To Pat Bennett’s left is a rock and to his right is a hard place.
There is no question where his loyalties will lie on Sunday. He bled for Waterford as his sons Kieran, Shane and Stephen do now. He is part of Derek McGrath’s stats team.
McGrath is a friend but then so is Davy Fitzgerald.
For the final two of Fitzgerald’s four years with Waterford, Bennett stood alongside him and current Wexford selector and Mount Sion man Páraic Fanning. Bennett continues to do so as coach with Limerick IT.
On Tuesday, he was in the Sixmilebridge man’s company televising Ireland’s Fittest Family — Bennett overlooks the assault course. It continues on Cork’s docks on Saturday morning. Later in the day, they might even take in the Clare-Tipperary game together. But while the banter and poor mouth reaches peak levels there is also an uneasiness.
It’s not that they haven’t been here before — there were the two league meetings and Munster semi-final last year — but at the time they could keep their distance from one another. Now, that can’t be helped and neither are giving anything away.
“I’m finding it hard this week because I want Waterford to win more than anything but whoever wins it’s going to be a bittersweet one,” says Bennett.
“My passion is Waterford, end of story, but if you have a friend and he’s after losing you’ll be feeling sorry for him as well. And if Waterford lose I’ll be gutted and he’ll feel sorry for me.”
Michael Ryan’s period in charge as Waterford manager came between their terms but it would have been almost a seamless transition were McGrath to have followed Fitzgerald given their shared philosophies and tactics.
Prior to the Division 1 final meeting between Waterford and Fitzgerald’s Clare last year, Fitzgerald spoke about their relationship.
“Me and him would have got on alright and we would have had a number of chats. I thought he was a real decent skin. He doesn’t need to get any idea off me.”
McGrath, who was twice approached by Fitzgerald to join his management team in Waterford, later elaborated on a meeting they had in Fitzgerald’s home.
“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 managers of rivalling inter-county teams, it’s extraordinary they would meet but then they are kindred spirits.
“They’re always dealing with formations and trying to impose theirs on the other team,” Bennett remarks. “A lot of coaches or managers go out and play the game and whatever game is played is played but these two are trying to implement a format so that they have the upper hand and the other team either has to comply or counteract. It’s ensuring their structure, their stamp is put on the game.
“They’re similar in that they’re always thinking of finding a new way to approach a team and how they get around the strengths of their other teams.”
Bennett says the obvious distinction that separates the two is experience. “Davy has been at it longer and he has that much more knowledge having been with three county teams. Derek is in his first stint. Davy had to get the Wexford guys to play the way he wanted them to play. Davy picks that up very quick.”
During games, Fitzgerald’s heart is sported proudly on his sleeve whereas McGrath’s occasionally peeks out. “Davy shows how he feels on the sideline but he is very calm in the dressing room. Derek is very calm. Is he passionate? Of course, he is. You can see he gets passionate on the sideline when he needs to. But he is very meticulous. The pair of them put in a crazy amount of work to prepare their teams.”
Like Fitzgerald, Bennett sees in McGrath a manager who has belief in his convictions.
“Derek has his own way of playing and he’s his own man and I don’t think Waterford will care what way we play if we were to go on and win an All-Ireland. If we won an All-Ireland with 10 backs, Waterford people wouldn’t care. Whether we will or we won’t is another day’s work.
“When we beat Kilkenny, nobody cared how we did it. I didn’t hear anybody talking about the systems. When we lost to Cork, we heard about it. Once you win, it goes out the window. Davy, when he came in, saw a way he wanted to do it and Derek saw a way too.
“Derek would be the first guy to say that whoever comes in after him it’s up to them how Waterford play but perception is ruled by wins. Cork wouldn’t have cared what way they were playing so long as they were winning. If they get beaten, questions will be asked. Managers just have to be ruthless in their thinking and if the players believe the manager and what he is doing then how can you have a problem with it?”
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