Written by Laura Kennedy
Waterford (or the Déise, as it’s also known) must be one of the unluckiest teams in hurling. That is, at least when it comes to silverware. For a county which can boast more than its fair share of All Stars (an award given annually to the best player in each of the 15 positions on the field) and has produced as much talent as any of its neighbours, we’ve had notably less to show for it. The biggest prize in hurling is the Liam MacCarthy Cup, which is given to the winner of the All Ireland Senior Hurling Championship each year.
The last time Waterford won the All Ireland Senior Hurling final was 1959. 1959….. Senator Kennedy was preparing to announce his campaign for presidency, Elvis Presley was in the charts, and Some like it Hot starring Marilyn Monroe was in the cinemas. It’s a year that is starting to fade from living memory, but an important year for the people of the Déise. In October of that year, Waterford beat their neighbours Kilkenny in a replay of the All Ireland Final (the first game had ended in a draw, when a late goal for Waterford gave them a final score of 1-17, bringing them level with Kilkenny who had scored 5-5). This was only the second time that Waterford had brought home the Liam MacCarthy Cup, having beaten Dublin in the 1948 final.
In 1963 Waterford won the Munster Championship. This is a regional competition, one of the two provincial championships which take place, and only teams from the province of Munster can participate.
But Waterford fans had few opportunities to travel to Croke Park, the famous stadium in Dublin where the All Ireland semi-finals and final are played every year. In the next few decades, Waterford did not have much success. Unlike our neighbours Cork, who do very well in Gaelic football as well, Waterford focuses mostly on hurling. But in the ‘60s, ’70s, ’80s and ‘90s, the sport was dominated by Cork, Tipperary and Kilkenny, counties which all share a border with Waterford.
Things began to change in the 90s
From the mid ‘90s things began to change. In 1998 Tony Browne won an All Star, as well as the title of Hurler of the Year. Top level players such as Ken McGrath, Dan Shanahan, and Paul Flynn gave the Déise fans some hope of more success.
In 2002, for the first time in 39 years, Waterford won the Munster Championship. For young people in Waterford, this was the first time they could celebrate winning a championship. And of course, the winner of the Munster Championship qualifies automatically for one of the four places in the All Ireland semi-finals.
For me and many Waterford supporters of my generation, this was our first time attending a game at Croke Park. Despite a capacity of 83,000 (2% of the population of the entire Republic of Ireland), tickets were hard to get. A lot of tickets are distributed through GAA clubs, so this was often the best way to get them. Unfortunately Waterford lost to Clare and so didn’t make it to the All Ireland final that year.
Some of my best memories, shared by many other people from Waterford around my age, are of attending inter-county games in the ’00s in stadia such as Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork and Semple Stadium in Thurles.
Players from this period, like John Mullane, Eoin Kelly, Michael “Brick” Walsh, Paul Flynn and Dan Shanahan, are some of best hurlers never to have won an All Ireland medal. Waterford won the Munster Championship three more times during this golden era of Waterford hurling, in 2004, 2007 and 2010.
A bittersweet All Ireland final for me
In 2008, using the “back door” system of qualifying for a semi-final place without winning the provincial championship, Waterford secured a place in the All Ireland final for the first time in 49 years. For me this was bittersweet because the All Ireland final took place just one week after I started my new job in Koblenz and moved to Germany, so I was unable to go to the game. I travelled to Cologne to watch the match with friends. There had been unbelievable build-up and excitement in Waterford in the weeks before the final. We felt it was our time. We deserved it. We had waited 49 years….. but in the end Kilkenny beat us easily, 3-30 to 1-13.
One by one, many of the great names in Waterford hurling hung up their inter-county boots and retired from the game without winning the coveted All Ireland title. Paul Flynn retired after the 2008 season, Ken McGrath in 2011, and John Mullane in 2013 (who memorably gave an interview after getting a red card in the 2004 Munster Final, in which he apologised and declared his love for Waterford and its people).
The team which lined out for Waterford in 2017, when they next qualified for a place in an All Ireland final, was almost a completely different team, full of fresh talent, with only Michael “Brick” Walsh having played in the 2008 final. Once again, I missed the chance to watch the match in Croke Park. Although I had been in Waterford on the morning of the final, there was no flight after the match which could get me back to Germany in time for work the next morning.
At home the match was everyone’s first priority. Tickets were once again difficult to get, but everyone in my family managed to get them. A lot of employers offered people the chance to take Monday off too. We hoped there’d be a celebration. We had waited so very long. It had been 58 years since the Liam MacCarthy Cup had been to Waterford. And while I was heading to Cork airport, my family, neighbours and friends were going to Croke Park in Dublin.
They were already in the stadium when I, after landing in Düsseldorf, took a taxi straight to an Irish pub to be on time for the throw in. This game was close, with the two teams neck and neck with each other for most of the match, but in the end Galway denied Waterford the title once again, with a final score of 0-26 to 2-17.
For the third time since we won in 1959, Waterford are in the final, and once again I’ll be in Germany and not Croke Park. But at home there is no desperate search for tickets for the match against Limerick. They are not just difficult to get, but impossible… they don’t exist. The massive stadium will be empty. The winning team will leave the Liam MacCarthy Cup in Dublin and there will be no homecoming parade. But that hasn’t muted the excitement of the Déise supporters.
Every house in Waterford, and one apartment in Hürth, is decorated with white and blue flags. School children are singing “All I want for Christmas is the Liam MacCarthy Cup” and “Fairytale of Croke Park”. People are wearing face masks embossed with the Waterford crest, to match their jerseys. Just like John Mullane, we love our county!
Cover photo: Waterford GAA