Leadership is the final ingredient
THE MIDDLE THIRD:In an All-Ireland final, the critical difference can depend on which of the key players shows the right sort of leadership at the right time
TEN DAYS out from the final, the nerves have to be building in Mayo and in Donegal. People always ask did you enjoy playing in the All-Ireland final and usually, if only because you sort of know that it’s what they want to hear, you say yes. Of course you enjoyed it – great day, great occasion, huge honour. Why would you do anything to demystify the romantic notion?
But the truth is, some players don’t enjoy it at all. Because as soon as the semi-final is won and the celebrations are over, there are certain guys on every team who go into leader mode. You can see it straight away, even in something as small as a little wink they might give a younger player as they head out for the first training session back after the semi-final.
There will be enough guys who will fret and worry about what the final will bring as it comes closer and they badly need the players who know instinctively that what’s called for here is authority. They need a few men – it only needs to be three or four in the whole squad – who are able to go to them and say, “Don’t panic too much about getting every last thing right, I’ll be there to pick up the slack for you.” They’re a buffer, they’re a safety net. You might never need them but it helps to know that they are there.
I was thinking about this during the hurling final on Sunday. At different times in the game, Joe Canning and Henry Shefflin – particularly Henry – just took hold of the play and stood up as leaders. I’m not even really talking about their hurling skills, just the way that at crucial times in the match they basically decided through sheer force of will to pick up the slack for the rest of their team.
It will give you a clue of my hurling expertise when I say that not 10 seconds before Canning burst on to James Regan’s pass and scored his goal in the first half, I was saying to my wife that he wasn’t really in the game. No sooner was it out of my mouth than he took the offload, sprinted past a few defenders and nailed it. There was some amount of laughing coming from the other side of the couch after that. Thanks, Joe.
But you don’t need to be a student of hurling to recognise a leader changing a game. When Regan had the ball, there was still a bank of Kilkenny defenders between him and the goal. Once he gave it to Canning, the dynamics changed straight away. His goal and the point that came straight after it where he broke a bad clearance down to himself and then knocked it over the bar from 60 yards took a game that was level and put four points between the teams. And it was all more or less his own work.
Then, coming up to half-time and in the second half especially, you could see Shefflin just deciding he’d had enough. This game was going to slip away unless somebody did something and he wasn’t going to wait around giving anybody time to wonder who that somebody should be. He went right in at centre-forward, stuck his hand up where the sticks were flying and did everything with urgency and intent.