‘There are a lot of young men there – you have to be patient’
Without drama or fuss, Derek McGrath has been blending experience and youth in his Deise side – now they face a vital test against Wexford
Waterford manager Derek McGrath with selector Dan Shanahan: McGrath has said that performance and not promotion was his ultimate goal for the league – now both are attainable. photograph: inpho
For Waterford hurling fans, the sight of Tony Browne as grand marshal of the city’s St Patrick’s Day parade must have made them think of the desperately long period when the team was on the cusp of something special.
The Mount Sion man was hurler of the year in 1998 and until his retirement last year he was in the thick of Waterford’s lionhearted and sometimes painful attempt to win its first All-Ireland since 1959. They were nationally popular and terrific entertainment and were unlucky to make it to the final in 2008, the very season when Brian Cody’s Kilkenny were operating in a different sphere to the other elite hurling counties.
Browne may well be among the Waterford contingent heading over to Wexford Park tonight for what is the most fascinating hurling contest of the weekend. Division 1B has begun to rid itself of its reputation of being a graveyard for aspiring McCarthy Cup teams.
Wexford have been on the march since last summer and buds of optimism are now shooting through opinion on the young Waterford side which Derek McGrath is assembling. “It was always going to be difficult for the existing players like Kevin Moran and Brick to see their great friends and teammates moving on,” says former Waterford hurler and coach Shane Ahearne.
“But also for Derek (McGrath) and Dan and the people that are trying to change things . . . that is never easy. Every team has a lifespan and the team of the Noughties went so far and it was a huge pity they didn’t go further. They probably came up against exceptional teams but we were in the top two or three for about 12 years and we probably should have won an All-Ireland.
“You have to look at yourself and wonder was our game too high risk or attractive. There was a lot of disappointment last year and in fairness to Derek he was trying to change a lot of things. People appreciate that this year. There are a lot of young men there and you have to be patient.”
Last year’s league demotion from the top flight – after a sparkling start – signalled a hesitant summer for the Decies: they lost heavily to Cork in the Munster championship after a replay and then exited the championship on a 2-15 to 3-15 defeat to Wexford, a team on a high following their riveting battle with All-Ireland champions Clare in the previous year.
For a county accustomed to longer summers, it was an acute disappointment and Derek McGrath’s decision to break with the past was brave. This year’s league has been both adventurous and conservative, with Michael Brick Walsh, Waterford’s imposing and classy centre-back operating in the half-forward line while other attackers channel back to bolster the defence.
Austin Gleeson was in terrific form for the Watereford IT team in the Fitzgibbon Cup among the forwards but has operated at six for the county. With Shane Bennett leaving the panel until his leaving certificate ends and players like Colin Dunford and Tadhg de Burca starting to shine, McGrath’s team has come to look abundantly healthy and youthful. The hope is the lesser-mentioned Shanahan, Maurice, has shaken off a miserable year dogged by injuries. Stephen Daniels is also returning to full fitness while Daragh Fives is another senior player who should come into the reckoning in the coming weeks to deepen the experience provided by Moran, Walsh and Pauric Mahony, whose prolific scoring touch shows has been unaffected by the internal changes.
“There are positions up for grabs but it is about going out and working hard, said Kevin Moran, the team captain, on the eve of this year’s league. Moran is another player who has been asked to shift from defence to attack as the occasion demanded.
“Yeah I suppose there will be changes but whoever is in there has proven themselves in what we have done this year. Hopefully there will be a bit of interest coming through in these young fellas because they have great ability and with the lads with a bit of experience hopefully it will blend together.”
Walsh’s switch to attack has been the significant feature of Waterford’s assured spring performances, beginning with a notable draw away to Limerick and a series of convincing victories bringing them to tomorrow’s vital visit to Wexford.
“Last year we depended a lot on ball winning abilities of the likes of Séamus Prendergast. Waterford have a lot of forwards of the same kind of stature – you look at Brian O’Halloran and Jake Dillon and these fellas, they aren’t big bulky players. So we needed some ball-winning ability up there. Brick seems to have the attitude of whatever it takes for the team. He has been a brilliant centre back and launched attacks from there but he is happy to work up front.”
Since he took over from Davy Fitzgerald, the De La Salle man has gone about reshaping the Waterford team in a low key and even-tempered way. There has been no drama and no outcry regardless of results and McGrath has consistently advocated the importance of allowing the squads younger players to have the time to express themselves as senior players.
“Yeah they did well,” he told the city radio station WLR FM after the promising opening three league games. “They worked hard and that is one thing that we are trying to do. You are representing your club and family and they are old-fashioned values but that is what we are trying to do, no different that Laois and Wexford or any team.
“I forewarned people that to become consistently competitive with a young team is the most important thing. To really go for it every time you go out and learn the lessons every time you go out that young people have to learn in life and in hurling life.”
Apart from the border rivalry, Waterford’s progress is what makes their visit to Wexford so interesting. The general presumption was that their promotion ambitions would end in the very first game, with a loss to Limerick. But the division has been less predictable and there is an argument to be made that no team has improved as rapidly as Waterford appear to have over the spring.
Wexford are primed to test that. McGrath has said that performance rather than promotion was his ultimate aim from the league: now both are attainable.
“Sunday’s game is perfect,” says Ahearne. “There will be a good travelling Waterford crowd. These are the kind of matches they need. Last year, Waterford started in the league well but tailed off badly. The timing of going to Division 1B was probably perfect. It has given the team momentum. It will be played at near championship pace in Wexford Park so it is a great way to build up.”