Friday 28 July 2017

McGrath: 'We still need right balance between work-rate and a shoot-out'

Waterford hurling boss Derek McGrath is looking forward to his charges taking on Cork this Sunday. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Waterford hurling boss Derek McGrath is looking forward to his charges taking on Cork this Sunday. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

In preparing for a video analysis meeting on Monday evening, Derek McGrath couldn't help making a mental note of a small, but relevant, piece of detail.

Three rounds into an Allianz Division 1A league campaign and Waterford already have three times as many goals scored as they had for their entire five-match 2016 group campaign.

Admittedly, that shouldn't be too hard as Tom Devine's effort against Tipperary was their only goal prior to play-offs. The goal dearth has followed this team around since they put in place an effective plan to give them a bit more structure. But McGrath doesn't hold their improved strike rate up as a measure of progress.

"It's the nature of the way the games have developed in front of us," he said. "I'd love to be able to say it's a conscious decision (that) if we're going to win an All-Ireland we're going to need more goals and have a better cutting edge.

"We've concentrated on using the ball better. If there is a goal opportunity there, go for it, take it on is the advice."

But a definite shift in direction it isn't. The tectonic plates of the pragmatism that have underpinned his Waterford teams and expectation of a public that craves more adventure have been colliding harder since the All-Ireland U-21 success last September.

Balm

That night in Thurles worked as a balm for the hurt of the loss to Kilkenny in that epic All-Ireland semi-final replay four weeks earlier.

But it also served to bring that simmering level of expectation to the boil.

"Indirectly the expectancy rose with it," he reflected. "We took great solace from the fact that there are so many guys involved with us that they finally got a medal, obviously they had a league medal but to win a championship medal in the manner that they did and get a bit of confidence from that. That gave the whole thing a fillip of some sort.

"But it led to a winter of 'where to go next, maybe are we as good as people think? Will the expectancy get to the lads? We haven't had a valley period yet, bar the first year I was involved. When is the downturn going to come, that setback that invariably teams have?'

"That's evident with most teams. You're just trying to stave off all that kind of talk and try and work harder than you have done in any other year."

What Shane and Stephen Bennett and Patrick Curran did that night in Thurles against Galway has set a standard for those expectations that will, McGrath appreciates better than anyone, be difficult to guard against.

Read more: Allianz Hurling League round-up: Wexford cement control over Division 1B as Galway run riot

"I've always argued this, and it has not gone down well in Waterford, that there is a certain pragmatism needed. Those same U-21 players, I would argue that the level is just different than the level that you play at U-21.

"It's allowing them to prosper and to flourish, I have no problem with that, but it needs people to take into account that the level of opposition when you go to senior level brings a completely different environment.

"A real analysis of those players in that environment will lead you to say, maybe it will take a few years for them to develop to be the real threats that, if you look at the Kilkenny team last Sunday, when they get Ger Aylward, Richie Hogan, Colin Fennelly, TJ Reid and Walter Walsh as five of their six forwards in the summer, and similarly a Cork forward line of Conor Lehane, Seamus Harnedy, Shane Kingston, Patrick Horgan and Alan Cadogan, the threats there are, four of the Cork forwards and those five Kilkenny forwards are in that 25 to 28 age group.

"When our lads get to that age group, and it will be too late for me, I can live with watching it from the Hogan Stand, no problem.

"In your own head you are trying to get the balance right between having a shoot-out and ensuring that your forwards are working unbelievably hard.

"That's the balance for any manager. You only had to be in Nowlan Park to see the amount of tactical structures put in place by both Kilkenny and Cork without it being given much air-time because of who they are."

McGrath knows that the point of maturity for most of the current squad is getting closer but that doesn't shape time lines for goals to be reached.

"I never live in the cocoon of saying it 'has to be' or 'hasn't to be' because I don't think the lads live well with that pressure.

"I think there is a sense that the older statesmen of the team, Michael (Walsh) and Kevin (Walsh), people will point to the fact that they mightn't be around forever; how will they cope without those foot soldiers. At no stage has there been an indication that the end is nigh. We are actually just living in the moment, trying to encourage that week to week and trying to get as much as we can out of that time. Interestingly enough, we don't really set ourselves goals, we set short-term goals and what we get out of the matches and refocus on the Monday after. We don't set ourselves targets that we have to or haven't to."

For all their skill and structure it's unity that probably serves Waterford best, McGrath believes.

"What I enjoy most and what often gets lost is the creation of the group collective mentality that we're trying to generate.

"We just feel we need that in Waterford, to be united and very together to be competitive. Sometimes in the discussions in how you play or otherwise, what gets lost is the fact that the lads are willing to die on their backs for the jersey. I know it's a bit old school but that's what we're trying to bring out."

He remains uneasy about a league format that constantly threatens relegation.

"It doesn't allow much leeway," he said. "The negativity that surrounds the whole conversation regarding relegation or otherwise fuels everyone's approach.

"I don't think there is a long-termism in that. It sounds like you are trying to shelter yourself from the word relegation but even when you have conversations with people on the street they'll say something like 'if you get another point now you will be safe.'

"It's all about safety rather than your enjoyment. I know that sounds like you are being put under pressure by your board but it's not really, you're putting pressure on yourself."

The anomaly of a team finishing 10th (fourth in 1B) in an overall league structure getting to a quarter-final ahead of a team finishing fifth amuses him. "I find that amazing, without wanting to come across as sounding as if I am pontificating about what should be done. But you can finish fifth and miss out on score difference."

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