First year at the helm or not, 2014 will be a baptism of fire for new Waterford senior hurling boss Derek McGrath.
Last year’s under-appreciated manager Michael Ryan performed something of a minor miracle to keep Waterford in the top division of the Allianz Hurling League, but with only six teams and one to be relegated, competition will again be cut-throat.
It starts on February 15 with a visit to Thurles to take on Tipperary.
“The reality is that we have three away games from five and those games are against the last three All-Ireland champions: Clare, Kilkenny and Tipperary. Everyone knows how good Clare are now, we know how good Kilkenny have been for the past 13 years, but I reckon people are underestimating Tipperary. They didn’t perform this year but they’ll be re-energised now, re-focused, and reinforced by a few lads from the All-Ireland-winning minor team of a few years ago. That’s a lot of talent of a very high standard.”
The league over, it doesn’t get any easier for Waterford, drawn to face beaten All-Ireland finalists Cork in the first round of the Munster championship.
“Someone said we’re fifth of five in the betting for the Munster championship and I can see how that would seem reasonable to an outsider.
“Both Cork and Limerick are in Division 1B but I’d say if you asked anyone they’d rate both of those above Waterford now with Cork getting to the All-Ireland final and Limerick the Munster champions.
“Cork will have Paudie O’Sullivan back next year and will have Aidan Walsh as well, which should strengthen the panel — they’ll be at a serious level again. The reality is that we do have work to do to match everyone else.”
One positive for McGrath is the All-Ireland minor title won this year, Waterford’s first at that grade since 1948. That victory was celebrated long and hard, understandably so, but, says McGrath, people also need to understand a few harsh realities. First, there’s the challenge of bringing those young players through to senior; second, there’s the fact Waterford isn’t the only county with a plethora of precocious young stars.
“Remember the lead Cork got on us in the first round in Páirc Uí Rinn? I won’t say there’s been an over-reaction to the minor All-Ireland title win in Waterford this year but people shouldn’t get too carried away.
“We do have some outstanding players on that team but Tipperary won the All-Ireland minor last year with an outstanding team and there was hardly a word about it there, people didn’t get caught up in the hype. I know supporters don’t like to hear the word ‘transition’ but that’s the reality next year in Waterford.”
Few are in better position to advise those youngsters than Derek McGrath himself. First, there is his own experience.
“I’m living proof of the difficulties they face. I played three years minor — 92, 93, 94 — went straight in to the senior set-up without really achieving anything. I was there for only two or three years so I think I’m well placed to advise them of the pitfalls associated with high levels of expectations on young shoulders.
“History is there, a warning on high expectations if players aren’t handled properly.”
Second, there’s his profession. As a teacher of English at the renowned De La Salle college in Waterford, education is his bread and butter.
“It helps, definitely, there’s a strong co-relation between teaching and managing. You’re trying your best to impart knowledge in the classroom in a non-dictatorial way; similarly with a team you’re trying your best to impart information. But it’s a two-way street, whether in the classroom or the training field you’re also learning, you’re getting back information from them.
“Sometimes the 12 to 18 age-group are the best educators of all, I’ve certainly learned a lot from them over my years here anyway, something new every day. In both cases, as teacher and as manager, you’re setting targets for them, things you’d like to see them achieve, so that co-relation is there.”
Being a teacher also helps in another very practical way. “There’s the time factor — I wonder how people from other jobs can find the time, guys out in the business world. This job allows me a bit of scope in the summer especially to do extra work, and there is a lot of extra work.”
Sport science is playing an increasingly important role in that work and here, with the top-class facilities in Waterford IT, Waterford will be well served.
“You don’t want to be copying anyone because immediately you’re in second place, you want to find what’s best for yourself. You’re not trying to play ‘the Waterford way’ but you are trying to find a system and a style that suits the players you have.
“All teams are now embracing sport science and nutrition, all the expertise that is now undoubtedly needed to prepare at this level, and Keith Hennessey, the chap who’s involved with us, that’s his approach.
“Having the mind ready is as important as being physically prepared, that’s very important, a mental development programme alongside the physical conditioning programme. And of course you must still have the basics, you still want everyone to give their absolute best, you want the work-rate to be as high as it can be and you have to allow for instinct, for players to be able to freely express themselves”
On a new, uncertain but exciting journey. Where it will end, well, that’s the excitement, isn’t it?
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