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Dublin: 2°C Wednesday 14 April 2021

'We’re all traditionalists' - Talking tactics with Derek McGrath

Just Galway stand between Waterford and a first All-Ireland title since 1959.

DEREK McGRATH IS 70 minutes away from delivering the holy grail to Waterford.

Derek McGrath Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

Waterford face Galway in Sunday’s All-Ireland senior hurling final and last week we caught up with the Deise boss to discuss his team’s tactical set-up, the debate on sweepers and the aesthetics of winning an All-Ireland.


Does it irritate you that the national debate seems to surround the sweeper system?

“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 are.”

Other teams appear to get a pass with the way they set-up, while Waterford are pilloried for pulling a player back?

“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?’ As the question, you know.

“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 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.

Tadhg de Burca and TJ Reid Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“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-back tracks back 80 yards and his man is not with him, that means it’s not 15 on 15. Because if it’s 15 on 15, number 10 should be seven.

“So it’s a fairly simple argument for me. But that’s a problem for the GAA at every level. I was at an  U11 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…do you stay in?

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“The language, the whole thing…when you say things like the game is evolving…we’re all old fashioned about it. But there’s a definite change about it. I’m looking forward to getting stuck into a debate about it.”

People have the opinion that the sweeper system restricts players in an attacking sense?

“There’s structured flair. This argument that there is not flair, no exuberance, no freedom, that everyone is being hamstrung by instruction.

“People 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 handpass one way, dummy handpass 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.”

“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’. 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.”

Derek McGrath celebrates with Philip Mahony Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Was Clare’s 5-18 to 0-20 win over Waterford in the 2014 league what persuaded you to change the style or is that too simplistic?

“It is probably a little simplistic but it was definitely part of the process, definitely. There is 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 funneling back to the edge of the D when required to do that.

“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.”

Was your mind made up at that stage to change? Did you need to wait for a new season to instill that change?

“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.”

Do aesthetics matter if you win an All-Ireland?

“Well, they matter if you lose one to some people. I am not sure. We are trying to play the game properly. How it looks, how you use the ball, does it matter if you lose one? To some people, yes, but not to us.”

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Kevin O'Brien

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