Saturday 24 March 2018

No looking back for Queally, it's full steam ahead

Waterford hurlers have had ten weeks of a new regime after the fall of Justin McCarthy. Peter Queally tells Dermot Crowe that he hopes it will be enough

E IGHT days after Waterford capitulated to Clare, Peter Queally received a phone call from the county board chairman. He was told they had a manager nailed, an outsider, whose name couldn't be revealed, and the new man was anxious to pin down two selectors. Would Queally be one? He asked for a couple of hours.

Since retiring in the wake of a defeat by Wexford in the 2003 qualifiers, Queally had continued to play hurling and football with his club, and merged different management roles into a busy schedule, including a two-year stint in charge of the county minor hurlers. Last Friday night he was playing in the intermediate hurling championship.

A year ago he took over Ballygunner, a club with high standards and expectations, and led them to the county final where they were beaten by Ballyduff Upper. He is still in charge and has managed to keep a hand in there despite his new role. After finishing playing, he had a spell training the county football squad and a period managing Dungarvan hurlers.

There is also the matter of a wife, a four-year-old son and rotating shift work with the Gardaí in Youghal. So when the county chairman asked if he'd be a selector, he felt the answer wasn't entirely his. He consulted his wife, spoke to his own club and contacted Ballygunner. All three gave their blessing. Before the night was over, he had rewound the clock. Soon he would be back in the Waterford dressing room he had evacuated five years earlier.

He would be among a mix of players ranging from those he had played with from the very start of his own career to young striplings he tutored while minor manager. The night after he gave his consent he went to a Waterford hotel to meet Davy Fitzgerald and Maurice Geary, the other selector. They realised they had a lot of work to do and only so much time to do it. They would do all they humanly could.

That entailed sacrifices. Queally had booked a short break in Killarney for the family before his appointment but on those three nights Fitzgerald had decided the panel needed to train in order to raise fitness levels. Queally would leave Killarney at 2.30 in the afternoon and arrive back around 1.0 the next morning. On the August Bank Holiday weekend he was away in Clare with the squad.

Everything happened so rapidly and seismically that he hasn't had time to take it all in. He had only met Fitzgerald briefly at an All Stars dinner in 2002, the year they played against each other in an All-Ireland semi-final, and at a poc fada event in Waterford a couple of years ago. But he felt he knew him like everyone else. The elemental nature of Fitzgerald is writ large on his sleeve and it was easy to spot the positives, the irrepressible and manic energy, the unshakeable self-confidence and absolute devotion to every goal. Still. With the bitter acrimony that once existed between Waterford and Clare, and the many rival clashes, Fitzgerald's conversion to the Deise also allowed room for irony.

"I knew he had been involved with LIT, (I'd) heard how professional his approach was, and obviously from watching him in goal playing for Clare you always knew how passionate he was, and that's a big thing to bring into a team -- that passion and enthusiasm."

The approach of the new management team has been literally hands-on, with open displays of camaraderie and affection during matches. They have been extremely fortunate with the draw. Antrim, Offaly and Wexford in that order are as good as you can hope for coming off the back of a poor Munster championship. But it is a happy camp and reports from training tell of a ringing endorsement of the new regime.

In his eighth season, Justin McCarthy's downfall was sudden and shocking. But there had been cracks left untreated and eventually the entire structure caved in. Queally was one of a few players openly critical of him in 2003, calling for a change only a year after they won a Munster title together.

He is quick to accept that McCarthy and Waterford shared many more epic hurling matches after that and if they do cross today's semi-final hurdle after five failed attempts in the last decade, then he will be the first to acknowledge the foundations laid by the previous management team. The same credit applied to Gerald McCarthy when Waterford won the 2002 Munster title, a breakthrough after 39 years, and Queally's personal apex as a player.

In the short time the new management team has been in place, the greatest ripple has been created by Ken McGrath's relocation. "The whole county is talking about it, that's all people are talking about," Queally admits. "It was something we would have spoken about, thrashed it out; it wasn't a spur of the moment decision. It has taken him a while in games to settle down. He has settled down and he's hit a lot of ball; he's said to us he has hit as much ball playing full-back as centre-back, and he's happy with that.

"If we had an outstanding full-back and centre-back, Jesus we'd love to play Ken centre-forward, that's where he is most comfortable, that is where he plays with his club. Ken in an inspiration wherever he plays. I know previous managements had tried different guys there and that -- they did experiment; it didn't work. And we don't have the luxury of experimenting.

"I would have worked with a few guys underage who were very good full-backs. The likes of Shane Fives, who won a Fitzgibbon Cup medal this year and was full-back for two years on the minor teams I managed, and I can honestly say he was the best hurler we had on those minor teams. We'd love the luxury of playing Shane in five or six league games but because he's only 19, we don't have that luxury. We would have to throw him in at the deep end. We felt we needed to do something in the full-back line and this is what we came up with."

Queally watched the defeat by Clare in this year's championship and it worried him. Whereas last year's loss to Limerick had him feeling sorry for the players, but confident that they could recover, the Clare beating caused deeper concern. "They were so soundly beaten, I felt this was different. It was a new low or whatever. The manner of the defeat. I felt it wasn't good. It was going back to the mid-1990s, to '95 when Tipp beat us down in Páirc Uí Chaoimh by 21 points."

In ten weeks they have managed to restore some harmony and purpose and now stand at the door of another All-Ireland final, having been refused entry on five occasions since 1998. Queally was part of two of those failed expeditions but the emphasis has been on the new and the unprecedented. Fitzgerald showed no interest in shouldering Waterford's old baggage.

"It's something we addressed immediately after the Wexford game -- we're only looking ahead now, we've a semi-final on August 17. Whatever happens in the past is in the past, it will have no effect on this game. What's happened so far this year has no effect on this year. That's the way we've operated in the last three weeks. We haven't thought about it at all."

They roomed in a hotel in Ashbourne last night, carefully selected and scrutinised by Fitzgerald a couple of weeks earlier, took in the football match between Dublin and Tyrone, and have tried to avoid the same routines as applied in the past. The tactile nature of Fitzgerald's relationship with players also contrasts to the more austere style of the previous management regime. One of the iconic images of Waterford's season was Dan Shanahan giving Justin McCarthy the cold shoulder after being substituted against Clare. Since then the relationship between players and management has been much more John and Yoko.

For all that, Queally realises that today's performance will serve judgement on them more than the last three matches combined. "We will have to come up at least 20 per cent on our previous championship performances, and we are realistic enough to realise that since we took over this team hasn't reached its potential. But we're there and we're going to give it one hell of a shot."

He can see improvement and rising confidence. Dan Shanahan scored 8-12 from play last summer; this year he has appeared lost and hesitant, unable to command the skies like he used to and reticent and uncertain when in possession. In the Wexford game, there were recidivist flashes of his old self. They need him booming today and all their other marquee names.

"There's a pep in his step. He's motoring better, much happier in himself," says Queally of Shanahan. "He's really looking forward to Sunday. Seamus (Prendergast) has struggled with a shoulder injury all the way up to the last game and he's had three weeks training now and is motoring well.

"Stephen Molumphy -- he had a heavy duty with the Army up to the Wexford game -- he's starting to motor well too. These guys are coming back into form. They did have injuries and different reasons for poor form. You can definitely see an improvement."

The toughest part has been the lack of room to try out a few things. "We have seen lads hurl really, really well, lads you would love to throw into a league game. I'm talking about the likes of Wayne Hutchinson who hasn't played any league games, but is hurling out of his skin. You think he deserves a go but at the back of your mind you're thinking you're in an All-Ireland semi final, you can't experiment, you have to go with the tried and trusted."

They meet Tipperary, a recurring motif in Queally's playing career, and see a team carefully managed and with no trace of the upheaval that they've had to deal with. They have to find it within themselves to compete -- to rise above circumstance. "I suppose it's getting up to the intensity. You are going to be bombarded with hits and belts and shoulders and you have to bounce back. That's going to be vital, how fellas react, because Tipperary do play at a high intensity. You have to be able to stand up to that."

Back to Croke Park. Back to the old dressing room. And it's full steam ahead.

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