The Ballygunner players celebrate after they won an eight News & Star Cup in a row recently against Roanmore in Walsh Park. Photos: Inpho.
One week on from coming within inches of possibly losing their title Ballygunner regrouped to produce a brilliant performance, arguably their best in their eight years of total dominance, to see off what was expected to be a stern Roanmore challenge a week later.
There was some disappointment all round in unattached circles, understandably, that the game was not as competitive as hoped but in his after game interview Ballygunner manager Darragh O’Sullivan, euphoric at his team’s performance, made it known, as clearly as he could, that he considered Ballygunner’s championship dominance, “brilliant for Waterford hurling.”
ALL ABOUT DEBATE
He may well be right but it is an opinion that will be challenged, questioned and at the same time will be endorsed in some quarters.
Ballygunner are in touching distance of equalling the joint record of nine in a row titles jointly held by Erins Own and Mount Sion and no one will dispute but that the Gunners are odds on to surpass that record in the coming years. Whether that is good for Waterford hurling is something that will continue to be debated as it was debated in the past when Mount Sion were the dominant force in the fifties and early sixties, winning the nine in a row. When Erins Own won their nine titles in a row between 1927 and 1935 I am sure the benefit to the county was questioned by those clubs struggling to keep up with them.
Was the one club dominance then good for Waterford hurling or not. A little history lesson and people will have to judge for themselves.
ERINS OWN ERA
The Erins Own club arrived on the scene in the city in 1924 and just three years later set out on the journey to the club’s nine senior titles in a row. With Erins Own’s arrival on the scene came an upsurge in Waterford’s standing as a hurling county. Most of the city players on the 1929 All Ireland minor winning side were to find their way into the Erins Own teams of the thirties and the club contributed many players to Waterford’s Junior All Ireland success of 1931 and 1934.
In 1931 Waterford beat Clare in Thurles and faced Cork in Clonmel. The game ended in a draw but Cork won the replay and went on to win a famous All Ireland against Kilkenny after three games. In all of those games the Waterford selection was dominated by Erins Own players providing up to thirteen players of the first fifteen led by the great Charlie Ware, then rated the best fullback in Munster, and great players such as ’Fad’ Browne, the Fardys, Wises, Powers and Johnny Fanning.
To coin a phrase, Waterford were no longer the whipping boys of Munster during Erins Own’s dominance of the club scene. Waterford beat Tipperary in 1933, winning a replay in Carrick on Suir having drawn in The Sportsfield , now Walsh Park. The Munster final was lost to Limerick in Cork when, with Limerick winning by 3-7 to 1-2, the game was abandoned with ten minutes remaining due to ‘crowd encroachment’ and subsequently awarded to Limerick. We then had the great games between Waterford and the great Limerick team of the thirties in 1934 and 1936 that set the stage for Waterford’s final breakthrough in Munster in 1938 with the arrival of great stars such as John Keane, Christy Moylan, Mick Hickey, Willie Barron and Locky Byrne to join with Charlie Ware, Johnny Fanning, Sonny Wyse of the great Erins Own side that had lit the way from the mid twenties up to losing the title to Mount Sion in 1935.
Throughout those years Erins Own dominated the county side with great players providing leadership on and off the field. No one can deny but that Erins Own of the twenties and thirties put Waterford hurling on the map.
Mount Sion and Erins Own continued to dominate the senior championship throughout the forties. Tourin and Clonea made the breakthrough in 1950 and 1952 but the next period of one club dominance began in 1953.
Mount Sion’s dominance from 1953 to 1965 in senior hurling was inevitable coming on the back of six successive minor titles between 1945 and 1950 and six further titles in the fifties. Mount Sion’s great resource, the C.B.S. and the top of the town, through the city leagues, ensured a continuous supply of players.
Hopes were high following the minor and senior All Ireland double of 1948 that a new dawn had arrived in Waterford hurling though Waterford’s senior side was regarded as being powered by veterans such as John Keane, Christy Moylan and Mick Hickey. Despite some encouraging results against Tipperary and Cork in the early fifties the county had drifted in the Munster pecking order where the big two were concerned.
By 1956 Mount Sion had exerted a strangle hold on the senior club title winning a fourth in a row for the first time and were being challenged by new names from the west of the county in Abbeyside and Cappoquin. Following the narrow defeat by Cork in 1956 a wave of optimism swelled up within the county and with Mount Sion supplying leadership on and off the field, with seven players on the team and John Keane as trainer, Waterford stormed through Munster and were the unluckiest of losers to Kilkenny in the 1957 All Ireland final. The feature of the team was the representation on board from the western clubs such as Austin Flynn, Donal Whelan and Johnny O’Connor from Abbeyside, Mickey O’Connor and Mick Lacey of Cappoquin and Tom Cunningham and Johnny Kiely of Dungarvan. John Barron of De La Salle was the only other city player in the side while Tom Cheasty was the sole representative of the Eastern division.
On the club scene, towards the end of the fifties and into the early sixties a resurgent Erins Own arrived back on the scene, determined to halt the Mount Sion band wagon and in the county final of 1959, played in February of 1960, Mount Sion just about prevailed when coming with a late rally to win by a single point. The following two years saw the teams meeting again with Mount Sion just getting through to share the nine in a row record. The following year, after another epic drawn final, Erins Own would not be denied and stormed to a fifteen point victory in a replay the result of which saw an Erins Own player Joe Condon collecting the Munster Cup for the first time since Jim Ware in 1948 and leading Waterford into an All Ireland final.
There can be no doubt that the Erins Own and Mount Sion nine in a row teams backboned Waterford’s hurling revival in their respective eras, leading by example and setting the benchmark for other clubs to follow.
PERIOD OF MEDIOCRTIY
From the mid sixties on we had a period of mediocrity on the intercounty front, winning a Munster u-21 title in 1974 and just losing out by a point to Kilkenny in the All Ireland final. We had occasional victories in the Munster championship, crashing heavily in the finals of ’82 and ’83 to Cork having scored great semi-final wins over Limerick and Tipperary respectively. The revival came in 1992 with the minors reaching the All Ireland final and the U-21 side winning Munster and All Ireland glory.
It was in 1998 that the new era in Waterford’s hurling fortunes dawned with the underage players of ’92 back boning the resurgence under the ‘outside’ influence of Cork man Gerald McCarthy.
Into the mid noughties Mount Sion and Ballygunner continued to dominate the club scene prior to Ballyduff Upper’s shock win over Ballygunner in the 1997 final. By then Justin McCarthy had led Waterford to three Munster finals victories and much had changed since the days of Erins Own and Mount Sion dominance as the champions no longer provided the leadership with team captains being decided by the manager the result being that Waterford’s four Munster title wins of the noughties saw Fergal Hartley and Ken McGrath the last two club nominated winning captains and Michael Walsh and Stephen Molumphy the management choices. By the end of the noughties De La Salle had well and truly arrived on the club scene as Mount Sion’s star waned with time catching up on star players.
The noughties was a great time to be a Waterford supporter after so many years on the outside looking in and with the arrival of De La Salle on the scene no one club totally dominated at a time when star players were emerging throughout the county.
Ballygunner manager Darragh O’Sullivan’s comment that his side’s dominance of the Co. SHC is good for Déise hurling has caused great debate in Waterford hurling circles.
So then, we come to the teen years and the eight years of Ballygunner’s dominance following the 2013 defeat by Passage. Since then, Ballygunner have come through every final virtually unchallenged though they may have had an odd tight game or two in the run up to the finals. In that period, under Derek McGrath, the county team competed strongly winning a League title and reaching the All Ireland decider of 2018. The minor All Ireland victory of 2013 and the U-21 success of 2016 under Sean Power and his selectors laid the foundation for future success and a further All Ireland appearance last year under Liam Cahill. That success may yet be realised but to what extent it may be related to Ballygunner’s dominance of the club championships will remain up for debate.
Ballygunner, in last weeks final, had eight players between starters and substitutions, who featured in the club’s last five minor championship victories, an indication of the strength of the club’s supply chain.
Ballygunner’s strength is in numbers and organisation. The catchment area now is much different from when schoolteacher Jimmy McGinn started out in the fifties with his small school winning Sheehan Cups and going on from there to win a minor championship and three in a row senior titles in the sixties. Ballygunner draw on a huge and affluent population and the club has grown in accordance with first class facilities and an increasing young population. In the city Mount Sion, De La Salle, Roanmore and Erins Own compete in what was once hurling heartland. All are well organised but they lag behind in numbers compared with former years and very much behind the county champions.
As Darragh rightly said, Ballygunner push the standard up every single year. He says it is up to the other clubs “To go back, push that standard, look at their juvenile set ups, get their structures right, and push it on from there.” It may be news to Darragh but the clubs referred to are doing just that with far less numbers than Ballygunner have.
One would agree with the Ballygunner manager’s assessment that Waterford are closer to winning an All Ireland now than they have been, in recent years anyway. To suggest that this is connected to Ballygunner’s success is questionable when the fact that over the past twenty years we have seen the contribution throughout the county, from clubs that have not reached county finals, being a significant factor at senior as was the case with the minor and U-21 All Ireland victories.
12 SUBS ON FOURTH TEAM
This year Ballygunner fielded four adult hurling teams, Senior, Intermediate, Junior A and Junior B. Their Junior B side, fourth string, contested the county final against a second string Fourmilewater side, losing narrowly. What is worth noting is that the team sheet on that day showed twelve subs. As current minor champions they will have another crop of players coming forward to adult competition next year. They could well have the numbers to field a fifth adult side.
Whether such dominance at underage and senior is good for Waterford hurling, the subject, having been raised by the Ballygunner manager, is open for debate and only time will tell.