Waterford boss Derek McGrath hoping for better experience in Croke Park final against Galway
ALL-IRELAND Finals haven't been a pleasant experience for Waterford manager Derek McGrath, at least not on the inter-county scene.
He did lead Waterford's De La Salle College to national crowns in Croke Park in 2007 and 2008.
However, as a player and a supporter, he's suffered chastening experiences with Waterford at headquarters.
The first of those even involved the man with whom he'll share the sideline on Sunday September 3, Galway hurling boss Micheal Donoghue.
"I actually get on very well with Micheal Donoghue – I get on well with them all, but I'd be very friendly with Michael; not friendly, but we're young, aspiring managers, who'd share thoughts.
"Not young, I'm 41, I marked him in the '92 All-Ireland Minor Final, a long time ago. I was on Conor O'Donovan and my man got 'man of the match', he was a brilliant player.
"I was shifted over to Micheal, he was left half-back – I was pulled over into the corner. I wasn't taken off – I don't know how I wasn't, but anyway..."
Waterford were second best that day, losing by 1-13 to 2-4, but that was highly respectable compared to the 2008 All-Ireland Senior final.
The Deise, in their first All-Ireland senior decider for 45 years, were humiliated by neighbours Kilkenny, thrashed by 23 points, 3-30 to 1-13.
McGrath insists that Waterford prepared properly, but were simply blasted apart by the force of nature that was that Kilkenny side.
He recalls the insight from his brother-in-law John Mullane, a star forward on that Waterford team: "I just remember John in the run-up to the game, saying everything had gone well.
"So when I read things about how Waterford got it so wrong in the run-up to the '08 final, I am surprised - because I know how detailed Davy [Fitzgerald, the then manager] would be - every whim, every detail would be spot-on.
"I remember going to the final, Waterford were very aggressive in the approach early on but I remember the very start of that game: [referee] Barry Kelly throws the ball in and 'Cha' [Kilkenny midfielder and captain James Fitzpatrick] actually catches the ball from the throw-in and from that minute, that second, he throws in and he catches it without even bouncing and from that second Kilkenny were just …
"Any analysis that nothing was done right in the build-up to the final, players were looking around in the parade, they were only interested in getting the suits, this kind of craic you will hear from small-minded people.
"They met a storm, they met one of the greatest teams ever and they were just blown away."
McGrath is well aware that there will be exciting approaching hysteria around Waterford, but he is confident that it won't adversely affect this 2017 team:
"In terms of controlling hype or otherwise, these fellas will be grand. If we don't perform…it will just be because Galway will be better…
"Are there lessons to be learnt [from 2008]? I am not sure. This group will play, they will play well.
"I think we will try to get the balance right between embracing it and cocooning ourselves away. If you go the route of locking yourself up for three weeks, I am not sure that this will work for this group, it might work for someone else. Not sure.
"We will keep it local I think because we mightn't go anywhere at all. I haven't even countenanced what is involved, but we won't be blown away by it…
"The narrative won't be that this Waterford team have got carried away in the run-up to this game. They want to try and perform in the final and give themselves every chance.
"It is the absolute carnage that will come with the ticket situation now, that's my first thought process," he said with a tight smile.
With Waterford seeking to end a 58-year wait to lift the Liam MacCarthy Cup, and Galway having not done so since 1988, McGrath reckons that "it's the final that the general public would want in terms of colour and the dynamic of it."
The Tribesmen have lost six finals since their last triumph, including the 2012 and 2015 deciders, both against Kilkenny.
Galway star David Burke has opined that a team playing a sweeper system, as Waterford (in)famously do, won't win an All-Ireland, but McGrath insisted that proving him and other critics wrong is not driving him and his players on:
"In terms of motivation, our motivation was third semi-final in a row, I don't think we can lose this at this stage. And Tadhg [de Burca, their sweeper who was controversially suspended for the semi-final against Cork].
"Our motivation wasn't what someone else had said about us, which it might have been previously.
"This time last year, we might have gone down the route of saying 'Jaysus, Kilkenny they are always at us, they might be saying something'. I am just bringing you inside our dressing-room.
"This year, no, there wasn't a mention of Galway, or sweeper systems, or anything. I have candidly said there is never a mention of that anyway."
Indeed McGrath was full of enthusiasm about the build-up to the final, declaring: "It is going to be brilliant.
"The general theme in Waterford is that we have suffered, not politically, but just in general, the town and the county needed some sort of uplifting surge, in terms of their pursuance of the Cath Lab [for the local hospital] or different things that are central to the Waterford people's emotions.
"And this will absolutely give everyone a pep in their step ahead of it. This group pride themselves on their humility and the modesty of their approach.
"That will see us in good form ahead of the game if we can get just the balance right - everything for me hinges on one word, balance, in terms of their approach."
He ended, not with a song, but with a joke about a song, pointing out: "Look, you'll probably get a different song on 'Up For The Match', which is a bonus, right?
If he can balance out Waterford's losses in Croke Park with a win next month, Derek McGrath might even lead the singing himself.