And while initial league results this term weren’t good, they maintained that belief.
Carew’s dedication is still staggering the players, and coming from five years as a coach in the professional set-up established by Kieran McGeeney at Kildare, the St Kevin’s man doesn’t view being a lesser light as an excuse for low standards of preparation and application.
That was why he wasted no time getting Ronan Sweeney to join him when the Moorefield man announced his retirement from inter-county duty last year.
Sweeney’s philosophy is peppered through an hour of conversation: it’s about the collective over the individual. He made the best of himself as a player but served his teams in numerous roles.
It’s the philosophy of the Spartans espoused by McGeeney. And whether or not they read about Battle of Thermopylae, it is the philosophy that buttressed the All-Ireland-winning campaigns of Jim Gavin and Jim McGuinness.
A former underage soccer star, who won an U15 All-Ireland in a Stella Maris side that included future internationals Richie Partridge and Joe Murphy, Sweeney drifted back to Gaelic football as a minor and won a Leinster senior title under Mick O’Dwyer in 2000.
That was as good as it got in terms of medals, but Sweeney developed into a leader during his 14 seasons, and remained so even as he slipped down the pecking order in latter seasons. The soft-speaking niceness belies a steely resolve. This, after all, is the man that said the inter-county players’ decision to delay league games on April 9, 2006 by 15 minutes “smacked of weakness”.
He stated publicly the players should have gone on strike. Such was his standing nationwide as a former GPA rep of the year he succeeded McGeeney as GPA secretary, when the former All-Ireland winning captain became his manager. That’s who Waterford have amongst them now. There is no great big culture shock for the 33-year-old father-of-two. He might have joined Kildare in the midst of their most glorious era of the past 78 years but there was little to get excited about from 2004 to 2008 so he knows what it’s like to be unrated too.
“Once you have a committed bunch in the squad and they’re all going in the right direction, in the one direction, it doesn’t matter whether you’re in Division 4, a club team, or Division 1, it’s the same principle really. Working for each other, all digging in deep for each other. Making the runs for the other man, being unselfish. It’s like any team. So I’ve never thought about it, operating at a different grade. It’s the same thing.”
Waterford have made significant progress but that only serves to accentuate how low they were. Sweeney recalls McGeeney used to talk about confidence and mental strength when he came to Kildare. It was something that needed constant work because losing, and losing heavily, leaves scars.
“It’s exactly the same. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing in Division 4 or Division 1. You’re still an inter-county footballer. You want to be the best they can be. I think a couple of wins under our belt even in challenge games brings fellas on, makes training easier. You’re growing in confidence. Niall has done a great job with them. The way they finished the season last year. They should have won the game against Galway and anyone who says they shouldn’t have hasn’t a clue.”
He watched the video of the All-Ireland qualifier in Salthill last year and found himself utterly frustrated by the one-point loss. The frustrations have continued as they failed to perform in the opening round of the league against Clare before digging out a draw against table-toppers Tipp.
They were dismantled by Antrim subsequently and suffered a home defeat to London after that.
It wasn’t looking good at all but suddenly, things came together when they won by five points against a previously unbeaten Leitrim.
They were unable to build on that in Aughrim against a Wicklow outfit chasing promotion but will be expected to finish the campaign on a positive note, against a Carlow team managed by Sweeney’s long-time Kildare colleague, Anthony Rainbow.
Waterford have generally defended pretty well and their ‘scores against’ column bears comparison with the best sides in the division.
They are the lowest scorers though and Sweeney will be looking to increase that attacking threat.
“You can have all the formations you want but it’s about how much you’re willing to do to win the ball and then what you’re going to do with it.
“You see the best players, and Johnny Doyle is an example, as he’s the hardest working forward I’ve ever seen, off the ball. That’s what’s needed. You need to work as hard as you can for each other.”