Flannery and Ahearne insist Waterford on right track to challenge for honours
Waterford’s Shane O’Sullivan in action against Padraig Brehonyduring his team’s win over Galway
COLM KEYS – PUBLISHED 07 MARCH 2014 02:30 AM
Shane Ahearne heard the news as he arrived to take his place in the commentary box where he was on duty as a regular analyst for WLR FM and decided to let fly. This, he felt, wasn’t right.
Red pen marks through the original team announced earlier in the week to face Galway in their second-round league match at home, some a consequence of injuries, most a consequence of Waterford IT’s (they had six Waterford panelists on their starting 15) progression to the Fitzgibbon Cup play-offs in Belfastthe following weekend.
Without a free-taker in Maurice Shanahan’s enforced absence through injury, only Pauric Mahony from WIT remained, while UCC’s Jamie Barron was also pulled.
“When I heard about the six changes I was giving out,” recalled Ahearne, a Waterford coach under Gerald McCarthy and a former U-21 manager between 2008 and 2010.
“‘That’s disgraceful,’ I thought. I even said it live on air. I didn’t think that it was right. I didn’t think that was what the fixture calendar was about. I didn’t think it was ever meant that the Fitzgibbon was going to interfere as much with league. They were my feelings.”
Then he heard the rationale behind the omissions when Derek McGrath spoke to the station afterwards and he found himself turning.
“Derek was interviewed straight after that game and I could see his point. WIT’s quarter-final against DIT had gone to extra-time on a heavy pitch earlier in the week and he was concerned about the freshness that was needed.
“I bowed to his better judgment after the match and it turned out to be a bonus that they won. That was sound management. That’s part of what Derek is about,” he reasons now with the benefit of hindsight.
So far, Ahearne likes everything he sees about the Waterford set-up, even down to the variety of coaches the players engage with at training each night they meet.
“There is a very good atmosphere there by all accounts,” says Ahearne, one he feels can be exploited to preserve Division 1A status for a third year.
It’s a view shared by former Waterford corner-back Brian Flannery. “At this stage of their tenure they are doing everything you could expect,” he says.
The manner of Michael Ryan‘s departure last summer may not have covered anyone in glory, but there is open road ahead now that keen students of the game in the county are excited about exploiting.
Routinely tipped for relegation to Division 1B, they are already on course to defy such predictions for a third time after beating Galway. Dublin will tread wearily in their company on Sunday, in a game that will surely define Waterford’s league status in 2015 with difficult visits to Nowlan Park and Cusack Park ahead. “It has the feel of a ‘must-win’ game,” accepts Flannery.
Flannery sees building blocks being put in place that resemble what Davy Fitzgerald was doing with Clare two years ago. “I remember watching Clare in a league semi-final against Kilkenny and my feeling is that Waterford are adopting similar tactics in crowding that middle third, withdrawing some of the forwards back into that space and trying to make better use of possession,” says Flannery.
“It’s funny, some of the criticisms that were made of Clare at the time are there now – not scoring goals (only two in seven league games in 2013-’14), not having enough players close to goals. We’re beginning to hear the same criticisms of Waterford.
“Waterford didn’t score a goal against Galway and really didn’t create that many goal chances. But I suppose if, in two years, Waterford are All-Ireland champions similar to Clare now, I don’t think there will be too much criticism from supporters.”
Flannery feels the game plan being built around possession and the use of Paraic Mahony in a free role off centre- forward can work well.
“That type of game suits a lot of the players that Derek has on the panel at the moment. If you look at someone like Pauric (Mahony), the last day against Galway he was selected at centre-forward, but he played anywhere bar there,” he says. “He moved away, but the big thing was the Waterford defence – Jamie Nagle, Michael Walsh and Philip Mahony especially – played accurate ball through him and into space.
“Clare are obviously the classic example of how to use that type of possession game, but I think we’ve seen it from Tipperary with Noel McGrath at centre- forward.”
Ahearne sees similar foundations being laid, but shares the concerns that their attack just isn’t penetrative enough yet.
“You can see them trying to build from defence with a possession game. There are no real marquee names, there is no John Mullane to take them out of trouble. They all have to work hard.
“I do feel they are a bit small in the forward line, but it will come in time.”
For the Dublin match, yet another newcomer is being introduced. Six months ago, Ahearne admits that Shane McNulty from McGrath’s club De La Salle wouldn’t have been one he would have pinpointed for such a quick introduction.
“It’s a big move I wasn’t expecting, but I don’t know what is going on from day to day. He’s definitely one for the future, but it’s good to give him a chance like this. It’s a sign of players growing and learning quickly.”
Flannery feels Waterford’s prospects are being “undervalued” because of past failures to win an All-Ireland title. Relegation talk stalks them at every turn.
“It’s very unfair, because if you look at Waterford’s record, they have been very competitive in the last few years. They went to Ennis last year and beat Clare and Galway the year before. They have beaten big teams under pressure.
“It’s a constant theme that Waterford are undervalued and it’s because they haven’t won an All-Ireland over the last 15 years when they have had very talented players. Because that golden generation, for want of a better word, didn’t win one I don’t think Waterford get that recognition.”
Ahearne preaches greater caution and feels an All-Ireland U-21 title should almost be a priority ahead of everything else.
But Flannery believes Waterford have every right to dream big over the next couple of years. “All the indicators are very good for Waterford hurling in that they should be serious All-Ireland contenders and that is maybe something that hasn’t been recognised or hasn’t been spoken about on a national field.”