Spend half an hour in Derek McGrath’s company and two of his life’s passions becomes increasingly clear… family and teaching.
Sporting a healthy tan, the former Waterford manager reveals he’s just returned from holidays with his wife Sarah and two sons Fionn (13) and Odhrán (6). While Odhrán is about to enter his last year of senior infants, Fionn is preparing for his second year in De La Salle College where yet again, he’ll be learning under the watchful eye of his father.
“I have him in English classes so there’s an interesting dynamic there. Initially, it didn’t work too well because I was erring on the side of making it hard for him in case anyone else thought there was favouritism but I had the choice to have him or not and I chose to have him,” McGrath told Pundit Arena.
“You nearly go the opposite extreme and make it hard for him at times. It was interesting but as the year went on it got better. I try to bring my own personality into teaching so I don’t have to change that much. So if you can create an environment where the kids are happy and flourishing and learning at the same time then it’s a good environment and I think he enjoyed it himself.”
For McGrath, teaching is very much a vocation. It’s what he always wanted to do and he speaks very eloquently about how he, as a teacher, learns more from the students than the other way around.
“Ah yeah 100%, I always wanted to be a teacher. I never saw it as a job where you get three months off in the summer. I saw it as a learning point in terms of learning from the kids. The reality is you’re going to be sitting in front of 26 kids and there are probably 16 or 17 of them that are cleverer than you and you can learn so much from them.
“I know you’re trying to impart your subject area but you can learn so much from the kids and I see a real core relationship between the giving involved in teaching and the getting in terms of what you get back from the kids. It’s an analogy to coaching particularly in the modern era where it’s more empathetic and it’s more sympathetic. I get you still want to drive them to be excellent so I think there’s a great mix there. There’s great altruism through teaching.”
However, while the De La Salle educator sees the job as a vocation there is a school of thought out there that inter-county athletes effectively use the role of a teacher as a way to compliment their county careers.
McGrath feels it is definitely a discussion point but one that is more evenly balanced than often portrayed.
“Yeah, it is a discussion point undoubtedly. It’s an interesting point and there is probably some merit to it. I go back to Jamie Barron’s interview where he kind of said he was going to teach. What Jamie didn’t mention though was his suitability to teaching. I’ve seen Jamie Barron mix with kids with special needs and interact with supporters and give time to people. I’ve seen him impart information at team meetings and bring people with him.
“A GAA player is nearly too humble to self-indulge and say my suitability to teaching is because I want to give, I want to learn, I want to show what I can do, I want to interact with the kids. And then also running with a dual pack alongside it is that it also suits my inter-county career, my hurling.
“So, I think sometimes what was espoused was ‘we’ll put the career on hold because this is a nice avenue and we’ll just do the hurling’. I think it’s more evenly balanced than what’s been portrayed.”
McGrath stepped down as manager of the Déise 13 months ago today and while he’s been kept busy with various punditry gigs he admits to having done very little in terms of coaching. That doesn’t mean a return to the sideline isn’t in the pipeline. McGrath struggles to put a timeline on it but he’s clearly keen to get back out there in the not so distant future.
“I did a bit with the first years in school, just to make sure Fionn was hitting the penalties (laughs). Ah no, no I have done a bit with the first years alright but to be honest with you I’ve just taken a complete break from it. I’m just trying to re-energize and refocus now ahead of a new challenge maybe next year or the year after.
“I’m busy with the punditry but I don’t think I’m ever happy. I’m happy in my family life but I am always searching for answers in my head. Sometimes I just need to tune out and relax that bit more. I’m getting a bit better at that but there is always hurling around me and I suppose that’s your life and I’m getting ready to go back to school so that focuses me but I miss it undoubtedly. I miss the buzz of big days. When you take that element away from someone it’s almost like withdrawal symptoms and it takes a bit of time to adjust.
“I hadn’t a hugely successful playing career, I played 20 years with the club and won a couple of Fitzgibbon’s but I only played a couple of championship matches with Waterford so I’ve invested a lot of time in coaching and I think coaching and management in many ways it is more time-consuming in terms of your headspace.”
Not only has he invested a lot of time into coaching but he’s also invested a lot of time into his players. McGrath took over as Waterford boss in 2013 before going on to oversee a thoroughly enjoyable period for the Déise that wielding a league title in 2015 and five final appearances including that All-Ireland decider with Galway in 2017.
McGrath’s Waterford team was backboned by a core group of players whom he guided to success both on the sporting field and in the classroom. He admits to finding it difficult breaking away from the circle that for so many years was a key part of his life.
“I think the first year is particularly difficult. I found it difficult emotionally and there’s a bit of selfishness there that I’d like to be involved in the big days. When Waterford got to the league final I was thinking to myself I’d like to be there but I did five years and the reality is, I’ve been with some of the players since they came into school as 12-year-olds. That’s 10 or 11 years with a core group of players so I think emotionally there are huge bonds there but it takes its toll.
“In 2007 and 2008 we won the All-Ireland colleges in De La Salle and we ended up with 13 of them involved in the Waterford panel. Obviously, there was a relationship formed already. A teacher/pupil relationship but a relationship based on managing them to those victories so there was trust there from their point of view and my point of view.
“Now, people might perceive that sometimes as blind loyalty but I knew that they would go to the trenches for me and they had serious ability so I put my trust in them as a coach.”
McGrath hasn’t yet closed the book on his Waterford career and admits to having plans in his head around when it would best suit him and his family to jump back in.
In his head, those plans briefly accelerated when his successor Páraic Fanning stepped down from the role after just one season in charge but McGrath is aware that natural order needs to occur and right now it’s someone else’s chance to return Waterford to the top table following 60 years without an All-Ireland title.
“I wouldn’t be sure initially whether I’d have the energy or whether the family dynamic is right. As I said, my oldest boy is in first year, my youngest boy is going into senior infants. In my head, I had an ambiguous plan that I’d wait until Fionn had finished the Junior Cert and Odhrán was going into third-class then I could give something for three years until one is in sixth class and the other is in transition year but that was just a plan in my head.
“I suppose though if something came my way and it stirred a bit of emotion and I had the passion for it then it’d be hard to turn down at the same time but I was on holidays when I got a text that Páraic was stepping down and I was saying to my wife; ‘Would I be mad to consider that?’ and she replied; ‘yeah you would be mad.’
“She’s probably right and in fairness to the natural order of things, there’s a lot of great coaches in Waterford that would love a stab at that job and I have no divine right to think that because I’m interested, I’m going to get it. There are lots of good people in Waterford with great ideas and great backgrounds that can have a stab at it.”
During his time in the role, McGrath enlisted the services of county legend Dan Shanahan to help him. It proved a masterstroke for Waterford given his iconic status not just within the county but throughout the country.
If he was to return to the hot-seat one day, there is a possibility he could call upon another iconic figure from days gone by in the shape of his brother-in-law John Mullane.
McGrath’s not sure whether the Déise legend holds any plans of getting back involved with inter-county hurling but he’s under no illusions that if he did want to give it a go, he would no doubt be successful.
“I’m not sure he would be interested in getting involved. I’ve seen John up close involved with De La Salle club teams and he’s done a brilliant job with them an absolutely brilliant job. John the player is renowned for passion but I think the skill he has and how he articulates his points, you have to witness it to realise how clever he is and how he’s very good with teams.
“He’s been very good with the De La Salle U11s and U12s this year. Extremely good in terms of how he speaks to players, he has a lovely way about him and a lovely manner. He is like a god and the way he imparts his knowledge, he doesn’t impart it in a way where he says; ‘this is what I did’, he’s actually very self-deprecating. He has an arm around the shoulder approach.
“We won a minor championship a couple of years ago and we played Dungarvan and just the way he organised the team, he’s very clever. Just watching from afar and as a club man you’d be saying; ‘Jesus he has a handle on this’. His stamp was all over the team.
“But I think John is doing so well for himself in terms of the radio and he’s so good at it and so passionate. He’s four young children it’d be hard for him to commit to a Waterford set-up that requires that amount of time but it’s something that they should definitely look at in terms of the future because he has so much to offer.”
McGrath smiles fondly when reflecting on his brother-in-law’s Waterford career and how he made the entire family proud every time he donned the blue and white jersey.
“Well, would you believe it was 1994 when I started going out with Sarah first and at that stage, I was captain of Waterford minors. The expectation was that I’d go on and play for Waterford but that never materialised but John’s star was only starting to rise at that stage.
“Obviously, he was younger than me but it was brilliant in that we got such great years out of following him around the country. We got great enjoyment out of watching him, he’s such a great character and such a player as well. He rarely didn’t produce for Waterford and I think he’s one of the highest scorers from play in the Championship so I’m very proud to call him a brother-in-law.”
With all the talk of his career and family life, it almost got lost in the wash that there’s the small matter of an All-Ireland title up for grabs this afternoon when Kilkenny and Tipperary clash in Croke Park.
McGrath is back on punditry duty with The Sunday Game for the final and when pushed on where he sees the game going, he’s giving his Munster brethren a slight edge over Brian Cody’s cats.
“It’s interesting. Will Brendan Maher be detailed for TJ Reid? That’s the big one for me and then will TJ go into full-forward to counteract that and bring him somewhere he’s not used to even though he was there on Aaron Gillane.
“I think the perception is that it’ll be an attritional final and there’ll be no tactics involved but I think Kilkenny have learned since the Cork game. Their half-back line, in particular, Paddy Deegan, Padraig Walsh and Conor Fogarty, I don’t think they’ll follow the Tipperary players around the pitch.
“They’ll be aware of the gaps they left the last time between the half-back and the full-back positions that left Joey Holden exposed one on one with Séamie Callanan for long periods. It’ll be a war zone in the middle third between both sets of forwards with both sets of backs almost staying rigidly fixed to their places but I think Tipp may find a way of getting around that at some stage with a bit of brilliance perhaps from ‘Bubbles’ (John O’Dwyer) or John McGrath. The advantage is with Tipp but ever so slightly.”