Derek McGrath and Waterford ready to go again
Déise manager set to take charge for a fifth season as he aims to build on progress made
Derek McGrath at the lunch of the Allianz Hurling League. “I had to come to my decision myself in my own gut.” Photograph: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Derek McGrath’s passionate engagement with Waterford hurling has delivered paradoxically measured returns: improvement every year from reconstruction in 2014 to winning the league to taking Kilkenny to a championship replay for the first time in over 50 years to beating them last year and reaching September’s All-Ireland final.
Narrow defeat after a terrific contest felt in keeping with that incremental progress and yet some of the talk since has suggested an end rather than another step forward. After four years, McGrath had to work out his own intentions and one of the promising generation, Shane Bennett, wants to take a break from the game.
“I can see why you would make that point,” he says. “But the reality is you have to take time as well, take stock of decisions. When you are away from it for a couple of months and you are contemplating it over and back, what happens is the perception, ‘I wonder is that the end of a journey where everyone has given everything and there is a need to move on’.
“But I don’t think you can react to what other people think the need should be if your gut is to still give it another go. The group, bar Shane, is intact at the moment in terms of their overall approach.
“In terms of looking for signs or possible signs whereby I wonder is everything not running smoothly in Waterford, I think that’s just me taking time and ensuring that the players are managed well enough as well to live Christmas and enjoy Christmas and that has been evident in our approach for November, December and the end of January.”
What helped to make up his mind was the conviction that he would be staying on for valid reasons and not just in the warm afterglow of an admirable season.
“I had to come to my decision myself in my own gut. I was in between at first so I had to find a reason other than people just saying you should stay. We encountered a lot of positivity after the final when we came home. It was always kind of – it was almost a sense of you’d be staying for the wrong reasons if you stayed.
“A small thing: my wife was working two days a week. We started talking about that after a few weeks and wondered if she would still get the two days a week and all that kind of stuff, just from the kids’ point of view.
“So you almost selfishly start to think, the only way to improve is to win an All-Ireland the following year. But then I met the players and you look at even the likes of Brick coming back.”
The news that Brick Walsh would return for a 16th year had a galvanic effect. His quiet dedication and marvellously versatile career, winning All Stars in defence, at centrefield and in the forwards, have been a driving force for the team right up until last year. At 34 he was seen as a possible retirement.
“He lives in a world where he’s never afraid to fail,” said McGrath. “He could go off and have a statue to him in Stradbally, based on winning an All Star. He’s never afraid to go for it again, hang it all out there.”
Asked about All Star Jamie Barron’s decision to make a career move into teaching, McGrath – a teacher himself – said that there are vocational reasons for this and that it shouldn’t be simply reduced to the hours suiting better.
“They’re not choosing it just on their GAA careers. They’re basing it on a lifestyle choice and based on the fact that a lot of guys, in my experience, make good teachers as well because they’re not afraid to give.
“Players make good teachers because they’ve grown up in an era whereby they’ve been taught themselves and mentored at club level and county level . . . and that gets lost at times.”
He was out with Walsh and their wives one night.
“We were talking about the season and the season ahead and I just knew. I know him well enough to say, he wouldn’t want to go out on the crest of a wave with people revering him, saying ‘he was some player’.
“He doesn’t think that way. You’d learn from how he thinks. There’s a bit of selfishness in all of us; his selflessness is a starting point for all of us but for myself as well. I was saying ‘you have to go again’.
“History will show you that – I don’t think we’ve ever been in back to back finals, have we? So there’s a certain solace in knowing that if you give it everything you have and you’re not afraid to fail, we’ll be alright.”