"The loss of Pauric Mahony was offset by the way Maurice stepped up. I'm proud of both of them."
Derek McGrath’s classroom in De La Salle. Copies and notes are stacked on his desk. His favourite tome, ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is prominently positioned on his workspace.
The Waterford manager has polished off a sandwich between classes and made time for The Munster Express last week to reflect on an eventful year few Deise hurling fans could have anticipated back in the depths of winter.
To his own satisfaction, McGrath’s long-term future as Waterford senior manager has already been agreed, with the County Board extending his term to the end of 2019: time aplenty, one would suggest, to deliver on the project he has instigated.
“The key word for me and the board was ‘vision’ and that may not be a word that everyone wishes to hear,” he began. “But it was a word I referred to last year, when things weren’t going well for us, that what we had in a mind was a long-term vision.
“Now I’m acutely aware that a lot of supporters don’t want to hear that word being used too much, and while you’d have to acknowledge the security in the extension of my term, you can’t ignore the contradiction that’s also at work when it comes to managing an inter-county team: in that’s no real security in hurling terms. While it’s an extension, things can change very quickly and you have to keep that in mind.”
McGrath, who met with “key leaders of the team going forward” in the wake of Waterford’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Kilkenny when it came to plotting the Deise’s Championship future, also acknowledged the support he’s received at board level.
That the off-pitch mood music off the pitch is mirroring the harmony within a playing group that won the National League title, reached the Munster Final and reached the All-Ireland’s last four, bodes well for 2016 and beyond.
“Without putting too much pressure on ourselves, we’ve spoken about where we want to go over the next few years. We want to be really, consistently competitive and that’s our aim.”
And as things stand, Derek McGrath isn’t anticipating any high-profile retirements among the 30-plus group in the panel, all of whom have proven invaluable support to the emerging talent at his disposal.
“Every indication, without naming names, suggests that everyone is going to be around,” he declared. “There’ll probably be a different dynamic compared to last year again and we may still make a number of changes, but I feel we have the balance right now and we need to keep that balance…the changes we made last year were perceived by some to have been overly dramatic; we probably won’t need to be that dramatic, so to speak, this time around. We got a little bit of traction and we need to stabilise things a bit now.”
Over a month has passed since that six-point defeat to Kilkenny, who, of course, went on to claim a 36th All-Ireland crown when defeating Galway.
One wonders what Derek McGrath made of Kilkenny’s final performance which, as Donal Óg Cusack astutely analysed on All-Ireland night, as tactics heavy, and also featuring withdrawn forwards.
“I probably drew some solace given how the way final played out in the wake of how our semi-final went, but that doesn’t over-ride the disappointment of losing to Kilkenny, of course it doesn’t,” he replied.
“But I’d see us as being part of the chasing pack; I mean I’d be wary of slipping into the ‘we were very close’ mindset because, even in my initial thoughts after the Kilkenny game, for us to be competitive, we need to be treating teams of similar stature to ourselves – Limerick, Dublin, Clare, Cork and Wexford – I’d be of the view that any given day any of those teams, including ourselves, are capable of beating each other. That’s my genuine, honest view.
“So while there’d be solace when you consider Galway were seven points down with a minute to go in the final when Joe (Canning) got that goal from the 21 given that we’d lost by six points to Kilkenny, you have to try and avoiding using the language of targeting the All-Ireland next year.
“We have to go, I feel, with the same mantra as last year: that every game has to be taken on its own merits, that we’ll attack every game and that has to be our intention. It’s cut throat. Very cut throat.”
And what did Derek McGrath make of Donal Óg’s post-All-Ireland analysis of the Kilkenny set-up?
“I actually got a text from Donal Óg a few days after the All-Ireland and it was a very encouraging text, which I really appreciated. The criticism didn’t really frustrate me – I think it’s up to us to shut that out.
“Every other team, as I see it, are doing similar things to what we’ve done. Maybe it was our accelerated progress that forced people to look at what we’re doing a bit closer – I wouldn’t say it was a media frenzy as such – we just got a bit more scrutiny on the basis of getting some good results and the progress we achieved because of those results.”
He added: “Sure, there might have been some over-analysis and ill-informed analysis and that did irk me a little bit alright. I mean, if I’d a Euro for every man I met in Waterford who’s asked me will we attack more next year, I’d have a good few notes in my pocket! Deep down, I have asked myself if those kind of chats will eventually bring me down…
“We went fairly conventional in the first 10 minutes of the second half against Kilkenny – we pushed Colin (Dunford) right up on top of Maurice (Shanahan) and then,” clicking his fingers as he spoke, “before we knew it, we were six points behind.”
“For that 10-minute period, I feel that’s when lost that game. We should have made it ‘bitty’, almost a war. Kilkenny came deep in the second half, they made it a war, just as they did against Galway, and they ground us down. I know what I’m facing next year and if there is a bad performance or two when there’s a system employed, there’ll be talk of leaving the boys off the leash.
“But the thing is: there is no leash! And if you talk to any of the players, they’ll tell you that. What we’re trying to encourage is fluidity within a structure and that to me is important, and I read something similar about New Zealand’s approach to rugby: to promote fluidity but to do that within a system.”
And if Waterford went conventional, as many fans pleaded for in the closing stages of the meetings with Tipperary and Kilkenny? “Well, if that happened under a new manager, I feel he’d be in for a rude awakening.”
So is Derek McGrath for sticking or twisting come his approach to 2016? “Oh, I’ll stick – albeit with tweaks, which we did all year.”