Saturday 18 January 2020

Martin Breheny: Donoghue and McGrath face final tale of the unexpected

Derek McGrath and Micheál Donoghue will come face-to-face again in next month’s hurling final – 25 years since they first squared off in a Croke Park final. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Derek McGrath and Micheál Donoghue will come face-to-face again in next month’s hurling final – 25 years since they first squared off in a Croke Park final. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Fate sure is a strange thing. Micheál Donoghue and Derek McGrath marked each other in the first ever Galway-Waterford All-Ireland minor hurling final in 1992, a game the young Tribesmen won.

Twenty-five years on, the pair are preparing to go head-to-head as managers for the first senior final between the counties.

"I wasn't taken off but I don't know how I wasn't," was McGrath's self-effacing recollection of the 1992 encounter, as his thoughts nudged towards next month's senior showdown after Waterford's win over Cork on Sunday.

Both McGrath and Donoghue are, no doubt, busily analysing the opposition for a final that will carry so much intrigue on a variety of fronts.

Neutrals are thrilled by the prospect but, as for the counties themselves, they would probably have preferred if the other semi-final produced a different result.

That's irrelevant to McGrath and Donoghue now as they have to play the hand they have been dealt but since managerial careers are largely defined by success, they both know the importance of September 3.


Of course, the greater the challenge, the bigger the risk of not harvesting the grand prize. And since Waterford are seeking their first senior All-Ireland crown for 58 years, while Galway's wait has been 29 years, it's not as if Liam MacCarthy has shown a particular fondness for either county. It will leave the losers looking up a very steep mountain.

So was Galway's task made more difficult by Waterford's win last Sunday? Almost certainly.

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Paradoxically, the same goes for Waterford, who would have been better off if Tipperary were in the final. Galway have never beaten Cork in an All-Ireland final but they have a good record in other championship games (eight wins each over the last 50 years), whereas they are still waiting for their first success over Waterford.

It's by far Galway's worst return against any opposition. Even Kilkenny, who have tormented them on so many big days, were beaten in 2001-2005-2012 while they have a relationship of equals with Tipperary in modern times.

Not only do Waterford lead 10-0 in their rivalry with Galway, most of the wins were by big margins. With the exception of the 2009 quarter-final (one point) and the 2006 qualifiers (two points), they have beaten Galway by an average of 12 points in eight games, an astonishing level of superiority which is impossible to rationalise.

Waterford won the last clash (2011 quarter-final) by ten points, a huge margin at any time but truly remarkable that year, given that it came just two weeks after losing the Munster semi-final to Tipperary by seven goals.

Kevin Moran, 'Brick' Walsh, Pauric Mahony, Noel Connors and Darragh Fives are still around to remind their younger colleagues of how they smashed Galway, for whom David Burke, Joe Canning and Aidan Harte of the current squad were aboard.

History apart, there are other reasons why Galway would have preferred red opposition in the final. Cork play a fairly traditional game, which suits Galway, who also like to disperse their forces evenly around the battlefield.

Waterford present a more complex challenge, applying an extra defensive lock, which is difficult to unpick.

We will never know, of course, if Cork would have managed it with a full complement last Sunday but they were doing quite well, leading by a point after 50 minutes before Damien Cahalane was sent off, after which Waterford prospered.

It has to be a concern for Galway that they might become entangled in Waterford's web while getting caught on the counter-attack. There's also the matter of Galway underperforming in finals, an affliction which has repeatedly undermined them. Will it hit again?

The historical imbalance in the relationship suggests there's something about Waterford that spooks Galway but, ironically, that might not be as much of an advantage for the Déise as it appears.

It's countered by the law of averages, which holds that the longer a sequence goes, the more likely it is to end. Having beaten Galway ten times, the odds on Waterford making it 11 must be shortening considerably.

However, the real reason why Waterford might have a better chance of winning the final if they were playing Tipperary rests in the motivation department.

Tipperary's desire to win the All-Ireland double would have been intense but could hardly compare with Galway's obsession with ending the All-Ireland drought.

Of the 18 who played against Tipperary in the semi-final, only Colm Callanan (1982) and Aidan Harte (August 1988) were born the last time Galway won the All-Ireland, putting into context just how long the wait has been.

That certainly wasn't expected when they clinched the double in 1988, having previously won in 1980. Galway believed back then that they had arrived as a consistent All-Ireland force, but it didn't happen.

Indeed, no fewer than six counties have won the title since then while Galway have drawn a blank. Adding to their frustration is the memory of six defeats in finals, two of which came in the last five years.

And if that weren't enough to stoke the motivation furnaces, the death last week of Tony Keady, whose exploits in the 1988 season won him the Hurler of the Year award, has added a real sense of poignancy to the latest bid to restore Galway to the No 1 spot.

In the circumstances, Waterford might well have found Tipperary easier to dislodge.

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