Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Waterford players and management line up together for Amhrán na bhFiann before the Cork game in Pairc Uí Chaoimh on Saturday week last. In his Irish Examiner column, former Waterford boss, Derek McGrath said that this ‘show of unity’ as he put it ‘looked staged and choreographed.’ Here Ger Lawton attempts to put his finger on why the 2019 Munster SHC was such a disaster for the Déise and takes a closer look at Derek McGrath’s article. Photo: Maurice Hennebry.

It’s amazing in this job how quickly things change. Stories change and move on so quickly or something happens and a story is outdated in seconds. The hazards and the joys of the job.
All this week it was my intention to write my column on Waterford’s disastrous 2019 Munster Senior Hurling Championship and see if I could shed any light on why it turned out so bad and see if we could see if there was any light at the end of the tunnel.
Then I woke up Friday morning to Derek McGrath’s column in that day’s Irish Examiner entitled, “Waterford won’t find vision for the future in populist barstool jibes.’ Wow, I thought. This should be interesting and indeed it was and of course all of a sudden I felt compelled to ditch my original plan for this column and just focus on Derek’s piece. But I’m not going to do that. I’m going to start with my original plan and then return to Derek’s article, briefly. I hope you’re still with me.
To be fair a lot of my original piece was going to be about Derek anyway because there’s no doubt in the world that he is still, and will for a long time to come, be inextricably linked with Waterford hurling and in particular, this group of players.

My reading of the Waterford senior hurling team’s performances this year is that the players were caught in two minds. I’ve no doubt, and I’ve no inside knowledge whatsoever, from the outside looking in that Paraic Fanning and his management team came into the job with a mindset of making changes to Waterford’s style of play and that awful phrase, game-plan in 2019. I don’t believe that they ever intended to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water,’ or ‘reinvent the wheel’ but every management team, when they take over a team, set out to put their own stamp on the team and the way they play. That’s just human nature. Every management team has to have its own way of doing things and its own style of play.
As the vast majority of this year’s panel played under Derek McGrath, for most or all of his five years in charge, Derek’s style of play and way of managing players was hugely engrained in this group of players. You can argue whether this was a good or a bad thing, depending on your viewpoint on the success or not of McGrath’s five year tenure.

What I’m pretty sure about though is that Paraic Fanning and Derek McGrath would have different styles of management. I think that’s pretty clear. I also think it’s fair to say, that whoever came in after Derek McGrath was going to have a tough job. Especially a Waterford man. Maybe less so if it was ‘an outsider.’ They were big boots to fill, especially if you listen to the way he, and the players who played for him, spoke of their relationship. I suggest that it was a much different relationship than the one operated in most inter-county panels. Again, I’m not knocking, I’m just pointing out the obvious.
I also think that Derek McGrath being so involved in many different media outlets at the present time didn’t help the new management team or the players. Every time things went wrong for Waterford this year, people turned to see what Derek was saying and that can’t have helped. Of course he’s entitled to his opinion (as we are to ours) and to gives his views in the media but I think it didn’t help.

Of course people will point to the league campaign to discredit this point about the players being caught in a transitional period and there’s no doubt that Waterford enjoyed a great league campaign, up to the heavy defeat in the final to Limerick. Especially the two wins over Galway and the win over Clare. They were very good wins and despite the league final blip, most Deise supporters felt confident that the team was in a good place going into the championship, especially after a ‘successful’ (we weren’t there so we can’t say for certain) training camp in Portugal. But my counter-argument would be that cracks don’t ever appear when things are going well. A lovely handy start to the league with big wins over poor opposition got them on a winning sequence which carried them into those good wins over Galway and Clare. Cracks only start to appear when things start to go wrong. There was a little bit of that in the league final but it really came out in the ‘white heat’ of championship. That’s where you’ll really find out about players and management.

I still believe that the pressure got to the Waterford players in the Clare game. This game had been built up for best part of a year as a ‘must win’ game. Fortress Walsh Park and all that and I think it got to the players. They never got going till it was too late and while they got within a point at the end, and could easily have pulled a draw or even a win out of the game, Clare were at least six or seven points the better team on the day and anything but a Clare win would have been a travesty.
The Tipp game was a strange one to put a handle on as the sending off really swung that game in Tipp’s favour. Yes Waterford showed great character to get themselves right back in the game in the third quarter but realistically it was never going to be sustainable and Tipp were always going to have a purple patch against a tiring Waterford and so it proved as Tipp ran out easy 18 point winners.

For me the game that really set the alarm bells ringing was the Limerick game. That was like something out of dark days of Waterford hurling. After a good start things were looking alright until Aaron Gillane’s 18th minute goal and from there to the final whistle, nearly an hour, there was only one team in it. It’s like the Waterford heads dropped after that goal and there was no way back. Five points from play in the whole game. Outscored 1-14 to 0-3 in the second-half. In front of a Walsh Park crowd that was occupied by far more Limerick than Waterford fans. A black, black day.
The Cork game saw a raft of changes to the team and in fairness Waterford did ok, at least they scored 2-17, a hell of a sight better than the 0-10 against Limerick but at the end of the day Cork still won by 13 points and probably didn’t come out of third gear.

So what are the opinions as to where it all went wrong?
The first school of thought is that Paraic Fanning and his backroom team just aren’t up to it?
The second opinion is that this group of players was so used to playing Derek McGrath’s style of hurling that when the pressure really came on, they reverted to back to that style and got caught between two stools of Derek’s way and Paraic’s way?
Opinion three – this group of players, despite most of them winning All-Ireland minor and U-21 titles, just aren’t as good as we thought they were?
Opinion four – a lot of these players haven’t kicked on the way we thought or hoped they would? Or some might say that a lot of the older players have too many miles on the clock?
I think the reasons why Waterford were the first Munster team out of the provincial and All-Ireland races for the second year in a row is a mixture of all these things.
Do I think the players downed tools and refused to play for this management team? No I don’t. Do I think there was confusion and maybe a certain reluctance to move on and away from the last five years, yes I do and any top sports person will tell you that one of the most important things to being successful at high level sport is clarity of thought and in team sports, that means everybody singing of the same hymn sheet.

Many people have pointed to the lack of experience on the Waterford management team and I think it’s a fair point. While Paraic Fanning has a huge level of experience as a manager, this was his first year as an inter-county manager and I’m sure he has learned a huge amount. His selectors too are light on experience at this level and I’d be amazed if Fanning doesn’t try and bring in some experience next year. If rumours are to be believed there was a big chance that Tommy Dunne could have been part of Paraic Fanning’s backroom team but the delay in the appointment of the Déise boss meant that he was snapped up by Liam Sheedy and his native Tipperary. He would have been a massive boost to Waterford’s chances.
On that, any talk of him not being in charge next year was just silly. He was given a two year term and I’ve no doubt that that is what he’ll do.
Will he make major changes to his panel for 2020? Some of that might be out of his hands. Brian O’Halloran already announced his retirement and there could be more players step away after long and distinguished careers in the white and blue of Waterford. And for others, maybe the management will have to make big calls, like Derek did with many panel members during his five years.

So does that mean that Waterford are doomed? Not a hope. I firmly believe that the players are there but I think that the players at Waterford’s disposal need a different way of playing. You saw in Cork. A light, speedy attack running at Cork. Not only was it good to watch but it reaped dividends. No defender likes fast forwards running at them. That is a fact.
Just an interesting point, worth making, is that the three best players Waterford had in this Munster SHC campaign (in most peoples’ eyes at least) were Calum Lyons, Jack Prendergast and Conor Prunty. Three newcomers to the inter-county scene and three lads that would hardly have been talked up too much before this summer but they did it on the field of play. That’s where reputations are made and either enhanced or tarnished, nowhere else. You can’t hide inside those four white lines.
I think it’s also worth pointing out that Derek McGrath’s first year in charge might also point to how hard it is to get a team playing the way you want them in the first season. They were relegated from the league in 2014 after conceding 13 goals in five games. Four more were let in during the relegation playoff defeat to Dublin. The championship was better, losing after a replay to Cork in Munster before beating Laois and then losing to Wexford in the qualifiers.

For the record and a bit of perspective, before all this doom and gloom takes over Waterford hurling, Derek McGrath’s five year record is very interesting.
Under his management his Munster Championship record was: Played – 11, Won – 2, Drew – 2 and lost 7. His All-Ireland series record, including qualifiers all the way to the All-Ireland Final was: Played – 11, Won – 7, Drew – 0 and lost 4.
What is for sure is that players have to want to play for Waterford and this management team. Together those two groups have to find a way of playing that suits the group available to them and Waterford supporters have to get behind them because the negativity and constant rumour-mill doesn’t help.

Back to Derek McGrath’s article. Astonishing is the word that comes to mind. Rarely if ever has a former manager taken to print to defend his term in charge and his group of players so vehemently, or criticised his successor, the local media and former inter-county players so bluntly and according to social media come away as the hero.
For me there are two glaring things to take from Derek McGrath’s Irish Examiner article from last Friday.
The first is when he says, “I can empathise with Páraic’s situation. However, that does not dissuade me from providing a personal opinion (which is only ever what we in this paper and other local papers ever gave) as to why and where Waterford have floundered so dramatically this year.” And it definitely doesn’t hold back as he goes on to make some very forthright points about many of this year’s management team’s decisions during the season. Take for example “I was disappointed at the Brick’s lack of game time,” and especially “to me the show of unity at the start of the game prior to Amhrán na bhFiann looked staged and choreographed.” And there is much more. Surely this, while going on to call out the ‘insidious ink of local scribes’ and especially Brian Flannery and Ken McGrath by name, is a case of the pot calling the kettle black or is it poacher turned gamekeeper?
The second point is that he spends much of this lengthy article defending his time in charge of Waterford and denouncing his critics, over 12 months since he ceased being manager of Waterford. Surely it is time to move on Derek…for everybody’s sake.
If you haven’t read it yet, I’d suggest you do and make up your own mind as to how beneficial it is to the current and future well-being of Waterford hurling. At the end of the day that’s surely what everyone in this debate has in common.
Or at least it should be.

Former Waterford manager, Derek McGrath (far right), with Donegal’s most decorated Footballer, Karl Lacey, former Galway dual-star, Alan Kerins, and former Dublin footballer, Tomás Quinn join forces as the 2019 Panel for the Electric Ireland GAA Minor Star Awards, pictured at the launch last week in Dublin.  Photo: INPHO/Morgan Treacy.

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