Derek McGrath’s plan for Waterford is coming together
Manager is maturing in his roll along with his youthful team who are proving their worth
Michael “Brick” Walsh, seen here during the league match against Galway, is one of Waterford’s more mature players. Photograph: Ken Sutton/Inpho.
On the day before St Patrick’s Day 2014, Derek McGrath’s Waterford side arrived in Ennis with their step light and their smile easy. With three games gone in the league, they were second only on points difference and had just beaten Dublin and Galway, the two sides most likely to be in their neighbourhood when relegation visited. They weren’t yet safe but they felt secure.
Not that it was worth a whole pile to them. McGrath decided against changing up the gameplan that had just brought two victories in a row and didn’t drop anyone back in front of his full-back line. Davy Fitz’s All-Ireland champions made merry at their expense.
Podge Collins wandered out the pitch, leaving Shane O’Donnell and Conor McGrath inside on their own to plunder and pillage at will. O’Donnell scored 1-2 and set up another 3-3 in the first-half alone. Clare led by 22 points at half-time and end up with 5-20 on the board.
For the young Waterford manager, it was a cold and broken hallelujah. Not so much a lesson learned as one beaten into him the old fashioned way. Hands out, eyes closed, ruler across the knuckles. It wasn’t about tactics or hurling acumen, as might have appeared to those watching on. It was more about deciding what sort of manager he wanted to be.
“I blame myself completely for that,” he says. “I should have changed it for that game and gone more defensive. The two previous weekends, we had had good wins over Dublin and Galway. I think in a way, it meant that we came down to Clare reasonably confident in the game we were playing. And that game was fairly attack-minded at the time.
“But we were just probably a bit afraid to go away from what we’d been doing to win the two games beforehand. We just got gutted by following our men out the field. Clare were just delighted that we did that and left space inside.
No kidding. Their record for the rest of the year went on to read: Played 6 Won 1 Lost 4 Drew 1 For 6-103 Against 13-114. Their only win came against Laois in a qualifier, their only clean sheet in the replay against Cork where JBM’s side popped over 28 points without breaking sweat.
As a young manager in his debut season, McGrath was afforded a certain measure of grace, albeit hardly enough to be getting squiffy on. By instinct, he sees a hurling pitch as a space to be protected first and exploited later. This is a not a world view that gets a lot of takers in a county that’s just had a decade and more of Mullane, Dan, Kelly, Ken, Flynn and Tony Browne.
“I won’t say that Waterford people are slow to accept change. But the GAA is a traditional organisation and Waterford is a traditional county. It has been known for traditional hurling, purist’s hurling. Last year, as a first-year manager, I would have been a bit intimidated by outside perceptions, in terms of how a Waterford team is expected to play. Just a small bit now. I wouldn’t call myself naive but I just think I maybe wasn’t my own man enough.
“I learned the importance of being yourself and staying true to yourself. I learned to deal with the scrutiny. It’s trusting yourself that you know the game and not coming across as boastful about it. I was probably a little bit paranoid. Well, maybe not paranoid but a bit introspective about it and over-analytical. I wasn’t really able to enjoy it for a while because it felt like every small thing became an issue.”
Going into 2015 he decided on two major changes, both of which had been coming, neither of which would be popular. To begin, he cleaned house. Though players like Liam Lawlor, Jamie Nagle and Richie Foley still had plenty to give, he cut them loose and said he was going with youth instead. There is general acceptance in the county too that not all of Stephen Molumphy, Séamus Prendergast and Shane Walsh were exactly itching to retire and that there was probably an element of jumping before they felt a hand at their back.
“I suppose the simple question is were the county board really on the same wavelength as me when it came to playing the young lads and the answer is not really. That’s without being disparaging to the county board. I can understand completely their viewpoint. But I just felt the thing needed a shake-up and needed a change.
“Fellas who were of huge importance to the panel over a number of years were being omitted and the perception was . . . not that we didn’t know what we were doing exactly but it was a big risk, definitely. But I just felt that was the way to go.”
What were those meetings like?
“Well, what you got from the board were reasonable questions as regards the direction that the panel was going in. Were they too young? Would it not be worth keeping a bit more experience around? Given the away fixtures in the league where we’d be having to go to Limerick, Wexford and Offaly, would we not be needing some of the more established fellas who knew their way around those kind of games?
“I didn’t mind that. It was never a case of us taking offence or saying that we were going to go out now and prove the board wrong. The board are doing their job to the best of their ability – there are constraints there and there’s nothing anyone can do about them.
“But while we might be looking at 1B and saying that it’s good for team-building, the financial implications of being in 1A are the reality of it for the board. At the end of the day, I’m trying to balance the board’s expectations of me with realism and pragmatism.”
Allied to the new broom, he vowed never to walk off after a game again with regrets over leaving his team so ripe for the picking. By the middle of the championship last year, he was already playing with seven and eight in defence at times but now he wanted to dial in a system that would make them secure in every game.
Waterford line up for most games now in what is probably best described as a 3-5-4-1-1 formation. It changes and shape-shifts depending on the situation but in terms of first principles, that’s what McGrath has gone for. He has moved his most promising young forward Austin Gleeson to centre-back and shifted three-time All Star defender Brick Walsh to centre-forward.
Declaration of intent
“You’re backing young lads and you’re putting your trust in them and you’re leaving yourself on a parapet to be absolutely shot and criticised hugely. But that’s what has to be done I think. I pointed this out to the board the other night – I just felt that even if Division 1B hadn’t gone as well as it did and we weren’t in a Division One semi-final, we still made the right decision. I think we’ve gradually established that it was the way to go. I was willing to ride the storm, if you like.
“There were a couple of pundits in Waterford who were giving out that Waterford weren’t playing traditional hurling. And then the same pundits are texting me this year, saying we’re doing great and playing great stuff. And I’m going, ‘Well hang on, we’re playing completely the same way. Am I the short-sighted one here or are you?’”
The notices have been kind in places, not so in others. Everyone loves an underdog story until they look like becoming a nuisance to the big boys. There has even been some throwing around of the ultimate insult – that McGrath’s system is stolen from football. Wait till they hear that he spent every day of secondary school in a classroom with Jason Ryan, not to mention going to UCC with Éamonn Fitzmaurice.
“I see where people will make comparisons with the football or with Donegal, etc. But I think people would probably need to have a good look at a game like Limerick v Kilkenny last year. And I mean a four-hour look at that game. Or even Kilkenny v Tipp.
“If they come back to me after looking at those games and tell me it was conventional hurling all the way, then they’re looking at something completely different to what I’m looking at. If people think that Galway’s 2012 march to the final and Clare’s subsequent win in 2013 were conventional, I’d challenge them on that.
“At the core of everything we do and central to what we’re about is the fact that we’re proud to play for our county. We’re proud to build our team on old-fashioned values like honesty and integrity and respect for hard work. But that’s what all good teams are based on.
“It’s just that when you see Colin Fennelly getting back to pull off a hook inside his own 21 on a Limerick player, it’s put down as hard work. When you see a Waterford player getting back to hook a player in his own 21, it’s the feckin’ Donegal of hurling.
“Kilkenny are brilliant at putting out this image of playing simple hurling. You see when any of them are interviewed, they portray a very simple game. But I think that’s very far from the truth to be honest.”
One way or another, they are who they are and he is who he is. Tipperary in Nowlan Park will be the greatest test yet. McGrath still sees them as the fifth of five horses in Munster and all he wants is for them to start getting the trip with the rest of them.
“From Brick all the way down to the youngest of them, these fellas are only interested in the team. There’s absolutely no egos in the team. I love that part of it. I love the fact that we’re together and every time I go training, I’m able to park any negativity that was there last year. I’m stronger because of it.”