Derek McGrath’s novel vision gradually taking shape
Deise boss had a difficult first season but the English teacher’s students of hurling are now ‘ready to win All-Irelands in the next four years
As an English teacher, Derek McGrath has taught 'To Kill a Mocking Bird' now for 15 years. Racial injustice and the destruction of innocence are the primary themes of Harper Lee's classic novel, but it also addresses issues of class, courage and compassion.
The narrator's father, Atticus Finch, is the most enduring fictional image of racial heroism from the 20th century.
Along with serving as a moral hero for many readers, Finch has been a model of integrity for lawyers, inspiring a code of honour and decency which frames McGrath's perspective, principles he tries to imbue in his students, characteristics he seeks to foster in his players.
"It sounds mad but there is a famous quote in 'Mocking Bird'," says McGrath. "'You never really understand someone until you consider things from their point of view, until you climb into their skin and walk around in it'.
"There's another quote from Finch where he speaks about the importance of 'taking a baby step'. If we can keep taking baby steps in Waterford, from everything we're trying to do as a management, to linking in with the U-21s and minors, just trying to do things the right way, we'll make good progress as a county."
McGrath's love of literature is matched by a passion for film and musical theatre. He late cousin, Bryan Flynn, the acclaimed musical director and designer of over 80 productions, was always a huge presence in his life. He was still working on his Cork Opera House production of 'Grease' last May when cancer claimed him. He was only 42.
"Bryan was a massive influence on me," says McGrath. "I loved his work. I could be watching a musical and I'd get an idea for something."
That receptiveness to embrace spiritual and emotional concepts has long framed McGrath's managerial outlook. He made his name as a coach with the De La Salle school team which won successive Munster and All-Ireland Colleges titles in 2007 and '08.
De La Salle had never won a Dr Harty Cup (Munster) title before. The week before they were due to play Kilkenny CBS in the All-Ireland final, McGrath was watching, 'I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here'. In one of the rare luxuries offered to contestants in the jungle, they received messages of support from friends and family back home. A light went off in McGrath's head.
Without the players knowing, the parents were all individually asked to come into the college and record a message of support for their sons. On the night before the game, the footage was shown to the players in the Castleknock Hotel. When they went upstairs afterwards, they slept in beds with their own individual pillows and quilts from home. De La Salle won the following day by one point.
McGrath's eye for attention to detail covers every spectrum and medium. He eats up autobiographies. The legal world fascinates him. The trial scenes in 'To Kill a Mocking Bird' are a central theme of the book but the storytelling is so visual, fluid and subtle that scenes melt into another without any jarred transition. McGrath's time to date with Waterford has been defined by transition but the journey has been jagged and, at times, difficult.
This Waterford side are a team on the move, a storyline about to take off but there has been no linear narrative up to this point. They were relegated from Division 1A last year. They had a difficult summer. At the end of the season, McGrath cut loose a host of older and experienced players, placing his trust in the future direction of the squad on a gifted young generation. There are currently 14 U-21s in the panel, six of whom were part of the All-Ireland minor winning team of 2013.
Not everyone in the county was in agreement with McGrath's vision. At times, he was scorned.
"It wasn't easy at all," he says. "It was difficult. . . generally, some people don't like change. It was probably a case of inheriting a panel in year one, looking at what's happening, and then deciding this is the way we want to go.
"Without being derogatory about any players, it was probably based too on the natural decline of any team. The young players we have are very good players and it's a case of throwing them into the deep end so they will be ready to compete and be consistently competitive.
"It might be this year but it's not a ploy to be under the radar. It's a plan because we feel Waterford will be ready to win All-Irelands in the next four years."
The vision has also been formed through hard reality. Last season, Waterford conceded 17 goals in six league games. This year, they have adapted their style but they have already been labelled "the new Donegal".
There were times against Galway three weeks ago when Waterford were ultra-defensive but their style is still broadly similar to the one which almost carried Galway to an All-Ireland title in 2012. Back then, Galway were similarly set up to play counter-attacking hurling.
Waterford began that process last summer but John Mullane, McGrath's brother-in-law, said in his Irish Independent column after the drawn Cork game that he hoped McGrath would "remove the shackles" for the replay.
The irony was that Waterford were at their most expressive when they were at their most structured. In the modern game, expression can't really prosper without structure, especially for young and developing teams.
Waterford have just boarded that train. Promotion and progress have insulated McGrath and his management from criticism, and focus on their style, but time and experience have also hardened McGrath's outlook. It has also strengthened his belief in his vision.
"I'm not as influenced by outside perceptions within the county now," he says. "I'm more my own man. I'm not afraid of making a big decision, I'm not afraid of failure.
"I'm really enjoying it but had (Division) 1B not gone well, we had just decided to be our own men more. The game-plan we need to play on the day, we just play it, we don't change it based on traditional Waterford viewpoints.
"I wasn't overwhelmed or anything last year but I was trying to please everyone, if you like. We have just learned the importance of the group itself, without having this siege mentality that everyone is against us. We're not into that.
"We're not trying to cod people with this notion, 'Ah we've only a crowd of young fellas'. We just want to get better. Everyone wants to improve, from management down to the waterboys.
"The one thing I've learned most is to be true to yourself. If you're honest, work really hard and are doing it for all the right reasons, then you owe nothing to it.
"When I was under pressure before the Laois game last year - well, the public perception was I was under pressure - it was very hard to stop that seeping through to the players. At times, I might have brought the negativity with me to training. I've just learned to say, 'Hey, we're doing the right thing here,'."
McGrath was always regarded more as a coach than a manager; there was also a time when he was one of the best young players in the county. He was only 15 when he played centre-forward in the 1992 All-Ireland minor final.
However, the graph of his career never followed the trajectory it was expected to. He made just two senior championship appearances, both as a sub.
"I was one of those prime examples of a very talented young player who never made it," says McGrath. "I had serious back problems but the reality was I just didn't persist with it."
His focus was already elsewhere: on coaching, learning, absorbing, improving.
"When I was involved with Waterford teams, I watched everything very closely," he says. "Sometimes, there were no jerseys for some guys on the panel. Another year, a fella had to be carted back to hospital in another player's car. I just said to myself, 'If I ever get the chance to do this job, I'll make sure the players are looked after properly'."
De La Salle College gave him the platform. Guiding his club De La Salle to a county title in 2012 gave him more traction and put him in the shop window for the Waterford job. When the opportunity arose, McGrath grabbed it.
"I would have been advised to stay away it for a few years, in a cute way, so that the minors would be ready then," he says. "I never looked at it that way. If we can leave things in a good place, or even have success while we're involved, great. If we don't, fair play to whoever does have success with Waterford.
"There is no sense from me that I hope it's not achieved under someone else."
On a young and developing team, there are signs of McGrath's legacy already shining through. Five of Waterford's back seven came under his tutelage at De la Salle College.
That perceived loyalty to his former students provided some of the flak aimed in his direction last year. Some of that shrapnel stuck in his skin but McGrath has developed another layer now.
He has more conviction in his vision, more belief in Waterford's projected pathway under his guidance. This is definitely McGrath's team now and his players will go anywhere for him.
They have a brand and a purpose and an ambition to match it. That process began last year but they felt they were unfaithful to that promise.
"I read Anthony Daly's book and he spoke a lot about the pain of some shameful defeats," says McGrath. "We just don't want any shame in defeat any more. If we die, we want to die with our boots on. We want to give it absolutely everything, to have that honour which was lacking at times last year.
"We'll be rank outsiders, and rightly so, against Cork in June. Cork are a level ahead of us but that's not to say we wouldn't catch them on a given day. We'll be rank outsiders too on Sunday but it's absolutely brilliant for us. It's a massive challenge but it's a great place to be. And we're going to enjoy it."
McGrath and Waterford's story is only beginning. The structure is in place, the narrative is already clearly forming.
The end product might not appear for years yet. But it still has the potential to be a classic.