And just like that, Waterford are again everyone’s second favourite team.
Back in 2007 after another Waterford All-Ireland odyssey had ended in glorious failure, Enda McEvoy, now of these pages, wrote that only the Munster rugby team of that era could rival Justin McCarthy’s team for nationwide popularity.
Of course Kilkenny and Cork were admired. But Dan and Mullane and the crew were loved. You could argue they lacked the character to win it all. But they didn’t lack personality and as Jules said in Pulp Fiction, personality goes a long way. In their search for that All-Ireland they captured not just the attention but imagination and even emotions of the nation.
Then after 2008 when Waterford crashed in an All-Ireland final as hard as the economy itself would only weeks later, things changed. While Davy Fitzgerald did a marvellous job of maintaining Waterford’s top-four status, sometime during and after his reign the flamboyance and that universal popularity and aspiration faded.
Now the Déise dream is alive again for the whole country to see. That was the statement made loud and clear in this loudest of spring statement games.
There is little not to like about this Waterford; even those who were previously critical of their style of play can now see both the style and the substance in how Derek McGrath has his men set up.
More so, it’s the way he and they conduct themselves. Humility is something not every Waterford manager has possessed but he does, and as Kevin Moran alluded to in his speech last Sunday, the players recognised and fed off from the start. McGrath even endeared himself to the yes campaign in the marriage equality referendum by acknowledging the support of players’ boyfriends as well as girlfriends. How right on can a hurling manager be?
Technical skill. Tactical awareness. Fitness. Mentally too they appear a more stable and grounded unit than the noughties team which had such an appealing but self-limiting wild streak.
Not only are these the kids ignited by the feats of Flynn and Ken and who modelled them in their back gardens (in contrast to Flynn himself who growing up had to pretend he was Joe Cooney or John Fenton “because Waterford were never on TV”); they’re benefitting from how a generation further on the Waterford IT culture has emanated throughout the county and into its hurling circles.
We repeat. This team and management are geared to win All-Irelands. The question is: is their county board? Very few are. Although it’s hugely common for GAA commentators to portray inter-county managers as wanting and wielding too much power, the reality is those managers have to put up with a lot more than they impose. Most county board officers have little clue as to what it takes to prepare to even compete. They only see a figure, a cost, rarely the process and value behind it. It’s not even that they and county managers aren’t on the same wavelength, or thinking or speaking the same language: it’s as if they’re each coming from completely different worlds.
Looking back, the Cork GAA strikes weren’t about loaded terms as “professionalism” versus “amateurism”; it was about the provision and retention of a high-performance culture, a term quite pervasive now but not in circulation then; it would have been handy, less incendiary.
Similarly it’s why Waterford hurlers playing last Sunday took it upon themselves months ago to make the tough call to the hugely likeable Michael Ryan to say it would be best if he wasn’t to seek another term as manager.
To regularly contend for All-Ireland honours you need a high-performance culture. Some counties might sporadically get it. Very few have a culture and system that ensures it’s sustained.
Dublin GAA have it. Kilkenny too with Ned Quinn providing such stability and vision. In Kerry chairman Patrick O’Sullivan knows its value and facilitates it; it was telling last September that at the foot of the Hogan Stand he and Eamonn Fitzmaurice were arm in arm . It was in keeping with the observation of Gary Keegan, the director of the Institute of Sport, that the best-performing national governing bodies are those in which the chief executive and performance director and head coach are working in tandem.
A few weeks ago a coach in another sport I work with went for an interview with the national governing body. Not only was the chief executive in attendance but so was the head of the coaches association. The candidate could be asked and talk about key technical and tactical points.
Just what county board officers are similarly qualified to interview prospective county managers about such intricate but vital matters? Take last autumn’s vacancy in Mayo. Could the county board confidently claim they were qualified as to what constitutes high performance and who was best to succeed James Horan?
Cavan famously took the decision six years ago to hire a consultancy firm and while it had its flaws, the fundamental concept was sound.
Someday a progressive visionary county board will bring in a Keegan or a Billy Walsh or a Liam Sheedy to help interview suitable candidates for county management jobs. Or even better, a performance director to coordinate football or hurling performance structures.
In McGrath, Waterford have a coach with the growth mindset. Implicit in that mindset is that there will be setbacks along the way. A lot of powerbrokers and commentators don’t get that; that someone like a Brendan Rodgers deserves another season because he’ll likely identify and learn from his errors of this season.
Every hurling league champion of the last 17 years has played in an All-Ireland final within two years of that spring success, a trend Waterford could well continue. McGrath also knows it’s possible that Waterford could be relegated from Division 1A next spring just as they were last year. To him that’s part of a learning process, one he’d learn from it. Would the county board be so patient? Would they panic? Current chairman Paddy Joe Ryan was the same chairman who came up with the inspired appointments of Gerald and Justin McCarthy. They were of their time.
Is he of this time? If he is or at least he and his officers recognise that McGrath is best qualified on what it takes to win and the board’s job is to simply support him, then we’ll all be supporting the Déise and their dream will be actualised after all.
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