Tag Archives: Derek McGrath

Is there life on Mars?

Billy O'Sullivan, Tipperary, 1998

Derek McGrath knows what it is to be part of a squad that is brewing up a storm, and yet not be part of the team. The image above, originally from the Indo with a bit of Come on the Déise editorialising to conceal that, shows Billy O’Sullivan revelling in the win over Tipperary in the 1998 Championship. Derek would only make one substitute appearance in the blowout win over Galway later on that year to add to a substitute appearance in the blowout loss to Limerick the previous year. That was the sum total of his Waterford Senior summer career. More than almost all of us, but an awful lot of sitting around and an awful lot of tedious training sessions for so very little. It was after that Tipp win that I read/heard Stephen Frampton, last seen at the game last week against Dublin, saying that he never minded the hidings. It was training for the hidings that was exasperating.

So it is good to see McGrath give the rest of the squad a run-out tomorrow against Galway. Tipp won’t be too impressed as there is no point pretending that Waterford won’t be weakened by this. If the players were better than what currently have, surely they would have been playing before now. From Waterford’s perspective there is little downside though. We can’t guarantee finishing first in the division with a win – Dublin beat Kilkenny and they finish ahead of us on the head-to-head. And we can’t finish worse than third – Galway and Tipp can’t get more than five points. Wexford look the most likely opponents in the quarter-finals should we top the group, which is definitely an away game, while there would be a 50:50 chance of a home tie should Clare lose to Limerick. Sure, Clare are better than Wexford, but it would be a more interesting clash. Either way, there isn’t a crucial need to win. And who knows? Someone might brew up a storm and we’ll be wondering how we ever coped without them.

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The deep breath before the plunge

I think Derek McGrath must have had a barnstorming interview. And you know what? That’s great! I hope he went in and wowed the interview panel with a stunning vision for the future of Waterford hurling. A panel of selectors with a judicious combination of learned wisdom and disruptive genius. Fitness coaches and physios capable of keeping the panel in tip-top condition and able to peak at just the right time. Sensible ideas for blending the undoubted talent at underage level…into the Senior panel. Peter Queally was good. Derek McGrath was better.

Known unknowns, 5/11/2013

The paragraph should not (and won’t be) treated as an I-told-you-so. If nothing else, I abdicated the right to be smug when I booked a holiday months ago, focusing all my thoughts on my wife’s unspoken wish to get away as early as possible to minimise the length of time we would be away from her garden during the peak growing season, and neglected to check the date of our opening match in Munster. In the end, I found out the result via the medium of Twitter:

Thanks, Mary!

I was surprised how nervous I was in the build-up to the game. Part of that was a sickening premonition that a defeat here would lead of to all manner of eyebrow raising and sly winks from the usual suspects about how they knew Waterford wouldn’t be able to cope with pressure of Championship hurling and you can’t bayte tradition. As it happens, the game was a positive indicator that the League was not a flash in the pan. It was a repeat of the Tipperary game to see Waterford calmly reel their opponents in after giving them a decent head start and it was a repeat of the Cork game to hold them at bay in the second half while they flailed away at us in the fashion of Scrappy Doo demanding we lemme at em. There was also the bonus of Waterford hitting a team with a couple of quick-fire goals, and top-notch goals they were too. It would have been seen as a potential weakness in Waterford’s arsenal so it will give a few of the more considered eyebrow raisers something to consider to see Waterford deploy that particular weapon. Cork were flattered by the ten-point margin of defeat in the League final. To put in so much better a shift in the Munster match and only get to the stage where they were flattered by a four-point margin of defeat augers well for the future for Waterford.

It is to that future that we can now look, and to do so we must first look at the past and the paragraph at the top of this post. Speaking positively about the rationale for appointing Derek McGrath didn’t amount to much more than an elaborate way of saying ‘give the guy a chance’ but events seem to have proven the hypothesis to be correct. I had said in a prior post that McGrath would have access to the services of Conor McCarthy, the physio of the Irish boxing team, as productive a conveyor belt of talent as exists in Irish sport outside of County Kilkenny. This was questioned on boards.ie, but I saw Conor on the sideline in Thurles – this was an improvement on the last time I saw him in a GAA context, after the Battle of Tramore – and a few days later I got the chance to congratulate him on his efforts. His demeanor was exhilarating in its matter-of-factness. Job done in the League, now on to the next one. I joked that McGrath must be very single-minded. There wasn’t a flicker of reaction to this. EVERYONE was focused on the next one, he said.  Everyone was definitely in block capitals.

Now, you can dismiss this as a load of hokum if you wish. Mind games might not survive the matter games of some of the teams lying in wait. Conor grew up in the same milieu for Waterford hurling as I did though, one where defeatism was in the stony grey soil. Here was a prepared mind, and we all know how chance views the prepared mind.

Having felt surprise at the tension that coursed through me before the Cork game, there can be no surprise at any tension in advance of the Munster final. We are not in bonus territory. We are in it to win it.

Our summer of discontent

21 Waterford v Wexford 19 July 2014

Stephen Bennett is the symbol of all our hopes and fears for the recent past, present, and near-to-medium-term future of Waterford hurling.

Before looking at that click-baiting statement in more detail, let’s look at our current position. By any objective measure, Waterford went backwards in 2014. After being hot favourites for relegation in each of the previous years of the six-team division format in the National League, we fell through the trapdoor just when people were hesitant about tipping us to fall through the trapdoor because we kept on refusing to fall through the trapdoor. We went out at the same stage of the Senior championship, but there was a difference between the manner in which we nearly picked Kilkenny’s pocket in 2013 and how we clung on to the coattails of a Wexford team who would have been knackered after their efforts against Clare in the previous weeks in 2014. There were striking parallels between the efforts of the Minors over the two years – won a titanic Munster semi-final, lost to Limerick after a replay in the Munster final, went toe-to-toe with Kilkenny for 60 minutes – but while it was certainly a valiant effort, it was still a step backwards overall.

Although not half as big a step as the Under-21’s. While mulling this over, I had the thought that the loss to Cork this year was worse than the 2011 Munster final, worse than the 2008 All-Ireland final, worse than the 1998 Munster final replay. Now that it’s come to writing it, I realise that is ridiculous. However, in each of those cases we went into the game with modest expectations, and while we found we had much to be modest about it helped dull the pain. We also had events that followed that lifted the spirit: a homecoming for the ages in 2008 and thumping wins over Galway in 1998 and 2011. There was no such backlash in 2014 for the Under-21’s, merely the added dismay of watching Clare demonstrate that Cork really were no great shakes. It has been a bad year, and subsequent results have only made it feel worse.

So what has all this got to do with Stephen Bennett? Each of his interactions with the three panels spoke volumes about where we are at and where we are going. His absence from the Minor team could be reasonably said to have proven fatal to their chances. I can hear the chorus line telling me that every county has to face up to the loss of most of the Under-18’s each year, but I say it as a positive, not a negative. Despite losing so many players, Waterford still put up a great show. While one Munster title and one All-Ireland isn’t a spectacular return for our five Munster final appearances, it has been a period of high competitiveness in the province, with Clare and Limerick both winning titles as well as ourselves. Even in 2014 there is great satisfaction to be taken out of lowering the Banner on two occasions, showing that a county that has gotten it so right at underage level as to win three Under-21 Munster titles in a row is not able to live with us at Minor level. We are clearly doing something right ourselves – the chairman of the Wexford County Board said as much – and it should be something to be excited about.

Despite not being in the Minor panel then – in fact, precisely because he wasn’t – Stephen Bennett casts them in a good light. The problems start when you move to the levels where is eligible. The most alarming thing about the Under-21’s and the Seniors is how both seem to be following the same strategy, i.e. keeping possession at all costs, exemplified by the effective abandonment of the full-forward line. Derek McGrath and Peter Queally were rivals for the post of Senior manager last year, and Queally (in)famously had little preparation time with the Under-21 panel. Given that, it would have been reasonable to expect him to adopt very different policies with regard to the team. Instead we had the Waterford Under-21 team run out in a game where they were warm favourites and proceed to stink the place out with the defeatist mentality that had characterised the Seniors, culminating in the horror show which saw a short puck-out intercepted by Alan Cadogan to allow him to bury the tie, only moments after we had had our hopes raised when Cork were reduced to 14 men. It’s a sound idea, having integration between the various levels of the game. We seem to be sharing ideas between the worst-performing levels though, while the best one stands in glorious isolation.

Compounding all this was the curious use of Stephen Bennett – yep, I’m finally getting to the point. At half-time in the Under-21 game, my brother and I were casting our eyes over the panel when our collective short-sighted eyes squinted their way towards the name of Bennett on the bench. With Gleeson, Kevin Daly, and M’s Harney and Kearney all making the step-up from the All-Ireland winners, it was a surprise to see the star of the team on the bench. It’s always possible that he hadn’t impressed in training or was jaded after the long slog of a winter with Ballysaggart. But that wouldn’t explain why, when Waterford were seeking a Clark Kent to explode out of a phone box, it was Bennett to whom they turned. And as if the parallels in terms of strategies between the two adult panels were not enough, Bennett was also kept under wraps by Derek McGrath until the situation was at its most dire against Wexford. Both changes reeked of desperation, and it’s surely a bit unfair to heap so much pressure on those young shoulders. Successfully blending the new talent into the Senior panel is essential to our future, and in fairness the performances of Messrs Gleeson, de Búrca and Dunford suggest it’s not all doom and gloom on that score, but the first steps for Stephen Bennett have not been the stuff of inspiration.

The message from the last couple of years are clear. We’re going gangbusters at Minor level and making a total hash of it at Under-21 and Senior level. That’s where we’re at. Where are we going, and how can we get to where we want to get? That’s for another day.

Derek McGrath don’t mind and I don’t matter

I never pretend to have an inside track into what is going on in Waterford hurling. The limit of my contribution to the grassroots of the game is buying a couple of tickets every fortnight for the club lotto, and even then it’s the nice man who comes to my door who does all the hard work. Incidentally, he’s a member of a genuinely famous Tramore soccer family. His heavy involvement in the GAA strikes me as being akin to apostasy and I’m dying to ask him what his story is. But I digress . . .

Knowing nothing about what goes on behind the scenes doesn’t make me incapable of interpreting what is out there in the open, but I’m questioning my ability to even do that now though after Derek McGrath made no fewer than six ‘last-minute’ (as if they were decided upon just before throw-in) changes to the team that had been published to play Galway. I had thought after the swift announcement of the team that he was eschewing the daft (in my opinion) habit of releasing what was effectively a dummy in the mistaken (in my opinion) belief that this might throw the opposition off the scent. I understand there were a few post-Fitzgibbon injury concerns, but six enforced changes seems improbable.

The upshot of the weekend just past is that, far from being a straight-as-an-arrow type that I thought he might be, Derek McGrath is just as sneaky as the rest of them. In addition, maybe these mind games are not as ineffective as I thought as Waterford swept to a wonderfully impressive win over a team who had gone nap in the previous round. It’s sobering to find out you know even less than the little you thought you knew. Thank goodness for the wonderfully impressive win to ease the pain, eh?

Selecting a team in advance is always great, except when it isn’t

The media watcher in me has always enjoyed the frequent dummy-spitting that takes place in the media over the increasing tendency of GAA managers to wait as long as possible to name their team for upcoming games. Every so often you’ll read a variation on the theme about how managers were treating their public with contempt and negatively contrasting their behaviour with the open and sunny nature of their rugby counterparts. Not once would such an article be troubled by any introspection on how the public enjoy seeing the media treated with contempt or how the rugger buggers are happy to plámás the media in their goal to sell every more cans of Heineken. These articles reek of self-pity and are all the more entertaining because of this.

For all of that, it is annoying how managers play their cards so close to their chest. The match day programme feels like an exercise in guesswork and you regularly have to take an axe to the published lineup before throw-in. It gets all the more frustrating when you consider how pointless it all feels. Do managers really think that waiting until the last minute to announce a team makes a jot of difference to the outcome? Like the policy of team rotation used in English soccer it is used by managers as a symbol that they are a serious outfit rather than the cause. Southampton, positioned in a place where they are unlikely to get to Europe via the league and even less likely to get relegated, chopped and changed their team at the weekend and were duly sunk by a team ten places below them in the table. It’s as if Mauricio Pochettino believed that if he didn’t rotate his squad then no one would see the Saints as playaz. So it was nice to see Derek McGrath eschew such nonsense by naming his team for the Tipperary game well in advance. No mind games, no acting the maggot. Just get the team on the pitch and let them do the talking there.

For all of that, the speed with which Waterford announced that there would be no change in personnel for the upcoming game against Galway is slightly unnerving. We’re meant to be living in an era of number-crunching and exhaustive study of match videos to determine player performance, yet there’s no way that could have happened here. It becomes particularly odd when you consider that they must have known that Maurice Shanahan would be a doubt, yet they still went ahead and announced the team anyway. The management team seems to have decided before playing Tipperary that they would give this team two games whatever happened. That’s a strategy that is going to muddy the waters whatever happens against Galway.  Win, and how can you change a winning formula for the Dublin game. Lose, and you’ve taken two games to decide that the current plan isn’t working. Having confidence in your plan is all very well, but no plan of battle survives contact with the enemy, and that seems to have happened for the forwards against Tipp.

The injury to Shanahan makes this all moot (read: most of this was written before news of his injury was revealed). Things will have to change for Galway and we’ll be able to decide whether things were better or worse for those changes. It’s unlikely the attitude will have changed though. Let’s hope they’ve hit on the right formula, because if they haven’t it’ll all be over before anyone can do anything about it.

Known unknowns

I’ve been pretty much incommunicado for the last ten days. That’s not to say I didn’t have access to the internet, but the stately progress of the babee through England took priority over chewing the fat on recent events in Waterford GAA, even unto missing Tramore in the county Junior final where we, despite the presence of a large family delegation, took a bit of a hiding from Ballysaggart, losing by 1-18 to 1-9. As the lad said at the Minor homecoming, the seaside town is not renowned for producing hurlers, something that can not be said of Ballysaggart. The times, they are a-changing though. The Under-21’s defeated Portlaw in the Eastern Under-21 B final, and I was reliably informed when I went to see Tramore play Portlaw a few months back that there are more underage hurling teams at the club than football teams, so it might not be long before we will be able to take on the might of Ballysaggart and come out on top. Well done to Ballysaggart and hard luck Tramore. And well done to Tramore.

Anyway, I haven’t chosen to react to comments made in response to my most recent offering on the appointment of Derek McGrath as Waterford hurling manager. Not that it was a river of flame, but @TreabharO_C made this point on Twitter:

It’s a fair observation. Can anyone say with certainty that De La Salle have ‘regressed’ since Michael Ryan’s days based on one loss after extra-time? It’s a ridiculously small sample size and ‘Treabhar’ makes the further point that DLS were stricken by a number of injuries. It would be reasonable to assume that if the county championship were started again in the morning, DLS would be favourites, so it’s surely not fair to say that they have gone backwards under Derek McGrath.

Having said all that, any decision like selecting a new manager has to be based on variables, and when it comes to recent form the results produced by Peter Queally trumped those of Derek McGrath. Had the County Board decided to appoint Queally, everyone would have assumed that it was because he had taken ickle Passage to the promised land while Derek’s lot had gone from a whisker away from the All-Ireland final to crashing out at the quarter-final stages of the county title. You could argue this wouldn’t be fair, but you could justify it with a straight face. It all comes back to Harold Macmillan (and this time I’m going to spell his name right; cardinal sin for any political junkie): events have happened, and you have to react accordingly.

Which is why I think Derek McGrath must have had a barnstorming interview. And you know what? That’s great! I hope he went in and wowed the interview panel with a stunning vision for the future of Waterford hurling. A panel of selectors with a judicious combination of learned wisdom and disruptive genius. Fitness coaches and physios capable of keeping the panel in tip-top condition and able to peak at just the right time. Sensible ideas for blending the undoubted talent at underage level – in case you hadn’t heard, we’re All-Ireland Minor hurling champions – into the Senior panel. Peter Queally was good. Derek McGrath was better.

There’s a contrary narrative to this though that is all too common in sports administration in general and the GAA in particular – that the selection was made because his face happened to fit. Legend has it that an FAI official confessed to Eoin Hand that he had voted for him over Paddy Mulligan because said official believed that Mulligan had once thrown a bun at him. It’s pure GUBU, except for the Unbelievable and Unprecedented part. It wouldn’t be difficult to see the same kind of parish pump politics playing out in any County board, let alone the Waterford one. With all this in mind, I chose to believe that they made the decision based on the sound arguments I have outlined, and reading between the lines on the original Jackie Cahill story reassures me that this is the case.

The bunfight alternative is too appalling to contemplate.

Master of all he surveys

Having often wondered whether I had missed a trick in not pursuing a career in journalism more aggressively, and harbouring an ongoing interest in the goings-on inside the Fourth Estate, imagine my delight upon discovering that one of my new work colleagues had been a correspondent for a proper national newspaper. Finally cornering them at a post-work session – all hail Lunchtime O’Booze – I eagerly set about mining them for information on the life I might have missed.

By the time we were finished, any lingering ambitions had been buried under an avalanche of reality. I knew the life of a hack was a hard and often lonely one, but I was shocked to discover just how hard it was. I blame Lou Grant. Having watched the titular TV show, I had this image of the journalistic life as centring on a newsroom, all chattering telex machines, legs propped up on desks, and shouting into phones. It was from this hive of activity that reporters would be dispatched to uncover juicy scandals for a grateful readership. Sure, most of the work would involve the grind of court reports and celebrity christenings – Lou Grant et al would be stuck doing bar mitzvahs – but ultimately the news would come to you. All you had to do was make it readable.

In retrospect, I hadn’t a clue. Where did I think ‘the newsroom’ was getting the stories, from the news fairy? My new colleague made it clear to me that it was the reporter who got the story, and the only way to get the story was to continually plámás everyone who might conceivably be able to provide them with the scoop when it happened. Woe betide the hack who missed a story because the source was cosier with Phil Space than to Philippa Column. A hard life. Way too hard for a 9-5 wannabe like me.

The reason I mention all this is to explain the air of confidence with which Jackie Cahill pronounced that Derek McGrath might be about to stage a spectacular come-from-behind victory over Peter Queally in the quest to become the new Waterford hurling manager. The gushing nature of the article does not suggest that it came from McGrath and/or his camp, but from someone on the interview panel who liked the cut of McGrath’s jib. And thus it has come to pass. Who says you can’t believe everything you read in newspapers?

What to make of it all? I would have gone for Queally. It’s all very well saying that you shouldn’t put too much weight on recent events when deciding who is best qualified to be manager. Had De La Salle gotten a late winner and avoided an extra-time defeat to Ballygunner, it might be Derek McGrath who is the coach of the county champions rather than Peter Queally. But the fact is that that didn’t happen. Just as we judge politicians on Harold McMillan’s Macmillan’s famous events and how they react to them, surely we should judging coaches on their results rather than what might have been. On the face of it, De La Salle have regressed in the last couple of years, and here we are replacing the man who presided over the more illustrious DLS era with the man who presided over the regression. Factor in how Queally’s failure with the Under-21’s has looked better with time – no-one gave Clare a bigger rattle than we did – and my take on it is that the County Board have made the wrong choice.

That’s my take anyway. I don’t have access to all the facts and, après Jackie Cahill’s column, it would be fair to assume that Derek McGrath went in for the interview and, to use a metaphor appropriate to this time of the sporting year, knocked it out of the ball park. There’s a lot of approving chatter on Twitter about the quality of the out-of-county choices in William Maher and Frank Flannery, and I can even give a little bit of insight into the new physio, Conor McCarthy (Jackie Cahill didn’t get everything right). He was the physio to the Irish Olympic boxing team last summer which is a pretty good thing to have on your CV (Update: might not be that Conor McCarthy – one to watch). Then there’s Dan. If Dan were the coach I’d be in hysterics right now, but he’s a selector where his penchant for (ahem) straight talking should be an asset. So there is much to be optimistic about going forward. It’s certainly been a bold choice, not going for the ‘obvious’ candidate. Not that it’s setting the bar very high, but let’s hope they know more about it than I do.

If you break it, you own it

The current standoff in the United States is a source of angst to anyone who doesn’t want to see the world’s wealthiest country implode, not least among them being the President and his supporters. However, the law of perverse consequences means that there is some good news for the Democrats. With the fallout from the clash dominating the headlines, teething problems for the health care reforms known as Obamacare are not getting the attention from the enemies of the reforms (i.e. the people causing the shutdown) that they might otherwise have done. The shutdown is effectively providing a smokescreen under which the law that the shutdown is being staged to prevent can be implemented successfully. The irony is delicious.

Here in Waterford, we should be grateful for the ongoing back-slapping operation created by the thunderous finish in the All-Ireland final replay to what was already the most thrilling season of hurling that I, or anyone else of my acquaintance, can remember. You know something special has happened when even Fleet Street newspapers like the Guardian are piling on the love. Hopefully by the time the fuss has died down, we’ll have papered over the cracks exposed by the need to search for a new manager.

For what an embarrassment it has been. Four names emerged from the process, none of them likely to inspire either the supporters or the players who took such exception to Michael Ryan. We can say this much with certainty about the attitude of the players towards one of those names because he was Michael Ryan. While my sympathies lay with him throughout this, it’s a relief that he has withdrawn his name. No manager can hope to function when the whole world knows the players have no confidence in him, so while you can understand his stubbornness in carrying on it was never a starter.

Then we had DJ Carey. A truly great hurler, enough to get a fawning article about him printed in the Observer back in the day (and speaking of embarrassment, the less said about the writer of the article, the better). But what has DJ done as a manager to deserve being fast-tracked to inter-county management? Little enough that even he wasn’t interested. So names were being bandied about of people who didn’t even want the job in the first place. As I said at the top, thank God this wasn’t all happening during the hurling silly season.

As of today, this leaves Peter Queally and Derek McGrath. They’re both solid choices with lots of coaching miles on the clock and, all other things being equal, being from Waterford is an advantage. But both are coming off the back of frustrating defeats – Queally for the Under-21’s, a defeat that felt like a missed opportunity even before Clare romped to Munster and All-Ireland glory, and McGrath seeing his De La Salle team fall to Ballygunner when everyone was already marking them down as county champions. Neither of these defeats fatally undermines the case for them. It means that neither makes a decisive case for their appointment either.  Passage winning the county title might tip the scales in Queally’s favour, but that’s a huge ask. The County Board have insisted they are not limiting themselves to those two candidates. We should hope this is the case, if only so it doesn’t look like McGrath/Queally won the role thanks to the toss of a coin.

One of the lessons that must be learned from the current pickle is that the business of ‘consulting’ squads on the status of the manager is a fudge. The players effectively have a veto over who the manager is. Spare us any flannel about how they never said they were unwilling to play under Michael Ryan. You can’t seriously ask a group of people for their opinion then behave as if that expressed opinion is enough in itself. Maybe it is a good thing to consult the players. There’s something to be said for getting any grievances out in the open rather than letting them fester. The problem is that the players don’t have to deal with the consequences of their actions. You can see people already lining up to lambast the County Board over the new manager even though they weren’t the ones who brought us to this situation.

It’s not something I like, but if we are going to insist on this consultation then we should formalise the players veto. At the end of a manager’s term, whether that be two or three years, the players get the chance to express no confidence in the incumbent. This way, they have their fingerprints all over the decision rather than being able to vote no confidence while at the same time claiming that they weren’t really dissing the current manager. It might soften the players cough if they realised that they are owning their decision in the eyes of the public. And who knows? They might be really good at making these calls and we’re all better off as a result. At least we’d be able to assess this with a proper sample size rather than lurching from one crisis to the next, never heeding the warnings from history. Isn’t that right, Mr Obama?