Life after Derek McGrath may have seemed like a daunting prospect, but Pairic Fanning has so far ensured a smooth transition to life without his hugely popular, proud and passionate predecessor. After the heartbreak of 2017’s All-Ireland defeat, McGrath chose to stay and give it one more crack of the whip in search of an All-Ireland win that has eluded the county for so long.
2018 didn’t go according to plan, inevitably leading to McGrath’s departure in a fog of disappointment rather than smoky celebration. A dismal provincial championship, not aided by mind-boggling umpire decisions and absence of a home venue, meant the Déise failed to even enter the All-Ireland series beyond Munster boundaries.
So as 2019 rolled around, expectations were lukewarm in Waterford. But Pairic Fanning, under the recent coaching tutelage of Davy Fitzgerald in Waterford and Wexford, would have demanded an instant reaction from his players. A key aspect of Davy’s strength as a manager is his ability to spark an immediate reaction towards positive change, something we have seen in Clare, Waterford and Wexford. A trait that surely would have rubbed off on the first-time county boss.
Waterford, although they were in a reasonably weak 1B division, answered the call and were at times superb in the league, giving Fanning an aura of that Davy factor that had once engulfed the county before. Four wins from five was a fine start to life beyond McGrath, but to pick off Clare in sublime fashion in the quarter-finals and overcome Galway in the semi-final was a league run beyond even the most confident of expectations. Losing in the fashion they did to Limerick was nothing to be ashamed about – the growth the Déise have shown in Fanning’s short term in charge has revitalised a county that had entered a brief, but depressing doldrum.
And given the talent at their disposal, the low period was bound to be temporary. The return of Stephen Bennett to full fitness has been an excellent addition to the full forward line, providing a talented foil to the likes of Shane Bennett, Pauric Mahony and Mikey Kearney.
The x-factor is in midfield however, where Jamie Barron appears to be on 2017 form. He was immense in their All-Ireland final run, earning All Star plaudits and spoken firmly in the conversation for Player of the Year. Last year was a down year for everyone, not to mention Barron, but if he can rekindle that type of form – which helped Waterford over the line against Kilkenny in dramatic fashion in Thurles that year – Waterford will be just fine.
And then, massively, they’ll be playing their home fixtures in Walsh Park and not in Thurles or Limerick or wherever. Derek McGrath admitted that he didn’t fight enough for home status last year, nearly ashamed at not affording home status enough credit. Hosting Clare and Limerick down in Walsh Park, rather than meeting them in a neutral venue which would likely have suited their opponents more, is a major advantage. If they can overcome Clare in Walsh Park in the opening round of games, they’ll be bouncing into Semple Stadium ahead of the Tipperary game.
The ebb and flow of county campaigns can be tumultuous and Waterford are an illusration of that. From the heights of 2017 to the lows of 2018, they’ve been through the ringer in so many different ways in such a short space of time. In 2019, what’s stopping them from climbing back towards the summit? The talent is there and confidence should be swirling from a successful league campaign. The Déise will have a huge say in this year’s Munster campaign.
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