Derek McGrath must keep driving Waterford

To me, Derek McGrath has been manager of the year to date.

Derek McGrath must keep driving Waterford

Everything he has done has been progressive and productive but one of his comments during the week concerned me. The majority of an interview he gave was positive and upbeat but as soon as he spoke about his fear of a ‘fall-off’ after such a good season to date, the headline writers — naturally — pounced on it like lions around a lame gazelle.

Waterford have been moving forward all year, but was Derek subconsciously backing off? As a manager, you have to be very careful with the language you use at this level, especially on weeks as important as this one.

Players are very perceptive. They nearly lean towards the vibes you set. I learned the hard way — I hope Derek doesn’t — about how quickly they pick up on the signals you transmit. When I was speaking to the Dubs about facing Kilkenny in 2011, having beaten them in the league final, and the potential backlash that was bound to come — the snarling teeth, Brian Cody wired on the line — I was weakening the collective attitude as much as I thought I was steeling it. I made it more about them than us and my words became a self-fulfilling prophesy. It was only from working with high performance guru Gary Keegan in later years that I learned to be hugely careful with every morsel you utter.

With a young team like Waterford, you want them to kick on now, especially with Cork lying in the long grass. They have a point to prove tomorrow in Thurles. Cork will be confident of proving it but how much confidence are they really bringing into this game either?

The question marks hanging over their defence are exacerbated by the loss of Lorcán McLoughlin. Even Conor O’Sullivan will be missed now. Brian Murphy’s return is a positive but how sharp can he be after two seasons away from the game? Murphy was one of the great man-markers, a defender I’ve great regard for, but starting him is high-risk stuff for himself and Cork.

With how Waterford play, their rotational sweeper system, ‘Brick’ Walsh coming deep, maybe Jimmy Barry-Murphy has brought Murphy back with a specific role in mind. Cork have had problems at full-back but ‘Brick’ doesn’t play a conventional full-forward role anyway. Most of all, Jimmy will be looking for increased workrate and much more consistency in their play.

If you look at Cork’s season, there has been a clear pattern. Atrocious against Kilkenny, really impressive against Clare and Dublin, blew a huge lead against Tipp, good and very bad against Dublin in the league semi-final, very poor in the final. After all the flak they took afterwards, I’m expecting a backlash now and a big performance from Cork.

If I was JBM this week, I’d be challenging every player on one target. ‘Can you not break even with a Waterford man in workrate?’ If they can do that, if they can get more support for their half-forward line, they have more experience and championship class than Waterford have yet. Their expectation levels are probably higher too.

I just hope Waterford haven’t recalibrated their expectations to settle for a run through the qualifiers. A lot of their game was based on forcing turnovers, drawing frees and allowing Pauric Mahony, the best free-taker in the business, to nail anything the opposition conceded. Apart from his loss as a free-taker, his role at centre-forward in tantalising the centre-back was critical to their game plan.

That whole dynamic with Mahony is a big factor and even with the news that Maurice Shanahan is a huge doubt, if Waterford are ready to rock, it’s going to take a massive Cork performance to beat them. I just think that performance is in Cork.

Looking ahead to Tullamore this evening, both teams would have been content last week with a draw. You saw that in injury time when they both made switches to run down the clock.

Both teams also found out a lot about themselves. It took Galway a long time to make a switch on Mark Schutte but Paraic Mannion did well on him.

Galway also discovered that Gearóid McInerney is not the man for Danny Sutcliffe.

By all accounts, Peter Kelly is out for Dublin with a hamstring injury. Paul Schutte would be an ideal replacement. I was told last Sunday that he would be out for another three to four week but apparently he came through a full session on Wednesday night and he looks to be available.

It would be a risk to start Paul at full-back, especially when they have Mikey Carton as back-up, but Paul is such a quality player that Ger Cunningham might consider a swap with him and Shane Durkin, which would release Shane to the wing.

Ger Cunningham needs to get it right in the full-back line if Kelly is out. If he is, it also presents Joe Canning with an ideal opportunity to make up for his disappointing performance last week by exploiting the vacuum left by Kelly.

Joe needs to step up now. This management have been very loyal to him. Anthony Cunningham made him captain last year and he will expect a payback from Joe now. He has unbelievable ability. We all know that but we, and especially Galway, need to see it to fully justify his status. If he decides to turn it on, if he is fully focussed, Joe could be the difference between the teams this evening.

He is even more of a potential threat with Cathal Mannion and Jason Flynn beside him. Mannion was very good at stages last Sunday, while Flynn could have had two goals. If those three can put it together, they have a level of firepower, and a goal threat inside, which Dublin just don’t appear to have.

Galway still have bodies out but they also have guys coming back and the perceived greater depth Dublin had last week might not be as pronounced in Dublin’s favour as everybody thinks. Cian Boland’s huge display for the U21s on Tuesday night does give Dublin another option but the likes of David and Daithi Burke and Niall Healy give Galway a level of experience that will be crucial in a game of this importance.

I went for Dublin last week but I think the dynamic might have shifted in the meantime. Both teams will have been questioning their mentality this week.

I read last Sunday that some of the Dubs have really only discovered sports psychology this year. Hopefully Dub fans can see the fruits of this new found ruthlessness they need to slay the top teams— and not 20 minute bursts every so often. Can Joe Canning step up and do it for Galway? If he does, I fancy them to win.

You’d hardly even know there are two more big games in Leinster but tomorrow is also a huge day for Offaly, Laois, Wexford and Westmeath. Wexford will beat Westmeath, and while it’s great to see ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett back with Laois, Offaly might just have more overall stability this season to see them over the line in Portlaoise.

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