For a man who is arguably the most open and honest communicator on the inter-county managerial scene, you don’t expect an admission from Derek McGrath of being “hypersensitive” to everything said about him.
The Waterford hurling manager, not for the first time, was a captivating interviewee at last Sunday’s Balance Expo in Killarney’s INEC.
Joined on stage by Kerry footballer Kieran Donaghy, former World Indoor gold medallist Derval O’Rourke and Ireland’s most capped hockey player Eimear Cregan, the theme centred broadly on achieving a balance in sport.
McGrath was the last of the quartet into the conversation and in typical McGrath fashion, was quick to point out he was not a front window advertisement for maintaining a balance with his preferred code.
“I think about it all the time. I don’t switch away from it,” he told the audience.
Being as tuned in as he is, he knows what is being said and written about him, his team and their particular brand of hurling.
Now in his fifth season on the line with the Déise, there was a time when McGrath was almost more sensitive to what the locals were spouting about his managerial capabilities than the game’s most respected pundits.
“When I started off five years ago, I was hypersensitive to anything that was said about me,” the Déíse boss revealed.
“I was almost reacting to everything, not in media circles, but at home and on a personal level.
"I was feeling the heat at home and not suffering mental health or anything like that, but just thinking about it all the time. I was obsessively going over every scenario as to what way we should go about things.”
He had plenty of detractors to contend with that first year in the main bib. Relegation from the league’s top table, a 20-point thumping at the hands of Kilkenny.
The championship wasn’t much better. A 14-point replay reverse to Cork and subsequently shown the exit door by Wexford.
The winter that followed has been well documented. A few of the old guard retired, while several more were let go from the panel. It sparked a significant change in the discourse surrounding Waterford.
“Not slyly, but cunningly, we changed things up. We brought young lads in. It was as if the pressure was taken off in the media. The tactic was to take the pressure off so people would say Waterford are clearly building towards a couple of years time, are in transition.
“In a somewhat cunning fashion, it gives you time to prepare, knowing the best lads are [in with the squad], but the media perspective is that Waterford are building for the future.”
There’s something similar at play below in Kerry, he reckons. Éamonn Fitzmaurice, having had his term as manager extended to 2020 last October, referenced a “three-year plan” on more than one occasion at his first press briefing of the new year last Monday.
“The Kerry county board said something along the lines of, we have a number of outstanding minors coming through and we want to appoint Éamonn for another two years to allow for a developmental phase.
"At the same time, in areas outside Kerry, people are kind of forgetting that Kerry was in an All-Ireland semi-final replay. The cute Kerryman is preparing diligently behind the scenes, with the media perception being that Kerry are building towards a couple of years time.
"The reality, though, could be completely different.”
Of course, any semblance of success debunks said transition theory. So was the case when the Déise annexed the county’s third-ever league title in 2015.
“The spotlight then comes. It comes on systems, on how you are playing. You feel the heat because the expectancy comes in Waterford. We are 59 years without an All-Ireland.
“I’ve no real way of switching away from it. I’d be a fairly obsessive character about thinking about it. Last year, I took 18 weeks parental leave from school. Rather foolishly, I proclaimed that to the media. I brought a lot of pressure on myself and subsequently, on the players.
“I struggled to shield myself from the criticism, initially, but I am learning.”
Such is the style of play McGrath has introduced during his tenure, there aren’t too many ideological debates concerned with where hurling is headed that doesn’t see Waterford mentioned at one juncture or another.
This brings us neatly back to the overall theme of balance. In this instance, it is striking a balance between passion and tactical innovation.
“If I said to our lads, there are no match-ups today, just go out and enjoy it; the modern player, in my opinion, scorns that.
"They like instruction. You need some imparting of knowledge that gives the player a bit of guidance. It is the balance between the plan and not curtailing guys’ natural instincts.
“As a team in Waterford, when we are high-pitched in terms of intensity, everything seems to flow after that. The brilliance seems to come out when the intensity levels are really, really high.
“There are several guys in our panel who depend on instruction and who actually like instruction. In a panel of 32 guys, I would argue there are at least six starters for us who need to be told A, B and C.
“There are other guys who you would not need to say anything to. One of the secrets to management is, at times, to say nothing because you know the individual has copped on himself to what needs to be done and you stay clear of them.
“We have four or five players who fit into the bundle of instinct above any instruction and we’d tell them to simply go and play. That is why it is baffling when you hear people say they weren’t allowed play, they were hamstrung by instruction.”
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