McGrath’s tenure may hinge on outcome of clash with Wexford

Déise hurling boss will be hoping to emulate recovery strategies of his predecessors

The road back for Waterford isn’t long, but it could be hard. The county faces Wexford in this weekend’s All-Ireland quarter-finals in Thurles, having sustained about as devastating a defeat as any young, emerging side could dread in this month’s Munster final.

Although Derek McGrath and his team must have been fixated by the immediate future of their championship challenge there is some consolation in the past. No county has completed as many Lazarus turnarounds during the course of seasons that looked to all intents and purposes dead.

Losing to Tipperary by 21 points in Limerick had the feel of an event that had subverted the team’s genetic coding: the elaborately devised defensive system that spilled five goals in a Munster final. The most positive thing that could be said about it was that Waterford had not alone bounced back in the past, but had even done so after a 21-point trouncing by Tipp in a Munster final.

Right back at the start of the changing championship, the format that allowed defeated provincial finalists re-enter the All-Ireland at a quarter-final stage, Waterford had early experience of having to respond in a hurry to disappointment.



The county would have more memorable years than 1998, but for controversy it was hard to beat. After a sulphurous Munster final replay against Clare, headlines would be dominated by the weird: the three conspiring priests of Thurles, who, it was alleged, had discussed the shafting of Clare at Munster Council before it happened – and the suspension of

Colin Lynch


For Waterford the issue was more straightforward. They had to recover from a 12-point defeat and play a third match in successive weeks, against Galway.

Then manager Gerald McCarthy grasped the possibilities quickly.

“When we lost to Clare in the Munster final, I told the lads that that was the end of one competition and that we were moving on to a new competition, and if we won three games we’d be All-Ireland champions,” he said, after his team had unexpectedly blitzed Galway by 10 points within a week of the Clare defeat.

In Denis Walsh's definitive account of hurling in the 1990s, The Revolution Years, Waterford's Tom Feeney recalled how McCarthy "calmed us down" after the Munster replay when the players were openly questioning whether they were good enough.

Feeney described the week’s regeneration: “On Wednesday night we had our only training session and our bones were aching, to be honest. Then the weekend came. On with the jerseys and out you go. That was one of the great days.”

McCarthy took Waterford up the mountain, but it was his namesake Justin who led the county to the Promised Land of Munster titles in 2002, 2004 and 2007. Disappointment came almost as a package with All-Ireland semi-final days and when the end came it was fractious.

A heavy defeat by Clare in the first round of the Munster championship bred immediate revolt.

It was a different situation than in 1998 in that the recovery had to be guided by new management after Justin McCarthy walked away.

It was current Clare manager David Fitzgerald’s first senior inter-county appointment.

"The players moved quickly," recalls one of Fitzgerald's selectors Maurice Geary, who adds diplomatically: "Whether they put a gun to Justin's head I don't know, but the onus was really on them to pick themselves up . . . It was definitely very easy training them and preparing them."

The players though drove the recovery, but it was deftly guided to the extent that for the first – and so far only– time since 1963, Waterford reached an All-Ireland final, even if they had the misfortune to be on the same pitch as Kilkenny at their actual zenith.


Although the county recovered from the mauling by Kilkenny to stay in the top four during the next three seasons, the nadir of Fitzgerald’s management came in the Munster final of 2011 when, apprehensive about the power of Tipperary’s attack, he experimented with the team’s defence and the unfamiliar configuration couldn’t cope.

Lar Corbett scored four goals, as Tipp hit seven.

Fitzgerald was despondent and his reaction reads relevantly to the Munster final earlier this month, which fell on the fifth anniversary of the 2011 defeat.

“It’s very hard to take. We are absolutely all gutted. We’re not as bad as that. If Tipp get two or three goals on you and smell blood then they will finish you.”

Some kindly soul volunteered to Fitzgerald that their next opponents Galway had never beaten Waterford in championship. If this was intended to be emollient, it didn’t play that way.

“I don’t think that will matter to them too much,” was the manager’s reaction. “I wouldn’t say they are f***ing shaking in their boots after that. It’s a stupid stat, to be honest.”

There were on this occasion two weeks before the quarter-final. Fitzgerald wasted no time and called a team meeting for nine the following morning (it had been six but he was talked around).

Thirteen days later Galway were beaten by 10 points and in Fitzgerald’s last match in charge, his team ran eventual champions Kilkenny to six points in the semi-final.

Current manager Derek McGrath takes out his team this Sunday knowing his entire stewardship could hinge on what happens against Wexford and how successfully he emulates the recovery strategies of his predecessors: the past, present and future all rolled into one.

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times