'It’s going to take a lot of soul searching' - A case of no tomorrow for below par Waterford

Potential consequences for Waterford hurling are worrying, to say the least, if they fail to advance from round-robin

Dermot Crowe

Waterford hurling followers approach the final day of the Munster round-robin with an air of impending doom, needing a positive result in Ennis where it is doubtful too many of them will travel for the last assignment against Clare. Even if they manage to win, there isn’t much Waterford hope that Cork will fail to beat Tipperary in Thurles, despite Cork’s own reputation for flattering to deceive.

They are on the brink, a creeping fatalism spreading like ivy and slowly strangling the optimism of recent weeks. If the season ends today it will be a brutal reversal of fortune for Liam Cahill’s side, which coasted to a league final win over Cork in early April. But the team hasn’t fulfilled the hopes that it was the natural heir to Limerick’s All-Ireland estate; after that initial soar the momentum has stalled.

Meeting adversity in the past, Cahill has not tried to sugarcoat or smooth over the cracks. In the immediate aftermath of games he tends to shoot straight. Last Sunday was hardly going to be different. But last Sunday brought a grimmer realisation than ever before in his reign that the end might be nigh. Indeed, it could, to all intents and purposes, finish this afternoon in Ennis.

Last year, having reached the All-Ireland final the previous season, the team fell flat in the opening Munster championship match against Clare. For a long stretch they were second best, lacking vitality and when they found a strain of form and fluency it was too late to save themselves.

“I have to throw everything at this now,” Cahill said afterwards, facing into the qualifiers. “I’m going to look at it really stringently and rigorously because ultimately too many lads failed today.”

In these times of warm hugs, greater empathy and political correctness, such plain talking can look cold and risky. Managers have lost the dressing room by speaking too much outside of it. Cahill may feel secure enough to be able to say what he feels is right, and that has always seemed his way.

Against Clare last year he was missing Stephen O’Keeffe from the All-Ireland final team, the goalkeeper having taken a year out, while Tadhg De Burca was injured along with shorter term casualties Jamie Barron and Conor Prunty. So they were down some key players, but that did not offer any mitigation in his view.

“I’ll be rewarding any player that puts their hand up over the next fortnight or three weeks for a qualifier because at this stage I’ve nothing to lose,” he stated.

That was June 27. On July 17 they met Laois in the qualifiers and won by five points. Nothing hectic. A week after that they beat Galway and the next weekend took out Tipp in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Then they lost to Limerick.

Since then it has been an impressive league title win, followed by sluggish form in the Munster championship, none more so than last Sunday in Walsh Park. It leaves them looking at elimination from the round-robin which would be the third time out of three attempts the county has failed to qualify. In that period they have won just once, in the first round against Tipp this year. But failure now would be the worst of the three by far.

After the loss to Cork, Cahill didn’t swerve. Constipated hurling, Ger Loughnane once memorably described a team overly constrained, not firing on all cylinders. After seeing his side falter, Cahill likened Waterford’s stuttering play to a car “on dirty petrol, just chugging along.”

Perhaps the most damning admission was that, on a small pitch, Cork had bullied them. “We’ve a lot of work to do to get our heads around this to go to Ennis in seven days’ time,” Cahill admitted. “It’s going to take a lot of soul searching and a lot of honesty to come out here over the next seven days or we’ll have a good long summer to think about it.”

He said their decision-making was poor and the team he was looking at wasn’t the team he knew them to be. Their two midfield men were taken off, while Dessie Hutchinson couldn’t get into the game and had to forage out the field for possession. Concerns exist as well about the form of players like Prunty and De Burca, while Stephen Bennett’s league standards haven’t carried through, his first championship point from play only coming last weekend. His free taking was off, another concern, while former marksman Pauric Mahony didn’t make the match day 26.

All glasses look half-empty in defeat. “I have great belief in these players, I’ve always said that,” Cahill commented afterwards. “I’m here, I’m in the trenches with them now, that’s what I signed up to and I will help them every way I can. I can’t wait to get stuck into them during the week. We’ll try and fix what went wrong today and we’ll come to Ennis with all guns blazing to try and keep the summer alive for everyone here in Waterford.”

If they get through this there might be a second wind or a new bounce in them, but if there is to be no tomorrow then the potential consequences for Waterford hurling are worrying, to say the least. Cahill may be gone and if they are to find a successor where do they turn to next? And what lessons have been learned? Could the defeat to Cork last Sunday prove to be one of the most damaging results in Waterford’s recent history?

Former county player Brian Flannery was in the commentary box with Waterford local radio station, WKLR FM. “You have got to put the performance in Walsh Park to bed,” he says. “You can’t hide from it. You put the hand up, yeah we didn’t perform, we let ourselves down, yeah absolutely. But there is nothing you can do about it now. The only thing they can do is perform in Ennis next Sunday. That is the only thing in their control and it does need to happen. But I think there will be less pressure in some ways because the pressure now will be to perform. The expectations have evaporated.”

Flannery won a Munster championship with Waterford 20 years ago, having moved from his native Tipperary, and has experience of these challenging scenarios. Down at the dressing rooms last Sunday, the disappointment was palpable, the gravity of the situation didn’t need time to sink in.

“The disappointment was etched on players’ faces,” he says. “You watched the players on the way out after the game, they absolutely knew the possible ramifications of defeat. This week will be tricky. They have to go to Ennis and play a Munster championship game and no matter what Tipp and Cork do they have to do themselves justice. Whatever happens.

“The last thing you need is to have a real flat week in training, everyone in bad form and everyone blaming each other then go up and maybe have half a Clare team beat you in Ennis. That would put you back down to the bottom of the ladder and the progress made over the last couple of years would be questionable then.

“You have to realise it [Cork] is one game, you are better than that. Players will want to show they are championship players and can do it when it matters. And that is the niggling thing, last Sunday was when it mattered. And it just didn’t happen.”

Walsh Park itself has come under the microscope, without excusing the performance. Its dimensions plainly don’t suit the Waterford style of play although there are plans to widen it.

What if it ends now? “It would leave more questions than answers I suppose,” says Flannery of a possible Waterford exit. “Uncertainty about if the players are good enough at all; have they the ability, the temperament, the wherewithal to win the games that they really must? The big games. The knock-out games. And that’s what last Sunday was in Walsh Park and in fairness to the management they certainly recognised it. The run-in was very much billed as a game that had to be won.

“Having such a sense of anticipation for the year and having won the league title and been very impressive your fate is now out of your hands,” he adds. “You are kinda wondering, Jesus, how did that happen? Or where did it all go wrong?”

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