Dan’s always had my back, says McGrath
Waterford boss praises loyalty of Shanahan in face of some strong criticism
On the weekend before the 2008 All-Ireland hurling final, Derek McGrath got into his car and pointed it for Kilkenny.
It was a Saturday and at that stage the gates of Nowlan Park, where they were finalising preparations with their traditional in-house 15-a-side game, were open to all..
McGrath's mission wasn't reconnaissance because if it was the news he could have carried back home would have been laced with a strong sense of foreboding.
"It was just a ferocious game between the Kilkenny 'A' and 'B' team," he recalls. "I remember Martin Comerford was picked on the 'B' team and I came down with the news to John Mullane (his brother-in-law), thinking I was right, Martin Comerford (who subsequently started) wasn't going to be playing, he was up on the 'B' team in Nowlan Park. I didn't tell John what I saw which was just a game of frightening intensity."
When they met at the Tony Forristal tournament later that evening, Mullane was in good spirits. McGrath himself didn't allow himself to be drawn in by what he had seen hours earlier.
"I came away a small bit worried. there's no point in saying I didn't. But I was still caught up in the absolute belief as an outsider that you can produce on a given day, that Waterford might (win), based on how well they did against Tipperary in that 2008 semi-final. Just a feeling that they were really going to do it. But I think logic was outweighed by the want for Waterford to win."
The scale of the defeat might have knocked the county back for years but they reached three successive All-Ireland semi-finals subsequently and for that, says McGrath, Davy Fitzgerald deserves a lot of the credit.
"I think it's a joyous occasion when you get to a final in somewhere like Waterford. So I think there's a sense of enjoyment of the build-up to the occasion. The post-match analysis that goes with a beating of that sort? You just met an unbelievable team. There's not really a kind of analysis of what we did right or didn't do right because we haven't been in so many finals.
"I think that's the challenge for us to be able to get a good performance out of the team on a given day if you like. That we're there, we're in the game and we'll take it from there."
Six years later another visit to Nowlan Park, this time for a league match in his first year (2014) as Waterford manager, was a stark reminder of the ferocity he had witnessed.
They shipped four goals, having leaked five in Ennis in the previous round and when five or six more goal chances were coughed up in a relegation play-of against Dublin, McGrath knew seismic change was inevitable.
"We needed new personnel as well with the greatest respect to the guys who were there. We needed a different mindset without being insulting to those who were there in 2014 and not involved the following year," he recalls.
It led to change that has divided the county, right up to their All-Ireland semi-final win over Cork.
"Even in a local event here a few weeks ago in the run-up to that game they had a debate whereby they were in a local pub and asked, 'Hands up if you agree with the sweeper system.' And hardly any hands went up.
"And yet I had a thousand texts on my phone trying to get Tadhg de Búrca off! I found a certain irony in that. People are calling it divisive, I didn't see any division in the texts I was getting. I found it amusing and bemusing at the same time.
"The question has to be asked. Instead of asking people the question, 'Who agrees with it or not', (ask) what's involved with it? Tell us about it. Ask them to come up here and tell me about what's involved and what's happening on the field. That would be interesting, the hands would stay down for that I can tell you!
"The lads (Waterford players) would think I am an awful chancer if I stood up some day and said, 'Look, there are no match-ups today, just go out and play and enjoy it. There is the field, go out and play'.
"We do say that to a certain extent but there is also the caveat that we say, 'This is what has to happen for us to have the best chance of winning.'"
McGrath is not sure if reaching an All-Ireland final is enough to bring everyone along. A semi-final loss may well have brought this particular project to an end, he reckons.
"I would always do a bit of, not visualisation, but planning in terms of a win or loss. That's just in private moments, thinking what route will we go down? Will we get away with another year of saying we're a young team and we're evolving as opposed to that was a make-or-break game?
"Probably would have gone down the route saying definite change is needed, whether it's myself or personnel. As I said, the three years in a row in terms of semi-finals, not getting over the line in any of them.
"But then that emotion is sometimes replaced (by the feeling) that you might meet a better team on the day and they might just have an objective viewpoint towards a loss, whereby you might just say, 'Cork are a really good team, they beat us'. If you can catch me in my initial emotive stage, I might have said there might be a need for a change but then, when it settles down, sometimes we just remember the immediate as opposed to incremental improvements that might be made throughout the year.
"In terms of improvements based on stages reached by being in a final, it's a stage further than any of the other three years, but ultimately it's probably not enough for everyone."
Now in his fourth year McGrath has had Dan Shanahan as a selector throughout and is happy that he has "had my back" through some stormy chapters.
"He has been so loyal in the face of the national debate and the criticism, in that he was on a team that was renowned for scoring goals, more so than ourselves. To be able to stick himself to our way is an admirable trait," says McGrath.
"We have a great relationship. Even the fact Maurice has not been on the team the last couple of matches. There has been no sense of complaint. He is just interested in what is best for the team. And that has been brilliant. I could not speak highly enough of him. He is a fine fella, a witty, funny fella.
"He has had my back from the start and that is helpful and we all need to be reaffirmed in any walk of life, particularly in one where there is huge media scrutiny, lots of ups and downs."
McGrath's rapport with his players stems from the relationship he built up with so many during their teacher-pupil days at De La Salle College.
"There were four players on the (All-Ireland colleges winning) team and seven who went to the school and I always thought they'd do well, either academically or in sport.
"I never got to think I'd ever get to work with them again, so there was a good chance. We have worked together since they were 12, and then from 2015. There was a great feeling about that and it was great for the school as well."
His respect for Galway, and particularly their manager Micheál Donoghue, is deep, stretching back to their opposition in the 1992 All-Ireland minor final when they marked each other.
"They are an unbelievable team, physically huge, brilliant in the air, brilliantly led by their manager, a very astute man and he has fostered a real togetherness in terms of their approach. They have swatted everyone aside," he admits.
"I had a feeling Galway would gain momentum (after the league quarter-final), felt they would win the league final. Privately I said as much. The team I couldn't see in this situation was ourselves after June 18. It was very difficult to see the qualifiers that were loaded with Tipperary and Kilkenny," he revealed.