Waterford’s history makers: The first Déise football team to play in Croke Park

John Martin closes the front door of his uncle Nick Power’s house behind him and makes for the top of Oxmantown road. His instruction, from there, is to turn right onto North Circular Road and head in the direction of the City centre until Croke Park presents itself in the Dublin skyline. Martin, having never been to Croker, hasn’t one iota where he’s going.

Waterford’s history makers: The first Déise football team to play in Croke Park

GAA HQ eventually comes into view and he wanders around to the back of the Cusack Stand to wait for his Waterford team-mates. Given his unfamiliarity with the area, he’d had a very early breakfast at his uncle’s house so to give himself plenty of time to reach the venue for their National Football League quarter-final.

19-year old Pa Walsh, although knowing he won’t be starting against Dublin that afternoon, itches with excitement in the lobby of Barry’s Hotel. The Waterford team, who had overnighted at the Hotel — Martin had been given permission to stay with his uncle — attended Sunday mass on Eccles Street before returning to the Hotel for a cup of tea and salad sandwiches.

It’s the morning of March 6, 1966 and the Waterford footballers are in the capital for their league quarter-final against Dublin. A handful of the team had been spectators in Croke Park for the 1957 and ’59 All-Ireland hurling finals involving the county. Walsh was there in ’58 when Dublin beat Derry in the football. None of the team, though, had ever played on the hallowed turf. And as they would soon find out, no Waterford footballer ever had.

“We were togging out in the dressing-room underneath the Cusack Stand and a Croke Park official came into the dressing-room,” recalls Martin, “he says ‘It is my great pleasure to welcome to Croke Park the first Waterford football team to play here’.

You could tell by the many vacant expressions that this was news to us.

“None of us knew going up in the taxis from Waterford the day previous that we were about to make history.” Added Walsh, whose brothers, Noel and Tom, were selected at left half-back and full-forward: “We were looking forward to playing there, but it made it 10 times more special when this news was relayed to us.” Out they ran onto the field, no more than a couple hundred supporters populating the stands. Indeed, such was the scarcity of spectators that Martin recognised one of the voices in the Cusack Stand.

“A neighbour of mine down the road here in Dunmore, Liam Murphy, was working in Dublin at the time. Mind you, he’s still up there. He went into the match and shouted over to me when we came out. I went over, we shook hands and he wished me the best of luck. We went up to the Hill 16 goal and I remember this rise in the field. This went completely against what I was expecting. I expected this to be a magical field, but the reality was that it wasn’t. I remember playing previous to that in Thurles and Páirc Uí Chaoimh. They were immaculate fields. There was a rise up to the corner flag of the Hill 16 End. I found it quite disappointing.”

Dublin, who had Jimmy Keaveney, Paddy Holden and Leo Hickey in their team, enjoyed a comfortable win. The final scoreline read 1-16 to 1-2. Leo Gardiner kicked 1-1 for the Déise, John Joe Carlton supplied their second point.

“T’was such a thrill,” said Walsh. “We were a bit off Dublin, but it was so special to be there.” For Martin, aged 23 at the time, it was to be his last outing in the white and blue shirt. He’d been a member of the panel for a few years previous but decided not to hang around for the Munster championship that summer.

‘Closed panels’, he explains, didn’t exist at the time and so there were more than a handful of players who togged out for Waterford for the first time on the Sunday afternoon of March 6. The Gaultier native had never met them prior to that and wouldn’t cross their path again until the team assembled in Crotty’s of Lemybrien in mid-March of this year, all of 50 years down the line. Martin, who took up badminton after hanging up his boots, had tried, unsuccessfully, to organise a night out to mark the 40th anniversary of the game back in 2006.

“I started making phone calls last October to see could we get something going for March to mark the 50th anniversary of the game. 21 players togged that day in Croker and all 21 are still alive. One of the selectors from that team, Sean Murphy, is also alive. That night in Crotty’s Bar was the first time I saw a lot of them in 50 years. The GAA president came down and we had a fabulous night.” For Kilrossanty native Walsh, ’66 was just the beginning.

He got his run out in Croke Park in a 1971 league fixture against Dublin and was part of the Munster Railway Cup squad that drew with Leinster at the venue the year following. “Had there been a backdoor in either 1971 or ’72, I have no hesitation in saying that Waterford would have got to an All-Ireland football quarter-final. In ’71, we had Kerry up the sticks in Dungarvan. They were All-Ireland champions. God, we had them. My opponent that day, Din Joe Crowley, was buried a couple of weeks ago. God rest him. We had Cork beaten in the semi-final in Fermoy in 1972. A ball broke and didn’t Dinny Allen bury the ball. That broke my heart.”

He won his last county medal with Kilrossanty in 1986, aged 40, and will be present in Fraher Field tomorrow afternoon to support his grandnephew, Paul Whyte, who is selected at centre-forward on the Waterford team.

“I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the Waterford jersey and I think it is an awful pity that there are some lads who aren’t involved in the current set-up. I’d do it all over again if I could because no one can lay a hand on you these days! Although there is that sweeper system. I called over to Thurles last week to watch Cork and Tipperary in the hurling. Don’t get me started.”

The Waterford team that afternoon was: Peter Crotty (Rathgormack); Paddy Carlton (Ardmore), Ed Mooney (Ardmore), Mick Connolly (The Nire); Ger Mooney (Kill), Wally Connors (John Mitchels), Noel Walsh (Kilrossanty); Tom Riordan (Kilrossanty), Tom Flynn (Kilrossanty); John Martin (Gaultier), John Joe Carlton (Ardmore), Jim Rooney (Ardmore); Willie Connolly (Windgap), Tom Walsh (Kilrossanty), Tommy Kirwan (John Mitchels).

Subs: Leo Gardiner (Erins Own), Tommy Joe Harty (An Rinn), John Kearns (Bonmahon), Pa Walsh (Kilrossanty), Monty Guiry (Kill), Pat Clancy (Stradbally).

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