As early as yesterday morning, some bookies had me priced at 5-1 to be installed as the next Waterford manager. Some free advice; keep yere money in yere pockets. The road from west Clare to Waterford is one significant reason I wouldn’t entertain the prospect. But the main one is pretty obvious — replacing Derek McGrath certainly won’t be an easy gig. For anyone.
It’s rare to have seen such an outpouring of emotion and love from a group of players towards their manager. It was a deeply passionate relationship, where both parties only had eyes for each other. And when one walks away, the void is never easy to fill.
The connection was clearly unique. Some of the players were former club team-mates at De La Salle before Derek then managed that group. He taught and coached a huge number of the current group of Waterford players at De La Salle College. And those links strengthened the bonds he had with so many of them as Waterford manager.
The group always spoke of him as the ultimate players’ man, of how their welfare and future was as much a priority as winning matches.
In so many ways Derek reminded me of Len Gaynor. When he managed Clare between 1991 and ‘94, Gaynor would regularly call to the players’ houses on the evening before a championship match, especially a Munster final.
He was checking-in on players years before man-management was a recognised term.
Derek had that Gaynoresque trait, where he had that empathy, that desire to protect his players, and do whatever he could for them so they could try and live out their dreams.
It’s an admirable quality but it’s still hard to distinguish whether that’s a positive or negative element of modern management.
You certainly wouldn’t see Brian Cody calling to players before games.
Ger Loughnane definitely didn’t follow that practise after taking over from Gaynor. You’d be lucky to get a nod from Loughnane in the days leading up to a big game.
That was the distance that Loughnane and Cody always wanted to maintain but Derek has a completely different personality and his management style completely rhymed with his mindset. He showed his ruthless streak in his second year when he cut a host of experienced and big-name players but I’m sure he did so in a different way to how Cody or Loughnane would ruthlessly carry out a cull; with a steel fist in a velvet glove.
That wholesome approach is fantastic but so many people now only judge a manager on results. When people look back on Derek’s time, they will naturally think of the word “sweeper”.
Maybe he could have altered the approach in year three but he did in year four, and returning to what Waterford knew best after the 2017 Munster semi-final against Cork, brought them to last year’s All-Ireland final, and almost the title.
Like the team, Derek grew and evolved and matured during his time in charge. His first season in 2014 was my last with Dublin and Derek reminded me so much of myself when I first took over Clare in 2004; full of youthful enthusiasm and ideas and a desire to make it happen quicker than it ever could.
We spoke a few times that season. We met in the Division 1 relegation final but we also arranged a challenge game prior to the championship. I always found his enthusiasm and energy infectious but I also found Derek to be just a very passionate hurling man, a guy who absolutely loved Waterford hurling with every fibre of his being.
He was a gentleman to talk to, very engaging. I always got the feeling too that he was learning more from the conversation than I was. Maybe that was more down to me being an open-book, and being willing to talk about anything, but I admired that hunger for information. It was in no way calculated either, it was just a guy thirsty for knowledge. Loughnane was similar in many ways.
Derek was a winner but that approach was laced with class and dignity. I don’t think I could have been as composed or honourable as he was minutes after the injustice of the Tipperary match, and the ghost goal.
I would have tried but I’m sure I, or anybody else, would have been unable to be as dignified in those circumstances.
It was a huge mark of the guy but Derek is a top bloke.
The greatest compliment I can give him is to acknowledge the massive respect his players had for him. That performance on Sunday, when Waterford were already out of the championship, could only have come from a group who absolutely bought into their manager.
The display also underlined the absolute professionalism he brought to the job. It’s an amateur game but guys like Derek have helped lift hurling to another level over the last five years.
This chapter has closed now. Another chapter may be written in the future but Derek leaves behind a rich legacy in terms of culture, ambition, standards and expectation. And in the modern tale of Waterford hurling, Derek McGrath has done more than anyone else to write that story.
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