ALL-IRE­LAND FINAL SPE­CIAL

To­day’s cham­pi­ons will end the long­est bar­ren stretch since Clare won af­ter 81 years in 1995

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - DER­MOT CROWE

Jame­sie O’Con­nor as­sesses the strengths and weak­nesses of both teams

Water­ford’s Noel Con­nors on the long road to Croke Park

Der­mot Crowe ex­poses the pain of two coun­ties hurl­ing in the wilder­ness

Shane Sta­ple­ton on play­ing the gen­er­a­tion game to win

JOE Rab­bitte, aged 10,is leav­ing Croke Park af­ter Gal­way have won their first All-Ire­land since 1923. It’s September 7, 1980. A wait of 57 years, only one shy of Water­ford’s cur­rent sen­tence, has ex­pired and the ground is drenched in glo­ri­ous cel­e­bra­tion. Joe Con­nolly has de­liv­ered a speech for the ages in the na­tive tongue. The late Joe McDon­agh has sung deep from the heart. And there’s the ‘where’s Iggy’ mo­ment when the stricken de­fender is called to the podium to join the rest.

But this is what Joe re­calls. Leav­ing Croke Park he sees a lad with “long hair and a big Gal­way hat” shout­ing: ‘Up the West and feck the rest’.

“I am sure he had a cou­ple of scoops on him at the time,” says Rab­bitte, who spent the match on Hill 16 on his fa­ther’s shoul­ders. “I was look­ing at the backs of fel­las in front of me most of the time. My fa­ther would lift me and when he got ex­cited he would drop me down. I would be up for a bit and down again.”

Any­thing else? “Steve Ma­hon’s ma­roon jersey and it black with sweat.”

And, later, John Con­nolly and PJ Mol­loy com­ing to Athenry with the Liam MacCarthy Cup, to light the spark for the next gen­er­a­tion. Rab­bitte’s per­sonal quest to win an All-Ire­land medal no­tably failed. The longer his ca­reer went on, the more peo­ple won­dered if he’d ever get that medal in his hand. He ar­rived in the se­nior squad as an 18-year old at the end of 1989. Gal­way, fresh from re­cent All-Ire­land suc­cess, were about to ex­pe­ri­ence famine, not that any­body had a clue. “I sup­pose the rest is his­tory,” he laughs. “I was just in time for the tail-end of the cel­e­bra­tions. That’s life.”

The long gap has brought many changes and, bar­ring a draw, to­day will of­fer up a win­ner who will be deeply ap­pre­cia­tive of their al­tered sta­tus. This is the first time since 1996 that no player in an All-Ire­land final has a medal. The win­ner, be it Gal­way or Water­ford, will end the long­est bar­ren stretch since 1995, when Clare beat back 81 years of fail­ure. From that per­spec­tive the neu­tral can’t lose.

It is the first final with­out a tra­di­tional top three county since Wexford de­feated Lim­er­ick 21 years ago. And it is the first ever meet­ing of these coun­ties in an All-Ire­land final. “They are both in the same boat,” says Rab­bitte. “They have pro­duced, over the last decades, fan­tas­tic teams, fan­tas­tic young hurlers, and they have ex­cited peo­ple all over the coun­try with the way they’ve hurled. It is too long for any county like Gal­way and Water­ford to be with­out All-Ire­lands.”

The sim­ple arith­metic would sug­gest that Water­ford de­serve the lion’s share of the sym­pa­thy vote. They have waited twice as long, played in fewer All-Ire­land fi­nals in the last half cen­tury — only one since 1963 — and only two years af­ter Gal­way’s win in 1980 they got a hiding in the Mun­ster final from Cork that looked al­most de­signed to ban­ish any no­tions they might have of try­ing to usurp the old or­der in the prov­ince.

That pro­vin­cial tyranny has dis­ap­peared. But the last Water­ford All-Ire­land is from an Ire­land long gone.

Yet Gal­way have ar­guably suf­fered more. In those 29 years they’ve lost the fi­nals of 1990, 1993, 2001, 2005, 2012 and 2015. Which re­veals only the bare bones of the on­go­ing frus­tra­tion of fall­ing short when they seemed to have enough hurlers and abil­ity to cross the line. If they win, no less than if Water­ford do, Croke Park will wit­ness an enor­mous re­lease of emo­tion.

This is guar­an­teed to be all the more charged, win or lose, by the re­cent loss of Tony Keady, their com­mand­ing fig­ure of the All-Ire­land wins of 1987 and ’88. A short trib­ute is planned on the big screen, and six min­utes into the final there will be an op­por­tu­nity to mark his pass­ing with a round of ap­plause.

Rab­bitte played with him for four years and re­garded him as a good friend. “That is on peo­ple’s minds go­ing up to it. For a lot of peo­ple who were close to him and for that gen­er­a­tion, es­pe­cially when they do the trib­ute to him, that will be tough. I met Keady at the Leinster final. He said, ‘How’re you horse!’ ‘Je­sus, Keady, you could hurl to­day,’ I told him. He didn’t say he couldn’t, but some­thing like, ‘well, you would never know’.

“We were out one night, ev­ery­one gath­ered round Keady, a group of boys lis­ten­ing to him telling sto­ries — whether singing, danc­ing, what­ever you put him at, he’d at­tract an au­di­ence. Any­way they were lis­ten­ing to him talk about the great set-up Gal­way had in his time play­ing when he said it was a shame him­self and Conor Hayes didn’t talk to each other any­more. And he got up and went to the toi­let. And peo­ple were won­der­ing, what had hap­pened be­tween him­self and Hayes? So they asked when he came back and he ex­plained that Hayes never stopped giv­ing out to him be­cause he never let the ball into him, he never let the ball through. And the boys were look­ing at each other. He would be pulling stunts like that all night.”

What­ever hap­pens to­day, with Joe Can­ning now hav­ing re­placed Rab­bitte as the fig­ure­head of Gal­way’s strug­gle to win an All-Ire­land, the loss of Keady will al­ways be as­so­ci­ated with this lat­est at­tempt. His for­mer half-back line part­ner Pete Fin­nerty will be in Croke Park to ac­com­pany Keady’s wife Mar­garet and four chil­dren, who will be guests of the GAA. Fin­nerty knew him for 40 years. “If we weren’t in an All-Ire­land it would be worse,” he says, “if there was noth­ing to take our minds away from it for the last four weeks I think we would have gone in­sane. With the build-up you would be do­ing bits and pieces. It keeps us fo­cused on some­thing else. It is still very raw.”

But this is where they are com­ing from. If David Burke goes up the steps it would be no sur­prise were he to pay trib­ute to Keady or maybe ded­i­cate the win to his memory. “You know you can’t let any­thing like that af­fect you as a player,” says Fin­nerty. “Each lad go­ing out is wor­ry­ing about the man be­side him. You can’t put that pres­sure on them but they all came into the fu­neral. They showed their ut­ter re­spect for him.”

If they win, how will he feel? “I don’t know. The first place I will look on Sun­day I sup­pose is the sky. It would be bril­liant. As Cyril Far­rell used to say, when you win an All-Ire­land there is no win­ter. There will be a win­ter for the Keadys un­for­tu­nately and his friends, but it will help, it will give us some­thing else to think about and it would be fit­ting if we won it in his memory. And it is fit­ting that Gearoid McIn­er­ney (his for­mer half­back team-mate’s son) will be fill­ing his (num­ber six) shirt.”

The years pass: nine since Water­ford’s last All-Ire­land final ap­pear­ance, not as long as the dis­tance to the one be­fore that. But the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of years with­out an All-Ire­land takes its toll. Just two mem­bers of the first team to achieve that dis­tinc­tion for the county in 1948 were alive when Water­ford pre­pared to meet Kilkenny 60 years later in 2008. Both, Andy Flem­ing and Johnny O’Con­nor, have passed on since then. So has Pat Fan­ning, in 2010, the god­fa­ther fig­ure of Water­ford hurl­ing across the gen­er­a­tions.

Fan­ning’s son Phil at­tended the ’48 final at four years of age. “I re­mem­ber go­ing on a dou­ble-decker bus in Dublin,” he laughs, “that is all I can re­mem­ber.” He has more in the memory bank from at­tend­ing the All-Ire­land fi­nals in 1957 and ’59, and again in ’63.

“We need it a bit more than they do,” he says of to­day’s final when pressed. “Like, they have had their All-Ire­lands in the ’80s; we are only back in con­tention since we got to the All-Ire­land semi-final in 1998. We had ter­ri­ble lean years be­fore that.”

In his es­ti­ma­tion, the 1970s were the county’s worst years. “At least in the ’80s we got to three Muster fi­nals,” he says. “We beat Tipp and beat Lim­er­ick when they were Mun­ster cham­pi­ons to get to Mun­ster fi­nals. In ’89 we got to the final as well. I was in­volved with Tony Mans­field when we got to the Mun­ster final in ’89. In early ’88 we were the first team to beat Gal­way in 18 months. They had won the All-Ire­land in ’87 and were un­beaten un­til we beat them in the League in Dun­gar­van. It made ev­ery­one in Water­ford sit up and take note. They came with a full team.”

Fan­ning went to Croke Park with his grand­par­ents in 1948 as his fa­ther was train­ing the se­nior team. His memory of ’59? “It was heart­break­ing in ’57 to lose by a point, and when we were los­ing by a goal with the game com­ing up to full-time I could not take it any more. I was 15. I got up and left my seat and was out­side when I heard this roar and I went back and saw that Sea­mus Power had scored the (equal­is­ing) goal. So I swore I would never leave a match again.” That match

Six min­utes into the final there will be an op­por­tu­nity to mark his pass­ing

went to a re­play which Water­ford won.

The full-back on that team, Austin Flynn, ar­rived in the squad in 1952 and could see that or­gan­i­sa­tion wasn’t ex­em­plary. The team that won in 1948 was an age­ing one. At that point in his life he was keenly in­ter­ested in boats and sail­ing. But all changed when Fan­ning sum­moned them to a meet­ing in Fra­her field. “And then Fan­ning made a fa­mous speech, say­ing that ‘as God is my judge I be­lieve there is a win­ning of an All-Ire­land in ye fel­las. It will take a huge ef­fort, you will have to give of your­self un­til it hurts and when you have given it every­thing you have to give that bit ex­tra for the Water­ford jersey’.”

Fan­ning’s core mes­sage was that it was eas­ier for those with tra­di­tion to keep com­ing back. It took a spe­cial qual­ity for coun­ties like Water­ford to do so, un­de­terred. Out of that sprung the group of play­ers who brought the county to three All-Ire­land fi­nals, in ’57, ’59 and ’63.

“A great bunch of hurlers ap­peared at the same time. Mount Sion had seven or eight,” says Flynn. “Nowa­days it is com­pletely dif­fer­ent. The hurl­ing has spread through­out the whole county. I hap­pened to be lucky enough to be around at the time when you had great hurlers. Now they talk of the size of the player and that but back in my time the play­ers weren’t fed that well so they weren’t that big. Frankie Walsh was a very small man, Larry Guinan, John Kiely and Mick Flan­nelly were all small on the out­side but in­side they were about seven feet tall.”

Flynn doesn’t have the mo­bil­ity to at­tend the match and will view it on tele­vi­sion at home. What hap­pens if they win? “If the lads could get over the line it would be un­be­liev­ably spe­cial for old fel­las like me.”

He was 15 in 1948 when Water­ford first reached the sum­mit and re­calls re­turn­ing home by train and try­ing to sleep ly­ing down in the cor­ri­dor. The fol­low­ing week the cap­tain Jim Ware vis­ited his school, Dun­gar­van CBS, with the cup. Eleven years later he re­mem­bers a lo­cal politi­cian, on the team’s re­turn to Water­ford as cham­pi­ons, declar­ing them not just the best hurl­ing team in Ire­land, but Europe as well.

An­other of that pe­riod, Larry Guinan, re­mem­bers lit­tle of the matches but can re­call go­ing into the sea at Malahide near the ho­tel where they were stay­ing af­ter win­ning the ’59 re­play. “It was on the fourth of Oc­to­ber and I re­mem­ber go­ing out swimming, I think around four in the morn­ing with a pack of us, and Sea­mus Power was near drowned. And Sea­mus was the man that scored the goal for us in the drawn game. I re­mem­ber there was a few of us that had to come out of the wa­ter. We had a few pints, I needn’t tell you.

“There are not too many of us left alive, we are get­ting kind of scarce now. Be­fore the rest of us go we want to see the cup com­ing across that bridge, it’s as sim­ple as that. We would be over the moon, ab­so­lutely. We have been heart­bro­ken for so many years. It’s gone to the point where we are get­ting kind of des­per­ate for the All-Ire­land, well us old fel­las any­way.” Guinan had re­cently turned 18 when they lost the ’57 final to Kilkenny. “I can’t wait,” he says of to­day. “Some­times I shake when I think about it. I’d get worked up about it.”

The bruis­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of 2008, and the ab­sence of Kilkenny, re­duces a great deal of the pre-match fan­fare for Water­ford. The end­less re­plays of the

track on the lo­cal ra­dio sta­tion re­flected the hys­te­ria of the time. At one open night be­fore 2008, Sea­mus Pren­der­gast was en­gulfed by au­to­graph hunters for hours and didn’t get home un­til af­ter 11. Many of those were neigh­bours of his. They could have got those sig­na­tures at any time.

Shane Ahearne played 10 years for Water­ford, and in the first five, be­tween 1984

‘They were all small on the out­side but in­side they were seven feet tall’

Many were neigh­bours. They could have got sig­na­tures at any time

and ’88, he played five cham­pi­onships matches. “One match a year,” he says. “Bang. Gone.” The aban­don­ment of the knock-out sys­tem has helped Water­ford in the same way the move to Leinster has helped Gal­way. Ahearne was there when they sank as low as they ever sank, play­ing Divi­sion 3 hurl­ing and los­ing to Mayo. But the 1989 sea­son had them in the Mun­ster final af­ter beat­ing Cork in a re­played semi-final, and three years af­ter came the All-Ire­land un­der 21 ti­tle and mi­nor final ap­pear­ance. Those were gains and signs of progress.

Paddy Joe Ryan, the cur­rent chair­man of the county board, says they want to win this final “for ev­ery Water­ford man, woman and child, to make them so proud of our county and to see we are right back where we be­long. We want to erase all those bad mem­o­ries, we want to wipe the slate clean.”

Ticket de­mand is crazy. Ryan ex­pects up to 35,000 Water­ford sup­port­ers in the sta­dium, even though their al­lo­ca­tion was less than half that. One day last week he re­ceived 84 calls on his mo­bile be­fore 8.30pm, many of those ticket-re­lated.

Noel Lane, the three-time All-Ire­land win­ner, says Water­ford have suf­fered but Gal­way too “have had our bel­ly­ful of it”. He cites the great play­ers on both sides, like Tony Browne, John Mul­lane, Ken McGrath, Ol­lie Can­ning, Eu­gene Cloo­nan, who failed to win a medal. “You have two teams try­ing to bridge gaps. It is go­ing to be hor­ri­ble I think for who­ever loses, be­cause the op­por­tu­nity is there for them. In a county that wins an All-Ire­land, par­tic­u­larly af­ter a long pe­riod, say Mayo in foot­ball or Gal­way or Water­ford in hurl­ing, it im­pacts on ev­ery­one in that county, be­cause it is part of the fab­ric of life.”’

Two days af­ter Gal­way drew the 2012 All-Ire­land final, PJ Mol­loy, an All-Ire­land win­ner in 1980 and ’87, suf­fered a heart at­tack and had to have four stents put in. Now 65, he has learned to be calm and to con­trol his emo­tions on match days. “I found it very hard,” he ad­mits, in the late 1980s and ’90s to be in the stand look­ing down on games we could have won.”

How does he see this build-up, with Gal­way fan­cied from an un­usu­ally long way out af­ter win­ning the League? “Not over-con­fi­dent. There is no­body go­ing around say­ing we are go­ing to win this by ten points. Peo­ple are very re­spect­ful of what Water­ford are bring­ing to the ta­ble. I have of­ten seen more hype. It is calm enough. I would be qui­etly con­fi­dent. I think this team has shown con­sis­tency, which is very im­por­tant. There were years we played bril­liant hurl­ing and didn’t re­peat it.”

For the neu­tral there is no loser to­day. Hurl­ing is deeply in­flu­enced by tra­di­tion and rep­e­ti­tion, and this is a twist in the nar­ra­tive. The All-Ire­land hurl­ing final goes where no final has gone be­fore. Come the final whis­tle, un­less there’s a draw, it will be bed­lam whichever teams wins — a sight and deaf­en­ing sound to be­hold.

Mau­rice Shana­han of Water­ford in ac­tion against Conor Cooney, left, and Pádraic Man­nion of Gal­way; above: Gal­way fig­ure­head Joe Can­ning; right: Water­ford man­ager Derek McGrath with his se­lec­tor Dan Shana­han

Dar­ragh Fives Club: Tourin Age: 25 Height: 6’1’’ Weight: 13st C’ship de­but: 2011

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