Dan the Man still giving Waterford all he can
By John Harrington
If Dan Shanahan plays the occasional game of poker with his friends, it’s easy to imagine he’s the sort who goes all in with his chips at every opportunity.
The Lismore man is a full-throttle character, the kind of guy who gives 100 per cent to whatever task he sets himself.
That’s the way he was as a hurler, launching himself furiously at every high-ball that came down his channel and then driving for goal rather than taking the handy point.
And now as a selector with the current Waterford team he continues to strain every sinew for the county’s cause in his high-energy role on the side-line with that trademark baseball cap turned backwards.
If he looks like a man who’s in his absolute element, that’s because he is.
Hurling is a way of life as far as Shanahan is concerned, and he doesn’t know how his would have ended up without it.
“I’d have been a right...I don’t know where only for hurling, and Waterford hurling and my club Lismore,” he admits.
“It started as a young fella and it’s just something I have.
“I suppose I was alright but I worked at being good at it. I had to work at it.
“Other lads were just gifted. Eoin Kelly was just gifted, Tony (Browne), I had to work on my gift. Browne was naturally gifted, the same with Paul Flynn.
“I don’t know where I’d be (without hurling). I would probably be locked up, to be honest with you!
“Ah, I wouldn’t say I’d be locked up – I’m blackguarding – but it kept me on the straight and narrow. It kept me away from the bad side of the social life and kept me focused.”
Shanahan’s ledger with hurling is more than balanced because he has given back handsomely to the sport.
One of the most spectacular players of the noughties, his game-breaking ability was rightly recognised in 2007 when he was crowned Hurler of the Year after a championship campaign that saw him score eight goals.
And though his influence in the current Waterford backroom team is underestimated by some, there’s no doubt he’s played a significant role in the progress made over the course of the last three years that will culminate in Sunday’s All-Ireland Final appearance.
Derek McGrath made it very clear at Waterford’s pre-Final press-night just how vital Shanahan has been to the cause and how important their friendship as well as their working relationship is to him.
“We go back a long way,” says Shanahan. “I would have played minor with Derek. Never forget the day I was getting a bit of stick in a Munster final, Derek just came out and said, 'Don't listen to them'. I'd never forget that moment.
“Don't worry, keep going. It stuck with me to this day. It's something I always remember about Derek. A fantastic hurler underage. St Saviour's he was with at the time, beat us in a minor final, it's back a good bit ago now lads.
“We have a good dynamic together. Little and large maybe! When he asked me four years ago to come in there, there was the Maurice situation.
“What would it be? How would it be like? Him being there, would it affect us? I had a chat with him and in a day I got back to him and took a chance.”
He has never regretted taking that chance, but admits it has been tricky at times this year dealing with the fact that his brother Maurice’s role in the team is now usually as an impact sub rather than an automatic starter.
“Of course it's tough," says Shanahan. "Your brother's not starting, sometimes he is starting. It's tough on everyone.
“The one thing I want to re-emphasise and the one thing I'll always say is that because I'm there, I won't say Maurice Shanahan has to start.
“We look at his form, look at every fella's form, what way he's playing, how he's playing.
“He's probably known at the moment as the impact sub if I'm being honest with you. Does he like it? No, he doesn't. We have no team picked for the All-Ireland, will he start? I don't know yet. It has never affected us.
“We do very little talking about it at home so we don't. My mother and father would never ask me. Of course it's tough when you call out the team and he's not starting but that's sport.
“You have to treat everyone the same. I treat every person the same in that dressing room. We’re a close family anyway, closer than a club team. Maurice believes in his own ability and I believe in Maurice's ability, I've seen it all year lads when he's come on.
“He's making a massive impact, lads are getting tired and he's coming on. Would he want to start in an All-Ireland final? Of course he would. That's up to our decision.”
Were Maurice Shanahan the sort to throw a strop in frustration at not being given a starting jersey then it’s probable he wouldn’t last long in this Waterford panel.
Selflessness is one of their core values, and it’s a quality probably best exemplified by the team’s oldest player, 34-year-old Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh.
He’s scored a couple of high profile goals in recent weeks, but his game is mostly about doing the unglamorous grunt-work that makes his team-mates look good.
“I’ve had the honour of playing with him and he gave it everything and I’ve the honour of coaching him and he gives you everything,” says Shanahan.
“He’s the first fella on the field, he’s the last fella off the field. I’d say it’s because he wants the kids in bed before he goes home!
“Himself, Mikey Kearney and Austin Gleeson are always the last three to leave the pitch. They have to have a shot from the sideline at the endline and curve it over the bar.
“They won’t go until the three of them have it done. Sometimes it takes 20 minutes but they get it done and finish up on a high. I couldn’t speak highly enough of the man and he knows how I feel how I feel about, he’s a great man but he is a team man.”
The image of Walsh and Gleeson pushing one another at the end of every training session like that is an arresting one.
Walsh, the lone survivor of the 2008 All-Ireland Final massacre, and Gleeson the most recognisable face of this new-look young Waterford team.
“Austin has everything,” says Shanahan. “So did Ken McGrath and that’s a fair statement. He was one of the best and Austin is 22 years of age and I couldn’t speak highly enough of the man.
“His attitude on and off the field is unbelievable. When he comes to training, the stuff he does in training, the stuff they all do in training, but the stuff Austin does because he’s Austin Gleeson maybe and he’s recognised more, he’s just a pleasure to deal with.
“He’ll give you 110%. Some days it mightn’t work for him. He’s getting special attention now being hurler of the year and I know what it’s like, lads, the expectation and pressure that comes on with that.
“Austin is 6ft plus and nearly 14 and a half stone. Left and right, his skill levels are unbelievable. He’s another Joe Canning.”
Waterford go into Sunday’s All-Ireland Final as underdogs, but when you can combine qualities like Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh’s perspiration with Austin Gleeson’s inspiration then you have more than a fighting chance.
Were they to finally end the county’s 58-year wait for the Liam MacCarthy Cup, then it’s hard to imagine the sort of emotion that would be unleashed in Croke Park.
“Do you lie in bed at night and sometimes think about it? Of course, you do and what it would be like for the people of Waterford”, says Shanahan.
“More for your families than anything else, for those lads’ families and what they have done to get them to college and bringing them to matches from the age of six all the way up.
“For your club too it would be fantastic and the boys it would unbelievable. They’re always on about the ’59 team and it would be great for these lads to experience that.
“I watched that ’98 Munster final and to see the crowd that day, it was packed, 50,000. I’d love for the lads to experience something like that but to do that they’re going to have to beat a very good Galway team. They’re in the same boat.
“Galway have got to the final over the last number of years – we haven’t. They have experienced what it is like. They haven’t won one since 1988 as well so they want to win this as well. It’s going to be interesting.”