Waterford manager Derek McGrath on his fears that his obsession with hurling is affecting his job, his relationship with Davy Fitzgerald and being perceived as a pariah of the game
This championship begins at 40 for Derek McGrath. With Sunday in mind, he had nothing planned to celebrate Monday’s milestone.
His wife Sarah, though, had other ideas. Still, in keeping with the week that’s in it, she ensured the celebration was understated.
This Munster semi-final means the world to McGrath. Since the end of April, he has been on parental leave from De La Salle College although he’s not afraid to admit the time off has given him ample opportunity to prepare for Sunday in Thurles. He went with the full blessing of the school. Even so, he left early with a heavy heart.
“I was a small bit guilty in that I had a sixth year English class albeit the course was covered. I still felt I left them in the lurch a small bit in advance of the exams. I hadn’t told them until the Wednesday I was leaving. The management in the school didn’t tell me this but my own paranoia would tell me the parents of the lads were unhappy with me leaving.
“I was balancing that with the preparation for the Clare game. I just said to myself I’d prioritise that. It’s given me a chance to be full-time at it for the last five weeks and I’ve seen first-hand the benefits from a family point of view in terms of planning and getting things done.”
You would think teaching is conducive to managing a county team and yet McGrath explains for him it’s not.
“Even in class, I found myself thinking about hurling all the time and not just formations but match-ups and being obsessed about it. I would have always prided myself on being a good teacher in class but I’ve felt I haven’t been as good as I normally was. That’s only me being self-critical.
“There’s a correlation between teaching and management in that teaching gives you the time and yet I’m contradicting myself. It nearly lends to thinking you shouldn’t be there and I’m not being fair to the young lads.
“I had one third year class and one sixth year class and I probably wasn’t fair to them because I was just obsessed with hurling all of the time. So you would question the sustainability of that long-term, I have to be honest.
“If you look across Division 1A, Brian Cody is retired, Ger Cunningham had been working with Bord Gáis and Davy is full-time at it. Most of the managers are nearly full-time. Other than that or you’re teaching, I don’t know how you’d do it.”
If you didn’t know McGrath is a self-professed worrier by now, then you never will.
It troubles him how he’s perceived at times as something of a pariah in hurling.
“Sometimes, selfishly you worry about the future and how you would be labelled. I’ve nothing else on my mind only Waterford. I was 40 on Monday so you’re saying to yourself, ‘what will you be doing at 50?’ It’s almost like a team might say, ‘Don’t bring him in — he’ll have 10 at the back!’
“I just wish people would do a bit of research. When I was De La Salle manager in 2010 and 2012, we scored more than every De La Salle team had ever done and the same with the Harty and All-Ireland colleges (Waterford’s scoring total last year dwarfed several previous seasons’ records).
“Sometimes, it’s what you have in front of you at a given time. If I was to look into a crystal ball, I would see that even if I wasn’t involved someone would come in and pundits will say we have changed and are far more attacking and free-flowing.
“You’d be worried you’re categorised but there are enough smart people out there.
“I would ask the questions — what would anyone do in our situation or why have we won 13 out of 15 league games in the last two years?”
It has amused him how pundits turned on their own opinions about Cork after their heavy loss to Tipperary.
“The amount of people that actually said, ‘Jesus, Cork should set up with William Egan in front of Seamie Callanan’. When they did so and it didn’t work to a particular pattern, the day after they said they should go back to 15 on 15. I was asking myself was I the only one noticing the contradictions.
“It’s not that you feel you’re rewriting the book; you’re just trying to do what you think is right on a given day.”
At least Fitzgerald, his sideline opponent on Sunday, is a kindred spirit.
Earlier this week, Fitzgerald revealed he had approached McGrath about joining his management team during his time in Waterford. McGrath is happy to confirm. “I met Davy at the beginning of the 2008 season after Waterford contested the All-Ireland final. I met Davy in the Granville (hotel) for an hour and a half almost. It was a brilliant meeting where he laid out all his plans and asked me to come on board and I actually agreed straight away. I shook his hand. I was kind of flattered that somebody of his ilk would ask me in the first place.
“That was eight years ago so I was 32, De La Salle were in the county final that Sunday against Abbeyside, the first county final that we won. I tore my hamstring and wasn’t going to be playing the final. I remember going up to training that evening and John Mullane had the news that I was going to be Waterford selector or coach.
“Then just when I got home, I was saying to the mother and father and Sarah that I was going in with Waterford. I got a kind of a turn against it, nothing to do with Davy but just getting involved in that situation at that stage. I won All-Ireland colleges in ’07 and ’08 and hadn’t even managed at senior club level because I was still playing. So I just rang Davy back to tell him I wasn’t committing and he was perfectly courteous about it. I just told him I felt I wasn’t ready.
“It was a bit of immaturity on my behalf to agree to it straight away. Two years after that, he asked me again to come on board as a coach but in a more casual manner, which was appealing, but I just said I wasn’t ready because I was still playing with De La Salle and wanted to concentrate on that. We’ve had contact since then, the most notable when we were relegated in 2014. I spent a day with him down in his own house talking about hurling, what he had been through, the game he was developing and the stuff he had to put up with when Cork beat Clare the year they won the All-Ireland.”
As he has done in this interview and several before, McGrath mentions his parents.
As well as from his wife, he takes counsel from Kathleen and Nicky, also recognising them as a representation of ordinary, honest Waterford people.
Yet the defeatist words of his father immediately after Waterford won last year’s Munster semi-final troubled him. McGrath said at the time: “I met my father on the field and he said ‘at least you’re in the All-Ireland quarter-final’.”
He smiles on reminder of his comments.
“My mother has never gone to a game in her whole life. She would be saying a Novena upstairs when the game is on. I was reminded of the line at the back of Jack O’Connor’s book and what his mother said to him when he first got the Kerry job: ‘Johneen a chroí, don’t take that job, they’ll be giving out to you’. I told her that was to come and it was going to get worse. I actually predicted it would get worse in the first year.
“I bounce ideas off my father because I’ve watched him my entire life and he never disagrees with anything.
“Not that my mother is hard work but he’s fairly level-headed and grounded. All parents want the fallback for their children. My father is Waterford born and bred where they settle for the worst case scenario. It’s like any time I ring my parents after 11, the first thing they say is ‘what’s wrong?’
“There’s not a worry in the house but there is a care that everything is alright. If you can bring elements of that care to your team you have a chance.”
Empathy is the word McGrath looks for and finds. Towards the end of last year, Austin Gleeson spoke of his manager almost as if he wasn’t one: “I know Derek will definitely be feeling pressure, that’s just the way he is.”
McGrath makes no apologies for that.
“I go back to a specific time with Austin where he texted me the night after an U21 game and said he was going to give hurling a break. Jamie Barron was going to America at the time and I just went off in the car with Austin the next day and he was grand. He was the finest.
“But I don’t want to be an authority figure and I don’t want to be their buddy either. I want to get the balance right between the two in recognising their uniqueness in terms of what they are as individuals, who they represent and what they represent and then let them go themselves.”
All going well, McGrath will be Waterford manager until 2019 at least but he isn’t a fool: A lot will have to go well for him. For the second year running, he is in charge of the youngest panel in the Liam MacCarthy Cup. Green, yes, but grafters.
Last year, Michael Walsh spoke at a team meeting after Waterford gained promotion from Division 1B and expressed how much he loved being part of “a team of workers”.
“Michael has been convinced that maybe in the past there were younger players who mightn’t have been committed but are now rock hard in terms of their thought process.”
If McGrath at the moment is a guardian by tactic he is also one by nature too.
The duty of care he has to his starlets is something he can never discount even if it means being over-protective. “We’re probably playing it (up) to a degree because you’re trying to protect the players in the event of a bad day. You’re trying to protect Austin 20 years of age, Shane Bennett 19 years of age, Patrick Curran 20. You want to let them know that when the day comes you’ve anticipated it because you have mentioned it publicly.
“When people say we’re always on about team-building and being a work in progress, that doesn’t mean that you can’t be the work in progress that Clare were three years ago when the argument was (Tony) Kelly and them were all U21 and they were able to play and win both.”
Here's a little extra sport. Watch the latest BallTalk for the best sports chat and analysis:
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved