Tuesday 15 October 2019

John Mullane: 'Walsh Park victory an early feather in Fanning's cap as he looks to leave personal stamp on Déise'


Paraic Fanning is looking to make his mark on the Waterford team. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Paraic Fanning is looking to make his mark on the Waterford team. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

Expert view: John Mullane

To be a good poker player you must keep your cards and your thoughts close to your chest, and that's definitely something Páraic Fanning has exhibited since taking the reins with Waterford.

Having plenty of strings to your bow and implementing different styles of play keeps the opposition second guessing about what you're going to do next and that can only be a good thing. Many people are of the opinion that Waterford were a little predictable at times but teams not knowing what they're up against freshens things up.

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Fanning came into the Waterford hot seat with big boots to fill but there are many obvious similarities with this league campaign and Derek McGrath's second season in charge.

Week five is already upon us and there's been little talk of Waterford, much like when they won the league in 2015 having come in under the radar and snatched a title from Division 1B.

The second tier was the perfect place to explore a new system - one which they would keep for the best part of the next four years under Derek - and it nearly brought them to heaven and a first Liam MacCarthy Cup since 1959.

Everyone asks if Fanning will stick with the sweeper system or put his own stamp on things and that answer won't come until the summer but I'm a huge advocate for giving him whatever time is needed, as was done with Derek.

Páraic will surprise a lot of people and comes into the job with a serious pedigree having won a county title with Mount Sion and been involved in Fitzgibbon Cup-winning teams with Colm Bonnar in Waterford IT.

He has served a serious apprenticeship with Waterford, Laois and Wexford and no one should underestimate him or doubt his capabilities at this level because his CV speaks for itself.

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His role under Davy Fitz with Wexford suggests that he's aware of the intricacies of the modern game and I know from his time as a selector with Waterford that he's a brilliant man-manager. He excels at turning weaknesses into strengths and helping people to fulfil their ambitions and all reports from the camp are of a smooth transition between managements with a thorough pre-season already under their belts.

He has tried 28 players during this year's league while playing quite conventionally - largely 15 on 15 - but they'll be open to playing whatever suits on the day and if he feels like playing a sweeper, he should be supported.

All that matters is what gets Waterford over the line and one of the major positives already this season is the outstanding form of the Bennett brothers, Stephen and Shane.

Stephen is an assassin and putting him on the frees and placing faith in him at No 14 has already allowed him to flourish. Full-forward and being so close to goal suits his direct, no-nonsense style and he's been awesome so far.

Shane looks re-energised after a year away. He's hopping off the ground and having sacrificed a lot of his natural game under the sweeper system when double marked, he could explode this summer.

Playing with the sweeper, you're robbing Peter to pay Paul, but Waterford's most frightening line this year has been their full-forward line - with Tommy Ryan in the other corner - and that's a huge positive. In a three-man full-forward line, they could shoot the lights out.

A dilemma which Fanning faces is finding a permanent position for Austin Gleeson. Missing so many key players - like Maurice Shanahan, Darragh Fives and Tadhg de Búrca - for the league is depriving Páraic of playing him in a set position but it's imperative to find his natural position and leave him there.

While he's been tried at centre-back throughout the league, my preference would be to play him in the half-forward line and stick with it.

Michael 'Brick' Walsh has proven the effectiveness of a ball-winner in that sector but he's not going to be there forever and Austin could be a huge target man, and one of our best score-getters.

Full-back is another problem position now with Barry Coughlan's inter-county retirement. The criticism he took over the years was totally unwarranted and it didn't justify the job which he always did for the team.

With Conor Gleeson - an All-Star in waiting and one of the best man-markers in the country - also missing the league through injury - the most likely candidates are Philip Mahony, de Búrca, Shane Fives and Conor Prunty and the latter looks most likely having impressed so far.

How he deals with the Ballygunner contingent is also crucial. I was heartbroken in 2011 after Clarinbridge beat us in the All-Ireland club semi-final and my honeymoon that April was a saver mentally heading into the summer.

Páraic will understand from his own experience with Mount Sion in 2003 that they will still be fragile after their massive under-performance against Ballyhale Shamrocks and that they need a bit of leeway with how they're managed.

The green light for Walsh Park to host Munster SHC round-robin games is huge boost for all concerned and Fanning deserves credit for sticking to a hard line that they should keep their home games.

Playing four away games last year made Derek's job very difficult and it's important that Walsh Park is turned into a fortress, starting with victory over Galway there tomorrow.

I went on the record last year saying that Walsh Park didn't suit Waterford's style of play and that bigger, open pitches were preferable but the ratio of games won by those at home in league and championship really speaks for itself.

Walsh Park will suit better against Limerick and Clare - two very winnable games at home - with their emphasis on space and movement and I don't think anyone will be relishing coming down our way this summer.

Knowing that it's put to bed early is great too as they can start playing matches there again - tomorrow's game was fixed for Fraher Field and then quickly changed after Thursday's decision - and train there regularly. They should be making every possible use of this advantage going forward and turn it into a real cauldron.

Recent activity in Páirc Uí Chaoimh shows that Waterford's county board have been smart with their projects and expenditure but another thing that must be learned from Cork's failings is that the playing surface is the most important aspect of any future development.

The real work kick-started for Fanning and Co against Dublin last Sunday but over the next two weekends, a lot more will be learned about Waterford and where they might go come summer time. We'll have more answers then.

Irish Independent

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