Typical. You wait several months for news to arrive then two absolute whoppers come along in quick succession. No sooner do I step away from my PC for a few days R&R than Justin McCarthy leaves the post of Waterford manager and David Fitzgerald is appointed to replace him. That’ll learn me for daring to leave the house. Still, it does reduce the possibility of making predictions that, a la Murray Walker, are instantly proven wrong. Leaving aside the Davy Fitz one, something that would have led to much ill-advised scoffing had I been in a position to record said scoffing for posterity, let’s stick with the defenestration of Justin and the role of the three protagonists: Justin himself, the County Board and the players.
As with the debacle down in Cork (an event from which the keester of karma well and truly farted in Cork’s face last Sunday), the only people who can have any legitimacy in the hiring and firing of the manager is the County Board. Either they publicly back the manager to the hilt or they fire him. There is no in-between. With that in mind, the County Board can be relatively pleased with the turn of events. Their public face was to back Justin and co. and to express regret at his untimely departure. It’s entirely possible that privately they told him he had lost their confidence, but there’s nothing duplicitous about this as long as they would have been willing to follow through on any implications of such an expression. It allows him to take a dignified way out while asserting their authority in the matter. If they privately expressed confidence in him but he decided to jump anyway then no harm done there. They can’t force him to keep the job. The speed with which Fitzgerald has been appointed suggests the former is more likely than the latter i.e. they had a plan B ready in case Justin did go, but the County Board can say with a straight face that ownership of the post of manager remains firmly with them and player power be damned.
The players, on the other hand, will not be keeping a straight face about any element of this affair. When David Beckham swiftly announced his resignation as England captain after the 2006 World Cup, one pundit whose identity currently escapes me was equally swift to snort that it wasn’t Beckham’s title to resign, that the captaincy was the gift of the coach and was awarded on a game-to-game basis. The same is true of membership of the Waterford hurling squad. If any member of the panel has a problem with the coach then the solution is for him to walk away from the panel and let the County Board decide whether his presence is sufficiently important for them to replace the coach. The manner in which players react to failure by ganging up on the coach speaks of a group who lack enough self-awareness to see that it is themselves who might be the problem. The most obnoxious expression of that was Dan Shanahan’s cold shouldering of Justin McCarthy as he came off against Clare. Now, this is not a criticism of Dan’s extra-curricular work for the likes of the Waterford County Council, B&Q or John Kelly Car Sales. Honestly, it’s not. Justin obviously felt they didn’t interfere with his preparation for the hurling side of life and that’s good enough for me that they didn’t interfere. But it was Justin McCarthy who presided over the transformation of Dan Shanahan from a fringe member of the panel being shown how it was done by the likes of Eoin Kelly to as acclaimed a Hurler of the Year as there has ever been. The match against Clare was the first time that Dan had failed to score a goal in a Munster championship match he had started under Justin McCarthy. For Dan to behave as if that transformation was coincidental and that this man on the sideline was holding him back and therefore worthy of such contempt was obnoxious in the extreme. The rebellious meeting in Tramore tells us that the players were comfortable to be associated with such boorishness. It wouldn’t be too much to hope that they feel a bit ashamed of themselves as the dust has settled on Justin’s departure.
And what of Justin? Gerald McCarthy plámásed us all in his weekly News & Star column during his stint in the job, which meant that when he departed many bitter tears were shed. All this despite one League final and one Munster final being the sum total of his achievements in charge, and neither of them happening in his last three years in charge. Compare and contrast this with Justin McCarthy, never the most lovable of characters. His media work consisted of a series of pre-appointment columns which amounted to a pitch for the job. There were no love letters straight from the heart. Indeed he could be extraordinarily prickly, such as imposing bans on players talking to the media. This probably contributed to the manner of his departure. It’s not wishy-washy to say that a manager, like any manager in any walk of life, has to keep his charges a little bit sweet. If he treats them as drones who serve a purely utilitarian function then he shouldn’t be surprised when they aren’t there when the chips are down. That doesn’t excuse the manner in which the players behaved. As stated earlier, if any individual had a problem it was up to him to tell the manager that he wasn’t available for selection rather than connive with his fellow players to remove him. But if Justin is as tetchy in private as he seems to be in public that it can’t be said that they didn’t have their reasons.
However grouchy his public persona might be, it’s heartbreaking to see him leave in the manner that he did. When Gerald McCarthy left with the good wishes of all Déisigh ringing in his ears, it was because there was a sense that he had fought the good fight and brought the team as far as he could. No need for recriminations in those circumstances. Had Justin left at the end of last season his successor would have been burdened with the notion that the other fella was ditched because the National League and Munster championship are inadequate. Put that way, it really shows up the idea that Justin’s tenure was one of failure. The Waterford team of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s won three Munster titles and one National League and had to rely on a last minute goal in the drawn 1959 All-Ireland to ensure their one Liam McCarthy Cup success, all in the days when the Munster winners got straight through to the All-Ireland final. It’s correct to say that the dividing line between success and failure can be razor thin, but to say that Waterford team was a success while the current one is a failure is to reduce the dividing line to the width of an atom.
It has been the classic application of Enoch Powell’s aphorism that all political careers, unless cut short by death, are doomed to end in failure. Had Justin McCarthy been struck by lightning even as recently as the day before the Clare match we would all be weeping for our lost leader. And it is in politics that we can find the seed of the best tribute that can be paid to Justin McCarthy. Joe Lee, when writing on the handover of power from William T Cosgrave to Eamon de Valera, said that it was precisely because it was so bitter that made it so dignified. It has been that very dignity as he faced the reality of those whom he had made great tearing him down that showed what a class act he is. David Fitzgerald will have the opportunity for us to say he won’t be missed, but he will certainly be a hard act to follow.