The Big Interview - Derek McGrath
By John Harrington
All-Ireland Final press-nights tend to be cagey affairs.
Managers and players are often paranoid about giving the opposition any sort of an edge in the run-up to the match so the interviews that take place tend are often quite anodyne.
That trend was bucked though at Waterford’s pre-match event in the Granville Hotel in Waterford City last week.
Derek McGrath has always been refreshingly open with the media, and saw no reason to change tack.
He answered every question put to him over the course of 43 minutes, and that was just during his stint with the national print and online media.
During the conversation he gave interesting insights into a variety of topics including the 2008 All-Ireland Final, this Waterford team's style of play, his respect for team selector Dan Shanahan, the emotional bond that exists between him and his players, and the challenge of facing down Galway in Sunday’s Final.
Q: What has the build-up to the All-Ireland Final been like in Waterford?
A: It's been very exciting. I said it straight away after the game that I think they did a lot right in the build up to 2008 as well, I think it was just an over reaction to the fact that we got such a pummelling on the day. I think it's been relatively low key, it's been relatively understated but yet there seems to be a bit of a buzz building towards the match.
I think the odds for the game are helping us too. Galway 1/2, massive favourites. There's a certain element that we're in a nice place in terms of not huge outside expectation or the expert expectation if you like. That's a nice place to be in. Definite buzz there, everyone has a lift. I alluded to all the things that Waterford needed in terms of a lift and I think it's definitely given everyone a lift.
Q: What are your memories of the 2008 All-Ireland Hurling Final?
A: I went up on the bus with the De La Salle lads. My wife is obviously John's (Mullane) sister. They went to the banquet afterwards. I just remember, actually the Saturday before which is the day of the Tony Forristal tournament normally which is the 26th of August, I went up to watch the 15-a-side Kilkenny game, at that time you were allowed in.
It was just ferocious game between the Kilkenny A and B. I remember Martin Comerford was picked on the B team and 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 met John at the Tony Forristal on the Saturday evening and he said 'we're really going well, we're looking forward to it etc'. I didn't say anything about it just I thought Martin Comerford wouldn't be playing and that I was up at the game. That was a Saturday beforehand and the Sunday of the game, I went up and I just remember Kilkenny starting really well.
Barry Kelly just threw in the ball, Cha (Fitzpatrick) actually caught the ball and it just kind of went from there. Kilkenny's intensity levels were through the roof and Eddie Brennan's two goals. They just met a real, unbelievable storm.
Most of the parallels that have been drawn this year in terms of Galway, have been drawn towards Kilkenny in terms of their Kilkenny like maturity and their Kilkenny-like closing of games and their kind of unfussed, the way they've just swatted aside people. So I hope it's not a bad omen, you know.
Q: Did you come away from Nowlan Park with a sense of foreboding?
*A: *I came away a small bit worried yeah, there's no point in saying I didn't. 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.
Q: Hurling has evolved a lot as a sport since 2008, but Kilkenny’s performance in that Final is regarded by many as the greatest of all time. Has any team reached that level since?
A: It’s hard to know. I thought the Clare-Cork final was a brilliant final a couple of years ago. I thought Clare played unbelievable on that day.
Tipp-Galway semi-final last year; Tipp-Kilkenny final last year, I thought was fairly epic as well, in terms of the scoring trends, the skill.
I’m not sure in terms of comparisons. Until a team wins as much as the Jackie Tyrrells and the Henry Shefflins, in terms of the amount of All-Irelands, it will always be comparative in terms of not being as good.
There’s a strong argument to be made that the two semi-finals last year, ourselves and Kilkenny and Tipp and Galway, and the Final last year, were certainly on a par with most games we’ve seen in the past 10 to 15 years.
In terms of the dominance of one team over the other, I’m not sure.
Q: Is it unfair to say that the reason other counties have caught up on Kilkenny is because Brian Cody’s team have gone backwards. Do the other counties deserve more credit than that?
*A: *I’m slow to say teams have caught up. Invariably, Kilkenny will win the under-21 and people will be saying that the gravy train is about to go their way again. I’ve seen it at schools level.
The biggest thing I would see at schools level is that Kieran’s, Kilkenny CBS – I’m not sure how many Leinster finals they have met consecutively in but it’s been fairly noticeable that they’ve got to the final all the time.
Go back three years ago to the minor final. Limerick were fancied but Kilkenny won it against the head. John Walsh got a couple of goals. You have the two teams coming again.
Look at the hype and analysis that surrounded our own under-21 team compared to Kilkenny’s. There will be an imbalance there. They are so used to it. In terms of the other teams not getting credit, I don’t know about it.
Q: Did you visualise being in the All-Ireland Hurling Final this year?
A: No, not really. I would in dreamland scenarios when you’re going along in the car and you think you’re a great fella. You’re almost jealously looking at situations over the years, the normality of the scene in Kilkenny where they go to Langton’s and the dinner is there for yourselves. The ticket situation is handled really well.
In terms of visualising it, no. the only real thinking I’ve done about this is in the last 10 days. Press night, when to have it, this kind of craic. Listening to people tell you, “If you don’t get it out of the way early it will cost you losing the match.”
The same people who were saying in the midst of Tadhg’s case, giving you advice on everything on every type of legality…
Q: Is reaching the All-Ireland Final this year a validation of your methods?
*A: *I never really look at it as validation, just progress. If you go through it steadily, and there are similarities with myself and Micheal (Galway manager Micheal Donoghue), you came in in year one on the back of, not a player heave but on the back of…Michael Ryan’s team had a brilliant performance against Kilkenny.
Came into a situation where you were inheriting a really good team who the general consensus was had done really well against Kilkenny. Then we regressed undoubtedly in my first year. Then we made significant changes to the panel.
Q: You had plenty of doubters at that stage.
A: 100 per cent. There probably still is. There were eight or nine guys omitted from the panel. It seemed to be a youthful policy. Then we won the league, got to the All-Ireland semi-final, contested the league final, got pummelled in a Munster final. Good All-Ireland semi-final performance without winning. Now, an All-Ireland final.
Micheal (Donoghue) is similar. Came in on the back of player upheaval in terms of Anthony Cunningham’s situation. Won the league. Fellas were omitted from the Galway panel, some senior members. And he won the league subsequently, won the Leinster championship, has proved himself one of the most astute minds in the game.
Q: Some of your players have already beaten Galway in All-Ireland minor and U-21 Finals. Can that help with their mindset going into this game?
*A: *Not sure now because we haven't really tapped into the historic element of Waterford having not lost to Galway or the minor and U-21. No, not really, because my argument there is that I think in the (senior) Final of two years ago, I think 12 of the Galway team that started the last day played in that Final and had Kilkenny on the rack for an awful lot of that game up to the third quarter when Kilkenny pushed.
I went back to the 2012 Final and there were seven or eight involved, so in terms of All-Ireland experience, Galway have a definite advantage on us. If we're after winning on Sunday week you might point to the fact that there's no fear there because (of record v Galway), but I think it's a different scenario, a different environment.
I think the general theme is that this is a different Galway this year and that history counts for nothing in terms of how they've swatted aside teams.
Q: Last year you said the victory over Wexford in the All-Ireland Quarter-Final was the most important match of your tenure. Is that still the case?
*A: *It's probably been replaced by the semi-final of two weeks ago I suppose. The reason I said the quarter-final because of the way the lads recovered from the Munster Final beating by Tipperary, because of what had resonated in Waterford afterwards which was difficult.
Because of what had resonated even nationally, there was just a big debate on the way we were playing, et cetera.
That can seep through as well and it can be difficult. I think to prepare in the manner they did for the Wexford game and to perform like they did, actually performed really well and still recieved a bit of criticism for it, so I thought we were really set up well for the Kilkenny game last year in the two semi-finals.
This year I would say that the Cork game has been significant in that it kind of almost realigned in our thought process that we're a highly competitive team when we go about things in the right way.
Q: The national debate on the merits of a sweeper system has seemed to irritate you in the past. Does it still?
*A: *It doesn't irritate me, I'm just mad to have a debate on it and I can't really, you know? I'm mad to open up on it but I can't really.
I just want to make it clear, it's not as if we think we know everything. That's the thing, the argument between traditionalists and purists versus innovation. I think we’re all traditionalists.
We all love hurling. We all live and die for it. I think the guns are loaded too easily behind the whole debate. We’re playing the game the way we feel the game should be played every day we go out but we’re tweaking it. Every team is.
A really good piece of analysis that I’m sure ye’ll all look at was mid-summer by Liam Rushe, the Dublin player when he spoke about Galway. I’m sure ye’ll tap into that.
Q: Other teams seem to get a pass with the way they set their teams up whereas you get pilloried for it?
*A: *Yeah, I'm not sure, is it the ability to see things from other peoples' point of view? The ability to be able to say, 'Well, what would you do?'
Even in a local debate here a few weeks ago in the run up to the game (v 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.
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 (the sweeper system) 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, the hands would stay down for that I can tell you.
Q: When you referred to what Liam Rushe said about Galway…I think he suggested they don’t set up with a traditional formation themselves because Joe Canning drops deep as a player-marker rather than stand at centre-forward while Gearoid McInerney drops deep at the other end of the field so isn’t a traditional centre-back. Is it unfair that their system is regarded as being a traditional one whereas Waterford’s isn’t, even though no team really sets up with a traditional system anymore?
*A: * Listen, I’m not any kind of theorist or anything like that…but the language that is out there in terms of 15 versus 15…there’s no 15 on 15.
What I mean by that is that if a wing-forward tracks back 70 yards and his man is not with him, that means it’s not 15 on 15. Because if it’s 15 on 15, seven should be with 10 when he’s gone back 70 yards.
So, it’s a fairly simple argument for me. But that’s a problem for the GAA at every level. I was at an under 11 game the other night, the mentor shouts in at the young fella ‘get out in front.’
The young fella gets out in front but by being out in front, he’s out 60 yards. The ball goes over his head. ‘Will you stay in!’
The language, the whole thing…when you say words like the game is evolving the argument put forward is, ‘ah I know we’re all old fashioned about it but this is the way we like to see…’
We’re all old fashioned about it, but there’s a definite change in it. I’m looking forward to getting stuck into a proper debate on it sometime.
Q: Donal Óg Cusack spoke up on your behalf on the Sunday Game after the semi-final win over Cork. He said that’s how you saw the game-plan being implemented in your head when you first started to build it. Is that accurate?
A: It’s not even seeing a game-plan, it’s seeing what could work pragmatically for you when you’re making progress with Waterford.
With De La Salle College when we won the All-Ireland Colleges I had a different approach. When we won the Championship with De La Salle club we had a different approach. It’s what you think is best for the team.
Plus, you don’t let the players dictate it, but you have to have some consultation with the players where you’re nearly allowing them to see what’s best with us in terms of an approach.
I think there’s structured flair there. This whole argument that there is no flair, no exuberance, no freedom, that everyone is being hamstrung by instruction.
Someone asked me does it irritate me. It doesn’t really. It’s just not true.
I believe what actually supports that it is…how hamstrung was Austin going in on goal the last day? Dummy hand-pass one way, dummy hand-pass another way, and then you flick the ball off your hurley into the net. I don’t think that’s someone who is being absolutely restricted.
Q: Is that the description – structured flair - you think best sums up this Waterford team’s style of play?
*A: *I think 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. Just go out and play and enjoy it. There is the field, go out and play’.
I know that’s the argument for some people and we do say that to a certain extent but there is also the caveat that we say, 'this is what has to happen for us to have the best chance of winning'.
I don’t think there is a manager in the country who is not doing that to be honest with you.
Q: I was at a League game you played against Clare in Ennis in 2014 when they were around 18 points up at half-time. They pulled your backs way out of position and left two forwards on two inside. Shane O’Donnell murdered you in one half. Is it too simplistic to say this was what persuaded you to change style and say ‘this should not happen again’?
A: It is probably a little simplistic but it was definitely part of the process, definitely. There was a brilliant debate on the Sunday Game (after the Kerry v Mayo drawn match) on Kerry’s defensive structure, the balance between man marking, following your man and opening up space, as opposed to…I thought Ciaran Whelan’s analysis was brilliant, the way he highlighted how Keith Higgins was able to switch between man marking when he was needed to do that and then funnelling back to the edge of the d when required to do that. But when they were attacking he was available.
On the Ennis thing, we followed that up with a 20 point beating by Kilkenny a week later and then I think we conceded five or six goal chances against Dublin in a relegation match the following Sunday as well.
Q: Was your mind made up at that stage to change? That you needed a new season to change the system?
A: It was. And I think we needed new personnel as well with the greatest respect to the guys who were there. We needed a different mindset without being insulting to those who were there in 2014 and not involved the following year.
Q: Some would suggest that Waterford would still be as successful if they set up traditionally and went man for man…
*A: *It’s a fair point, yeah. It’s a fair point and it would be something we would discuss in terms of making a shape change mid-game, during the game, or at the start of the game. I think that is a discussion every team has. It is unproven yet, that approach.
The Galway-Tipp game – the best piece of analysis was done by Joe Canning straight after the game, how he said he found it very hard to get through Dan McCormack who was sitting back in the pocket. I couldn’t believe there was not a pickup on that straight away, in terms of ‘here, what’s going on here? What is Dan McCormack’s role?’
If you went to the National League Final, where Joe wandered and Ronan Maher sat, the analysis that was done by Tipp then is that we won’t allow that to happen again. We will ensure that if Ronan is sitting that Dan McCormack is shadowing that area that Joe will go into. I would imagine that is what Michael Ryan’s mindset or approach was.
Sometimes, as I said, it’s not as conventional as some people say, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
Q: Do aesthetics matter if you win an All-Ireland?
A: Well, they matter if you lose one to some people. I am not sure. We are trying to play the game properly. I don’t think we’re pariahs. We’re trying to play the game properly, how it looks, how you use the ball. Does they matter if you’re trying to win an All-Ireland? They matter if you lose one. To some people, but not to us.
Q: How good are Galway?
*A: *They are an unbelievable team, physically huge, brilliant in the air, brilliantly led by their manager, I have to say. A very, very astute man and he has fostered a real togetherness in terms of their approach. They have swatted everyone aside. I was in Tullamore for the Galway-Dublin game, I was in Croke Park for Galway v Wexford.
I didn’t go to the Galway v Tipperary game, I watched it at home. They have just been hugely impressive and from the start of the year and particularly since the League final they have been everyone’s tip to win the All-Ireland, so this is a massive task.
Q: Were you impressed with how they dealt with the Wexford sweeper system and picked them off?
A: Yeah, they are just so tactically astute. When you have that traditional argument in terms of how they are playing, they are extremely well set-up and everyone knows what they are doing. They have great trust in their system. They are a serious, serious team.
Q: After the League Quarter-Final defeat to Galway could you see yourselves in this position – facing them in an All-Ireland Final?
*A: *I had a feeling Galway would gain momentum from that quarter-final if you want me to be honest with you. I had a feeling Galway would win the League Final, privately I said as much. The team I probably couldn’t see in this situation was ourselves after the 18th of June. It was very difficult to see through the qualifiers that were loaded with Tipp, Kilkenny, et cetera. We said, ‘Jesus, it’s going to be difficult to get through this minefield’.
Whereas Galway were Kilkenny-like in everything they were doing. They were like the Kilkenny team of a few years ago where everything was just ruthlessly efficient and they were swatting teams aside. When one was held in the Leinster final, the likes of Joseph Cooney stepped up. When Conor Whelan was held, two or three others stepped up. They have found someone to step up all the time. And physically they are such a powerful team.
Q: You won a Schools Final with some of these Waterford players in Croke Park a few years ago. Did you ever think you’d get to this stage with them?
A: I always thought they’d do well in whatever they’d do, either academically or from a sporting point of view. I didn’t really think that they’d…not that I didn’t think they had the ability, but I didn’t know if I’d ever get to work with them again. It was a good chance and we have worked together since they were 12 as opposed to just 2015 if you like. I had good faith in them doing well in whatever they did and it’s great for them and great for the school as well I have to say.
Q: Do you have a sense of the emotional investment that you have all put into one another over the years?
*A: *Yeah, there’s a real sense of that. They have put in a huge emotional investment into the whole thing. There is just total commitment to it. Every one of them – 1 to 34 – have just put in a massive effort, as have Galway I would imagine.
It is real, it’s just real. We are living it and trying to get the balance right between all that nervous tension that might build and are just trying to channel it into excitement and hope that excitement will bring an honesty in terms of the performance. That is what any manager wants. It is a real set-up in terms of there is no kind of leader in it. Everyone is just happy.
Q: Dan Shanahan is the one selector that has been with you from the start. What is the draw between you? What is the dynamic?
*A: *Well, I was minor captain of Waterford in 1994 and Dan was on the team then. So, my career which had been on the up was slowly going downhill at that stage. I was a three year minor, everything was expected of me, but my career went downhill. Dan came on scene in 1994 and was a minor again in 1995 and his star was beginning to rise and we always had a great connection in terms of his affability. He was just such a lovely chap. You see this larger than life figure on the line, hat turned backwards, tattoos, et cetera, some people are inclined to say, ‘jeez what is Dan Shanahan like?’
He is just so nice and affable and has such a good heart and the connection as it went forward into management was probably based on that Dan had it in the bank in terms of hurling. And I didn’t. So any insecurities or fears I had, based on just winning a couple of county championships with the club or the colleges All-Irelands even though they hadn’t been won in Waterford ever, was helped and eased by Dan’s ability to put the shoulders back if you like.
And the Hurler of the Year thing. Though I have to say he never even in the four years he has been there, ever said ‘listen lads, I was Hurler of the Year’. There is no name dropping, but yet there is a kind of confidence exuding whereby he does not need to say anything.
He just has a lovely way about him. He talks about family and his core values are the same as mine, even though the dynamic of what each has achieved on the hurling field is way different because Dan has done so much more.
And he has been loyal. So loyal in the face of the national debate and the criticism. And I’d say that has been difficult because he was on a team that was renowned for scoring goals, no-one more so than himself. So to be able to stick himself to our way is an admirable trait. We have a great relationship.
Even the fact Maurice (Shanahan) has not been on the team the last couple of matches. There has been no sense of complaint. He is just interested in what is best for the team on a given day. And that has been brilliant. I could not speak highly enough of him. He is a fine fella, a witty, funny fella. He’s all good.
Q: Dan said Waterford would have won an All-Ireland in the noughties if you had been manager.
A: I think I told him to say that! Ah no, Jesus, I don’t know about that.
Q: Good to have someone who has your back like that, though?
A: 100 per cent. He has had my back from the start and that is helpful. We all need to be reaffirmed in any walk of life, particularly in one where there is huge media scrutiny and lots of ups and downs. It is all good. He’s a good fella.
Q: When are you back to school?
*A: *I am back to school Thursday.
Q: Will that be a bit surreal.
A: I went in there yesterday for a look around more than anything else to see if my classroom was still there (laughs). I am due back, I am going back, and I am looking forward to going back to school. I got my timetable in the post there two weeks ago and I went in there yesterday just to check what classes I had.
I met the principal and in fairness he said 'anything you need done in the next two weeks...' I wasn’t going to push it (laughs)!
Hindsight is a great thing. Someone said to me in the middle of the year, ‘Did you miss the kids in school at any stage?’ I actually love teaching so I am looking forward to going back even though the immersion in what we have done, I won’t say it has reaped it’s rewards, but we’re in the Final.
I have still missed school and I’m looking forward to it. I have to go back, anyway. There is no choice. I’m looking forward to it and the buzz in and around the school will be great, too.
Kevin (Moran) is teaching there and there is a good buzz there too with so many players having been ex-pupils at the school. There are a couple of Kilkenny lads there too and we might be able to say something in advance of the final but if we lose, the next day will be a bit of craic. They are good lads. Yeah, looking forward to going back to school.
Q: What has the training regime been like since the All-Ireland semi-final?
A: Only three times a week. We hooked up in regionalised groups. They need to relax, too.
Q: Is there not a temptation to take a totally immersive approach to the Final?
A: We actually debated that. The general consensus is that you should go on a training camp before an All-Ireland Final. We actually spoke about that and said we might. Then we thought, it would really be on the case of going on one to say we went on one.
We can have a couple of good games amongst ourselves in a localised environment. The key word for me is balance between enjoying the whole build-up to it and letting the players have their say. They’re steady lads.
If we lose on Sunday week it will probably be because Galway are better than us as opposed to the idea that certain fellas were allowed out to media, or were cocooned among themselves.
Q: Will the games amongst yourselves hopefully be something like what you saw from the Kilkenny players up in Nowlan Park in 2008?
A: I’d say we’re probably one of the only teams who don’t go with probables versus possibles. We mix all the time. You would be looking for a certain level of intensity, definitely.
Galway referenced a game they played amongst themselves in Fota in the run up to the Tipp game, how that training game let them know they were ready for it.
We would have felt leaving Fota ourselves for the 18th of June that we were ready and then we were completely flat on the day. had a game in Fota too in the run up to June 18 and then we were completely flat on the day.
You just don’t know how you will be fixed until the given day.