When Derek McGrath took over as Waterford manager in October 2013, he encountered a side that lacked a winning mentality and were in the midst of a slight crisis.
His predecessor, Michael Ryan, had this to say to the Irish Examiner at the time:
“Waterford hurling has a huge future if it is handled properly over the next few years.”
That is exactly what McGrath has done. At the beginning of his reign the county had just received a massive boost when Sean Power’s minor side secured the county’s first All-Ireland at any grade in 21 years.
The future of Waterford looked bright, and confidence and self-belief were never an issue. The issue was turning the ability of these hurlers into results.
McGrath and his backroom team have handled the transition of these underage stars to senior level excellently, with the likes of Austin Gleeson, Patrick Curran, the Bennett brothers, Conor Gleeson and Tom Devine among others making the step up to senior level without looking out of place.
Waterford went through a transitional period at the beginning of the De La Salle man’s reign, but all involved with the development of these players have helped to form a team that plays their own brand of hurling, a team that gels.
Regardless of whether sweeper tactics come into practice or not, one thing that must be realised is that this Waterford team will be in a far better position when McGrath leaves his post than it was before he took over.
Traditionally, the Déise have been an ‘almost county’, the ‘so near yet so far’ type of side.
The argument will be made that they have nothing to show for the so-called success of the McGrath reign, with only a National Hurling League title up to this point, but the work done by McGrath, Fintan O’Connor and Dan Shanahan among others will reap rewards sooner rather than later.
These men are laying the foundations for the success of future Waterford teams – and they can kick-start a golden era for Waterford hurling by winning the All-Ireland title for the first time since 1959.
Again, the county has been buoyed by another impressive underage success, after Sean Power’s u-21 side steamrolled their way to Munster and All-Ireland titles, a side regarded by many as the greatest ever in the history of the grade.
Now, some of these players, such as DJ Foran, Darragh Lyons and Mikey Kearney, are currently making the step up to senior level, and the management team overseeing their development will look to bring on that winning mentality once more. The trick was repeated with the jump from minor success to u-21, and there is widespread expectation in the Déise that these players will be the ones to end years of hurt and finally deliver Liam MacCarthy to Waterford.
Sunday’s game against Cork represents a massive opportunity for Derek McGrath’s men. They have already overcome a massive psychological barrier after defeating Kilkenny in the championship for the first time since 1959. Now, should they overcome Cork, the 2017 championship represents the Déise’s greatest chance of glory in years.
Some of the greatest names in Waterford hurling: Tony Browne, John Mullane, Paul Flynn and Dan Shanahan never got their hands on the Liam MacCarthy Cup.
There is belief in the county that this crop of players have the ability and the desire to make history this September. If they can get through Sunday’s battle without star player Tadhg De Burca, they would face Galway in the All-Ireland final.
With the psychological barrier for Galway of never beating the Déise in the All-Ireland Championship one would imagine Waterford would fancy their chances of a sensational victory – but then again Derek McGrath’s side don’t seem to fear anybody.
The general consensus among Waterford fans is that the real Déise didn’t turn up when they faced Cork in Munster, and few could argue Cork weren’t deserving of their victory on the day.
Despite all the rivalry, regardless of what happens for the rest of the summer it would be hard to argue that the Rebels haven’t been the story of the Championship.
Many will put Waterford’s chances of making a massive leap down to whether Darragh Fives can step into the sweeper role and perform efficiently on such a big stage but it’s not about individualism, despite withholding talents such as Austin Gleeson and Jamie Barron in their ranks.
It’s about the sum of the numbers – and this side truly believe that they have the necessary credentials to one day lift Liam MacCarthy, and despite all the tactical criticism that Derek McGrath has come in for, should Waterford be victorious on Sunday – few would be inclined to disagree.
If there’s one thing that can be guaranteed it is that there is hope and expectation that this Waterford team will one day win the All-Ireland, and many believe that McGrath is the man to guide them to the promised land.
Jordan Norris, Pundit Arena
Check out the latest episode of The 16th Man where we previewed the clash of Cork and Waterford as well as a review of a hectic weekend of GAA action.