Wednesday 22 May 2019

Comment: Déise golden generation at crossroads if Derek McGrath goes

Waterford cannot afford to let talented side break up after campaign dogged by setbacks

After bringing Waterford hurlers to within sight of the Promised Land last year, Derek McGrath looks set to walk away from the hot seat. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
After bringing Waterford hurlers to within sight of the Promised Land last year, Derek McGrath looks set to walk away from the hot seat. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

Speaking back in January, Waterford's midfield star Jamie Barron left no doubt as to the significance of Derek McGrath's decision to remain at the helm for 2018.

McGrath had agonised over whether to stay on in the wake of their All-Ireland final defeat to Galway. His sacrifice had been significant. He had spoken openly about how he had taken a career break from teaching and the impact the job had on his home life as he bid to lead the county to the promised land.

Eventually he settled on another throw of the dice and Barron insisted the decision was huge for the county's hurlers.

"It was massive for us," he said. "The trust that we have in Derek and he has in us is unbreakable and if he was to go it might have set us back a year or two. We're delighted himself Dan (Shanahan) and Eoin Murphy have decided to stay on, I think its a one-year contract so we'll be putting everything we can to try and get over the line.

"He's only after getting a one-year contract so it's looking like he will step away and he has a young family which is hard to deal with ... he's not that old he's only 40 or that but I think family has to come before sport."

In various interviews over the remainder of the season, the Waterford hurlers generally gave the impression that this was the last twist for McGrath and his management team.

And the decision of McGrath to stay on seems to have been the last thing that has broken the way of the Waterford hurlers. And now speculation is rife about whether McGrath's future after a season that has seen them endure a remarkable run of bad luck.

Ahead of a campaign where panel depth was likely to be more important than ever, there were defections from the panel in Shane and Kieran Bennett. The league eventually ended in relegation but they were never allowed to build up any momentum. Star man Austin Gleeson picked up a cut on his ankle that would otherwise have been innocuous enough but it got infected and ruled him out for a period.

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In the midst of that doomed campaign, it was confirmed that Walsh Park wasn't suitable to hold their home games for the round-robin matches in the Munster SHC. And even their second choice - Nowlan Park in Kilkenny - was ruled out because it was outside the province.

Instead Waterford would be playing their home matches in Thurles and Limerick. It felt like a significant setback at the time but the results of the round-robin series have shown just how important home advantage is.

Seven games have been played at home in the competition so far and just one team has lost in their own back yard. That reversal came in last weekend's thriller in Semple Stadium when Clare timed their run brilliantly to end Tipperary's interest in the championship this summer. But otherwise home teams have been undefeated.

In a championship where small margins are deciding games, it's more than a little significant. And there's more bad news for Waterford in that it's unlikely Walsh Park won't be ready to host a Munster Championship game - which it hasn't done since 2002 - until 2020.

The schedule was as difficult as it could have been too. McGrath's men were given their bye on their first weekend of the new competition, meaning they'd play four SHC games in just 21 days.

That schedule surely contributed to their freakish bad luck with injures. Gleeson and Pauric Mahony couldn't even tog out for the Clare game and worse was to come. Tadhg de Búrca, Darragh Fives and Barry Coughlan were all forced off, while Kevin Moran was sent off the same day.

To give some context to the extent of their losses, they finished that day with just five of the side that started the All-Ireland final the previous year. Then came the clash with Tipperary and the 'Ghost goal' that let Tipp snatch a draw.

Given the way the season has unfolded, they must have spent the winter breaking mirrors and walking under ladders.

And now McGrath must make a choice. There would likely be some peace for him if they had played to the potential. Then perhaps he could walk away. But after their 'lost season' there is surely a temptation to go again in the knowledge 2019 could only be better than this year.

However, if the speculation that he is to announce the end of his five-year term proves correct, then the Waterford County Board will be charged with finding a replacement.

The current Déise group remains one of the most talented bunches the county have produced in years. And while veterans like Michael 'Brick' Walsh and Kevin Moran are coming towards the end of their career, most of the rest of the panel look to be heading for their peak years.

Seán Power would look to be the obvious choice from within given his pedigree. He steered the county to All-Ireland minor in 2013, the first for the county since 1948. Austin Gleeson, Shane and Stephen Bennett, Patrick Curran and Tom Devine among others were part of that side. He then delivered the U-21 All-Ireland title in 2016 title in no little style with many of the faces that populate the panel now involved in that win.

The county has tasted success with big name appointments from outside too. Davy Fitzgerald and Ger and Justin McCarthy have all delivered big moments for the Déise in the past.

If McGrath moves on, the county will be faced with one of the most significant appointments in years and their golden generation at a crossroads.

Irish Independent

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