John Mullane: 'Davy was right – we had probably been too positive, too attacking, in the past.' Donall Farmer/INPHO

‘My wee was orange, like the contents of a bottle of Lucozade' -- John Mullane on passing Davy's tests

In an extract from Damian Lawlor’s new book Fields Of Fire, the former Waterford star traces the evolution of the Déise’s preparation.

WHEN MICHAEL RYAN lost the post of Waterford senior hurling manager in August 2013, you didn’t need to be a visionary to see that the role to be filled was an enticing one for potential candidates.

While the teams built by Gerald McCarthy, nurtured by Justin McCarthy and tactically stabilised by Davy Fitzgerald were adorned with big personalities and swashbuckling stickmen capable of running amok on any given day, the fact remained that they never won an All-Ireland title.

They won everything else, mind, and along the way classy talents like John Mullane claimed an impressive five All Stars.

The late 90s and early noughties proved a decent era but records of their feats around that time come with an asterisk attached. Everything is layered with a coating of frustration. They could and maybe should have won the Liam MacCarthy Cup in 1998 and again in 2006. There are those who feel they just weren’t good enough, but most would say they underachieved.

A pantheon of household names subsequently retired and moved on but the irony has been that expectations have risen rather than dropped. For all their failures in not getting to climb the steps of the Hogan Stand the teams the two McCarthys refined had inspired a new generation. And by the close of 2013 there was a major transfusion of new blood.

They looked ready to go places. The young men steaming through had been schooled in how to win national titles. De La Salle landed Harty Cups and All-Ireland A colleges titles in 2007 and 2008. Dungarvan Colleges won back-to-back Harty Cups in 2012 and 2013, and in 2013 also managed an All-Ireland title. Blackwater CS joined the party with All-Ireland B and Dean Ryan Cup successes. But undoubtedly the biggest coup for the county was winning an All-Ireland minor title in 2013, their first at that grade since 1948.

It was an unexpected win — they lost two championship games en route to the final – but it made the choice of the next Waterford senior manager all the more vital. After six years of development work a bunch of promising hurlers was mushrooming, near ready for senior level.

Derek McGrath Waterford manager Derek McGrath. Ken Sutton / INPHO Ken Sutton / INPHO / INPHO

Derek McGrath was the early leader in the race to replace Michael Ryan. He had coached De La Salle to those college successes and also led his club of the same name to the 2012 county senior title. And so it was no shock when he got the nod. A brother-in-law of Mullane, McGrath immediately checked in with the recently retired firebrand to determine if there was any hope of a comeback. There wasn’t.

McGrath now looked to players he had mentored on the colleges scene – the likes of Noel Connors, Stephen Daniels, Jake Dillon, Stephen O’Keeffe and the Mahonys, Pauric and Philip – to push the team on.

The outlook was bright but there remained huge challenges for McGrath. Managerial doors tend to revolve quickly in the southeast, and security of tenure is far from a given. When Ryan got the chop it was the second time in five years a Waterford hurling boss had been ushered to the exit by disaffected players. Well before Ryan got the heave-ho, Justin McCarthy had suffered the same treatment despite guiding the Déise to their first Munster title in 39 years. Davy Fitzgerald took over a team in transition and led them to an All-Ireland final and a Munster title two years later, but even at that there were tensions between himself and some players by the time he left.

Outsiders could be forgiven for assuming these Waterford lads have been hard to manage — that maybe some lost the run of themselves over the years. Forcing McCarthy and Ryan out certainly reflected poorly on the relevant panels.

Páraic Fanning, a former GAA officer at Waterford IT, has been involved with four Fitzgibbon Cup wins for the college. He served as selector under Davy Fitzgerald and was considered an early contender to replace Ryan. Acknowledging that the unseemly dismissals of McCarthy and Ryan contributed to a common view of the panels as unruly, he would nevertheless argue that the perception was far from accurate: ‘It was more the way the thing was handled with Michael Ryan. The players got the blame for the whole thing. All I can say is that those present hurlers — and the lads of the last 10 years – would train night and day for you.

“They have an excellent attitude and I would consider them very easy to work with.’

In fairness to the panellists, while the county board indicated Ryan would get another year, it seems some officers were happy enough, when push came to shove, to accommodate the players’ desire for change. They were made aware the squad wanted more coaching expertise brought in and they allowed the players make the call.

Justin McCarthy might take a different view that the players were easy to deal with. He oversaw some huge occasions for the county, including three Munster titles and a National League crown. Seven years is a long time to be talking to the same dressing room, however, and he stayed put too long. In the wake of their heavy Munster championship defeat to Clare in 2008 the players met and it was clear they had lost faith in their Cork coach. After a four-hour meeting at the Majestic Hotel in Tramore McCarthy’s fate was officially sealed, the squad carrying by 20 to four a vote of no confidence in him.

For Planet Hurling at large it was a seismic move, and reaction was divided when it hit the public domain. John Mullane was part of the squad that voted to get rid of the Corkman. He wasn’t to meet McCarthy in the following five years and remained unsure how he would react if he did.

Justin McCarthy 1/6/2008 Justin McCarthy on the sideline in 2008. Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO / INPHO

Emotions continued to run high in the county over the ditching of arguably their most successful ever manager. Years later Mullane could still get worked up recalling what happened.

‘It was the hardest time I ever put down over all my years hurling. When we did sit down to take a vote it was clear that we were looking for change. But they were a rotten three to four days and I couldn’t sleep over what was happening. Justin had done an awful lot for my game and obviously for Waterford hurling too.

“If I’m being honest Justin was the best hurling coach I ever trained under. Everything we did was with the ball. His trainer, Gerry Fitzpatrick, would work with us for 15 minutes before and after training and in between Justin would take us for an hour. That hour flew.”

McCarthy took heed of the vote and walked away. The team were left with lots to prove and plenty of detractors – although those critics had their powder dampened if not saturated by what transpired in the following two months as Davy Fitzgerald took over a side bereft of confidence and sharpness, freshened their ranks and brought them to Croke Park and the All-Ireland final.

“The game was moving on,” Mullane reflected. “If we’d had Davy and Justin together at the one time we would have had the ultimate coaching team. Whereas Justin was a top-class hurling coach, Davy had so many new ideas. We had never experienced half of the stuff he brought in – from video analysis to tactical awareness to hydration. Previously we had just relied on our hurling ability under Justin’s guidance to get us through games.”

Davy Fitzgerald Waterford manager Davy Fitzgerald in 2011. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Mullane tells a story of Davy Fitzgerald’s manic intensity and exhaustive preparation for games. Shortly after Fitzgerald took over, routine tests revealed that every one of the players was more or less dehydrated. The new manager became obsessed with the problem. Insisting they drink two and a half litres of water daily and record their intake in a diary, he instituted frequent checks and took it as a personal slight if any of them flunked the test.

So determined was he in this regard that players feared being dropped if test results failed to corroborate diary entries. In the heat of the 2008 championship, Mullane’s day job took him to Dublin and he spent the long summer’s day driving around the city, forgetting, in his dedication to the work in hand, to grab a bite of lunch, never mind a sip of water. As bad luck would have it, his phone beeped en route to training – a group text from the manager about a hydration test later that evening.

Mullane knew he had about a much chance as a desert castaway of making the grade.

In the dressing room his worst fears were realised; the sample he produced was a fright to behold: ‘I started peeing into the jar with my name on it and it wasn’t good – my wee was an orange colour, like the contents of a bottle of Lucozade. I knew I was in trouble.’

With the rest of the panel already on the paddock, Mullane took his bottle of purest vitamin C to its designated place on the shelf; he was ready to accept his fate. But as he placed the jar on the shelf he noticed looking back at him a sample as limpid and sparkling as a Comeragh mountain spring. The name on the label: Jamie Nagle.

‘When it comes to hurling, Jamie lives his life like a choirboy,’ Mullane explained. ‘He does everything by the book. He would have been drinking three litres a day – at least.’

Mullane yielded to temptation, peeled off the J. Nagle sticker, placed it across his own jar of contaminated effluent and slapped the J. Mullane logo on to the prizewinning exhibit. Then he went off to hurl.

Ninety minutes later, as the team showered and changed, Fitzgerald blew a gasket in the dressing room. No way was he fooled by the false labelling.

‘Whose is it?’ he demanded.

Mullane couldn’t tell a lie to save himself. He’s as open as a 24-hour chapel in Las Vegas. The cheeks reddened in admission of guilt.

‘Feckin’ Mullane!’ roared the manager as the De La Salle man tried but failed to hold in the laughter. All Fitzgerald could do was laugh back.

Fitzgerald did much for Waterford. His influence was a great tableau of little things; he brought huge attention to detail with a massive backroom, the cost of which received criticism when it came to totting up end-of-year accounts.

Reaching the 2008 All-Ireland final was a fine achievement; they got a decent qualifier draw and took advantage. They arrived at the showdown confident they could beat Kilkenny but that optimism was grossly misplaced. Kilkenny had scored 11 goals and 98 points in just four games that summer. They hammered Waterford 3-30 to 1-13 in what was among the most one-sided All-Ireland finals ever. Even in the warm-up the Waterford men looked off-colour, dropping and fumbling the sliotar and fluffing their rehearsal lines.

John Mullane John Mullane arrives at The Granville Hotel in Waterford to announce his retirement. Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO / INPHO

Apart from Mullane, who hit 0-3 and was the only forward to point from play that afternoon, no player in blue and white reached any sort of acceptable standard.

The game was well over by the break. Afterwards Mullane waited on the pitch until every Kilkenny player had climbed the Hogan Stand. Countless supporters wearing the black and amber approached him but not one sly dig was given. Mullane just folded his arms, soaked up the pain and watched the greatest team in history raise Liam MacCarthy aloft one more time.

“We got to the final at the same time Kilkenny hit their peak,” he recalled. “They were beating teams by cricket scores. It was our first time in an All-Ireland since 1963 and we really didn’t realise what was involved. We gave ourselves a chance, no doubt about that — they were just another team to us — but we weren’t prepared for an onslaught and that’s what it was. We were in a daze.”

A look at the Kilkenny bench that day would support Mullane’s perception of a dream team and squad operating at optimum level. Michael Rice, Mick Fennelly, Willie O’Dwyer, Richie Mullally, John Dalton, PJ Delaney, James Ryall, James McGarry, John Tennyson, Richie Hogan and TJ Reid were all held in reserve. That’s an All Star 11 in itself, never mind another county’s first choice.

Jacqui Hurley, John Mullane and Davy Fitzgerald RTE's Jacqui Hurley, John Mullane and Davy Fitzgerald in the gantry last summer. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

For many of the Waterford boys it ranked as their worst day ever, but not for Mullane. For him the 7-19 to 0-19 drubbing by Tipperary in the 2011 Munster final was the nadir. Again the game was well over by the interval, 5-10 to 0-8. After the punishment beating ended, Mullane came out and apologised to the fans. Waterford hurling had been laid bare, stripped of its soul.

‘Davy came in during the end of an era really,’ Mullane said. ‘To be fair to him players were moving on and the game was changing. Teams were crowding defences and corner-forwards were tracking back the field chasing lost ball. Davy put an awful lot into planning how to counteract teams like Kilkenny and Tipp and he brought more organisation.

‘People moaned that we had 12 men behind the ball but again Davy was right – we had probably been too positive, too attacking, in the past. And too open, which definitely cost us games. Maybe that’s why we didn’t win an All-Ireland.

“Davy brought in tackling and defence and it shaped the way the team played for the next few years.”


This extract is from Fields Of Fire: The Inside Story Of Hurling’s Great Renaissance  by Damian Lawlor. See here for further details.

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