Liam Cahill was surprised to get the phone-call in September 2019.
It wasn’t that his interview for the post of Waterford manager hadn’t gone well; in fact his responses to the five-man selection committee confirmed what they already believed about the then 41-year-old.
However, he thought there might have one or two more suitable candidates. Not since Davy Fitzgerald 11 years earlier had the county looked outside its borders for a manager. Not that Ballingarry was all that far away, but Peter Queally, a former team-mate of two of the committee members, had been mentioned publicly as being the front-runner in the days prior.
Although, that wasn’t the only reason for his pessimism. After guiding Tipperary to three All-Ireland under-age titles over the four previous seasons, he had the pedigree, but having been burnt by a similar process in his native county the previous year, his expectations had been lowered.
The Tipperary board had approached him about the senior vacancy left by Michael Ryan.
“I only spoke to them the once,” he recalled in August 2019 in between Liam Sheedy and him leading Tipperary seniors and U20s to All-Ireland glory, “just to lay out a couple of little ideas, but once Liam Sheedy was in the background, I didn’t engage any further after that. Liam was the right man at the right time, really. The results have shown it and fair play to him and his management team.”
Cahill needn’t have worried about a late runner in Waterford. From coaching to managing players to the style of hurling he and his coach Mikey Bevans would want Waterford to play, it all appealed to the committee of Seán Michael O’Regan (county chairman), Pat Flynn (secretary), former players Tom Feeney and Stephen Frampton, and Nemeton chief executive Irial Mac Murchú.
In the players, they saw a group whose confidence had been knocked out of them after going two seasons with a championship win, yet one that had lost the 2017 All-Ireland final by a lousy three points.
“Strong leadership was all they needed,” says a source close to the process.
Cahill was determined the man to deliver it. What had caught their eye most was his adaptability. In the space of seven-and-a-half weeks in the summer of 2018, he guided Tipperary’s U21s to a famous three-point All-Ireland final win over Cork, having lost the Munster final to them by 13 points.
Three years on and their point was proven as Cahill, in less than four weeks from the listless opening Munster defeat to Clare, has led Waterford to victories over two of the last four All-Ireland winners.
That is in spite of losing All-Stars Tadhg de Búrca and Pauric Mahony — who has yet to play a championship game under Cahill — to injury; the unavailability of Stephen O’Keeffe this year; and jettisoning another two All-Star recipients, Noel Connors and Maurice Shanahan; while also realising Austin Gleeson’s best position is not centre-back, as Cahill had indicated soon after his appointment.
In what was an exhaustive interview, Cahill had been just as impressed by the questions being asked of him as they were of his answers.
“The way they held their talks was absolutely exemplary,” he enthused in October 2019. “There were a group of men in front of me who absolutely had Waterford desire burning right through them and, for me, it made the decision that bit easier.”
In September 2019, Cahill announced his decision to step down as Tipperary’s U20 manager. Within a week, he was installed as Páraic Fanning’s successor. He and Bevans were the only confirmed men on the ticket, but it was no surprise when Cahill asked Frampton to join his management team.
Feeney came on board this season, replacing Stephen Molumphy, who could no longer oblige due to Defence Forces work commitments bringing him to England. Having been a part of Fitzgerald’s Leinster-winning group in Wexford in 2019, former Waterford captain Molumphy had been headhunted.
At no stage did the committee sense Waterford was a consolation for Cahill or a means of showing Tipperary what they were missing out on, as much as that is one of the narratives from last Saturday’s All-Ireland quarter-final.
“There was no grudge,” says the source. “He was convinced this was a job worth doing.”
And doing well.