I learned a long time ago that as a coach or a selector, you must have a Plan B, and even a Plan C, to help cope with the unexpected things that happen during the course of a game.
In 1989, when I was coaching Glen Rovers against Midleton in an under-21 county hurling semi-final, Midleton had a man sent off midway through the first half of the game. As a selection committee we had a plan for this situation and placed our spare man as a sweeper in front of our fullback line.
The plan did not work for two reasons.
Firstly, the man we detailed to act as a sweeper did not know how to play in that role. We had to try another player. After a few more tweaks our sweeper system began to pay dividends.
Secondly, Midleton decided to move a man into the area that our sweeper was patrolling. Even though Midleton who were a man short, they decided that it would be them, and not us, who would decide who our extra man would be. They had spotted that our first sweeper was uncomfortable as the loose man and they wanted to keep him in that role.
Midleton thundered into the game and built up a good lead. As the game moved into the last quarter we were forced to abandon our ploy and send in a sub to play as a third mid-fielder. This worked. We rallied but the gap was too large and we lost by two points.
We learned two lessons that day; it is the team who are a man short that decides who the spare man will be on the other team, and if your opposition do not want to comply with your wishes and tactics, you cannot force them to do so. They are lessons that served me well several times since.
Those lessons are just two of the many reasons why I was flabbergasted by Tipperary’s tactics, and antics, in last Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final. The most bizarre of these was the sideshow involving Lar Corbett and Pa Bourke of Tipperary with Tommy Walsh and Jackie Tyrrell of Kilkenny.
Either Tipperary thought that Lar Corbett could dominate Tommy Walsh and/or they did not want Corbett anywhere near Jackie Tyrrell. Corbett was dominated by Tyrrell in last year’s All-Ireland final. It is one thing to try and set up a situation where Lar Corbett becomes Tommy Walsh’s responsibility. It is a completely different thing to persist with that plan when it was patently obvious that it was neither working nor helping the morale of the team. Furthermore, sticking to the plan for nearly 60 minutes made the Tipperary mentors and players look clueless.
When we lost the under-21 county semi-final in 1989, we took some stick from our supporters and members for not winning despite having an extra man for three-quarters of the game. Like Tipperary we had a plan, but when it was not working we changed it. Our problem was that Midleton had a better plan and the game was lost before we got to grips with the situation.
I watched last Sunday’s game on TV, so I could not see everything that was going on. From the descriptions of the witnesses that spoke on air and in the newspapers since, it must have been comical to see the two Kilkenny players and two Tipperary players wandering around the field, hitting one and other with complete indifference to the game that was going on all around them.
Naturally Cathal McAllister’s refereeing was questioned. But what would you do if you were in his shoes?
Back in the 1950s a similar situation arose in a Sigerson Cup semi-final that was played at the Mardyke. My father was the referee and he told me he encountered a problem when two players, who were marking each other, clearly were more interested in settling their personal vendetta than taking part in the game. That was at a time when to get sent off in the Sigerson Cup did not effect a player’s eligibility to play with his club or county. Like last Sunday’s game, the resultant violence was spreading throughout the field. Seeing that he was losing control of the game, my father decided to call a temporary halt to proceedings and called both teams into a circle at the centre of the field. He then took the offending players into the centre of the circle with him.
Next he announced that he could see no point in continuing with the game until the two players settled their differences. To facilitate this he asked both teams to form a circle while the two players settled their differences in a boxing match. There was a stunned silence.
My father left the silence hang for a few seconds and then announced, “OK so, since no one wants to fight, we’ll see if we can get on with the game.” There was hardly a foul in the rest of the game.
It would not be fair to expect Cathal McAllister to ask last Sunday’s four players to engage in a two-hander WWF style wrestling match. It would also have been harsh of Cathal McAllister to send one, or two, players off early in the game. It might have cured the violence that Tipperary were perpetrating on Kilkenny but some Kilkenny player who was merely trying to defend himself could have been punished too.
Besides, many hurling commentators are so precious about the “manly” aspect of hurling that McAllister would have been slated for spoiling the game. As it was, two of the three half-time TV panellists felt that Tipperary had not broken any rules during their first half shenanigans. Apparently breaking a hand, facemask pulling and generally slashing hurleys across Kilkenny bodies is an acceptable “manly” approach to the game. The best tool Cathal McAllister could have been given to help control the game last Sunday was a sin bin. The sight of a couple players sitting on their backsides for 10 minutes would have done wonders to restore sanity to the game.
If two teams from Ulster played the same way as Tipperary did last Sunday in a first round of the Ulster Football Championship (which, regrettably, they often do), the TV panellists would cry, and wring their hands about the standard of football.
This leads me nicely into my final point. Ex-Kilkenny player John Henderson said on radio on Monday evening that Brian Cody is one of the all time great “hurling men”. I agree. And his Kilkenny teams since 1999 have been first class in every technical aspect of hurling. His team play and tactical play however, has been borrowed directly from the football field. Cody is one of the few hurling managers you will see in Croke Park on the day of a big football game. He has said he enjoys the football; he obviously studies it too.
Look at how Meath mixed the long and short ball and tackled in the 1990s. How Armagh under Joe Kiernan pressed their opponents defence, how Tyrone and now Donegal and Dublin swarm around opponents in possession and how Kerry and Cork free up their lethal forwards. Now look again at how Kilkenny play hurling. Can you see the similarities?
Kilkenny are technically superior and tactically sublime. While their innovative team play draws on their own traditions, it is allied with the best bits of inter-county Gaelic Football from the last 15 years. Even if Kilkenny fail to win the All-Ireland final – Galway are coached by Anthony Cunningham who also knows a thing or two about Gaelic Football – they are the best hurling team in Ireland. What’s more, if the current Kilkenny team entered the All-Ireland football championship, given that they already think and play like a top four football team, they could rattle that title too.