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Wednesday 13 December 2017

McGrath sticks to his guns as glory beckons

Déise boss amused by sweeper tactic critic as he prepares for final battle with Tribesmen

Waterford manager Derek McGrath celebrates after his side’s fourth goal during the All-Ireland SHC semi-final win over Cork at Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile
Waterford manager Derek McGrath celebrates after his side’s fourth goal during the All-Ireland SHC semi-final win over Cork at Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile

On the Saturday, eight days before 2008 All-Ireland final (Waterford's last), Derek McGrath took the short spin from his home just outside the city to Nowlan Park to watch the last Kilkenny in-house training match before their third decider in a row.

Brian Cody has since ceased the practice of making these games open to the public and memorably, an estimated 10,000 attended prior to the 2010 decider for a look at how Henry Shefflin's knee was in the build-up to Kilkenny's five-in-a-row final.

But at the time, and with no direct involvement in Waterford's preparations for the looming final, McGrath's curiosity got the better of him.

"It was just a ferocious game between the Kilkenny 'A' and 'B'," he recalls.

Martin Comerford, he noted, played on the 'B' team, an indication of Kilkenny's awesome attacking strength at the time and though he would start the final, it gave an indication of the "unbelievable storm", as McGrath puts it, that Waterford would meet eight days on.

"I came down with the news to John Mullane, thinking I was right, Martin Comerford wasn't going to be playing, he was up on the 'B' team in Nowlan Park.

"I didn't tell John what I saw which was just a game of frightening intensity.

"I came away a small bit worried yeah, there's no point in saying I didn't," he admits now.

Belief

"But I was still caught up in the absolute belief as an outsider that you can produce on a given day, that Waterford might based on how well they done against Tipperary in that 2008 semi-final ... just a feeling that they were really going to do it.

"But I think logic was outweighed by the want for Waterford to win."

As their manager, McGrath wears his want for Waterford to win on his face when he talks about it and in his gesticulations, when he fizzes up and down the sideline.

He spoke to us in Semple Stadium just over a year ago, bruised and broken after his team submitted two epic performances against Kilkenny in successive weeks but failed to put them away.

Even after they beat Cork in this year's All-Ireland semi-final, McGrath cut the figure of a man whose entire reservoir of emotional energy had been expended for the year.

In Thurles that evening as the sky still crackled with the electricity of that amazing Kilkenny win, McGrath poured his heart out and openly questioned whether he and the team could come back together and go further.

Now, as their first All-Ireland final as a team looms, he says he never really visualised being here.

"I would be in dreamland scenarios when you're going along in the car and you think you're a great fella," he notes.

"You're almost jealously looking at situations over the years, the normality of the scene in Kilkenny."

If Waterford win, they will be hoisted into the annals of giants.

McGrath knows if they lose, their methods will be questioned nationally and locally.

Asked if there were doubters last winter, McGrath is certain: "One hundred per cent. There probably still is."

And though Sunday could be the ultimate justification for McGrath's actions; his tactics and selections, he says he "never really looks at it as validation, just progress".

"Even in a local debate here a few weeks ago in the run up to the game (the All-Ireland semi-final victory over Cork) they had a debate whereby they were in a local pub and they said: 'Hands up if you agree with the sweeper system?' and hardly any hands went up," he outlines.

"And yet I had a thousand texts on my phone trying to get Tadhg De Burca off!

"I found a certain irony in that.

"People are calling it divisive, I didn't see any division in the texts I was getting.

"I found it amusing and bemusing at the same time.

"The question has to be asked...instead of asking people the question who agrees with it or not, what's involved with it?

"Tell us about it. Ask them to come up here and tell me about what's involved and what's happening on the field.

"That would be interesting," he smiles, "the hands would stay down for that I can tell you."

McGrath has never doubted that he is doing the right thing for Waterford hurling and for this rare group of Waterford players.

"The lads (in the Waterford dressing room) would think I am an awful chancer if I stood up some day and said: 'Look lads, there are no match-ups today," he notes.

"Just go out and play and enjoy it. There is the field, go out and play'."

McGrath won't be smirking whilst greeting the converts if Waterford win on Sunday but he's aware too that aesthetics won't matter to anyone if Waterford win an All-Ireland.

"Well, they matter if you lose one to some people," McGrath reckons. "We are trying to play the game properly."

"How it looks, how you use the ball, does it matter if you lose one?

"To some people, yes, but not to us."

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