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Waterford manager Michael Ryan. Photo: Sportsfile

Waterford manager Michael Ryan. Photo: Sportsfile

Waterford manager Michael Ryan. Photo: Sportsfile

These are tetchy times for Waterford hurling. Manager Michael Ryan was yesterday stacking more sandbags on top of those he had already parked at the dressing-room door in recent weeks to stem the flow of leaks.

The sandbags took the form of clarity to the post-match comments he made after the concession of 31 points to Tipperary in Sunday's league clash. Whatever he said and however he said it, he didn't want it to be construed as criticism of the team in any way.

"What I said after the game was that everybody needed to look at themselves -- both management and players. But it came out in the newspapers that I had criticised my players. I would never do that. We all need to examine this result and look to move forward," he said.

Clearly there are sensitivities at play here that he felt needed to be kept in check. From a distance, anything he was quoted on in most of the morning's newspapers didn't come across as being specifically critical of the players.

But when you are losing league matches by increasingly large margins each weekend, then you can read too much into anything and Ryan clearly felt it was something he had to address.

In fact, in the match report for this newspaper he quite clearly included himself in any criticism he may have dished out. "We don't look sharp, we don't look fit and we don't look mentally focused. And that's something the management must sort out," he said.

An admission that the team is not fit enough, sharp enough or mentally focused is a clear indictment of his own spearheading of the team and even with just three league games gone, that puts him in a perilous position.

He's had a difficult few months as an inter-county manager that included the confusion over Eoin Kelly's exit in early January and the PR battle he had to wage to underline that the return to the gym by John Mullane for a six-week period and the temporary departure of Adrian Power from the squad -- one of three goalkeepers on the panel -- were without controversial undercurrents.

departure

Mullane has traditionally spent the first few months of every season off the park with the blessing of the previous manager Davy Fitzgerald, but that he came back at all for the month of January in the first place amplified the significance of his departure in a week when Michael 'Brick' Walsh was restored as captain.

In Power's case, the explanation was the conclusion of a college thesis and he has since returned.

But the old adage that when you're explaining you're losing may be relevant here. And Ryan, unfortunately, has had to engage in far too many explanations since taking over. Already the early part of the season looks like being distilled into a couple of tail-end league battles with Dublin to determine who makes the drop to Division 2. On the evidence of what we've seen so far, it's hard to see Waterford escaping that fate.

Defeats to Cork by eight points, Kilkenny by nine and Tipperary by 10, suggest a gradual decline in week-to-week performances.

But in mitigation, some big names are not around. Mullane is due back in training tonight, while Noel Connors -- an All Star defender in 2010 -- and Richie Foley are out for the rest of the league due to long-term injury. Pauric Mahony missed the match in Semple Stadium.

But management have hardly helped themselves with the placement of Walsh at centre-forward for the first two games and at midfield for the Tipperary match.

Ryan has rightly acknowledged Walsh's proficiency in both positions, but it remained an experiment nonetheless and such experimentation was not a road Waterford needed to take in such a competitive, whirlwind league.

The most concerning aspect for Waterford last Sunday was the absence of vengeance for what happened at Pairc Ui Chaoimh last July. When they met Kilkenny in the '09 league clash at Walsh Park -- some six months on from their All-Ireland final humiliation -- they cleansed themselves somewhat of that defeat with a 1-17 to 0-16 victory which was Kilkenny's only reversal in a campaign that may have seen this team at its peak for a few mesmerising weeks.

Last Sunday, the seven-goal rout in last year's Munster final did not elicit the same indignant reaction as there was three years earlier -- quite the opposite in fact. The nature of this league campaign was always going to be hard on teams that had any little chinks to be exposed. Five games in six weeks have left no team with time to draw breath.

Despite their '07 success, Waterford have never been considered a 'league' team, but 12 months ago only Dublin's last-round victory over Cork denied them a place in the final.

Perhaps Mullane will have his red cape packed with him if he's on the bus to Salthill next weekend to address the malaise with a performance or even a result. Right now, it looks like their best bet for a revival.

Irish Independent