Brick by brick: How Derek McGrath built something special

Waterford manager’s brave decision to play Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh as attacker has paid off

Michael “Brick” Walsh: “Brick is very competitive and he’d be quite content doing anything as long as it was driving the lads on.” Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Michael “Brick” Walsh: “Brick is very competitive and he’d be quite content doing anything as long as it was driving the lads on.” Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

On a chilly Valentine’s night in the Gaelic Grounds last year, where the crowd of just over 3,000 suggested most sensible people were somewhere else staring across a flickering candle, Derek McGrath took his young panel by the hand and made them jump from the cliff’s edge.

Looking back now, we can see where Waterford were going but on that night anyone talking big about McGrath’s team was bluffing.

Here’s how little we knew about them. By the end of the year, their number five would be the All Star centre back and the Young Hurler of the Year. But that night, Tadhg de Búrca was down in the programme as plain old Tadhg Bourke and nobody passed any remarks. Instead, they were looking at the Waterford number 14 and wondering if McGrath had conjured up another Michael Walsh out of somewhere.

Lone attacker

Kieran O’Connor was commentating on the game for Waterford Local Radio and if we now accept it as the start of something special, he didn’t hear too many saying it on the night.

“I could nearly give you the names of the Waterford supporters who were there. It was the smallest travelling support I could remember in a long, long time for a league game. People had thrown their hat at it and they were waiting for it all to fall down in a heap. If we’d lost that night, the knives were out for Derek,” O’Connor says.

“But he went with the youth policy and a central part of it was moving Brick out of the defence. And even though he struggled a bit early on, Brick was prepared to go with it.

“In those early days, it looked like Derek had just created two problems for himself. He had moved his three-time All Star centre back out of there so he had a problem at six. And because Brick wasn’t used to the position, he had a problem at 11. But look how well it has worked out in the long run.”

We can say now that it was a masterstroke. But who was saying it then? Nobody. If anything, it was a stick to beat McGrath with as folk tried to get their head around the way he set up his team. While the deep-lying defensive stuff got all the press, it sometimes felt as though Walsh’s positioning undermined the management’s big ideas. What use was a defensive system going to be without the squad’s most decorated defender?

McGrath knew what he had though. No point having a flying battalion of young talent who can’t get their hands on the ball. It didn’t matter to him that Walsh wasn’t overly quick and wouldn’t be pinging four or five points a game from all angles. That wasn’t what he wanted him there for.

All Star nomination

Even in summers where Waterford’s fortunes had tanked, Brick had been lordly at the heart of their defence. In 2013, when they were gone by mid-July having beaten only Offaly and Westmeath, he still held his own well enough for an All Star nomination. It wouldn’t have been unreasonable of him to make a play to stay where he was.

“It comes back down to the humility and honesty and commitment he has to Waterford hurling,” says Noel Connors.

“Over the last 10 or 11 years, he’s probably been Waterford’s most consistent player, full stop. If you put him in goal, he’d be just as good there. Brick is a very competitive person and he couldn’t care less as long as Waterford are successful. He’d be quite content doing anything as long as it was driving the lads on.

“Against Limerick in the league this year we struggled at times, particularly in the first half. Brick was the one individual who stuck to what the plan was and his attitude was to take the mantle on. He was incredible that day and he’s been incredible since. His work throughout the field is second to none and he inspires some of the young lads that way. They look at him and they want to put in the commitment that he does.”

Handpassing machine

And then to lay it off. Walsh is the prince of the one-handed bat, a handpassing machine. Civilisations have risen and revolutions quelled since he last struck the sliotar with two hands on the hurley. But nobody can remember the last time he lost possession.

“In fairness to him,” says Connors with a laugh, “he’s actually quite accurate, considering the majority of the time he gets the ball, he handpasses it off. I’d say if you did some possession stats on him, the one-handed pass or the handpass would be very high.

“But look, it’s a skill in itself to be so accurate on doing that kind of thing and as an intercounty player you have to play to your strengths as well. His game is built on work-rate and aggression and the vision he has that allows him see all around him on the field where most fellas can’t.”

Steadying influence

“He is there as a steadying influence in that part of the pitch where there are so many young guys. Also, if there is high ball or dirty ball to be won, he is the best player in the team to do it. If there is a bit of rough stuff, it’s no problem to him either.

“He’s a real leader on and off the field. The lads look up to him. He’s a legend in their eyes. He’s the spiritual leader of the team because he carries this aura with the young lads just by his presence. Some of them would have been playing in the half-time games during Munster finals that Brick was playing in.”

Tomorrow he lines up for his 10th final, 11th if you count the replay in 2010. Still there, still relevant. He was never anything less.

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