What a difference three years makes.
Three years ago, Derek McGrath kept his players inside the Waterford dressing room for an hour and ten minutes after seeing his side beaten 4-22 to 0-14 by Kilkenny in the League and be consigned to a relegation play-off (which they would lose to Dublin). He told reporters afterwards:
“We have no choice but to dust ourselves down. As I’ve said before, we’ve a young group, a fusion of more experienced members of the panel, with young guys coming into the panel. That takes time. Morale is not an issue with this particular group. They’re very spirited. We feel we’re unified."
That summer they were thumped by Cork in a Munster quarter-final replay and dumped out of the qualifiers in Round 2 by Wexford.
In the winter of 2014, McGrath would release players like Jamie Nagle and Liam Lawlor from the Deise's panel and speak of the need to rebuild the squad:
We’ll be able to put our own stamp on it now. Last year’s squad was inherited and it would always have been on our mind – without thinking of any specific individuals – that we would need to go down this route.
The next year, they would beat Cork in the League final before doing the same in Munster and hitting eight second-half wides to lose the provincial final to Tipp. And after Dublin were dismissed in the last eight, they lost to Kilkenny by a respectable six points. It was a huge progression from the year before and McGrath's decision to re-jig the panel seemed vindicated. Further steps have been made since then, with a narrow defeat by Clare in last year's League final preceding an agonising two-point defeat to Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final.
On Sunday Waterford were finally on the right side of a tight result against the Cats, prevailing in Nowlan Park on a scoreline of 1-15 to 0-17 in a game that they probably should have won by a larger scoreline. In light of Waterford's implosion in the All-Ireland semifinal last year and the tornado of Liam MacCarthy hype around the Deise, this was a massive result for McGrath. It was (as McGrath pointed out) their first win at Nowlan Park for thirteen years. it still remains true that Waterford couldn't be further from that losing dressing room in 2014.
But flash back to that dark winter of 2014. McGrath preached patience but patience is a precious commodity in sport today. That winter on 2014 there were calls for time to be given to Derek McGrath in order to "build a team"; many in Waterford anticipated a slightly barren few years. Nevertheless, despite only eight players featuring for Waterford at the weekend who were also on the pitch in 2014, this young Waterford squad look in a perfect place to build on last year's All-Ireland under-21 win.
Listen to McGrath give interviews - almost always unfailingly honest - and it isn't hard to understand how he has this Waterford side playing out of their skins for him. Around this time last year he spoke (on Allianz Leagues Extra) of his love for the novel To Kill A Mockingbird and revealed a refreshingly open-minded approach to dealing with young players:
When a guy comes into a squad at 18 or 19 years of age, it's a difficult enough experience without trying to make him fairly robotic in terms of thinking. They have to live a small bit. And I think you'd be hoping that it would be reciprocated down the line.
Some circumstances will change based on the age profile of the guy involved but generally speaking when you've a young lad I think it's better to give him the space and yet impose your training methods on him at the same time.
I know that sounds a bit contradictory, but that's what we'd hope to do.
Would you believe, I have taught 'To Kill A Mockingbird' for the last fifteen years in school ...it sounds corny to say it, but it's a matter of just climbing into other people's skin and walking round in it (advice Atticus Finch gives to Scout in the book).
Sussing out every unique situation...based on their (a player's) own unique circumstances.
Hurler of the Year Austin Gleeson gave an example of McGrath putting this philosophy into practice when he revealed last year that he nearly quit the Waterford panel in 2014, texting McGrath to say that he "needed a break" before McGrath saying, "I'll ring you in the morning". Gleeson told reporters:
It was just a lot of pressure was being put on – from myself more than anything. I just felt in that moment that the demands, I just couldn’t cope with them.
His (McGrath's) man management is just incredible so the second he got me in that car I knew straight away that no matter what happened he’d always kind of be there.
As the manager who led De La Salle College to All-Ireland titles in 2007 and 2008, it's no surprise that he appears to be the perfect man to manage this young Waterford team through their transition into senior All-Ireland contenders. What is surprising, however, is that he appears to be doing it so quickly.
We may never know what he said to his players in that dressing room back in 2014 - but whatever it was, it seems to have worked. How things have changed for Waterford and for their thoughtful, methodical leader.