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.

I actually don’t think he got half enough credit for his performance on Sunday. It was one of the greatest shows of leadership I’ve ever seen in any sport. For a guy who has come back from two cruciate injuries and a fairly serious shoulder surgery in just the past few years alone to still be the one who was making everything happen for Kilkenny was incredible.

What does all this have to do with the football final? That depends on the players. I would imagine most of them watched the game – I always did, as much to concentrate the mind for the football final as anything else. I always figured there was something to be learned from the way the big players in the hurling final took to the occasion or how they brought their own influence to it.

It would only make sense if the likes of Michael Murphy and Karl Lacey or Alan Dillon and Keith Higgins were doing something similar last Sunday.

Because this is a final between fairly new teams with only a handful of players on one side who have any experience of playing in a final, handling the occasion is going to be more crucial than ever. In a situation like that, it’s the leaders in both teams who have to take control.

It starts in training. This week in particular is when training should be humming. Everyone should be pushing to catch the eye and either make sure of their place in the team or force their way in. The leaders are the guys who lift the tempo of each session, who recognise that the manager needs a bit more urgency or a bit more physicality or whatever the case may be.

They’re not standing back, just taking care of their own game and deciding to look forward to an All-Ireland final. They realise where the team needs to be, what amount of coal needs to be thrown on the fire to get them there.

If that means bossing a few guys around, so be it. If it means lighting a fire under a few guys, that’s fine too. But it can also mean calming things down, cracking the right joke at the right time. Sometimes if there’s too much tension, it’s the guy who can take the sting out of the situation that’s the real leader.

Or they might not have to say a thing. All they have to do is go out in the training games and show that they’re in the form of their life. At the beginning, middle and end of my Kerry career we had Maurice Fitzgerald, Séamus Moynihan and Colm Cooper. Sometimes in training in the lead-up to a final, one of them would just have a night where everything they did on the ball was exactly the thing that was called for.

Maurice or Gooch would kick a rake of points, Séamus would let nothing past him. Even if it had been the case that they’d made mincemeat of me along the way, I’d always come away that night thinking we were in business. When your key men are in form like that, you can’t wait to get to Croke Park.

As it comes closer to the game, those guys become even more important. The really good leaders know they have a responsibility as the days count down to make sure that everyone knows they’re needed. They instinctively know the worth of a five-minute chat on the way to training with the number 19 or the number 23. To get this thing across the line, it’s vital that the subs are at the proper pitch too. It’s worth checking in to make sure they’re not coasting along, that they’re actually nervous like everybody else.

Because those nerves are massive. You have to have them. Doesn’t matter whether it’s your first final or your fifth, the time to start worrying is if you’re in the warm-up and you’re not nervous. I always thought of them as the 10-yard nerves. If I went out for a league game in March and tried to kick the ball over the bar from 50 yards, the ball could hop twice before it got to the posts. At three o’clock on All-Ireland final day? That ball was making the distance with plenty to spare. You could jump that few inches higher and run those few yards faster. That comes from those nerves.

You need those nerves and then you need to control them. The more finals I played in, the better I knew not to panic. Let the nerves come, welcome them, use them. Then play your way into the game. No matter how bad things got, no matter how well my marker was playing, I always knew that there was going to be some way I could have a positive influence here. I was comfortable in the knowledge I wasn’t going to have to shoot the lights out, that it was more important that I got on the ball and moved it on to the fellas who could.

That’s what being a leader in the biggest match of the year can come down to sometimes. You don’t always have to be Henry Shefflin, single-handedly keeping your side in the game. It might be more important that you’re the one who is slowing the whole game down, dictating the tempo of it, showing everyone else on your team that you have some measure of control over what’s going on.

It’s like that scene in Gladiator where Russell Crowe turns to the slaves and goes, “Whatever comes out of these gates, we’ve got a better chance of survival if we work together.” On All- Ireland final day, you have all your work done and you have spent the whole year getting things right. It’s no harm making sure everybody remembers that. Things might be going against us but we didn’t get here by accident and whatever comes out of those gates, we must not panic.

I remember Séamus Moynihan doing that in 2000. He was playing full-back that year and bringing the position to a new level altogether, even though it wasn’t even his best position. At one stage in the final, he got on the ball and burst out 50 yards with it. You could see that he was hopping off his toes to go further but he knew better and laid it off to start an attack. He had made his statement and the rest of us knew what he was saying without a word coming out of his mouth. We’re here to do a job, let’s all do our job and we’ll be fine.

Not everybody can do it. You can be as calm as you like, you can try and force yourself into a certain frame of mind but you might not be able to judge it properly. That’s what makes the leaders so vital. They can plug into something the rest of the team can’t and just watching them do it reassures the others.

In a final where mindset is going to be so important, the team with the best leaders will have a serious edge.

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