Thursday 24 August 2017

John Mullane: McGrath's only crime is that he's a Waterford man, it's the players who need to answer questions

Pulling Kilkenny out of the hat would be the ideal qualifier draw for wounded Déise

Waterford’s Michael Walsh is challenged by Colm Spillane (left) and Mark Ellis of Cork during the Munster SHC semi-final at Semple Stadium. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Waterford’s Michael Walsh is challenged by Colm Spillane (left) and Mark Ellis of Cork during the Munster SHC semi-final at Semple Stadium. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

John Mullane

Derek McGrath's only crime, if you can call it that, is that he's a Waterford man.

The past six days have been tough for players and management, Derek in particular.

The question's been asked - where did it all go wrong?

I stated in last Saturday's column that the 11-week break would become an issue if Waterford lost to Cork.

And that was the main topic of conversation after a flat performance. Moreover, Waterford were beaten by a slicker, sharper and hungrier Cork team.

They were buoyed by five newcomers revelling in their first summer championship campaigns. When all of Waterford's eggs were thrown into the June 18 basket, there was bound to be fallout and fans are entitled to their opinions.

But now that the dust has settled, support for management and players is the only way forward.

Derek, his management team and the players have my full backing as they look to turn this situation around.

I've gone on the record as stating that Derek has been brilliant for this group of players, both on and off the field. Under his stewardship, Waterford have returned as genuine contenders in recent years.

Still, I can fully understand why people are critical after last Sunday but Derek's biggest critic is Derek himself.

He'd be the first to admit that it wasn't one of his better days and if he had his time back, I don't think he would have been as open about his work situation and he'd have moved quicker to fill the void created by Philip Murphy's departure as selector in March.

But what people have to remember is that Derek has brought the team to two National League finals, two Munster finals, two All-Ireland semi-finals and within a whisker of a September appearance.

He's fast-tracked many young players into the senior set-up and created a pathway which allowed them to win an All-Ireland U-21 title last year, with quality strength and conditioning work as the platform.

Leave talk about sweepers and systems to one side for a moment; the man deserves support for the remainder of this campaign, which is highly likely to be his last in charge of the team.

There's a line in The Bible, Luke 4:24 to be precise, which reads: "No prophet is accepted in his home town."

I get that feeling with Derek that he'll only be truly appreciated if he takes over another county. Another question: are the expectation levels surrounding this Waterford team realistic?

We don't really know how good this team is and maybe we've based their chances on the previous two seasons, and the U-21 win last year.

I met one gentleman before the game last Sunday and he said to me, 'John, when you're on the radio later, you can tell listeners that I told you we'd win by ten points.'

Other people were predicting a six- or seven-point win. When I was asked for my prediction, my response was that I was optimistic but cautious.

When we, as a county, start talking ourselves up in that manner, we more often than not fail to deliver.

I've fallen into the trap myself, predicting a Munster final victory over Tipperary, before being left with egg all over my face.

Arguably Derek's biggest mistake last Sunday was not having new selector Eoin Murphy beside him on the touchline, but it's encouraging that a guy of that stature is now involved, along with Fergal Hartley.

They're two top-class men, who are astute and in touch with the modern game. They're just what Derek needs right now and let me tell you - if they didn't believe in Derek, they wouldn't go near the set-up.

Fergal could well emerge as Derek's successor. He has all of the necessary credentials to become a top-class inter-county manager.

He's been in charge of the U-21 team and has managed Ballygunner to county championship glory.

But right now, the majority of Waterford's players, bar Conor Gleeson, Jamie Barron, Stephen O'Keeffe, who was exceptional, and Pauric Mahony, in the first half, will have to look at themselves in the mirror and ask if they gave an honest effort for a man who's bent over backwards for them.

The answer is no. As players, and I've been guilty of this myself, we have a habit of blaming others rather than taking that look in the mirror.

It's natural, whenever you suffer a defeat.

When's the last time you saw a player publicly accepting responsibility? The buck stops with the manager and it's a handy get-out clause for players.

What they need to do now, collectively, is repay Derek by putting their bodies on the line through the back door.

They asked him to stay on for another year, when he was considering stepping aside, and now it's payback time.

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of Derek's post-match interview was that the players didn't execute the game-plan.

That tells me that something went wrong. For example, I don't think I've ever seen, in Derek's time, Tadhg de Búrca venturing beyond his own 65-metre line but he did last Sunday when he was following Conor Lehane.

I felt this was a game tailor-made for the sweeper system, and that Waterford would flood that middle third, look to overpower Cork, and have Tadhg sitting back in the pocket.

That didn't happen in the first half. Did some players not follow instructions? If so, it's time to get back to basics. Stick Austin Gleeson at centre-forward and leave him there. Put Pauric Mahony back at wing-forward and introduce some pace not only in defence, but right through the team.

I said last week that it was do or die for this group - and it most certainly is now.

Look at Limerick back in 2014. We felt they'd push on to more All-Ireland semi-finals but it didn't happen. And after losing to Kilkenny last year, Derek warned how difficult it would prove to get back to another semi-final, and he was right.

Waterford will discover the identity of their round 1 qualifier opponents on Monday morning and drawing Kilkenny is the ideal fixture.

This would be a game to bring all supporters, whether pro or anti-McGrath, back on board.

Granted, you're gone from the summer very early if you lose but win against your old rivals in the championship, for the first time since 1959, and it's game on again.

Appetising Draw them in round 2, and it's not such an appetising prospect, with the Cats back on track after a victory.

Dublin at Parnell Park is the nightmare draw for this Waterford team.

A tough place to go and while Waterford would be expected to win, would the lads be able to get themselves up for it?

Either way, Derek is a dangerous animal when backed into a corner and he'll have his troops ready for a back-door assault.

If I was going to war in the morning with past managers I've played under, it would be a toss of a coin between Derek and Davy Fitzgerald. They're made of similar stuff, the right stuff.

I've played alongside and under McGrath at our club De La Salle. We enjoyed county and Munster success when he was in our dressing room. When he left in 2013, we thought we'd push on and win more but since then, we haven't even got back to a county final.

It's only when he left the dressing room that people fully realised what he brought to the table.

There's another old saying: 'Be careful what you wish for.'

History will be kind to McGrath and his tenure in Waterford.

Now it's time for the players to answer some serious questions.

Irish Independent

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