Derek McGrath: Waterford’s approach has structure and flair

“It’s not as if we think we know everything,” says coach of team’s sweeper system

“People ask me does it irritate me. It doesn’t really. It’s just not true.”

The last thing Derek McGrath needs right now is another question about Waterford’s religiously-worked sweeper system. It’s not the only reason Waterford are back in the All-Ireland hurling final for just the third time in 58 years, although it is the obvious one – such has been their rejuvenation since deploying the extra defender.

So McGrath inevitably faces the question, and not long, as it turns out, into the roundtable discussion on how they’ll face up against Galway on Sunday: while not entirely irritated by it, the Waterford manager doesn’t exactly let it go either – not when so many of those who do question the sweeping tactic fail to even understand what it’s all about.

“It’s not as if we think we know everything,” begins McGrath. “That’s the thing, the argument between traditionalists and purists versus innovation.


“I think we’re all traditionalists. We all love hurling. We all live and die for it. I think the guns are loaded too easily behind the whole debate. We’re playing the game the way we feel the game should be played every day we go out, but we’re tweaking it.

“So I’m not sure, is it the ability to see things from other peoples’ point of view? The ability to be able to say, ‘Well, what would you do?’ As the question, you know.


“Even in a local debate here a few weeks ago in the run up to the (Cork) game, they had a debate whereby they were in a local pub and they said, ‘hands up if you agree with the sweeper system’, and hardly any hands went up.

“Instead of asking people the question who agrees with it or not, (ask) what’s involved with it? Tell us about it. Ask them to come up here and tell me about what’s involved and what’s happening on the field. That would be interesting . . . the hands would stay down for that I can tell you.”

What clearly does irritate McGrath is the sense Waterford have somehow abandoned flair over structure: an All-Ireland final, after two successive semi-finals, in this his still only his fourth season as manager, should be enough evidence it itself the system is working.

“I never really look at it as validation, just progress. And I’m not any kind of theorist or anything like that. But the language that is out there, in terms of 15 versus 15 . . . there is no 15 on 15. What I mean by that is that if a wing back tracks back 80 yards and his man is not with him, that means it’s not 15 on 15. Because if it’s 15 on 15, number 10 should be seven.

“There’s structured flair. This argument that there is not flair, no exuberance, no freedom, that everyone is being hamstrung by instruction. I believe what actually supports that, is how hamstrung was Austin (Gleeson) going in on goal the last day? Dummy hand pass one way, dummy hand pass another way, and then you flick the ball off your hurley into the net. I don’t think that’s someone who is being absolutely restricted.

“And the lads (in the Waterford dressingroom) would think I am an awful chancer if I stood up some day and said, ‘look lads, there are no match ups today. Just go out and play and enjoy it. There is the field, go out and play’.

“We do say that to a certain extent but there is also the caveat that we say, ‘this is what has to happen for us to have the best chance of winning’. I don’t think there is a manager in the country who’s not doing that, to be honest with you.”


And whatever about the purists versus innovation, do aesthetics even matter once Waterford win an All-Ireland?

“Well, they matter if you lose one, to some people. I am not sure. We are trying to play the game properly. How it looks, how you use the ball, does it matter if you lose one? To some people, yes, but not to us.”

Then, by way of less irritable means, McGrath offers up Waterford selector Dan Shanahan as further proof the entire squad have bought into their style of play. “Well, I was minor captain of Waterford in 1994 and Dan was on the team then. So my career which was on the up was slowly going downhill at that stage. I was a three year minor, everything was expected of me, so my minor career went downhill.

“Dan came on scene in 1994 and was a minor again in 1995 and his star was beginning to rise and we always had a great connection in terms of his affability. He was just such a lovely chap. You see this larger than life figure on the line.

“Some people are inclined to say, ‘jeez what is Dan Shanahan like?’ He is so nice and affable and has such a good heart and the connection as it went forward into management was probably that Dan had it in the bank in terms of hurling. And he has been so loyal in the face of the national debate and the criticism, in that he was on a team that was renowned for scoring goals, more so than ourselves. To be able to stick himself to our way is an admirable trait.

“Even the fact Maurice (Dan’s brother) has not been on the team the last couple of matches. There has been no sense of complaint. He is just interested in what is best for the team. I could not speak highly enough of him. He has had my back from the start and that is helpful and we all need to be reaffirmed in any walk of life, particularly in one where there is huge media scrutiny, lots of ups and downs.”

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics