way for this Waterford team to set up and I wouldn’t be surprised if Clare go with a third midfielder next Sunday to counteract that puckout.

If Waterford had, it would have allowed Austin Gleeson to follow the ball without fear of losing his man and Limerick’s puckout would have been shut down.

I just wonder because Derek is so meticulous has the short turnaround between games particularly hindered him. That while two weeks is ideal for him, just the one week has upset him and Waterford’s best plans.

As supporters we’re all feeling homeless, wounded and mugged (would the umpire have made that decision against Tipp had he been down in Walsh Park, a packed terrace of rabid Waterford fans breathing down behind him?) at the moment, but I can only imagine how the players and management felt yesterday morning.

I live near Derek and see his car going up and down that road any time of the day or night in the name of Waterford hurling; the man has dedicated every single fibre of his being these five years to win an All-Ireland for the county. And don’t forget, with 15 minutes to go last September it was on: we were a point up.

The assumption has been that 2018 was always going to be his last year but he doesn’t deserve to go like this, he didn’t deserve to be dealt a hand like this.

Walsh Park, which has been empty all summer as Waterford payed their ’home’ games elsewhere
Walsh Park, which has been empty all summer as Waterford payed their ’home’ games elsewhere

There’s a lot of negativity going around Waterford — and rumours too, that key players are going to go travelling next year. The whole thing could unravel. That can’t happen. The people of Waterford have invested too much in this team. As a county we need to steady on, stick together, and more than anything, stand up for ourselves.

We haven’t done that enough over the years: Stand up for ourselves. We’ve been too nice.

In 2002 when our bus met the Clare bus coming up Jones Road before that year’s All Ireland semi-final, we were the ones that backed down. In 2007 not for the last time we were caught playing three weeks in a row; another county with greater clout would have insisted on a fortnight’s break between our quarter-final marathon against Cork and an All-Ireland semi-final. And this summer there was no way we should have allowed ourselves to have no place to call home.

I know from the outside it might look like we’ve been doing a lot of whinging down here in Waterford, especially when it could be said we’ve no one else to blame but ourselves — or at least our administrators. But the frustration stems from a sense that we’ve missed out on experiencing the essence of this new championship.

A few days out from the Tipperary game I was having a pint up in Mount Sion with a clubmate. The weather was great, the bank holiday was nearly upon us and I said to him: God, wouldn’t it be great to be having a lovely cold Bulmer’s here and stroll five minutes down the road with Tipp in town for a championship game?

Everywhere else – Ennis, Cork, Limerick, Salthill, Wexford, Kilkenny – has sampled that buzz. Instead we’ve had to travel to Limerick where I went on my own last Sunday and still spent the bones of €100. It’s put a fierce strain on supporters — an unfair one, in fact — not to mention how not having home advantage has disadvantaged the team.

Our county board’s starting negotiation position should have been: We’re playing our home games in Walsh Park. That there should have been closer to 18 – and not just eight – months’ notice that this new format was coming, but that come the summer, we’d have the place respectable; if the place could only hold 10,000, then let it hold only 10,000, which is all there was as at the Tipp game in Limerick anyway.

Then, if Munster Council had still shut that argument down on health and safety grounds, our fallback position should have been: Fine then, we’re playing our two home games in Nowlan Park or, if it was up to me, Wexford Park (the latter venue hasn’t been touted much as a base for Waterford but ourselves and the Wexford people share a great connection with one another), which are equidistant from Waterford. If we can’t play our two home games in either of those venues, we’re not playing at all.

When White Hart Lane was being redeveloped this past season, Spurs didn’t have to play in the Emirates one week, Stamford Bridge the next: Wembley was their home. That’s the stance we have to adapt for 2019, or if Walsh Park still isn’t ready, for 2020 as well: None of this Limerick for one home game and then Thurles for the other: Nowlan or Wexford Park is our Wembley, our home, until our real one is ready.

The county board now need to take a deep breath and go hammer the table at Munster Council and at Croke Park and everywhere else and demand support for a 20,000-capacity Walsh Park.

Renegotiate and redraw the original plans if needs be as this can’t be just a ‘It’ll Do’ effort that’ll hold maybe 15,000. It needs to be with a vision to 2040, not just 2020. Last weekend there was great news here with the announcement that the €280 million investment in the redevelopment of the city’s North Quays got the green light.

There’ll be a new bridge over the river, cruise liners will be able to enter the port, a huge new shopping complex will provide a huge boost to a city that felt the brunt of the economic downturn worse than most. Walsh Park should be part of that regeneration. A venue that can host its Ed Sheeran concerts – every other GAA ground has – and reflect a modern, vibrant city.

It’ll mean serious planning and fund-raising. This current team has financially been the best-backed Waterford side ever, but in our squeeze to try to land an All Ireland, we’ve tended to neglect longer-term projects.

When we won the U21 All Ireland back in 1992, I said in an interview with local radio that the county board should consider selling both Walsh Park and Fraher Field to create a state-of-the-art stadium. I got lambasted: Who does this young fella think he is? What’s wrong with Walsh Park and Dungarvan? I was 19 then. I’m 45 now and still our infrastructure is inadequate.

Now that they’ve both been kept, I’d modernise them to modernise Waterford GAA. Get the county board to tap into the expertise as well as the pockets of the local commercial community.

Redevelop Walsh Park and make Fraher Field our centre of excellence. At the moment we’re renting Carriganore but it belongs to Waterford IT. It’s a business and is often overbooked. Dungarvan would be perfect: It wouldn’t be far for anyone to travel, be it the students travelling from Cork, or lads based in the city.

No more short-term fixes. And no more backing down.


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