Why do we allow ourselves to lose the run of ourselves?
Things are bleak enough in Tipperary right now. The GAA public’s mood is low, inflation is rife and East West relations are fraught. It’s just like the 1980’s all over again. Our Munster Senior Hurling Championship campaign is over and we hardly laid a glove on anyone. Our senior footballers put in a tame performance against Limerick, relative to what we know they are capable of. The sun had better shine this summer because we are going to need it.
But hold on a second. Tipperary supporters should wake up every morning and thank the Lord that they were born in Tipperary. This might well be a fallow year for our senior hurlers but our minors are still on the road, into an All-Ireland semi-final no less and our under 20 team made it to a Munster final. That under 20 team has some fine hurlers on it, not senior hurlers yet but they have potential. And they play with courage and no little skill. Green shoots and all that. Our minor footballers won the Daryl Darcy Cup and made it to a Munster semi-final winning 4 games out of 5. Yes, they will be disappointed with that loss to Cork but this has been our most successful minor football team in 7 years. Our senior footballers gained promotion from Division 4, the priority at the start of the year and will hopefully have a good crack at winning the inaugural Tailteann Cup. You might describe Tipperary as a hurling county which it undeniably is. But our football family have had their days in the sun too. A first Senior Munster Title in 85 years only 18 months ago.
Talented young Gaelic players tend to choose hurling over football when the gun is inevitably put to their head and they are told to choose one. What would David Power give to have access to the likes of Alan Tynan, John Meagher, Paddy Cadell, Brain McGrath, etc? All playing relatively minor roles within the senior hurling panel, and who could strengthen the football panel enormously. But so be it, our footballers outperform most other counties despite the vicissitudes that invariably beset them.
So let us count ourselves very lucky indeed to have been born in this dual county. In the last decade we have won three senior hurling All Irelands, a minor football, two minor hurling, two under 21/20 hurling and have been in two All-Ireland football semi-finals and one under 21 football final. That must be the envy of all of the other 31 counties. Dublin senior footballers had some great days but their hurlers haven’t. Kilkenny won 8 All-Ireland’s in ten years and didn’t bother with football. So if you are lucky enough to be asked onto a hurling or a football panel in Tipperary, then you have a reasonable expectation of enjoying some success at some stage. Now, everything is relative. I’m not suggesting that playing for Tipperary in either code guarantees a walk up the Hogan Stand steps but you will win games and you will have a day in the sun.
Not so in other counties. If you are a Waterford hurler then you have to live with expectation and disappointment without the days of glory. Yes, a league title here and there keeps you going but it certainly doesn’t sate the appetite for success. And if you play football for Waterford, then life is a lot tougher. Last week, Rathgormack’s Conor Murray was interviewed for the Irish Examiner. Murray is in his eight season as an intercounty footballer with Waterford. During that time he has won only one championship game. “If you don’t have the attitude you won’t stick at it. If you’re there, looking to win something, you’re in the wrong business. It comes down to mindset and it comes down to attitude. When you do have your good days, it is worth it.”
In fairness to him and his fellow Waterford footballers that is quite a commitment and if, having good days makes it worthwhile, then surely they deserve more than one good day in eight years.
The Waterford hurlers started the Championship as second favourites for the Liam McCarthy. They were league champions. The Liam Cahill – Mickey Bevans coaching ticket was into its third year. Ballygunner were All Ireland Club Champions. They looked a cohesive unit with a common purpose and the Waterford public bought into it. Perhaps they bought into it too much. They wanted to believe. Unless you are well into your senior years, you have no experience of seeing Waterford winning a Liam McCarthy. No experience of the thrill of a great day in Croke Park with packed stands. Sure, Waterford have been in finals but have always fluffed their lines.
A great Waterford hurling team emerged in 1998, and ran Kilkenny to a point in an All-Ireland semi-final. Five Munster titles in the noughties, All Ireland titles at colleges, minor and under 21 but no senior All-Ireland. Limerick waited 45 years but not only arrived at the top table in 2018, they now dominate the landscape. Galway were certainly strong in the 1980’s and had some lean years but got their hands on Liam McCarthy in 2017, incidentally beating Waterford in the final. But despite producing superb players like Paul Flynn, John Mullane, Ken McGrath, Dan Shanahan etc, Waterford supporters never had that day in the sun.
This year would be different we were told. Former Waterford manager Derek McGrath told us so. He said that the team that defeated Waterford would win the All Ireland. Then, this week he bemoaned the excess optimism that had pervaded the county in recent weeks. Optimism that he had fuelled. And this got me thinking. Why is it that sports fans get carried away? Why is it that heart overrules head on so many occasions? The statistics are stark. Waterford have only ever won the Senior Hurling All-Ireland on two occasions and the last win was 63 years ago. If this championship has shown anything, it is that Waterford are no closer to bridging that gap than they were in 1998, or 2002. And I am not at all convinced that their current crop of players are better than those who came up short previously.
So why do we all do it to ourselves? I am often told by a work colleague when I get ahead of myself that ‘it’s the hope that kills you.’ Perhaps it might be better not to have high hopes as then your dreams won’t be shattered in often a cruel manner. We hype up our rugby team every four years when the World Cup comes around? History tells us that we have never gotten past the quarter finals of that particular tournament, but every four year cycle we tell ourselves that we are in with a chance. And it is perfectly understandable why we do it. Yes, it makes no sense on a purely analytical level, but sport does that to otherwise reasonable people. They adopt completely unreasonable positions and nurture arguments to defend their position. Statistics can be massaged into whatever justification you need.
Brian O’Driscoll put it best on Off the Ball this week and even though he was talking about rugby, his argument could be directly applied to the Waterford hurling supporter.
‘If we don’t get excited then what is the point of enjoying it. If we don’t get ahead of ourselves, if we don’t lose the run of ourselves sometimes, then what is the point of having sport? It’s what it is there for. It’s there for us to build it up and to enjoy the success but also for it to break our hearts. If you are not showing some sort of bias, if you are not winding people up, if you are not splitting opinion….. if you have gotten everyone onside, if you are trying to be superbly neutral then I don’t think you are trying hard enough. You have got to try and split opinion and rub people up the wrong way a little bit. You are meant to support your own, its human nature.’
So, Waterford supporters, keep doing what you are doing. Yes, some of you probably got a bit ahead of yourselves this year. Some of you, maybe, wound a few people up. But that is what you are supposed to do. It forms part and parcel of supporting your own. Regrettably there will be no open top bus ride along the Quays for your team this year and the ticker tape parade is cancelled. But without hope you have no supporters and without supporters we have no sport.
Down here on the Tipperary-Waterford border there is little love lost. I know they don’t celebrate when we win and why should they? Nor should we patronise them when they win or lose. Both Tipperary and Waterford lost out this year because neither were good enough. Our fall is lessened by our lower expectations at the start of the year. Waterford’s heightened by what Derek called an excess of optimism. And it is that optimism that brings Conor Murray back training with the Waterford footballers year after year. Why else would you make the sacrifice? We all had time to think during lockdown. Many of us altered our priorities. Things that we routinely took for granted and didn’t place enough importance on have been recalibrated upwards. Family events are not to be missed anymore because of a hobby that bears little fruit. That might explain a high turnover of players in the Waterford football squad. It might explain why, some Tipp hurlers and footballers took the option of travelling this summer, rather than committing to the rigors of intercounty training. Fair enough. And those who did commit, fair play to you. And those of us who got a bit ahead of ourselves, rubbed a few people up the wrong way and divided opinion? Well, we were only supporting our own and that is human nature. And Brian said its perfectly normal, and he is right about everything!