Derek McGrath: Waterford have seen the light

Waterford look extremely fresh, driven by a manager on the way up with the bit between his teeth.
Derek McGrath: Waterford have seen the light

Waterford manager Liam Cahill celebrates at the final whistle after the All-Ireland qualifier win over Galway at Semple Stadium. Picture: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

One of the most uncomfortable experiences I had as Waterford manager came the week following our drubbing at the hands of Tipperary in the 2016 Munster Final.

On the Wednesday prior to our training session, I watched briefly one of our development squads training in Carriganore. During the 15-a-side game, one of the mentors, having spotted myself, called a halt to the play and began to publicly berate one of the half-forwards for coming back into his own half of the field. The message was, ‘you are a forward, your job is to score and you are not allowed cross your 45-yard line anymore’.

The mob had begun to influence the mentors of the future. Clearly, this was a reaction to our encouragement to forwards to work back, track where necessary but also to race forward.

Thankfully, the unfashionable language of 2016 is now the norm.

As Yeats once pointed out in ‘Easter, 1916’, “All changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born”.

A brilliant performance by the Waterford U20s in defeat against Tipperary and an excellently coached minor success against the same opposition on Tuesday suggests the penny has finally dropped.

Despite the column inches being dominated by Cork’s potential, I can assure you that the names of Mark Fitzgerald, Carthach Daly, Kevin Mahony, Gavin Fives, Patrick Fitzgerald, Jack Twomey, and Peter Cummins will ensure that the ‘Waterford Rising’ can be real and sustained.

Almost two years ago, I concluded that Waterford GAA needed to ‘see better’. Practical improvements suggested included the realignment and rebranding of the development squads, the appointment of an athletic development coordinator, and the establishment of a commercial committee to align with the board around commercial strategy and vision.

All of the above have been brilliantly facilitated by the authentic and visionary leadership of Sean Michael O’Regan and Pat Flynn. Speaking at the launch of Waterford Rising earlier this year, Regan pointed out it was about “giving people a vision for the future to motivate them and assure them that Waterford GAA is alive and well and getting ready to move forward”.

The most impressive aspect of Regan’s speech was his admittance that “if we are honest, Waterford GAA has been somewhat resistant to change”, as well as underlining the need to “evolve to remain relevant and responsive to the forces around us”.

Quality visionaries like Michael Walsh, Brian O’Halloran, TV Honan, Fergal Hartley, Timmy O’Keeffe, and John Moloney have driven this response.

Vision must be followed by action and underpinned by passion. The intangible benefits of county secretary Pat Flynn’s ardent and impassioned approach when debating Sean Stack’s decision to dismiss Conor Gleeson will not have been lost on Liam Cahill, his management team and players, and the Waterford GAA public.

Pat was backing his team and manager and it cemented the reality to me that this is Waterford as one. It reminded me of Ned Quinn’s lieutenant-like support for Brian Cody over the years.

Cahill’s pre-match interview provided an insight into the type of person he is and the type of camp Waterford have embraced. The perception of this no-nonsense, tough-talking, dictatorial figure was replaced by the reality of a man talking openly of his ‘inexperience’ at not using the private sanctuary of the dressing room to convey his feelings in the aftermath of the Clare defeat.

Such authentic honesty creates what Dr George Kohlreiser calls in his book Hostage at the Table a “secure base”, a place of psychological safety. Kohlreiser talks too of the “law of reciprocity”, where the natural order is to give back based on what you have received.

Simon Sinek, in his book Leaders Eat Last, refers to a ‘Circle of Safety’. pointing out that when people share and trust their successes and failures — what they know, what they don’t know — the natural result is innovation.

The apologetic tone of Cahill’s words would be appreciated by these players and used to harness an extra drive towards a semi-final berth.

That’s not to say that Cahill has suddenly become soft. Pause your recording on 31 minutes 41 seconds of last week’s game and you’ll see him rightly admonish a previously rampant Peter Hogan for shooting erratically when there was a one-on-one opportunity for Dessie Hutchinson inside.

Innovation and diversity of thinking was very evident last Saturday. During Sky Sports’ coverage, the camera panned to Stephen O’Keeffe, Philip and Paraic Mahony, Tadgh de Búrca, Darragh Fives, and Iarlaith Daly. A significant casualty list was not even mentioned by Cahill. Instead, the focus was on the energy and difference long-term panellists would bring.

Cahill has brilliantly illustrated the difference between the man on the street and the man on the line. The obsession of Waterford people with Patrick Curran playing close to goal was ignored — instead he played as a deep wing forward, at times as an auxiliary wing back, which allowed Jamie Barron and Calum Lyons to dovetail brilliantly along the right. The structure provided allowed the lads the freedom to interchange where appropriate. This didn’t prevent Curran from nipping forward to skillfully set up Jack Fagan’s brilliantly taken goal. Patrick enjoyed arguably his finest hour in a Waterford senior jersey.

Cahill’s positioning of Ballygunner speedster Peter Hogan in the middle was brilliantly different and played to the young man’s undoubted strengths. The most successful repositioning, however, was of Shane Bennett to 6. Having struggled at wing-back against Laois, general consensus was that someone else would fill the edge of the D role. But Liam Cahill and Mikey Bevans don’t do general consensus.

Waterford returned to what suits them best. Dessie inside on his own, sporadically supported by Jack Fagan or Stephen Bennett, with all the others deep acting as a defensive shield, particularly to Shane at 6. The speed and accuracy of the transition, allied to the pace of Barron, Lyons, Prendergast, Bennett, Hogan, as well as Hutchinson’s ability to make the ball stick in 1 v 3 situations separates them at every level to Tipperary.

If Conor Gleeson is unavailable, Shane McNulty will be a more than able deputy. The All-Star nominee will be tasked with negotiating the carousel movement of the Tipperary forwards.

While Waterford’s display last Saturday was unsurprising, what was surprising wa commentary concerning the ‘quiet’ game Austin Gleeson had. Having worked slavishly off the ball for the first 20 minutes. a beautiful sideline cut, followed by a point off his left just before half-time and an 80-yard off-balance strike off his right on 43 hardly equated to a non-role in events.

Waterford will look to create the same atmosphere again and the venue and timings have helped. A mirror of last week in terms of nutritional intake, journey length and a pitch with good championship memories. The Croke Park-like surface and space should play into our hands.

I was surprised to read Ronan Maher’s comments about “looking to get a crack at Limerick again”. Despite insisting that Tipp’s remained a game-by-game attitude, one gets the sense they invested huge energy into the Limerick game. Their level of planning and motivation was almost manic and to be derailed so spectacularly during the third quarter may have left an indelible imprint of doubt. Waterford will hope so.

Tipp’s plan to play a seventh defender, if transitioned better and tweaked, is probably the best way of taking down Limerick. Getting the balance right tomorrow will be a harder ask, mentally.

An infusion of energy might come from Niall O’Meara or perhaps the same 15 that performed so admirably in the first half will be charged with showing the implosion was simply a really good team gaining momentum at a crucial period and Tipp being unable to stymie the tide.

Sheedy might also consider a mid-season relocation of Paraic Maher to the half-back line. Whilst Dan McCormack was hugely effective in marking Cian Lynch and allowed Brendan Maher to man the D, Brendan’s possession statistics pointed to a man who would be happier relocated to the wing where he can both mark and hurl. Sheedy will not have forgotten Tipp’s 2019 win over Clare in Ennis where the flexibility of Barry Heffernan saw him fill the full-back slot with the Mahers in the half-back line.

The midfield battle of the 12 that will occupy that war zone (both half-forward lines plus one inside forward and two midfielders each) will be crucial. Waterford will look to run, slalom, pop off the shoulder and mix it up. Tipperary will want to be more direct and offset the pace disparity by constantly moving and opening up space.

Will Mikey Breen’s tracking duties be changed from Hayes to Barron? Conor Prunty has previously matched up extremely well against Seamie Callanan.

Tipperary supporters have finally begun to realise the importance of Dan McCormack to their team. The scalding Dessie Hutchinson gave Cathal Barrett in the tighter confines of Walsh Park will be fresh in the Holycross man’s mind, but Dessie exudes calm and poise and will find a way.

While the undoubted brilliance of Noel McGrath, Bubbles, Jason Forde, and Callanan can create something from nothing, the standout difference between the sides is pace and, more importantly, energy. Waterford look extremely fresh, driven by a manager on the way up with the bit between his teeth.

Sheedy’s motivational powers are rightly acknowledged but the perception is that he is leaning on all his deep-rooted traits to inspire performances. His players will need to surpass his energy to succeed tomorrow.

Waterford were exceptional for 55 minutes last Saturday. I expect them to be even better. More importantly, we have evolved, we have initiated change, and winning can be the catalyst for success at every level.

We can become the light of Amanda Gorman’s The Hill We Climb, the poem beautifully recited during Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony: “For there is always light if only we are brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

Déise to take another step up the hill.

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