Saturday 24 March 2018

John Mullane: Sink or swim time for Derek McGrath and Waterford

Waterford fans might not like it but they should be ready for the sweeper’s return, and I believe it will help overturn Cork

Waterford manager Derek McGrath. Photo: Sportsfile
Waterford manager Derek McGrath. Photo: Sportsfile

John Mullane

Defeats for both of last year's All-Ireland finalists in recent weeks have raised the stakes significantly for Waterford and Cork.

For Waterford, and this group of players under Derek McGrath, it's their biggest game in three years - and it's must-win.

If Waterford were playing Tipperary, and lost, you'd still feel they'd recover and have a say in the All-Ireland race, but a defeat to Cork would represent a massive psychological blow, one from which they might not recover.

Cork, on the other hand, are stepping into new territory.

Outside their own group, not much was expected from them before the Tipp game but after pulling off that incredible win, expectation levels have risen.

That brings added pressure and we've seen in the past that the majority of this Cork group have failed to deliver when the pressure levels rise.

I'm still not fully convinced that I trust this Cork team, and I'd say an awful lot of their supporters feel the same.

Since reaching their last All-Ireland final in 2013, and winning Munster in 2014, their form has followed a consistent trend: one big win followed up with a disappointing defeat.

In 2014, they won that Munster final but were well beaten by Tipp in the All-Ireland semi-final. In 2015, they beat Clare in the qualifiers but were dumped out by Galway.


Last year, they beat Dublin at home and then fell to Wexford, disappointingly, in Thurles.

This will play on Kieran Kingston's mind, but Waterford are also well aware that Cork can beat anyone when they turn up. But they don't turn up often enough, and that's an issue that Cork need to put to bed.

Still, I remember leaving Walsh Park after the Waterford-Cork League clash in March with a suspicion that they might have turned a corner.

I wondered in the immediate aftermath of the game were Waterford flat, and really bad, or were Cork worthy winners?

I concluded that Cork were worthy winners and had an influx of youth that made them look an exciting prospect.

Conor Lehane has provided something extra in that free No 11 role. I always felt that he was wasted on the wing, and that games passed him by.

I often wondered how he'd fare at midfield, but that floating position allows him to be more involved, and it's difficult for opponents to keep tabs on him.

It's a role that Derek McGrath will have given plenty of thought to.

Expect Tadhg de Búrca to pick up Lehane or, if Waterford go with a sweeper, Kevin Moran or Conor Gleeson.

Further forward, it's Waterford's first competitive game since Tom Devine decided to leave the squad.

He scored two goals against Galway in the League quarter-final, and he could end up being a massive loss.

A big, powerful lad, Devine would have brought something different, primarily as an impact sub.

The main topic of conversation in Waterford, however, has been around how Derek will set the team up.

Does he go with 15 on 15 in a shoot-out with Cork, or plump for the sweeper?

I'd go horses for courses - the set-up that was successful against Cork in a League final and Munster semi-final two years ago, and that's a sweeper.

It's a system that frustrated Cork then, and can again.

This might go against the wishes of the Waterford public, who have been calling for a more traditional style, but I'm not sure Derek trusts his team to win a high-scoring game.

Cork burned it up against Tipp, scoring 2-22 out of their 2-27 tally from play, and Derek will go the route of closing down the channels and minimising space.

The positioning of Austin Gleeson is another talking point. Deploying him in that deep-lying No 11 role would mirror Cork's set-up with Lehane.

We saw last Saturday night how Wexford took control of the middle third against Kilkenny and overpowered them.

I suspect that Waterford will look to flood this area of the field, and back their physicality to negate Cork.

With my Waterford hat on, for a moment, I'm cautiously optimistic.

Waterford have never feared Cork but if the Rebels turn up and perform, and the Déise are any way below par, there's every chance that Kieran Kingston and his men will be heading for a Munster final.

For Waterford, it's now or never for this group. Their task is to go all the way to September. The lack of a competitive game in 11 weeks, and the merit or otherwise of fielding a weakened team for the League quarter-final against Galway, will only be judged in the aftermath of tomorrow's game.

Win, and everybody will be saying what a master-stroke it was, to focus in on the summer, but lose, and April 2 will be thrown back in their faces.

That's management: you live by the sword and you die by the sword.

When I was a player, Cork v Waterford was always a healthy rivalry.

Cork fans love their sport, particularly hurling, and I've the height of admiration for them.

It would have been very easy for them to give up on this team but you saw against Tipp how they travelled in their droves, and they'll bring an even bigger crowd tomorrow.

You could have up to 35,000 at this match and that would revive memories of some of the great clashes I was involved in as a player.

It was a great era, with the country gripped by the Celtic Tiger, and it was hot and heavy on the pitch.

Unfortunately from our perspective, Cork were good enough to play in four All-Ireland finals in a row from 2003-06, winning the middle two.

And yet we never feared them in one-off games. We always felt that we could beat them and I think that's a similar mentality that Cork would have had before playing Tipp recently.

Some people have asked me would we have been better with a sweeper in those days.

It's very hard to answer that question because very few teams set up like that back then.

We loved to express ourselves but we never won the All-Ireland.

That's what Derek wants to do but he's very mindful of the Waterford public and what they're looking for from this team. They've never minded losing a game as long as the team have had a go and been involved in something memorable.

But if Derek plays a sweeper, which I expect him to do, and Waterford lose, he'll come in for huge criticism.

I have to back him on this one. I'd be more confident of Waterford beating Cork with a sweeper than without one.

To finish up, there's rarely a build-up to a Cork-Waterford game without a mention of the 2004 Munster final.

Infamously, I was sent off in that encounter, and my name has cropped up again in the last couple of weeks, during the Diarmuid Connolly 'will he, won't he' appeal saga.

I said at the time that after committing the crime, I had to serve the time.

If I had my time back, that wouldn't change. If I was still playing now, and it happened again, I'd feel the same, I'm sure of it.

I always believed that these things balanced themselves out, but I missed out on playing in an All-Ireland semi-final when I was in good form and felt that year was probably our best chance of winning one.

All the same, I wouldn't have felt comfortable running out on a field knowing that public perception was against me. Something like that just wouldn't sit well with me, and might have impacted on my performance.

Dublin should have left well enough alone with Connolly.

You saw it with Davy Fitzgerald and Wexford, when they decided not to appeal and how well that's worked out for them.

The Connolly situation would have worked more in Dublin's favour had they decided, definitively, not to appeal from the outset.

Jim Gavin could have used that stance in a very positive manner because, let's be realistic about it, there's still a very strong possibility that Dublin will be in an All-Ireland semi-final, and Connolly would have been back in time anyway.

It depends on the individual involved and what he or she feels comfortable with, and whether they feel they have the brass neck to go down that route and tackle that public perception.

To be honest, I didn't want to bring it on myself, and didn't want the situation to end up as a distraction for the team. I can safely say that I'm comfortable with 2004 to this day.

Irish Independent

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