Thursday 27 June 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: Waterford and wider game are poorer for loss of hurling's most undervalued manager

Waterford's former manager Derek McGrath. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Waterford's former manager Derek McGrath. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Hold the Back Page: Eamonn Sweeney

For such a placid and reasonable man, Derek McGrath was an extraordinarily divisive figure. Waterford's sweeper system was not so much criticised as treated like a kind of blasphemy against the sacred spirit of the game. It was hurling's version of Dylan going electric. The purists weren't going to stand for it.

One of McGrath's fiercest critics was Ger Loughnane who, following the Waterford manager's resignation last week, said: "Derek's system has to be declared a failure. Not winning even a Munster title in five years with such a talented group is inexcusable and left him with no choice but to quit."

Loughnane isn't the first of McGrath's critics to be unfair. Take that reference to "such a talented group". It's stretching it a bit to portray the current Waterford team as being full of outstanding players. In terms of individual talent they lag a long way behind the sides managed by Justin McCarthy and Davy Fitzgerald, both of whom Loughnane thinks rank ahead of McGrath as a manager.

Note, for example, how important a figure the veteran 'Brick' Walsh was for McGrath's Waterford. Walsh is one of the game's great warriors but he was probably at his peak almost a decade ago.

One of the abiding impressions of Waterford in recent years has been the enormous burden which had to be shouldered by a few key individuals: Walsh, Kevin Moran, Jamie Barron, Noel Connors and Tadhg de Búrca. This was exacerbated by the fact that the team's outstanding player, Austin Gleeson, was prone to occasional misfires in big games.

There was always an impression of make do and mend about Waterford under McGrath, of there not quite being enough top-class players for a team with elite pretensions. Gleeson sometimes seemed a victim of his own versatility, being switched around to fill the gaps which tended to appear at key moments.

Yet despite this drawback McGrath managed last year to bring Waterford closer to an All-Ireland title than they'd been in 55 years. Their performance in the final against Galway has been underestimated, having coming through a semi-final without the suspended De Búrca. With Gleeson out of sorts, Waterford found themselves up against an outstanding team who played nigh-on perfect hurling.

The Tribesmen's accuracy was extraordinary, their pace terrifying. Yet when the final whistle blew Waterford were only three points behind.

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There was a lot of commentary around De Búrca's role in the team, yet as sweeper he often seemed to be the team's emblematic player. Clare had used a similar system in the 2013 championship but without incurring the same amount of opprobrium. McGrath found himself perpetually enjoined to eschew the caution and release the shackles.

Yet the 2016 Munster final when Tipperary put five goals past Waterford and beat them by 21 points showed why such a course was never really an option. We often talk about teams and players having an 'upside'. Waterford, by contrast, were a team with a big downside. That final showed what could happen if they didn't get things absolutely right at the back. It explained McGrath's reluctance to embrace adventure.

The idea that the county was full of exciting young players who'd have set the world alight under a different style of play was also something of an exaggeration. The side which won the 2016 All-Ireland under 21 title was a talented outfit, but its members were hardly going to make an immediate impact at senior level. Clare and Limerick have won the other five of the last six under 21 crowns and only this year do they seem to be reaping the benefit.

Maybe the critics were right. Maybe rather than cannily making the most of the hand he'd been dealt the manager was actually holding Waterford back. We'll find out in the next couple of years. My own suspicion is that Derek McGrath will only be fully appreciated after he's gone.

At 42 he's young enough to make a managerial comeback if he ever feels like it. I hope he does. Not just Waterford but hurling in general will be poorer for the loss of the game's most undervalued manager.

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