So just imagine the scenario. You’re Waterford GAA. You have one of the best hurling teams in the country, and have had for the last 20 years. You have one of the only cities in the country, and have been for many years. You like to think of yourselves as a progressive and modern county board and one that can challenge for All-Ireland glory. There’s only one flower in the ointment guys. Why is your ground so terrible?
The farcical decision by the Waterford county board to cede home advantage for their 2 home games in the championship this season, has dismayed Waterford people and hurling fans in general. It’s a decision that has been a long time coming. Walsh Park has a capacity of just 8,000, far below the amount needed to hold a Munster championship game, and because of health and safety concerns, and people being unable to get a ticket, the venue was never really a viable option to host them. Now for years, Waterford GAA have gotten away with it by playing games in other venues like Cork and Thurles, but whenever they were going to be asked to play a “proper” home game, this was always going to be an issue. So now that day has arrived.
Walsh Park has been a notoriously poor venue, for both supporters and players, for years and years. A few weeks ago, when discussing the Kilkenny Waterford league game on local radio, ex Kilkenny star Adrian Ronan described how much he always hated playing at the venue .”It’s a bog of a pitch, even in the summer”. Now for what seems like an eternity, people from Waterford and beyond have known this to be the case. With no parking and only one covered stand, it was obvious that something needed to be done with the ground. And yet nothing ever has.
So now Waterford, who were supposed to be playing two games at home in the championship, have to play Tipperary in Limerick on June 3rd and Cork in Semple Stadium on 17th June. Now Semple Stadium makes some sense at least; it’s a ground that Waterford have played and won in regularly over the last 20 years. But playing Tipperary in Limerick? That’s a two and a half hour drive for Waterford fans to play a “home” game, in a venue that’s much closer to their rivals than themselves!
Why couldn’t the games have been played in Nowlan Park in Kilkenny? Well, according to the Munster Council, apparently they want to keep the games in Munster venues. Then again, it’s happenend that Leinster games were played in Munster venues in the past. In 2002, during one of Croke Park’s frequent redevelopment periods, the Leinster semi-finals of Dublin v Wexford and Kilkenny v Offaly were played at Semple Stadium in Thurles. Now that wasn’t an ideal situation for everyone, but at least the Leinster Council had the foresight to do it, rather than inconvenience the fans still further by making them travel miles out of their way across the country. So if the Leinster council can play games in Munster, why can’t the Munster council play games in Leinster?
It seems that the Munster council want to keep the money in the county, but can the question not be asked, what did the Waterford fans want? Would they not have much preferred travelling to Nowlan Park, a distance of an hour and a half less to play that game, rather than travelling halfway across the country to give the “away” team a significant advantage? And sure, yes, there may be a few more shekels in the Munster council’s coffers because of it. But how much money will Waterford GAA lose out on, if they’re not playing in the later stages of the championship? Quite a lot I would imagine. And as Tipperary’s record in Nowlan Park leaves a lot to be desired, I’m sure they wouldn’t have wanted to travel to Kilkenny. But Waterford’s loss, is now Tipperary, and all the other Munster rivals gain.
There are fine margins in the Munster championship. At the moment there are five teams competing in the group stages of the province, and there’s barely a cigarette paper of difference between them. Now Waterford have been one of the most consistent teams in Munster, and the country, the last few seasons. Certainly, they’ve been to the last 3 semi-finals, and last year, were only a goal away from winning the All-Ireland. But with such little to choose between sides, every little advantage that can be gleaned becomes crucial. And the decision to give up home advantage, may be the thing that keeps Waterford from getting out of their group and challenging for the All-Ireland.
That would be a tragedy for the county and its team, but it’s not inconceivable. In fact, it’s highly possible. There has been a desire for progression for Derek McGrath and his men in the last few seasons, and to be fair, every season since 2014, they have done. But by the sounds of it, this is going to be Derek’s last year. They’ve already been relegated from Division 1A of the league. Everything that they have built over the last number of years, has been built towards performing in this championship, and yet here they are, having already severely inconvenienced themselves.
Now it’s not as if the Waterford county board hadn’t got due warning of all of this. 1996 was the last big Munster championship game played in the county, as 16,000 packed into the venue to see the Deise ousted by Tipperary. There was a smaller crowd in 2003 for the game against Kerry, in the first round of the Munster senior championship, and 11,000 fitted in for a qualifier game against Galway in 2006. So this has been coming down the tracks a long time, and the county board just never had the foresight to anticipate it, or most importantly, deal with it.
Whereas the likes of Kilkenny,Clare and Wexford and other counties have held high octane qualifier games in their own home, Waterford have never been able to. Why not? Millions of Euro are spent across the country, most recently in Pairc Ui Chaoimh in Cork, and yet one of the biggest hurling counties in the country has been left to rot. Offaly, Laois, Kerry, and whoever else get millions of euro invested towards their grounds from the GAA and yet one of only 5 cities in the country doesn’t. And the sound you hear, is of all its chickens coming home to roost.
And this is not just a situation that’s going to affect Waterford this year. It will affect them next year and for however long the GAA decide to keep this-quite logical-championship format. Now that isn’t a problem for Galway, Kilkenny, Cork, Tipperary etc, but if you don’t get your own house in order, what are you going to do when a hard rain starts to fall? And as Derek McGrath, Dan Shanahan and co strive manfully to bring the team to the promised land of that, all elusive third All-Ireland, the fans have to traipse across the country, because they’ve no home they can be proud of to call their own.
Just imagine what it would be like in a few years time to see fans from Cork and Limerick travel down to Waterford to see Munster championship games on the banks of the Suir? It would boost the economy of Waterford. It would boost the spirit of the county’s people, and hurling people’s sense of self worth. It would, and this is the all important part, massively boost the county’s chances of winning a hurling All-Ireland for the first time since 1959. But instead of that, this is what we’re left with. A shambles of a situation, that seriously hurts a great hurling team, and the people of the county.