One would go a long way to find a group of people more passionate about anything, then the people of Waterford are about their hurling team. John Mullane’s interview after the epic 2004 Munster hurling final with Cork encaptured the connection between the team and their supporters.
“The people of Waterford are my life, I love my county”.
“AND WE LOVE JOHN MULLANE”.
The all round outpour of emotion and gratitude to what both the Waterford players and supporters provide for each other is best shown through that famous video clip. But the connection between the Waterford players and the Waterford public runs deeper than it does in most counties.
And for so long, the heartbreak has been shared. A Waterford hurling resurgence began back in 1998. Waterford joined in the hurling revolution that was kicked off by Clare, Wexford, Offaly and Limerick when Cork native Gerald McCarthy brought a young Déise side with household names such as Ken McGrath, Tony Browne, Paul Flynn and Dan Shanahan to a national league final and a Munster final.
Waterford brought yet another breath of fresh air to hurling. Having occupied Anthony Daly’s proclaimed “whipping boys of Munster” tag, the Déise turned the tables and were not only a force in the Munster championship, but became a force nationwide.
But heartbreak would be the unfortunate order of the day for Waterford for so long. 1998 saw a massive opportunity go amiss as a 1-11 to 1-10 loss against Kilkenny occurred in the All-Ireland semi-final. More heartbreak would occur in 2002 in the All-Ireland series when a flat performance resulted in a loss to Clare, despite the joy at winning their first Munster title in 39 years.
2004 saw Waterford win a classic Munster final against Cork, but more heartbreak endured in losing the All-Ireland semi-final to Kilkenny conceding three early goals. 2006 saw a loss to Cork by a single point at the All-Ireland semi-final stage. This year was the closest the Déise had come to a big win in Headquarters.
2007 looked to be THE year. Waterford won the National League, this was a big deal as it was their first national hurling title in 44 years. This was followed by another Munster title and Waterford looked like real contenders for the All-Ireland title.
They were regarded as the second best team in the country. Arch-rivals Cork were the opponents in the quarter-final. Despite having provincial success, this Waterford side had ultimately failed in Croke Park and this was a major obstacle that Waterford had to overcome.
The Déise prevailed after a replay with Dan Shanahan on fire. This was the time. Having negated Cork, everyone awaited Waterford playing Kilkenny to determine who the best team in Ireland were that season. But heartbreak was the order of the day as Limerick caused a shock to lead to another winter of regret in the south-east.
2007 was a real missed opportunity.
The 2008 championship then began in disarray as a loss to Clare was followed by the manager, Justin McCarthy, vacating his position. It looked as if Waterford’s momentum had stopped, and a baron period was on the way. But they shocked everybody by qualifying for the 2008 All-Ireland final under the guidance of Davy Fitzgerald.
The term ‘heartbreak’ is a harsh one to put on that 2008 final, as Waterford came up against a formidable Kilkenny side that would have beaten anyone heavily that day.
And nine years later, Waterford have finally gotten back to that stage. But this time there is a lot more confidence in this Waterford side. While they embraced the occasion and celebrated getting to the 2008 final, it was very much bonus territory, 2017 paints a completely different picture.
This Waterford group is now a group of extremely confident players. Their confidence has grown for a number of reasons. The most obvious one was their victory over Kilkenny.
It was a point raised by football personalities back in 2012, when Donegal beat Kerry, and it was raised again by Anthony Daly last weekend. Each sport has its traditional superpowers and Kilkenny have been the hurling team over the last 15 years.
Waterford had failed to beat Kilkenny in the championship since 1959, and the confidence they gained from that win cannot be underestimated. The manner of the victory was another massive learning experience. They nearly threw away an eight point lead, but pulled through in extra time by realising that they were the more talented team.
Beating Wexford was a no-win situation for them and the result was all that mattered and the next challenge proved to be Cork in a semi-final in Croke Park.
Mentally, this was a huge game for Waterford and getting over the line was all that mattered. But the way in which the Déise succeeded will only build their confidence further. Firstly, this was a victory in Croke Park, a feat that has deserted plenty of Waterford players, and one that cannot be devalued.
Waterford won a game without one of their main players Tadhg de Búrca. They also managed to beat a side that had beaten them earlier in the season. After two near misses in 2015 and 2016, Waterford have now negotiated the semi-final stage and have gone one step further in 2017.
Their much-maligned system has worked. They have bucked the trend and proved the haters wrong. A team can be successful using a sweeper. Waterford completely cut off the Cork attack by using the extra bodies and getting past the semi-final stage will only increase their belief in their system.
Now this is a Waterford that has many players with Minor and Under-21 All-Ireland medals in their back pockets. Hurling in September is not new to these players. Their experience of All-Ireland semi-finals definitely stood to them last Sunday, and what has now become a collection of positive experiences should have these players brimming with confidence.
The other note for confidence is that Waterford have never lost to Galway in the hurling championship. While these may be two different groups of players, that has to count for something, or at least, Waterford have to make it count.
The games in 2009 and 2011 will stick in the minds of the Waterford player’s and the Waterford public. Both years saw the Déise completely defy the odds and beat Galway, once by a single point, the other time, a ten point hammering. Both occasions were major upsets, and both will fill the Déise with confidence.
The Waterford team and the Waterford public will embrace this final with both hands. And their experiences of recent time should stand to them. They have suffered the heartbreak and lived the good memories together over the last 20 years.
The people of Waterford love their county and recent events, coupled with the collective passion and support of all should have the Désie brimming with confidence and excitement ahead of the 3rd of September.