The curtain fell on the Derek McGrath era in Thurles last Sunday, but Ennis offers a more fitting set of bookends to his term in charge of Waterford, writes Michael Moynihan
It was in Cusack Park that McGrath saw his side leak five goals to a rampant Clare back in 2014, and the same venue proved cruel to Waterford yet again last month. They lost several key players to injury in their championship opener, swelling an already lengthy list of casualties even further.
The lessons of the 2014 game were taken on board quickly, and the following season Waterford won the National League; the loss of players like Darragh Fives, Noel Connors, Barry Coughlan, and Tadhg de Burca last month proved harder to overcome, leading to the county’s early exit from the championship.
The easy headline is to point to the sweeper system McGrath introduced as the key takeaway from his time in charge, but his influence goes far deeper than the laments of the day trippers.
McGrath’s class and humility in post-game interviews was much remarked upon, but there was a deeper resonance to those discussions in stadium corridors and outside dressing-rooms. The De La Salle man was consistent in his dismissal of excuses and referee-blaming in an effort to change and improve the mindset of players.
This attitude was tested to the ultimate in the embarrassing error by officials which robbed Waterford of a win over Tipperary a couple of weekends ago, but it was a test McGrath passed easily. More to the point, it was also passed by Pauric Mahony in his post-match interview: mindset changed all round.
McGrath also continued, and built upon, a long history of Waterford hurling people committing to causes affecting their community. In recent decades Waterford players have rowed in behind campaigns for health services and educational facilities in their region, and McGrath’s commitment to the 2017 ‘hand on heart’ campaign run for counties in the south-east is a case in point.
As for that infamous sweeper system... The manager was often at pains to point out that taxonomy was a recurring challenge in hurling punditry. Where teams like Kilkenny were praised for their workrate and for coming back the field, Waterford were criticised for ruining the ancient game by screening their full-back line. The nonsense that’s often palmed off on people as hurling analysis is worth a separate investigation, but McGrath’s politeness shouldn’t undercut his diagnosis of some very real double standards among the pundirati.
As for the tired shouts — some emanating from east of Youghal Bridge — about leaving Waterford off to “cut loose”, somehow, that missed McGrath’s repeated point about having freedom within the system; the critics also overestimate the firepower at Waterford’s disposal.
Yes, a minor All-Ireland in 2013 and an U21 All-Ireland collected three years later, right on schedule, are encouraging signs for the future, but a senior title isn’t inevitable three years after that. Ask Clare, whose seniors haven’t seen Croke Park since they won a fourth U21 All-Ireland in a row four years ago. Ask Limerick, who won three U21s from 2000 to 2002... you get the idea.
For Waterford to reach last year’s All-Ireland senior final, with an U21 title just 12 months in the rearview mirror, was a considerable achievement; to be just three points adrift of a considerably more experienced Galway side at the final whistle was even more noteworthy.
On that basis McGrath leaves a hugely attractive vacancy in inter-county hurling, one that’s sure to start off another round of managerial bingo, with the usual suspects being named and disclaimed. Attention in Waterford itself now turns to that job, of finding a replacement manager, as well as the local championships.
Those will be worth watching for more than surface entertainment. Injury will rule some of the inter-county players out of participation, for instance, but there were plenty of suggestions in Semple Stadium last Sunday that other Waterford players may take the opportunity to travel over the next 12 months.
On that basis, local officials will have to move smartly — not fast, necessarily, but intelligently, on their succession plan. The new manager still has a fresh team to work with, one that’s likely to benefit from a break over the next few months, but he’ll also need to sell his vision of Waterford to youngsters who may feel that backpacking through Asia or hopping on a train in New York is something they can’t defer indefinitely.
It’s a great job because of the level of talent that’s in the county. But it’s a challenging one because of the size of the shoes he’ll have to fill.
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