Saturday 10 December 2016

Sound of sniper fire following four embattled hurling men to Thurles but revolution will still be in their hearts and on their minds

Published 18/07/2016 | 02:30

Despite his side’s trouncing at the hands of Tipperary, Waterford hurling boss Derek McGrath is unlikely to change much for the clash with Wexford. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Despite his side’s trouncing at the hands of Tipperary, Waterford hurling boss Derek McGrath is unlikely to change much for the clash with Wexford. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

When Lester Piggott came out of retirement as a jockey in 1990, someone asked if his riding technique might change after five years out of the saddle.

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"No, same as before," he replied tersely. "One leg either side."

The idea that Piggott might engage with any depth in a public exploration of what it was that he excelled at would have seemed absurd to him. He could thus be routinely rude to a largely fawning media, believing that self-explanation was not written into any contract bearing his signature.

It was for others to graph the efficacy or merit of each performance. His job ended at the unsaddling enclosure.

It was a philosophy protected only by his genius. Piggott's horsemanship was so supreme, the racing world was never under a misapprehension that he was answerable to anyone but that gilded community of owners who pointed the world's great flat thoroughbreds in his direction.

So the business of being ever so slightly obnoxious was overlooked. A special gift can buy you that indemnity. In any event, the revered in most walks of life are rarely too bothered about affection.

This column is now more than half-way through a fourth decade of door-stepping the great and the good immediately after marquee sports events, and the exchanges become more trite and superficial by the day. The fashion now is, largely, to communicate as if an engine has been left running - Piggott's way embraced as a grand philosophy almost, even by the unexceptional.

And it can become the bleakest of exercises, a simple enquiry coming to represent some kind of sour inquisition.

Which is why Derek McGrath's grace in Limerick eight days ago requires recognition. He has long endured the condescension of hurling's Lutheran wing for adjusting Waterford's play to a style governed, above all, by an imperative to be defensively sound. An adjustment that reaped only the county's third National League crown in 2015, was mere seconds from delivering a fourth last May and one identifying Waterford as a team nobody could take lightly.

But traditionalists have been stuffy and faintly patronising towards McGrath, just as they were to Davy Fitzgerald prior to Clare winning the Liam MacCarthy Cup in 2013. An odd view seemed to form that men like McGrath and Fitzgerald were reneging on some unwritten artistic obligation to the greater hurling community.

As if the game demanded those chasing Kilkenny's dust to summon pirouettes while they ran.

So McGrath knew precisely the triumphalist soundtrack coming his way after Tipperary's startling demolition of Waterford. Yet, he did not run from it. On the contrary, he spoke with the most compelling honesty about every possible implication now for Waterford after a 21-point hiding.

Spirit

More than that, he questioned himself. Had he trained the team too hard? Had they maybe been coached to a point that rinsed them of the ability to problem-solve? Did he now have the skills required for rehabilitating their spirit in a two-week window?

McGrath suggested that the jury was out on every question, bar one. Waterford's second-half collapse, he believed, had been hastened by abandonment of their system. Forced to chase a game, they became too open. That could not happen again.

He was not obliged to explore any of this so publicly, of course, but what would have been the benefit of putting the shutters up? Of being sullen and obtuse, of communicating any differently to what he has done in his time as Waterford manager? McGrath has always spoken interestingly and beautifully about the players in his care.

One wretched day was not going to turn him into a stone.

Listening to him speak, the mind returned to Wexford Park on April 3 and his innate generosity towards Liam Dunne immediately after Waterford's single point National League quarter-final victory over Wexford. Dunne had been the target that week of a bizarre media story, implying player disquiet at his decision to take a four-day break in Spain.

"I know just how hard he works," said McGrath. "And I'm pleased for him that Wexford produced that performance today."

He couldn't, of course, have foreseen how their paths would cross again less than four months later. But the energy building towards both of next Sunday's All-Ireland quarter-finals has a peculiar commonality now. All four managers involved have reason to feel somewhat hunted here.

McGrath, because Tipperary's excellence last Sunday deposited so many questions. Dunne, because there are clearly so many within his own county pulling resolutely against him. Micheal Donoghue (so shamefully lampooned by one pundit), because his players, essentially, must win the All-Ireland to justify their putsch against Anthony Cunningham last autumn.

And Davy Fitz?

Last week's Clare Champion carried a remarkable comment piece, suggesting that his "full concentration" was "not on the job". The evidence presented? An interview the Clare manager did with Newstalk, in which he described criticism he'd had to absorb from some sections of local media as "horrendous".

It was a direct answer to a direct question and the point wasn't laboured either by Fitzgerald or his interviewer, Joe Molloy. From a relaxed, predominantly positive conversation stretching to maybe 25 minutes, that answer swallowed up roughly 40 seconds. It didn't exactly sound like the tossing of an incendiary.

Yet Fitzgerald came under attack from the Champion on the basis that "by virtue of whipping up this latest storm all by himself", he had "heaped pressure on his team." The writer declared that he "should be very grateful" to be still Clare manager, counselling that he'd be well advised to "keep his thoughts to himself".

If it was intended to contradict Fitzgerald's view of his treatment locally, it seemed to communicate the very opposite.

Now journalist and manager have a history, it is true. Fitzgerald was previously involved in an altercation with the writer, believing him to have been repeatedly unfair in commentary on his management of the Clare team.

Resolved

But their differences appeared to have been resolved when the journalist did an extensive one-to-one interview with Fitzgerald in June of last year. That interview became centre-piece last autumn of an episode of the RTE television series, The Local Eye, focusing on provincial newspapers.

Quite why that mood of rapprochement disappeared is difficult to fathom. Clare have lost just one competitive game since the filming of that series.

No matter, the popular consensus seems to be that Sunday in Thurles will amount to little more than some kind of dilatory process before Tipp and Kilkenny inevitably collide. It's not one that this column ascribes to however. Sunday's Thurles winners will absolutely believe that revolution is still possible.

But defeat certainly does not promise any kindness to Fitzgerald, Donoghue, McGrath or Dunne, cursed as they are by the disdain of so many who see a better way.

Who could really blame them enrolling in Piggott's school of diplomacy if that's what destiny has in store?

Irish Independent

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