Saturday 20 January 2018

Brendan Cummins: Time is running out for lonely Waterford boss McGrath

Waterford manager left isolated as his players look embarrassed to play sweeper system

Waterford manager Derek McGrath
Waterford manager Derek McGrath

Brendan Cummins

Derek McGrath wakes up this morning knowing that he's in a very difficult place.

He's made a number of sacrifices this year, giving up his job, altering his back-room team, trying to change Waterford's style of play, while also watching a more than useful option in Tom Devine leaving the panel.

And for the five minutes of injury time played in Thurles yesterday, he watched his players run ragged by 14-man Cork.

McGrath hinted strongly at the start of the year that this will be his last season in charge of Waterford - and it could be over much quicker than he ever anticipated.

Waterford struck me as a team embarrassed to play the sweeper system.

They want to be acknowledged as big guns but they're also conscious of public perception.

I'm not sure that their players believe that they can make a change to a more expansive style of play and still be successful.

The alarming thing is that when Waterford reverted to the sweeper in the second half, they took an even bigger beating than in the first.

They're now caught between two stools - and it's going to be take more than two weeks to sort it out.

From my vantage point in the Old Stand press box in Thurles, I looked down on Derek during the national anthem.

Austin Gleeson is substituted after a subdued display. The Waterford talisman was given a roving role but he needs to be positioned at centre-forward Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Austin Gleeson is substituted after a subdued display. The Waterford talisman was given a roving role but he needs to be positioned at centre-forward Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

It struck me that he looked like a lonesome figure on the line.

He didn't have Philip Murphy alongside him, the selector who left suddenly during the League, while Dan Shanahan's role appears more motivational, running up and down the line encouraging players.

Derek was left sitting on the bench, without anybody to bounce ideas off. Since the conclusion of the 2016 season, Derek suffered two losses to his back-room team.

Fintan O'Connor left to take over the Kerry hurlers before his replacement, Murphy, opted out in late March.

Murphy was only a few months into the role and that was an unusual development at the time.

Those factors don't mean a whole lot when you win but when you lose, they feed into the inquest that will now take place in Waterford.

We also need to talk about Austin Gleeson. He started at corner forward and was given a roving role, to dip in and out of the game as he liked.

But at 21 years of age, he's still too young and inexperienced to play that type of role.

He needs to be positioned at centre-forward, with the ball raining down on top of his head, and where he can hurl on instinct.

We saw in last year's All-Ireland semi-final replay, when Austin was instructed to float around the middle of the pitch, how he spent a long chunks of the second half without touching the ball. He was looking to the sideline and wondering what to do next.

That was in stark contrast to the drawn game against Kilkenny, when he was winning puck-outs and wreaking havoc on a defence that could not cope with him.

One man rose above the gloom for Waterford yesterday and that was Jamie Barron.

He was able to cope with the pressure and showed leadership in an engine room that was being overrun. But for Waterford to be successful, Maurice Shanahan needed to play a bigger role.

With Devine no longer an option, Waterford required a big man to stand his ground and be the focal point in attack.

Two years ago, Maurice ran amok on Damien Cahalane, and put himself in position for an All-Star on the back of that display.

Yesterday, Cahalane won the duel hands down. Their form is now in stark contrast to each other - Maurice struggling while Cahalane is on an upward curve.

Still, while we pontificate and wonder what happened to Waterford, they were simply hit by a stronger force.

Were we conducting the same obituary when Tipp lost to Cork? It's not as if Waterford lost to an unknown quantity - it's a top-tier hurling team that beat them.

I suggested last Monday that the hurling landscape is shifting - and Cork have provided further evidence of that.

People are looking for Waterford excuses when they should perhaps be focusing more on Cork's pace, composure and, now, consistency.

They have a very clear plan, each player knows his role and this clarity of information has seen Mark Ellis excel at centre-back, and Cahalane now looks like a solid full-back.

They have a forward line spearheaded by Conor Lehane and Seamus Harnedy, while Patrick Horgan nailed it on free-taking duties. What Cork will be most happy with this morning is the physicality they showed - summed up by that big Bill Cooper hit on Kevin Moran.

It reminded me of Tipp's Brendan Maher on Moran in last year's Munster final.

Defensively, Diarmuid O'Sullivan's stamp is all over the Rebels' rearguard with their sheer tenacity. That's their platform, their bedrock, but the flair remains in attack. It's a potent mix.

It would be easy to say that Waterford did not deal well with the Cork puck-out, having been forewarned in the Tipp game.

But that's too simplistic a view. Cork's puck-outs are coming in three or four seconds to a wing-forward who's collecting the ball at no more than head height.

That's very hard to defend against, even though Waterford would have pored over the video of the Cork-Tipp game for hours.

They'd have devised a strategy to try and nullify Anthony Nash's pinpoint deliveries but in the white heat of battle, Waterford had no response.

Again, Cork had a platform which allowed them to play, and they're fast becoming the real deal.

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