– The Ballyduff man working behind the scenes as Waterford chase All-Ireland glory
Tommy’s outside talking on the phone when I call over; talking hurling and the week ahead, no doubt. There’s a lot to organise of course.
Waterford will make just their second appearance in an All-Ireland hurling final since 1963 on Sunday and there’s plenty logistical work involved in getting 15 lads onto the field in Croke Park for a throw-in at 3.30pm.
Tommy Byrne from Ballyduff is in his ninth season with the Waterford seniors as a maor uisce, maor camán and maor-of-all-trades. In that time he’s watched from the sidelines as Waterford hurled to National League and Munster successes. He’ll be on the line again on Sunday as Waterford aim to bridge a 58-year wait for Liam McCarthy against Galway.
Talking at length about his time with Waterford to date and the various approaches of the different county managers during that time; the ins and outs of his duties within the backroom team, both at training and on match days; and the running order on the weekend of a crunch match in Croke Park, one thing’s for certain: his knowledge of the game is bested only by his passion for it. For Tommy, the weekend of a match in Croke Park begins early on Saturday morning.
10.30am: Along with Roger Casey, the team’s kit man, they head from Dungarvan to Dublin in the Waterford van, filled with all the gear needed for the match – jerseys and gear, warm-up equipment, fruit and water etc. The days where a county manager is surrounded only by a couple of selectors is long gone.
Waterford’s backroom team today consists of several statisticians, hurley and water carriers, kit man, physical and gym trainers, physiotherapists, as well as those who organise hotels and see to the administration of the team. “You’d want big dressing rooms now,” is how Tommy puts it. At the hotel, Tommy and the team make sure everything is in place ahead of the team’s arrival.
“The Brick wouldn’t care if he never got a drop of water – I don’t know what kind of a man he is at all!”
11.00am: When Sunday rolls around, Tommy and Roger head off for Croke Park, getting there early to set up the dressing room with the kits and everything else that is needed before the players arrive that afternoon.
“The team would usually be there around quarter past two,” he says. “They’d have their own meal in the hotel and they’d have a brief meeting. Once they arrive in, the place comes alive. The minute the minor game is over you’d be out on the field. We all know what we have to do; we all have our own drills to set up. Once the team comes out you’d be collecting spare hurleys, I’d be the half-back line and midfield. The excitement would be building all the time.”
Down on the ground, Croke Park is a wall of noise; different, Tommy says, to any other venue in Ireland.
“You’ll absolutely hear nothing in Croke Park. During the warm-ups in the first years I was going there, I couldn’t believe it, between the noise level, music playing, commercial ads, you have to be very near a person to actually hear them, so the communication on the field between the players has to be unbelievable. As good and all as Dan is at shouting in, it’s still very hard to get across what people are saying! The noise levels are extreme compared to any other venue. I can’t imagine what an All-Ireland final day will be like with a packed house.”
3.30pm: Throw-in and, like everyone else in the stadium, Tommy takes up his place: on one of the two 45s under the Hogan Stand. Under new rules brought in by Croke Park, hurley and water carriers are no longer able to switch to the opposite 45 for the second half. “It’s a small bit awkward because you have your own players who you’re looking after and usually you’d have swapped to be on their side. It’s a new thing they brought in, in case there’d be any kind of interruption with the other manager, you’d be too near their section. ‘It’s an amateur game’, you’d be thinking to yourself.”
The players will get through around 20 bottles of water between the warm-up and the match, and Tommy says he knows which players to go to first. “You’d know the players that want it: Philip Mahony always wants water, Kevin Moran, Austin Gleeson. The Brick wouldn’t care if he never got a drop of water – I don’t know what kind of a man he is at all! Some people would want it the whole time, and you’d know to go to them first.”
Half-time offers the chance to re-stock: sliotars, water, spare hurleys for substitutes, towels.
“It was a massive surprise to walk in and see the manager and nearly the whole squad there”
Last December, Tommy celebrated his 40th. The suggestions of a few drinks in An Sibin drew him down for a large surprise party, attended by Derek McGrath and a bus load of Waterford players and management.
“It was a massive surprise to walk in and see the manager and nearly the whole squad there. They kept it so quiet, I thought we were only going for a few quiet drinks. It meant a lot and they gave me a framed jersey with 40 on it, it’s something you’ll always treasure,” Tommy said.
“As long as I’ll live I’ll never forget that night. Just walking into the pub and seeing everyone: the likes of Brick Walsh who doesn’t drink or smoke, even the likes of Paddy Curran, he played a county final that night and he made it his business to be up there. To have the Hurler of the Year and Young Hurler of the Year, Austin, and the Young Hurler of the Year from the Year before, Tadhg, just to name a few – it was an unbelievable night.”
17.00pm: Full-time. James Owens’ final blast of the whistle in the All-Ireland hurling semi-final was met with exultation by the Waterford masses. 2017 would bring about just the county’s third All-Ireland hurling final appearance since 1959. As supporters began to file out of Croke Park and out of Dublin – Cork’s drive home would be a lot longer than Waterford’s – Tommy and the rest of the team were back in the dressing room where everyone was in ‘jubilant’ form.
“They’d a brief warm down inside the Astro turf; a few of the players spoke: Derek spoke, Paddy Joe Ryan spoke, all saying they’re delighted to get over the line and be back facing into another final; afterwards the players got food in Croke Park, we went across for a few social drinks in the Croke Park Hotel; then we got the bus at 7.30pm to go back to Waterford. The only difference on Sunday will be the banquet in the Burlington, the players will have their suits in the hotel so they’ll go back there first.”
Tommy served an apprenticeship of sorts with the county’s intermediate side in 2007 and 2008 befor joining the senior set-up. Ballyduff’s Michael Walsh was manager of the intermediates in 2007 when they reached the All-Ireland final, losing in the end to Wexford by a couple of points. It was 10 or so years prior to this that Tommy first got involved in the behind-the-scene part of the game.
“We were in Ardmore for a game with Ballyduff and Seamie Daly, he asked me going down would I do the hurleys and the water tonight. He said to me on the road back ‘let you keep coming now’ and it was he kind of got me going first day.”
Davy Fitzgerald took over the senior side part way through 2008 and in January 2009, Maurice Geary, another Ballyduff man who was a selector with the side, asked Tommy if he’d be interested in joining them. Davy stayed with the Deise until 2011. A highlight of Davy’s term with Waterford was the 2010 Munster campaign, beginning – unusually – on a Bank Holiday Monday afternoon in Semple Stadium against Clare.
A four point win here saw Waterford through to a Munster final against Cork. This went to a replay, which again was played out in unusual fashion – under lights on a Saturday night. The match went to extra-time before Waterford, captained by Ballyduff’s Stephen Molumphy, finally came out with a three point win and their first Munster title since 2007.
“That was one of the best nights to be involved, especially beating Cork, you know,” said Tommy.
Davy left the following year and Michael Ryan took up the hot seat in 2012, giving two years to the job before present incumbent Derek McGrath took office ahead of the 2014 season. Waterford were relegated from Division 1A of the league in 2014 and the year came to an end in Nolan Park against Wexford at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage.
“So Derek’s managerial career, you could say, didn’t get off to the best possible start. The following year then he made a new panel, he made changes, he went for youth, he took a lot on himself. 2015 then we went unbeaten through the league, we got back up to 1A and won the league.”
Winter training with Waterford is usually based in Carriganore. Once the clocks change, so does the venue. Walsh Park in the city is their primary base during the summer months. Here the focus switches from fitness to hurling and first touch, each training session includes between 200 and 300 sliotars. Tommy said there’s much to compare with Davy and Derek, especially in their approach to the game. “They’d bring the same enthusiasm, the same passion – it’s unbelievable. Fitness is a huge thing with both of them. They’re all about structure and having teams hopping on the day.”
“What he does behind the scenes is absolutely unbelievable, no one sees it”
Much has been said about Derek McGrath’s eloquence when talking about the game of hurling; while his use of a sweeper system has attracted less complimentary reviews from some quarters. Behind the scenes, Tommy is high in his praise of McGrath, not just for his managerial qualities but for the kind of person he is.
“One thing about Derek is he’s an unbelievable man for looking after different things and people at their lowest point. One thing I’ll never forget about is the tragedy after Christmas a few years ago when the Clancy family in Kilworth went through their worst nightmare.
“When Derek heard about this and heard that Noel had never missed a Waterford game, he said ‘I must go to that funeral’ and I think that sums up Derek McGrath for me. He came in after and had tea, he mingled with people. There’s nothing big about him; he’s just an ordinary individual. What he does behind the scenes is absolutely unbelievable, no one sees it.”
Tommy says that the atmosphere around Waterford over the last few weeks has been incredible, with the county brimming with excitement at the chance to end more than half a century of All-Ireland hoodoo.
“I’ve never seen the whole county looking so well; every town is blue and in fairness our own club, Ballyduff, I think they’re after doing a tremendous job. There’s signs after going up, all the buntings, all the flags. Pad Flynn and Seamus Condon deserve great credit, they have the place looking extremely well. Araglin and Ballyheaphy too have come out behind us; it’s great to have Mikey (Kearney, also from Ballyduff) involved obviously.”
Tommy will be on the sideline as Waterford take on Leinster champions Galway in the 2017 All-Ireland Hurling Final on Sunday, September 3rd at 3.30pm.