Willie Maher eases into a seat in the lobby of The Granville Hotel for his first Munster Express interview as a member of Waterford’s new senior hurling management team.
Ireland’s Hotel of the Year is awash with customers and Christmas shoppers, and is also playing host to a low-key get-together for the Deise’s new ‘men on the line’.
The former Waterford IT and Tipperary hurler, who resides in Kilkenny, has just become part of one of the youngest managerial set-ups in the senior game, and comes to the post with impressive credentials.
An All-Ireland winning boss at minor and Under-21 level with his native county in 2012 and 2011 respectively, like Derek McGrath, Willie comes to the post with high achievements already to his name at underage managerial level.
And that know-how and ability to coax top-level performances out of young talent could make their respective appointments a potential masterstroke given the likely age profile of many of their 2014 panellists.
“Derek is someone you could say I’ve been watching from afar for the last while,” said Maher when discussing how his selection as a selector came about.
“He’s been very successful in the Harty Cup teams he’s managed in De La Salle and then he carried that success into club management with De La Salle in a very impressive manner so he’s been on my radar for quite some time.
“But when the call came, I was a little surprised by it, it wasn’t something I’d anticipated previously but obviously I’m delighted with the opportunity.
“I’d a few things I needed to okay beforehand, particularly from a family perspective as we’d a baby last year, and a few work considerations that needed to be made before I could really get down to making a decision. But it’s a brilliant opportunity, Derek’s a top man and as I said, I’m delighted to be on board.”
It’s an interesting time to take on the Waterford challenge, given the county’s ‘what if’ moment against Kilkenny (akin to the Irish rugby team last Sunday in many ways), the Under-21s strong showing against Clare and, of course, our minor side’s All-Ireland win.
And it’s that underage managerial nous which both Derek McGrath and Willie Maher possess which suggests Waterford County Board recognises that the bigger picture has to be considered. That the new men in charge may need a little time to mould a team and panel in their vision.
It suggests that this is a hurling county keen to avoid a repeat of the post 1992 hangover, when in the wake of the Under-21 and minor teams’ great campaigns, the senior side subsequently slid as opposed to scaling. Kerry at Walsh Park in ’93 is a 20th anniversary we’ll all be happy to soon see the back of.
“A successful minor team is a building block, they’re a sign that you’re headed in the right direction if things are done the right way such as they were in Waterford’s case this year,” said Willie Maher.
“Most successful minor teams produce four to five future senior players in the majority of cases so it’s important to put it into perspective as well.
“The All-Ireland win shows that the county is heading in the right direction at underage level, which is great for hurling in Waterford but ultimately the senior team is where it’s at, and it’ll be a combination of all those minor teams of the past few years that will make a difference to the senior team be it for the new season, the following season and the one after that.”
Reflecting on the Deise’s SHC campaign in 2013, and an exit to Kilkenny in a match which in any other year would have been the leading clash of the summer, Willie stated: “Waterford is a top hurling county – there’s no doubt about that. Kilkenny were nearly turned over that night in Thurles and of course Cork eventually knocked them out…
“But I think there are five to seven teams at present that have a realistic chance of winning a Munster or All-Ireland title, and that was proven when you had Limerick winning Munster and then Clare taking the All-Ireland after two super matches with Cork. And there’s no doubt that Waterford are among those leading counties at the top of hurling and on any given day, any of those teams at the top end are capable of beating each other.”
And of course, McGrath and Maher, along with fellow selectors Dan Shanahan and Frank Flannery recognise the extent of the challenge posed by next year’s Championship draw: to reach the Munster Final alone, Waterford must see off both Cork and Clare!
“It probably doesn’t get any more difficult than that on the basis of how both those counties hurled in the summer, but that’s competitive sport for you – that’s life. You’ve got to beat good teams that perform at a high standard in every Championship and of course we’re under no illusions about what we’re facing into.
“Cork are a super team, and they came within a hair’s breath of winning an All-Ireland title with a panel which had been perceived earlier on in the year as not being capable of doing something like that. This is a good Cork side and we’re well aware of that.
You can read the full interview in last weeks munster express