Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out
It’s forgotten in weeks like these but McGrath was close to being dismissed as manager after one season in charge. Coming in after Michael Ryan had been effectively ousted by the players, the second coup in five years, there was a sense of distrust between some county board officials and the panel.
McGrath, while hugely popular with the players, was in the middle and relegation and a qualifier exit to Wexford brought him perilously close to damnation. As he admitted after that season, he was paranoid that the guillotine was being sharpened but then promotion from Division 1B, a league title and Munster and All-Ireland semi-final appearances followed and his stock had jumped.
McGrath’s championship record currently reads played 18 won nine, drawn two and lost seven. The Munster semi-final defeat to Cork in June this year was a tough one to swallow given the level of preparation they have put in but in truth they had such a long run into the game and at least they were competitive. The previous season, they weren’t against Tipperary, conceding five goals as ball was rained down on their inside line on a rainy afternoon in Limerick. In both games, there were periods when playing more orthodox hurt Waterford. They’ve learned those lessons now.
It’s Got To Get Better In A Little While
If the nadir of McGrath’s time in charge was the 20-point loss to Kilkenny in Nowlan Park in March 2014 the turning point came less than a year later when they drew with their main challengers Limerick in the opening Division 1B game in the Gaelic Grounds on St Valentine’s night. Without much of an entourage, a defeat would have effectively ended Waterford’s promotion hopes and McGrath may even have been replaced by the championship but Paudie Prendergast’s last-gasp point secured them a share of the spoils and a platform to build from for the next four matches, which they won to return to the top flight.
Tell The Truth
The cerebral openness of McGrath had endeared him to the wider hurling public. It has helped to offset some of the criticism about Waterford’s tactics, although there is still plenty of that. He is a man who clearly thinks a lot about the game and isn’t afraid to express himself. He isn’t reluctant to admit his shortcomings either although he feels he was perhaps too forthcoming earlier this year when he explained he had taken parental leave to focus more on hurling as it was affecting his performance as a teacher in De La Salle College. Needless to say, his honesty is refreshing.
As Eric Clapton famously sang about Patti Lloyd, “You’ve got me on my knees.” Since that character-defining qualifier win over Kilkenny when they lost an eight-point lead only to effectively build almost all of it back up in extra-time, Waterford’s wins have been confirmed long before the final whistle. Wexford and Cork could have played on for another 10 minutes and got nowhere close to Waterford.
To paraphrase Clapton, it used to be Waterford pleading for their worry minds to be eased, whose worlds were turned upside down but since breaking the Kilkenny hoodoo they have turned a corner. The Cats’ claws mightn’t be as sharp but that’s not to say beating them has given Waterford a false sense of security. Rather, it has emboldened them.
Keep On Growing
The stages of development in any young team are easy to decipher. Stage one is being competitive. Waterford were all that in 2015 after their tactical transformation was precipitated by McGrath’s difficult first year. Stage two is consistency.
Last year, Waterford again reached the Division 1 final, the Munster final and the All-Ireland semi-final. In the latter part of this season they have illustrated the final stage — ruthlessness. Again, we come back to the Kilkenny game, the greatest psychological test they had faced yet as a group. They had to kill them twice in Thurles in July but since then they have dictated the terms of matches and the scorelines accordingly. Waterford go for the jugular like Jim McGuinness’ Donegal: the margin mightn’t look massive but given they are meaner than most it may translate to a wider gap.
Have You Ever Loved A Woman?
Last week, Austin Gleeson was interviewed by VIP magazine in which he was asked about his love life. He admitted he had no time for it at the moment: “I have no love life at this moment in time anyway, but we’ll see what happens after that.” Now, the idea of your star 22-year-old speaking to a celebrity publication less than two weeks out from an All-Ireland final following a suspension controversy would give most managers conniptions but not McGrath. Informed of it last week, he just laughed. The manager does his best to protect his players but they aren’t mollycoddled. He appreciates they have to live and learn.
Captain Kevin Moran was just 21 when he played in his first All-Ireland final eight years ago. Shane Bennett is not yet 21 (he is 20 until December) and he is set to line out in his first on Sunday.
Moran will have reminded his young cohorts that these days don’t come around too often and his former team-mate turned pundit John Mullane has pointed out that Waterford need to strike while the iron is hot. That latter point can be countered when so many of McGrath’s players, while fully-blooded at this level, are years away from peaking. At the same time, they and Galway’s tyros like Conor Whelan have shown a level-headedness beyond their years. Consider too the subdued build-up to the final and Sunday should feel like any (other) day.