The English teacher is bringing new challenges to the Waterford hurlers but is learning about himself as he goes. Be less sensitive. Be truer to himself. And get the balance right between instinct and structure. Ahead of the Allianz league final, Derek McGrath offers a fascinating window to the dressing room, writes Michael Moynihan
The GAA’s best-known To Kill A Mocking Bird fan is as happy to chat about his reading list as he is about his Waterford hurlers, who play Cork in the Allianz Hurling League final tomorrow.
Derek McGrath, who teaches English at De La Salle College in Waterford, doesn’t confine himself to stories of the American South, though.
“I’d read a lot of biographies, sports biographies, and you’d often come across something that’s familiar, a similar situation you were in yourself. I liked James Kerr’s book about the All Blacks, for instance, the business model which showed 15 ways to become a better All Black.
“I’ve been quoted about To Kill A Mocking Bird, but I love that book just in terms of life lessons and so on.
“I enjoyed Clive Woodward’s book and tried to apply some of his lessons to the De La Salle Harty teams of 2007 and 2008 - providing resources without creating prima donnas. That’s important, that you give guys what they deserve but keeping them grounded.
“And to an extent, last year with Waterford, we gave the lads gear and it was almost a way into them, to try to show them that this was another level. That might have been a mistake, there might have been a leaning on us to an extent and this year it’s been a bit more old-fashioned, if you like.”
That’s the recurring conversational arc with McGrath. His selector Dan Shanahan says he’s consumed with improving the Waterford hurlers, and each chat circles back to that topic sooner or later.
Asked about the sense of satisfaction that comes with winning a league semi-final, for instance, and his answer relates to the county side again. After Waterford drew with Cork last year a Sunday newspaper described McGrath’s side as ‘well-coached’.
“I gave myself the slightest little pat on the back and I felt, ‘ah, this is the way it’s going to be, this is alright’. Given my natural character, which is one, well, I wouldn’t say paranoia . . . no, I haven’t (taken any self-satisfaction) really.
“I’m just looking forward to the next game and challenging ourselves the whole time to get better and better.
“And it’s a brilliant scenario: two games there against the same opposition, what a challenge for a management in terms of the approach to the two games. It’s a brilliant challenge and one we should look forward to. We’ve a 14-point gap to bridge based on how the replay went last year, so what a challenge.”
If he knew then what he knows now, after 12 months in the hot-seat, what would he do differently?
“I’d be less sensitive. Truer to myself in terms of absolute belief in knowing the game, without sounding boastful that you know the game, and knowing the individuals we have as well. I’d say go with your gut a lot more in life in general, which I know sounds very philosophical.
“And the sense of balance we were trying to bring to things too… we’d four points in the League last year and that relegated us; four points in the League this year got Galway into a quarter-final so I think it’s important to look at things and have as balanced an approach as you can.
“We probably longed for people to view us with more balance, to stand back and say, ‘there’s another story here’. I think you have to be more headstrong. That’s probably what I’d say to myself.”
Regarding pundits and commentators, does he only give credence to those who’ve managed at inter-county level?
“No, to be fair. I think there are lots of very good observers out there, good pundits who are well able to call the game and they’re part of the game, and I think you have to be willing to accept that. There’s no-one looking for anything other than fairness but you have to be big and bold enough to take it anyway. “There’s no wrapping yourself up in cotton wool. Sometimes you’d read or hear things and you’d know that that didn’t happen.
“I heard one well-known RTÉ pundit previewing our game and saying that the first thing Waterford would do is play nine men behind the ball – at no stage this year have we played nine behind the ball as a formation. Right, Enda McEvoy had a picture which showed nine, just in a moment, but we didn’t have a formation with nine behind the ball.
“I just thought that was lazy, that’s all. It doesn’t really affect us now whereas last year it probably would have drained me, I’d have been thinking, ‘what’s he on about’.
“People shouldn’t be discouraged from thinking differently about the game either. People should think ‘what’s the best way for us to get a win here?’ or whatever.
“You wrote an article about Donal O’Grady’s time in Limerick and trying to change their style of play - your point was that if you won nothing for years playing one way, then shouldn’t you try to change? We know the players well and they have a big role in how we play. They’re open and the whole thing is player-led.”
McGrath’s experience is crucial, though. Colleges success was followed by county and provincial honours with his club, De La Salle. Valuable lessons were learned en route.
“I think you do get better at preparing a team in how not to get derailed, no matter what happens. I remember the Munster Club final against Thurles (Sarsfields), we had a Garda escort and the escort didn’t perform his duties adequately. The boys on the bus, even a few notable characters among them, it just got to them. I felt it affected our performance. With any type of analysis of every performance, you’re going to look at every aspect of it – we just weren’t able to deal with it.
“Dan (Shanahan) often alludes to the fact that, a number of years ago, the (Waterford) bus got stuck under the roof in Croke Park on the way to one of the matches. There was another year when the players had to get off the bus at Cusack Park in Ennis a few years back and walk (to the ground). But with the group of lads we have, there’s not a huge amount of derailing in terms of their confidence levels and their ability to deal with situations. And it’s the management’s role to create all the types of scenarios that the players may be confronted with and then, therefore, you hope they can cope with it.”
After the League semi-final win over Tipperary, McGrath told reporters there were aspects of the management’s performance that would have to be improved. Looking back now he gives specific examples.
“We didn’t start too well so we’ll probably have to look at small things like the time we arrived at the ground and do our best to get everything right for the next day.
“We started poorly – and there’s a danger of course that you can over-analyse these things too - but I think when a team produces a very honest performance and gives it absolutely everything, then there can’t be any shame if that proves second best.
“That’s why I referred the last day at the 66-67-minute stage that I felt we had given it our all. To me, we were going to be in a good place regardless of what the result was going to end up being by then. It was performance-based and we were happy with the performance. “We (management) have to be realistic. If we’re asking the lads to give such a commitment, then we have to be respected by the lads for our work-rate and self-analysis. That’s part of all management, I would think.
“We’re as one, management and team, in that we can hold our hands up and say, ‘we’ll work on this, or we’ll work on that’. That’s crucial to our circle of trust and it happens in defeat and in victory. You’d get soft if you didn’t analyse yourself in victory.”
The suggestion that Waterford are now the Donegal of hurling isn’t one that McGrath agrees with, but, typically, it isn’t a knee-jerk rejection but a reasoned counter-argument.
“I think I referenced it before, but it’s counter-intuitive to suggest you can’t have expression within a structure. You can. People need to get their head around that. We heard a lot about structure in the run-up to the last game, though I don’t think there’s been as much talk about it before tomorrow. “To me the idea of our structure has been somewhat overplayed; we’ve lots of good hurlers and we’re not going to make them into robots and if that suggestion is out there, I feel that’s wide of the mark.
“The game, in our opinion as a management team, has evolved and changed. I look forward to the day when someone says to a team of intelligent young men, ‘we’ve no plan today, we’re just going to go out and hurl’. That’d probably be successful in the short-term, but generally these players seek structure.
“You’re not trying to create robots to play one of the most instinctive games in the world. We’re not trying to quell anyone’s instincts; we’re not trying to inhibit the players at all. In any team sport, individual players will blossom within a team concept, but the team comes first for us.
“If that means someone coming off after 40 minutes, having done his work . . . you see it in rugby, a player’s replaced and there’s no dissent.
“Hurling is changing in that fellas know they’re doing 40 or 45 minutes of a shift; years ago they’d throw the helmet at you coming off the field, but now they’re probably happier to come off in some cases.
“I think that’s changed at all levels of hurling in that while lads mightn’t be happy coming off, they know they’ve done their shift. And analysts and supporters are aware of that, and it’s not a matter of ‘why were you taken off?’ anymore. How many times have you seen the man of the match award given out in rugby to a guy who’s on the bench after 50 or 60 minutes of solid work?”
Tomorrow? Cork come in on the back of a rousing comeback win themselves, against Dublin. McGrath acknowledges the task ahead.
“Listen, if you’ve a forward line with Bill Cooper, Seamie Harnedy, Conor Lehane, Alan Cadogan, Pa Cronin, Patrick Horgan, Luke O’Farrell and Paudie O’Sullivan to come into it, you’re talking about marquee players.
“They’re brilliant players. I think Cork want to win the League too, let’s be honest. Cork are very hungry for it so we know we’re up against it. This isn’t talking down our chances but Cork were humbled in a League final two or three years ago by Kilkenny when they were starting a process that we’re trying to start now.
“Since then, Cork have won a Munster Championship, they’ve been beaten in an All-Ireland final and they’re in a League final now, so their graph is a little bit further down the line than ours.”
Waterford’s graph is on the up as well, however. That narrow win over Tipperary is likely to bolster confidence ahead of the championship, surely. “All that matters is the circle. The group. It brings added belief when you win, but it also brings added analysis from the outside.
“I’d encourage people to look a little closer at it because we have changed how we’ve played mid-game. It’s not as if we’re rewriting the book of hurling. We’re just trying to get better, to improve the whole time and give ourselves the best chance of success.”
By the way, when Harper Lee published To Kill A Mocking Bird in 1960, Waterford were reigning All-Ireland champions. Any significance to the fact that her new book is out this July?
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