Damian Lawlor: Confounding the doubters
Unpopular tactics and selection calls paying off for Derek McGrath, writes Damian Lawlor
LAST July, as the Wexford fans saluted their hurlers following their qualifier win over Waterford, Derek McGrath trooped quietly off the field to murmurs of discontent from his own supporters.
Wexford followers had outnumbered the Deise’s four to one, reflecting the complete lack of faith that Waterford people held in their own team. It had been a tough year. All-Ireland minor and colleges players were streaming through the academy and yet the senior team had been relegated in the league and only gained championship solace by beating Laois.
McGrath had scarcely left an imprint on the welcome mat and some wanted him straight back out the door. Too many good young hurlers were coming through and maybe McGrath wasn’t the man to lead them.
It wasn’t exactly a winter of soul-searching for the young manager, more a time for reflection and reinforcement. He released several big names, brought in new backroom personnel and refined the game-plan slightly. Away from the limelight in Division 1B they went about their business, their young guns quietly strengthening their legs, gaining a foothold and enjoying the freedom that the second tier allows.
Last month, they secured promotion and then destroyed Galway in the Allianz League quarter-final. This time, as they retreated to the town end of Walsh Park to warm down, a few hundred Waterford supporters shadowed them and rose to applaud their young team.
Throughout last season, McGrath’s maiden voyage into inter-county senior management, former Waterford All Star Jim Greene acted as an ‘eye in the sky’ for him. With the side abandoning the flair that had become the county team’s unique selling point, it wasn’t long before the more structured, defensive game saw a serious drop in market share.
Greene couldn’t miss the abuse rained at the team and its manager from the stands.
“They didn’t like the style, they wanted the flair and the goals,” Greene recalls. “But sure all that flair never won us an All-Ireland. My father played for Waterford, won a Munster in ‘38, I played for the county for 20 years and won nothing. Brian (son) played too and even though he won in Munster none of us ever won that All-Ireland medal.
“We lost as much as we won. So I don’t give a fiddler’s if these lads play with sweeping brushes if we win something.”
McGrath’s cull at the end of the summer caused further acrimony within the county. Greene had to turn a deaf ear in several conversations as the manager was castigated for abandoning big names.
“Sure there were big calls made but there were also guys on that panel who had been there four to five years and still hadn’t made it,” Greene elaborated. “What was Derek supposed to do? Go with them again, or give a young All-Ireland minor winner a shot at it? Only one option there.”
And so McGrath set back to work, streamlined his young side and today they close in on a league final when they meet Tipperary. The period of transition has been less upsetting than imagined. The air of pessimism has lifted.
“Supporters are looking forward to games again now,” Greene adds. “There are still boxes to be ticked, but the belief is back.”
Regression is no longer a fear. Instead, there is stability and a definite shape. Ten players started all of their first four league games, including Shane Fives, Barry Coughlan, Noel Connors, Tadhg de Burca and Philip Mahony. Twenty-eight players have been used thus far but only 19 started the group games. Disruption is kept to the minimum.
Stephen O’Keeffe marshals his defence and they have played together at every available opportunity to knit better together. Their half-back line is key; de Burca, Mahony and Austin Gleeson are launch pads. You could play Gleeson anywhere and, indeed, the summer could yet see him move to attack. Jamie Barron brings huge stability to midfield, Pauric Mahony has hit some breathtaking tallies and Brick Walsh’s surprise move to attack has been a revelation.
Walsh was regarded as the best centre-back in the land, but has reinvented himself as a playmaker.
“It was a move Brick was happy enough to go with,” Greene adds. “He breaks it up, moves it on and links it well. It’s been a huge move. It shows how united the players are to try new things, but they have prepared better than any Waterford squad I’ve ever seen and that’s down to a humble, hard-working manager — a man who breathes for Waterford hurling and is not afraid to try different things to get to where he wants.”
Under McGrath’s system there needs to be flexibility and yet structure from players. They vary puck-outs from short to booming clearances up the flanks. They like to engage in psychology from other sports too. For instance, they use the ‘All Blacks’ cry to fuel intensity and drive home in the second half when they sense opponents are on the ropes.
They have reached five Munster minor finals in the last six years, and also landed an All-Ireland title in that grade so they have a depth and consistency not seen, perhaps, since 1992. The colleges success of Dungarvan CBS and DLS has also been a help.
And while they played deep against Limerick and again against Wexford, to say they are throwing a blanket down and smothering teams is a little off the mark. McGrath was “disgusted” by comparisons to Donegal football and he was entitled to query that comparison.
In many ways, their players are mirroring the workrate of an Eoin Larkin type; to help the young Waterford hurlers develop that intense style, McGrath brought in fitness coach Fergal O’Brien, who worked with Passage when they won their first county championship and he has also introduced Fintan O’Connor as trainer.
It remains to be seen what happens to that plan if they go behind in games early on, but right now it’s working.
They build with clever use of the ball and by punching for space. They leave at least two men up in attack, and with so many behind the ball through withdrawing other forwards to seize on turnovers, they are successful in the hook-block count.
From there they break through launching direct ball or breaking forward at pace using short passing — an area that Brick Walsh excels in.
Deeper analysis explains why. They have crowded their midfield/half-back area more than anywhere else on the pitch, with up to nine players in that zone against Galway, allowing for safety and yet a sense of adventure at the other end.
They kept Galway scoreless for almost 22 minutes in the quarter-final and despite failing to score goals against Galway, Limerick and Wexford they have stuck rigidly to their plan.
“They are impressionable young lads,” Greene notes. “But they know Derek is sincere in his beliefs and they fully trust in him. Everyone says we are in bonus territory today but we were in that territory against Galway too and look what happened.
“We have nothing to fear against Tipp. The system we are playing with has not been dealt with yet,” Greene adds. “It’s been there a while and the others have seen it, they’re expecting it but they can’t deal with it.
“We’re not where we want to be yet but the days are looking brighter again. There are 13 under 21s on the senior panel, and maybe we should now target an All-Ireland under 21 title after the minor success of 2013, and keep the run going.
“Last year all we need was faith and patience from supporters, but it wasn’t there. ‘Tis there now. Maybe that’s the first battle won.”