Tony Browne.

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Déise must take inspiration from Galway’s journey

As David Burke was finishing his speech last Sunday, I was making my way along the Hogan Stand touchline for a piece with RTÉ when I felt this urge to go over to the devastated Waterford players and management still out on the field, says Tony Browne.

Déise must take inspiration from Galway’s journey

I was shattered as well but I also felt desperately proud of them and wanted to thank Derek McGrath as manager and Kevin Moran as team captain and Brick Walsh as a good friend for the huge resilience they’d shown.

I won’t lie to you, four minutes in when Galway had already reeled off four points from four different scorers, the ghost of 2008 raced through my mind. “Oh, no, here we go again.” Then Brick won a ball, laid it off to Kevin and after his brilliant finish Waterford were back in the game and would stick with Galway right to the end, the way only a really gritty and united team could.

In the end I left the lads alone. It wasn’t my place. Even there in defeat they were together, a unit, and that space had to be respected.

After the piece for TV though, I managed to have a lovely moment with one of the main protagonists of the day under the Hogan Stand. I had the honour of playing against Joe Canning towards the end of my career, even marked him in his second year at senior in an All Ireland quarter-final down in Thurles. Joe was still out on the field, giving so generously of himself to supporters, so I made my way over to him. We hugged and I whispered in his ear that as devastated as I was a Waterford man, I was genuinely delighted for him, that he was no longer stuck in that gang of great players without a Celtic Cross. As heartbroken as I was that Brick and Kevin still hadn’t found their Holy Grail, I couldn’t begrudge as great a person and a player as Joe Canning his day in the sun.

When you really boil it down, so much of the day came down to experience. It wasn’t a coincidence that Brick and Kevin were the two men who dragged us back into the game. They had both been there in 2008. But they were the only two lads who had been there. Sixteen of the 18 Galway lads who got game time last Sunday had played in an All-Ireland final before.

It’s incredible just how different an All-Ireland final is to every other game. Heading into that 2008 final, the core of our team had plenty of big-game know-how. By that stage, I had played in six Munster finals, six All-Ireland semi-finals, days when the square and the terrace in Thurles would be crammed with people, August Sundays when you’d have 60-70,000 people up in Croke Park. The core of the current Waterford team would have played in two Munster finals, three league finals, four All-Ireland semi-finals. And yet they’d have found, just like us in 2008, how much bigger an All-Ireland final is than the lot of them.

It’s not just that there’s a difference between 70,000 in Croke Park and a full house there. It’s the magnitude of it all. The idea of the entire country looking in on this match, pubs abroad heaving with people glued to the big screen, this dream you’ve had all your life, family and friends and people you don’t even know just yearning for that moment to release all that pent-up emotion and pride. All itching on the outcome: well, will we do it or not? Did we do it or not? Has your life changed or is that monkey still on your back? The stakes, the scrutiny, then on the day itself, the dignitaries and ceremonies; it can be a shock to the senses. It helps to have been there before. Because next time around, it’s not new. It’s all familiar.

I didn’t get to bank on the experience and hurt of 2008. I never got back. But last Sunday, the Galway lads were able to bank on the experience and hurt of 2012 and 2015. You could see some of the Waterford lads were nervous in the first 10 minutes; they were acclimatising to the conditions. The Galway lads hit the road running because it was familiar terrain for them. Then when Waterford edged ahead, the likes of Joe and David Burke and Johnny Coen were able to look and say to each other: This isn’t going to happen again. Enough is enough.

Losing an All-Ireland final is hard to describe. Justin McCarthy probably put it as well as anyone: it’s like losing a bride at the altar. You have all these big plans around your biggest day and then those plans, your dreams, are smashed. Last Sunday was one of only a handful of All-Ireland hurling finals that I’ve ever attended. When I was playing I’d always swap my two hurling final tickets for two football ones. I could go to the football and relax and enjoy the occasion and match with no hang-ups or regrets. At the hurling I’d only find myself upset, watching others out there playing and winning, marrying and dancing with my dream girl. The Galway lads know that kind of hurt, what it’s like to be left at the altar, this time they weren’t letting her away.

So that’s what we have to do now: learn and take inspiration from the Galway lads.

It didn’t happen for Austin Gleeson last Sunday — Gearoid McInerney didn’t let it. But so much is expected of Austin and as Joe Canning himself had to learn, coping with that expectation is not easy. So far he’s made his career progression look so straightforward. Win a minor All-Ireland, then an U21. But there’s nothing easy or straightforward about the last step. Joe Canning and the Galway boys could tell him that.

In Waterford, we now have to get back and bank on this experience. Of course it won’t be easy. As Derek McGrath said in his post-match interviews, getting to an All-Ireland is very, very tough. But I think now in Waterford we’ve to start looking at it a bit more positively. It’ll be just as hard if not harder for everyone else to get back to a final. I said it on the TV just before the game, this final was already an appetiser for the 2018 championship. The likes of Clare and Limerick must be champing to bring the kind of freshness to the All-Ireland stage that Waterford and Galway did this year. Cork will want a crack of it. And Tipp. And Kilkenny. And Wexford. And Dublin too; a team relegated down to Division 1B tends to bounce back well these years. It’ll be an absolute minefield. But Waterford are as well positioned as anyone to get back and actually win it. It still has the youth and the talent. Now it has the scars and experience. That’s a pretty formidable formula.

So much depends on whether Derek McGrath will stay on. I heard his interview with WLR yesterday morning and he was even more emotional than he was in the interviews he gave to the national media after the match. He might feel he has no more to give. But if I was the county board I’d be right away offering him another two years. Derek might have got a lot of criticism in Waterford over the last few seasons for how he had the team set up but even his critics have come to appreciate this summer that he’s created a special bond with those players, that there’s much more to him as a coach than just playing a sweeper.

And think of how much he’ll have learned from preparing for an All Ireland final. It will have made him an even better manager. If Derek were to go, some of that experience and some of that magic he has with the players could be lost.

If Derek does stay on, I can see him changing to a more expansive system. He probably realises himself now that as far as it has brought us, it can only bring us so far, that the likes of Galway had a greater range of scorers. We need to develop the likes of Patrick Curran and Stephen Bennett. Maybe Austin could be stationed at centre back and push it all on from there. With Tom Devine back as well, who knows where it could take us?

Maybe all the way back to that altar. And this time holding hands with that girl and that cup.

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