Derek McGrath is discussing the sanctity of the dressing room. It couldn’t be more important now as seemingly everyone but John Mullane has them down to be also-rans in Munster this year.
He doesn’t condone that way of thinking but he understands it. No home, no Division 1A next year, no Shane Bennett, no Kieran Bennett and now no Austin Gleeson and Pauric Mahony for tomorrow and possibly the following Sunday.
He knows how it looks and much of the analysis he figures is based on what was achieved last year.
“The only incremental progress we can make this year, in many people’s eyes, is to win the All-Ireland. If we have a regressive year we’re up for a slating, which is okay, but objectively it’s not the stance I would take.”
But McGrath can tell you more than how it looks: He can tell you how it feels. How Waterford have embraced their iffy records in Cusack Park and the Gaelic Grounds as opportunities to right wrongs. How he’s delighted with how the team have prepared.
How a side that has reached five finals in the past four seasons, that hasn’t lost to Munster opposition other than Cork and Tipperary, have no intention of letting up now.
Relegation has coloured many opinions of last year’s All-Ireland runners-up even if McGrath’s attitude to the drop was almost blasé based somewhat on what Galway achieved from that lower rung last year. Yet those within the vicinity of the dressing room after a couple of league games would have understood it meant something to the manager. After beating Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, he let rip at his players. After beating Clare in Walsh Park, he administered the same treatment.
“People look from afar at Davy (Fitzgerald) and the passion and they think he can’t be calculated or calm but sometimes when you’re at your most frenetic you can be clearest in your thought-process.
“I’m not doing my job unless I challenge lads. We have reviews at the end of the year and they look for more constructive criticism.
“We might show a guy video analysis of another guy getting a few scores off him but you have to marry that with who you are showing it to.
“You don’t want those clips to make him crumble the next day so sometimes you might chose not to do the analysis with him because the individual has already made the decision that it’s not going to happen again. He knows what he needs to do himself.
“You have this persona of being open and affable in the media but in your inner most thoughts, or the sanctum of the dressing room, you’re bawling. You’re only challenging the fellas. The modern young fella wants to be challenged but at the same time not be mollycoddled but brought along and to be empathised with. It’s about getting that balance.”
McGrath’s understanding for the need for nuance in his management is fully developed at this stage. Compassion and conscientiousness have been hallmarks of his time in charge but they are characteristics that also define his players.
Starting a week later than everyone else in Munster was a blessing in a way for McGrath whose son Fionn celebrated his Confirmation last Sunday. At training the day before, the panel marked the occasion with a gift for him.
“You often hear a group talk about family and the togetherness and there’s a false humility to it at times. There’s a genuine unity to this group. I got a card from all 33 of the lads for Fionn who was making his Confirmation — €200 odd in the card. They do think outside the box.
“The five years, I think there will be things that last beyond and that’s from on and off the field. I point to little moments like the (2016) National League final replay against Clare and Paddy Curran and Jamie (Barron) playing that day on the back of losing loved ones that weekend, Maurice’s (Shanahan) battle in his first year, Tom Devine travelling last year and qualifying as a doctor last Tuesday. Different things we have no hand in but we take an interest in it.
“We got a bit of criticism last year in terms of being up with Tadhg (de Búrca) and Conor Gleeson’s parents but it’s a different dynamic in Waterford in that you’re coming with a group that has won a league final but lost another four finals.
“Then there’s Brick (Michael Walsh) and Kevin (Moran). Brick’s fourth All-Star in a different position last year, the easiest thing for him to do was to retire on the back of it and be up in the stand when Waterford are struggling in the league and people saying ‘Jesus, we could do with you out there, Brick’. It’s a hard thing to do, the process again. Risk people saying, ‘Are the legs gone with Brick?’, which is not true because he’ll be giving it everything he has again.
“That courage is in this group. I see it in Darragh Lyons, Conor Prunty, DJ (Foran), Mark O’Brien, guys who next year in 1B will evolve. In Kilkenny, you were able to do an apprenticeship whereas we have accelerated the progress.
“Look at Limerick this year, two out of three U21s, a minor and people are saying they’re the new up-and-coming team. The reality is if they were in Waterford we would probably have accelerated their progress even earlier.”
Much of their identity, the group have had to cultivate for themselves.
When the Waterford public have the players’ backs, it makes for a potent force but the recent uncertainty surrounding the group has affected the association with followers.
“We’ve tried not to make excuses around anything but if you do the figures up, if you look at the county final attendance last year was 2,700 and the highest crowd when Ballygunner played Thurles Sarsfields was 2,800.
“Then you look at the attendance in the Offaly county final, over 6,000. I’m not saying there’s an argument to be made that Waterford isn’t a hurling county - it is - but it’s symptomatic of ensuring everybody needing to be as one going forward as opposed to there being disparity between us and the supporters.
“You couldn’t get a ticket in Waterford last year for the All-Ireland final on the back of three or four collective performances where we connected with the people, showing our honesty and integrity. People latch onto that. That has happened but having no home ground feeds into negative connotations. Relegation feeds into negative connotations. Kieran ringing a few weeks before the Championship starts (to tell McGrath he was heading to the US for the summer).
“Every manager has to deal with it for a period. I meet a lot of people this week saying ‘what’s the team?’ When there’s a secrecy about the team sometimes people go with an untruth. It’s not as interesting to go with the truth. We’re just preparing hard behind the scenes and hoping to do well and sometimes that sincerity can be misinterpreted as ‘there’s something going on there’. We’ve established a firm identity. They’re open, they’re honest, they do things with integrity and they give their best every time they go out. That’s the main thing for us outside of systems or how we play.”
But on that note, he senses there’s a slow but steady dawning that what Waterford are doing works for them and can for others. He noted how Seán Moran sat deep for Dublin against Kilkenny, how Conor Cleary did the same for Clare in Cork last weekend and the licence Fitzgerald gives his wing-backs to bomb forward.
He no longer feels Waterford are “pariahs” — “It was interesting watching the preview of the All-Ireland on The Sunday Game and they were fulsome in the praise for our boys believing in what they were doing. I think Ger (Loughnane) remarked that they actually loved playing that way but it took people a while to realise that. It’s going to be a constant fight for us.”
However, some teams seem immune for such analysis — “I think to the league final and the 53rd minute and Liam Blanchfield standing on his own goal-line. I wait for the analysis that night but they didn’t show it. Everybody is trying to get up and down the field in numbers. That’s how you simplify what we’ve tried to. People say it’s disingenuous of me to claim in the four and a half years we’ve only played with an out-and-out seventh defender four times but you can be nothing only truthful.”
It is the McGrath way.
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