Whether it was Ken McGrath, Tony Browne, Paul Flynn, Dan Shanahan, Eoin Kelly, John Mullane, Fergal Hartley, Stephen Frampton, Brick Walsh or Stephen Molumphy, they played the game with panache.
On Sunday in Thurles, we saw glimpses of all the above again in a thrilling drawn Munster SHC quarter-final against Cork. This is a new Waterford team under new manager Derek McGrath, hugely underestimated but playing with all those old qualities. All by design, says corner-back Noel Connors, one of the standouts of the Waterford team of recent years.
“We get a lot of criticism at times in terms of being under-rated and so forth. The display showed the hunger and desire; we wanted to play with freedom and abandon, particularly with the younger fellas going out [four championship debutants]. Everyone was not giving us too much of a chance. And we went out and proved the critics wrong.”
Not that this was what they had in mind when they took the pitch — it was merely one of the results of what happened when they got there. Because understand, shorn as they were of so many probable starters, having hit the ground running, built up a six-point half-time lead (despite hitting nine wides), extended that to nine with less than 10 minutes gone in the second half, this was definitely a game Waterford could have and should have won.
The reason was twofold; yes they were playing with freedom, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have structure, a pattern, a plan. And Waterford did. Their defence was tight, Liam Lawlor and Kevin Moran commanding the centre, those like Connors then refusing to be drawn too far away from their own red-zone.
Cork opened with Pa Cronin in midfield, Daniel Kearney dropping back as an auxiliary defender, Patrick Horgan on the wing, and just two inside. Waterford didn’t bite and soon Cork returned to a more orthodox formation. And found themselves suffering something of a shellacking for a long period.
“I suppose it’s this new tactic that’s after coming in in recent years, people roaming in and out and you’re not marking the same individual for a fixed period of time.
“You have to deal with these issues. The main objective is not to let your man score or get the ball.”
Another element of the Waterford structure, intelligent use of the ball out of defence, picking out the runner — an innate skill now, says Connors.
“You have to take into consideration the majority of that team have won colleges or played at a high level with All-Ireland-winning minor teams and stuff.”
Another date with Cork on Sunday week, another opportunity for this new Waterford side to shine, even to improve further.
“I think we can, to be perfectly honest — a lot. The likes of Shane O’Sullivan who was sent off against Dublin, he’ll be freed up the next game. It gives individuals like that the opportunity to make it even more difficult for Derek. Our objective is to play as many matches as possible, particularly with the younger fellas and the injuries that we have.
“In fairness to Derek, he always instilled belief and the attitude of going out and playing with freedom, because at the end of the day, they’re well entitled to be there. When you go out with that mentality, you can enjoy hurling.”