Derek McGrath: A real leader of Déise men
Waterford hurling manager has a bond with his players that goes well beyond the game
The tunnel under the old stand in Thurles, first Sunday in June 2015. Waterford have just beaten Cork 3-19 to 1-21 and Derek McGrath has his first Munster Championship win as manager.
The spring has been good for Waterford – and they for it. A new team, a kids team, has won the league from Division 1B. The first grumbles from the hurling purists have been heard around the place but here in the tunnel, the backlash against the backlash is in full swing.
“That was just a winter of hurt, discontent and purgatory at the hands of – I won’t say local scribes – there was so much negativity in Waterford between October and January, it all came out there,” says McGrath.
“It’s very important for us to create a goal threat. All year, most analysis has been based on the fact that we’re very defensively set up and we don’t create a lot of goal chances. But we always work together. There’s always a runner.”
Cork have been blanketed in a snowdrift of goals from Jake Dillon, Maurice Shanahan and Tom Devine. Could have been more, too. Kevin Moran has butchered a two-on-one in the second half, an untidy mishap that would be lost to history only for McGrath mentioning it in passing now.
“Kevin Moran tried a dummy handpass that didn’t come off,” McGrath says. “We were trying them in training – management’s fault. Colin Dunford was inside but it came off his fingers. Yeah, we’re happy for a team that sets up quite defensive that we’re able to open up other teams.”
Huh. Dummy handpasses, is it? It’s hard to recall the last time anyone heard an intercounty manager even use that phrase, much less talk about drilling it in training. If nothing else, it makes Waterford training sound like a fun place to be. So you file it away. Might come up again sometime.
Semple Stadium in the twilight, first Saturday night of July 2017. Kilkenny have willed themselves into extra-time, even though Waterford have clearly improved past them. Jamie Barron has jinked inside Cillian Buckley and is bearing down on goal with Shanahan loitering inside on the edge of the square. Barron uses him by not using him. Dummy handpass. Goal.
Croker in the sunshine, three weeks ago. Waterford have inched a couple of points ahead of Cork when Austin Gleeson turns on to loose ball around the 45 and heads for the Hill end. Afterwards, everyone will say he should have passed to Brick Walsh on his outside – even in the knowledge that the ball still found the net. But the goal will have an afterlife beyond us all because of a dummy handpass so severe it actually causes Mark Coleman to fall over.
Dan Shanahan talked about Gleeson at the Waterford press morning 11 days ago. Just before he scored that goal against Cork, Dan had run past him to try and gee him out of a listless performance and into the game. “When I came on, he did say, ‘Just get me the ball’,” said Dan. “I said it to Derek and he said he should win his own fucking ball!”
Which brings us back to that tunnel in Thurles again. Different day, same line-up. McGrath talking to a horseshoe of reporters after the win over Clare in June 2016. Gleeson has been immense, his first real virtuoso display on the national stage, including five points from play and one sideline cut. McGrath is beaming.
“I’m delighted for him because I push him hard,” he says. “I had him in class and he probably sees me as taking the old headmaster-type approach because I do push him so hard. He’s at his best when he’s angry and bitter. That’s when it just flows from him.”
A snapshot here, a snapshot there. Eventually, you build up a workable mosaic of what McGrath does and how he works. Noel Connors has been a clubmate, a pupil, a player, a friend. He can’t rightly remember a time in his life when he wasn’t aware of him.
As a kid, he heard his elders at De La Salle talk of McGrath as someone whose stellar underage career was a cheque that never quite got cashed at senior level. Maybe injury, maybe not good enough in the end, maybe this, maybe that. As Connors headed for secondary school, word filtered back of McGrath as a young teacher over the hurling teams, somebody who coached the person and not just the hurler. As he grew to adulthood, McGrath’s influence on him on and off the pitch became immeasurable.
Sense of care
“You got a real sense of the next level with Derek,” Connors says. “It was something that was very new to me, even though I would have been on Waterford minor teams for three years. I had never experienced his level of preparation. It was just a total different approach to being a manager. It was just the fact that there was a total sense of care there.
“He wanted you to be successful off the field and that would translate then to on-field performance. So if that was giving fellas gear to prepare better for training, that’s what he did. You’d see him counting sliotars to make sure there was enough for everybody. If anyone needed a hurley, he’d go sourcing new hurleys for them. That might all come across as very material but when you’re at that age, it’s the material things that drive you.
“The traits of a teacher are there all the way with him. There’s a lot more to life than just playing sports. We’re viewed as cyborgs a lot of the time, that we’re half-human, half-robots and all we do is train. You’re thought of as a one-trick pony and hurling is all you’re good for.
“Derek was the first person that I was ever involved with to turn around and say, ‘No, that’s not the case.’ He impressed upon us the idea that you can be extremely successful in a professional sense or in an academic capacity and still play to a really high level.
“I think that was kind of refreshing for us because we would never have experienced anything like that before. Bear in mind, you could be 16, 17, 18 years old at the time and you’re getting this incredible sense of worthiness from this person who wanted you to play well but who also wanted you to do the right course and to succeed in life.”
Thinking, always thinking. You want marginal gains? McGrath had the De La Salle Harty Cup team bringing their own pillows on overnight trips back in 2007, a full six years before Dave Brailsford was unveiling the practice as one of the “secrets” of British cycling’s success. You want team-building and understanding? Stephen O’Keeffe, Connors, Barry Coughlan and Philip Mahony have been playing in the same defence together under McGrath since they were 12-years-old.
“Derek is happiest when he’s with the players,” says selector Eoin Murphy. “He loves being around the players. Be it when they go for recovery maybe on a Monday, he’ll go and join them for it. He’s happiest hanging around with them. It’s kind of peer to peer, even though he is their manager at the end of the day. He listens to what they have to say, he takes their feedback on board.
“I would say he lives, breathes and eats the job. He’s 110 per cent thrown into it. He will do whatever he can to get the most out of the group and the players. He will drive to the ends of the earth for a player.
“If one of them asks him to do something, if they need something done in college, or if they want a helping hand with career advice, he’s straight in going, ‘I’ll do it. I’ll go up with you’. It doesn’t matter what it is, if they have a problem or if they have an issue, he always says, ‘I’ll sort that’. That’s just the way he is.”
In all the hullabaloo earlier this year over McGrath taking eight weeks’ parental leave from De La Salle College, it felt like there was a disconnect in some places between the act of doing it and the reason behind it. It was as if people couldn’t (or wouldn’t) swallow McGrath’s explanation – that he felt he was letting his students down by trying to combine his day job and the Waterford gig. But to someone like Connors, one of eight former pupils in the squad and someone who has seen first hand what he puts into it all, there was nothing surprising about it.
“When you’re that age, it can be like you were going to school just to play hurling. But it wasn’t like that at all for us and that’s because Derek puts so much into his students. He was always there as a teacher encouraging us to do extra classes or to get extra grinds. Stuff that would get us to the next level. He would have taken a lot of us personally up to get career guidance and to make sure we thought about our career and that we went in the direction we wanted, not just drifting into something because it was handy or whatever.
“He wanted to us to go and talk to people he had connections with. He knew people in WIT and in UCC, people running courses who he trusted and felt comfortable putting us in their hands. That was the sense of care you got from him. He’s very open and honest about his way of dealing with people. He will always stress that lads have a life outside hurling and that it matters just as much as the hurling.
“Derek is there for us as a sounding board, as an influence. He always wants to know if there’s anything he can do for us away from hurling. When you have someone who is your manager and you feel that energy off him that he wants to see you do well, you take a lot of energy out of that yourself.
“He had a massive influence on me. He developed me in a rounded way. Most people just see you as a player, in a very strange sense. Don’t get me wrong, being a hurler is part of your identity, of course it is. You’re born into the GAA and it’s something you’ve always been. But he took it from a different angle. He was adamant that it wasn’t just about playing.
“It was about how could you be happier outside the four lines of the pitch and how that could ultimately have an effect on you when you went on to the pitch. If you’re happier in college, or if you’re happier with your lifestyle, you will ultimately be happier when you come to train and you will put more work into your hurling. You will prepare more because you will be happier doing what you’re doing. He was well advanced in comparison to most.”
So here they are. A day away, 70 minutes away. The backlash against the backlash has had its own backlash to contend with by now, to the point where all sides are monumentally tired of the sweeper debate even as they continue to engage in it. Whatever your thoughts, the greatest shame is that it has allowed McGrath to be reduced to a one-dimensional figure, a negative force in the game even. When the reality couldn’t be more different.
“We don’t really pay much attention to stuff outside the camp and most intercounty squads are like that,” says Connors. “But you’re obviously aware that there are negative connotations to some of the stuff around us. And we do, of course, feel like we owe a lot to Derek as individuals and as a team for the amount of stuff he’s done for us over the last four years and beyond. Well beyond, in fact.
“I don’t think we’ll ever be able repay that. But we will endeavour to do it. Whether that’s performing on the pitch or meeting up with him outside of hurling. I think everyone on the panel would tell you that they would do anything for Derek because he has always done anything for us.”
Regardless of the how the final goes, that’s not going to change. Hurling isn’t a deep enough pot to adequately contain everything they mean to each other.