The occasion was one of Waterford’s matches in Semple Stadium two or three years ago. Afterwards, in conclave with the media under the Old Stand, McGrath talked wryly about how he’d spent the afternoon “running up the sideline like a fat Mourinho” before recollecting himself and asking the journos not to use the line. Too much scope for a passing piece of self-deprecation to get twisted.
Being mad about McGrath and being decent sorts anyway (really), the journos obliged. Like Sherlock Holmes and the giant rat of Sumatra, it was a tale for which the world was not yet ready. Now it is.
But McGrath got one thing wrong. He is not hurling’s equivalent of Jose Mourinho. He is hurling’s equivalent of Mauricio Pochettino.
Not because his team wear white and blue. Not because they were big around the turn of the 1960s. Not because both are still waiting for the ultimate silverware. But because both men have had their troops punching a mile above their weight for the past three years and because some people are incapable of recognising these achievements for what they are. Immense.
Pochettino is the man who’s guided his team to the Champions League three years in a row while forced to run a balanced budget. (The chap who managed the 2017-18 Premier League winners has spent £448m (€510m) in the past two seasons.) McGrath is the man who’s — well, let’s tot up what has been accomplished on his watch, shall we?
Waterford won a National League title, coming with a wet sail out of Division 1B to do so. They’d won one National League in the previous half a century.
Waterford reached an All-Ireland final. They’d reached one All-Ireland final in the previous half a century.
Waterford reached successive league finals, an indicator of a solid, consistent team, or at any rate of a team with serious aspirations to solidity and consistency. They’d never reached successive league finals before.
Waterford beat Kilkenny in the championship last July. They hadn’t beaten Kilkenny in the championship since October 1959.
Austin Gleeson became Hurler of the Year under McGrath’s aegis. Waterford had had one Hurler of the Year in the previous half a century.
Not bad, huh? Not when the backdrop is taken into account. Therein lies the nub of the case for McGrath’s efficacy. In the same way that Spurs cannot be judged by the standards of the two Manchester clubs, for very different reasons, Waterford cannot be judged by the standards of Kilkenny or Tipperary. In the same way that Pochettino is subject to lazy “But what has he won?” accusations when his objective is the process rather than the Carabao Cup, McGrath has spent the past four years planting flowers on stony ground and attempting to create a winning culture where none exists — and being unappreciated in too many quarters.
A small illustration. There is no wifi in Walsh Park and the windows in the kip of a press box there haven’t been washed for years. Years.
And no, that’s not irrelevant. That’s not a journalist being precious or petty. It‘s relevant because it’s a sign the Waterford County Board hasn’t been bothered for a long time to see to the details.
What happens off the field in a county is — has to be — echoed on the field. The small things matter because the small things are the big things. Ask Bill Bratton, former NYPD commissioner and an adherent of the broken windows theory. Broken windows in a building or street encourage crime. Unwashed windows in a press box constitute part of the reason a county ends up minus that most basic of requirements, a home ground capable of hosting a championship match.
This is the kind of mentality McGrath has been railing against and trying to break out of. Ger Loughnane succeeded in similar circumstances with Clare. Crucially he did so at a time when Kilkenny and Tipperary, not to mention Cork, were no great shakes. McGrath has not been so fortunate in his timing.
Balance behoves us to mention where he could have done better. There was the failure of foresight as to the weight of expectation on Waterford before the 2016 Munster final. Not channelling enough ball into Maurice Shanahan in the All-Ireland semi-final replay against Kilkenny. Overthinking the build-up to the championship opener against Cork last year. Allowing Gleeson to take that late free against Galway in the All-Ireland final instead of telling him to get his backside up to the 20m line pronto. But the entries on one page of the ledger are longer and more substantial than the entries on the opposite page.
As for the accusation that “Waterford aren’t as exciting as they used to be”, of course they weren’t. They couldn’t possibly have been. Talk about wilful intellectual laziness.
Their front eight in the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final against Cork read thusly: Eoin Kelly, Brian Phelan, Dan Shanahan, Seamus Prendergast, Jack Kennedy, John Mullane, Michael Walsh, Eoin McGrath. Subs: Paul Flynn for Kennedy, Shane O’Sullivan for Phelan.
Kelly, Shanahan, Mullane, and a prime-era Flynn would all sashay onto the current forward line, with Prendergast a viable option at centre-forward to allow Pauric Mahony freedom on the wing and pass him the bullets. McGrath could only cut his suits according to the cloth available to him. More irritatingly still, of the four inordinately young forwards — Patrick Curran, Colin Dunford, and the two Bennetts — he fielded in the 2015 All-Ireland semi-final, he needed one to kick on and turn into John McGrath. It hasn’t happened, limiting his options further.
His fifth and final summer at the helm was always going to demand a more expansive Waterford and a more expansive McGrath. Last September demonstrated beyond argument that they could not win an All-Ireland without committing more bodies to the enemy’s half. Kevin Moran’s two wides at the Davin End are remembered precisely because they had to be nailed. Nobody remembers Galway’s wides last year.
Any attempt to loosen the girdle, however, was complicated by the introduction of the round robin, even before the injury crisis magnified it. Waterford may end up bottom of the table without being any more than the puck of a ball worse than the two teams immediately above them. Six days ago they were as expansive as they could have been until they ran out of legs and they ran out of bodies. Tadhg De Búrca wouldn’t have dropped the ball Michael Walsh did that led to Patrick Maher’s bugle-sounding goal and Moran would at worst have broken a couple of the puckouts gobbled up by the Tipperary half-back line in the closing quarter.
Yet nothing has ever become McGrath more than his reaction to the ghost goal. “We just move on.” It was of a piece with his equanimity after the 2016 National League final replay. Would Davy have been as magnanimous in Limerick last Sunday? Would Cody? Treating triumph and disaster just the same is part of the job too. Or ought to be.
Waterford move on and tomorrow McGrath goes again. Hold on to that feelin’.
Hogan gives Cats the edge
The prize for tonight’s winners in Nowlan Park is a ticket to meet Galway in the Leinster final. The booby prize for tonight’s winners in Nowlan Park is a ticket to meet Galway in the Leinster final.
Kilkenny aren’t as bad as they looked in Salthill a fortnight ago. Wexford aren’t as bad as they looked in Wexford Park seven days ago. No other team in the country could have done to either what Micheál Donoghue’s troops did.
Granted, Championship 2018 is not a victory lap for the holders. Not yet anyway, and certainly not with the fun that’s being had in Munster. If Galway are to fall, they’ll probably do so in late July; they’ll be more vulnerable in an All-Ireland semi-final than a final.
Now, though, the biggest danger to them appears to be themselves.
At least this evening’s protagonists, facing men rather than giants, will have room to breathe and space to hurl. On a line through the MacCarthy Cup holders there’s not the width of a cigarette paper between the pair, and draws are all the rage these days.
Still, the combination of home advantage and their badly-needed post-Salthill break may see Kilkenny through.
Particularly if Richie Hogan is there for cameo purposes.