Derek McGrath knows how this works. He says potato, Davy Fitzgerald says potahto. Dan Shanahan says tomato. Dónal Óg Cusack say tomahto. Thankfully, Waterford and Clare have not decided to call the whole thing off. Neither would they, as they attempt to kill the other with kindness.
Being in the same position he found himself 12 months ago facing a team in Munster just weeks after a league final and winning on both occasions, McGrath insists Waterford will be holding nothing back this Sunday. Clare are far less tactically naive than Cork were at this stage last season but he can vouch shadow-boxing will be kept to a minimum on his side.
“I’m conscious of psychological mind games in the run-in to the match where each team management builds the others up as favourites,” he says. “To me, there is a gap there between the development phases of the teams if you’d like. Clare have been there and done it; we haven’t. Clare are now where we would like to be in a few years.”
On one hand, Shanahan has argued Clare are “streets ahead” of Waterford. On the other, Fitzgerald has claimed the Déise are the best team in the country at the minute. “I was in having the tea in my mother and father’s house and my dad said, ‘Davy said we’re the best team in the country’,” recalls McGrath. “Listen, that’s understandable, that’s anyone’s prerogative. I’m probably doing it, I’m contradicting myself by doing the same. I actually genuinely believe Clare are the best team in the country.
“Shane Bennett did his Leaving Cert last year. Austin Gleeson is 20 years of age. Patrick Curran is 20 years of age. Tom Devine is 20 years of age. If you had told a Waterford person two years ago Barry Coughlan would be full-back, Tadhg de Burca would be centre-back, Patrick Curran would be centre-forward and Tom Devine would be full-forward...
“Conor McGrath, Tony Kelly, brilliant players that have won three All-Ireland U21s and a senior All-Ireland. They are at a different level in terms of development. That’s not to say on any given day we wouldn’t feel we can just come from nowhere, like they did. The argument is that was in 2013, that we might be able to spring. That’s possible if you like, but that’s the reasoning behind my argument.”
Even with such a young group, McGrath has always encouraged expression both on and off the field. “We’ve never actually put a barrier in place for media or otherwise. I think they need to grow, and we are trying to get the balance right between a team that looks like it’s absolutely into self-promotion, and then be as cute as the rest in what they say. But I have to say there is no instruction given to any players in terms what they say or what they don’t say, and that’s important for them as well. They are evolving in that respect as well and they’ll learn. We’ve never pulled anyone in after they’ve said something or anything like that, to me that’s their own prerogative. But they are preaching themselves in the team dressing room anyway what they feel are kind of the ethics of our group. It’s good to see them growing. It probably won’t be on my shift that they’ll even grow more and that’s okay too.”
Although Fitzgerald brought Munster glory to Waterford as well as a first All-Ireland appearance in 45 years, his style had his knockers in the county, just as McGrath’s does now. The De La Salle man describes Fitzgerald’s 2010 provincial success as “remarkable and “a master achievement”.
“I think he didn’t get the credit he deserved with Waterford. I think the general perception was that there were boys coming to the end of their careers, if you like, with Waterford. Davy got the absolute best out of the group. For me, he’s done it all; he’s won All-Irelands as a player and a manager. In fairness, he’s very open to sharing ideas and concepts over the years. You have to give him great kudos for that.”
Another early May trip to Thurles brings back good memories for McGrath. Beating Cork twice wasn’t vindication for the panel overhaul in late 2014 but satisfaction.
“On a personal level, it was a big achievement for my family and myself and all that. I know for managers it’s rare to say that so I’m just acknowledging that on a personal level because we had taken a lot of flak in Waterford for the changes we made to the panel.
“Indirectly, the second Cork game was probably the most satisfying game of the year because to prepare a team five weeks on the back of a league win when most of the talk was that Cork would be different come championship. And for the lads themselves to be self-motivated as they were ahead of the Cork game and to be able to produce in the semi-final again, I thought was very satisfying overall.”
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