Waterford’s substance over style ends Wexford’s summer
Davy Fitzgerald and Derek McGrath stand up with passion for their teams’ approach
Wexford’s James Breen in action with Maurice Shanahan of Waterford in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
A day of hope and solidarity by the Lee on Sunday as the clans of Wexford and Waterford produced the flint of steel in a tough and sometimes sombre All-Ireland hurling quarter final which will challenge deeply-held views of how the game should be played. Some of the bleaker predictions came true in the reimagined jewel of Cork GAA.
Both counties set up in mirror image and belted into a game that was end to end, heavy-hitting and sometimes austere in nature. But it was heartfelt too. Kevin Moran’s 37th-minute goal, seizing on a second’s indecisiveness, pushed the Decies into a five-point clearing just before half-time and for all the integrity of effort and colour and considerable skill which Wexford brought to this summer, they couldn’t dismantle the Waterford project here.
It finished 1-23 to 1-18, with Jack O’Connor’s late goal bringing the velvet down on the summer of Endless Love for Wexford and Davy Fitzgerald. Derek McGrath’s men return to a third consecutive All-Ireland semi-final and another tilt at changing a course of history which has seen them in the shadowlands of hurling splendour since the 1950s.
If the style which McGrath has inculcated is regarded as a threat to the values of the game across the rich vales of Munster and Leinster, then that’s a price worth paying. Four years in and it has been forgotten how vital was the kiss of life that McGrath gave this Waterford team. The initial praise has given way to the dim view taken of Waterford’s defensively-oriented setup. Around tea time in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, McGrath sat back and rather than celebrate his win found himself debating aloud the consequences of the constant talk about Waterford’s style.
“The danger, I suppose, is there’s so much debate about it that it seeps into your team. You take a situation where Shaun Murphy goes back as a sweeper today and we push our man up on Shaun Murphy. And then there’s five on five on the other side. We’d be accused of being defensively naive then, and gullible.
“Look, I think criticism is part and parcel. I wouldn’t argue with Michael Duignan who has a lot more All-Ireland medals and a lot more credit in the bank in terms of me, in terms of hurling stock. And Henry [Shefflin] – 10 All-Ireland medals. Jesus, I wouldn’t hear tell of arguing against what they’d know about hurling. As I said, ‘Praise your enemies’ . . . who said that, Oscar Wilde, was it?”
On the page, the words don’t do justice to the genuine humility in McGrath’s voice. What McGrath is trying to gatecrash hurling’s presumptions and historical trends with a game plan that is, yes, sometimes abrasive, always highly organised and hugely honest.
Maybe there are days when Waterford hurling is not high art. But he has given up trying to convince the masses that not all their performances should be tarred with the same brush. It is what it is. He sets up his team with minders around goal and big, athletic ball winners at the far end of the pitch. All 15 plus substitutes work like demons. If that’s a crime, so be it. Fitzgerald’s eyes widened when he took a breath to address the general prejudice against the Waterford – and Wexford – orthodoxy.
“I think Michael Duignan and Henry [Shefflin] have had a go. Let me say this straight out, Michael Duignan and Henry have never managed a team at a high level. The people need to wake up so they do. If they want the same one or two teams to play hurling and be successful that’s fine. Myself and Derek are trying to bring teams to the fore that haven’t been to the fore in a long time and I’m very strong about this.
“It’s great for the likes of Michael Duignan, he should have had an opinion on something recently and he didn’t have it and he should have stood up. It’s time now Michael Duignan stopped this messing. The job Derek McGrath has done and the stick he has taken is totally unwarranted. What he has done for Waterford and bringing them back to the top is incredible and I am backing him 100 per cent.
“You tell me that’s a bad game of hurling, some of the scores? Short and long ball, every sort of ball or do we just play the long ball and hit it and that’s it. I don’t agree with that and I think they are totally out of order. I think that RTÉ should go and have a look at themselves and get analysts who have been on the side line and who know what the story is about and that’s how I feel strongly about it. Easy, easy knock people. I’d like to see their track records when it comes to it, when it comes to the managing because it’s a lot different than playing I can promise you that.”
Neither Duignan nor Shefflin were on the RTÉ show on Sunday: Fitzgerald was referring to previous criticisms by the analysts. So Fitzgerald exits this season much as he entered it: in a blaze of conviction and passionately kicking down whatever doors stand in the way.
It has been quite a season for Wexford and although he vowed to “take some time” before he commits to Wexford for another winter of six-hour round-trips from Sixmilebridge for training, it’s hard to see how they will allow him to walk away. Promotion to division one, a dreamlike victory over Kilkenny, a return to the high veldt of Croke Park for a Leinster final: Fitzgerald showed yet again that when he takes over a county, he is a fire-breather.
He has his fingers crossed for his neighbours now, arguing like a defence counsel that Tadhg de Búrca should have his red card – for pulling the face-guard of a Wexford man – rescinded.
“I don’t think he meant it, I really don’t. I really hope they see common sense here. Tadhg de Búrca is not a dirty player. I really, really, really hope the GAA cut him a break. He deserves to play in an All-Ireland semi-final and all of us in Wexford are the same way.”
It was a soulful plea for clemency but it may well fall on deaf ears. The loss of De Búrca, a free-roving overlord of Waterford’s defensive system, is inestimable as Waterford try to push on to a September appearance.
“We’re happy to be in a semi-final,” said McGrath. “I know what’s coming. Ahead of the semi-final, if it’s Galway or Cork and they absolutely open us up and fillet us, it will be ‘Ah, sure, you can’t’ . . . But I think it’s the optics of things at times. How things look. I think there’s a bit more to it than that. And we haven’t all the answers.”
He knows the bottom line. Waterford can’t win unless they win. But they aren’t seeking to silence their doubters or convert the masses. They just want to do once what their neighbours in Kilkenny do habitually through golden autumn after golden autumn. They’re just trying to get that place. Two more games.