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Ciarán Murphy: How club clashes mirror county tactics

Kilkenny hurling final was an entertaining affair, the Donegal football final was not

The Kilkenny senior hurling final between Dicksboro and James Stephens. It wasn’t just a great match, but a match that demonstrated exactly how the people of Kilkenny feel hurling should be played. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Being over 18 and accompanied at the time by an adult, I was watching – was allowed watch – the Kilkenny county hurling final on TG4 last Sunday. It was a superb game, and Dicksboro were fully deserving winners of their first county title in 24 years.

If I was a Kilkenny hurling person I could hardly have asked for a better showcase of the game in the county because it was precisely that. It wasn’t just a great match, but a match that demonstrated exactly how they feel hurling should be played.

The referee’s sole job appeared to be to alert the ambulance if someone’s head (or part thereof) got temporarily separated from their body – other than that it was Cody-Ball, and it was open season.

The game wasn’t particularly dirty, but it was insanely physical. I surely wasn’t the only one watching it thinking “is it any wonder they are the way they are?”

Every player who got the ball in his hand knew that it was probably best to get his retaliation in first, so up went the elbow and arm into their challenger’s face.

Don’t turn around hoping for a free because it more than likely wasn’t coming.

Pulling a jersey might get you a yellow card, but standing toe-to-toe and hammering your man into the middle of next week was fair game.

The entire 60 minutes was full of physical questions – only when they were answered could you go about winning the game. That there were eight goals in total, at least six of them gems, in a game of such unrelenting intensity only underscored the quality on show. The week before the nation was most certainly not entertained by the Donegal senior football final between Kilcar and Naomh Conaill. Perhaps fearing the worst, TG4 decided against showing it (a game involving two Gaeltacht teams!) live, but the 0-7 to 0-4 scoreline reverberated around the country nevertheless.

Naomh Conaill’s Ciaran Thompson scores a point during the Donegal SFC final against Kilcar. Photo: Lorcan Doherty/Inpho

The victors, Kilcar, could I’m sure not care less about the criticism, and as Ryan McHugh mentioned on Newstalk last week, when the teams played in 2016 the game finished 5-10 to 1-11, so they were certainly capable of better.

But if a county final is to truly be a representation of how that entire county feels about the game, and how their club teams set up accordingly, then maybe it’s no surprise to see a Donegal final finish 0-7 to 0-4 to the winners.

The club game in a county should be a representation of how their inter-county team plays. In the past players were products of their clubs, which made intercounty teams products of their county championship.

Jim McGuinness once copped a bit of flak for suggesting that the reason Donegal footballers handpassed the ball so much was because all of their pitches were beside the sea, which produced footballers happier keeping possession than kicking the ball away.

I seem to recall scoffing at the idea until I realised plenty of the pitches I played on in Connemara were nowhere near the sea. Yet on my holidays through Kilcar, Glencolumcille, and Downings there they were, pitches perched a well-hit 45 from the Atlantic Ocean and at the mercy of the elements. That a county’s geography could shape how they play the game is an interesting idea, but more often than not a county’s preferred style is based on philosophical rather than physical parameters.

Hence that line that stuck around for years as Tipperary waited in vain for their next All-Ireland after 1971 – that they hadn’t won one since the GAA brought in helmets.

Nowadays intercounty managers have so much time on their hands with their players that they can remould their teams in their own personal vision. If an intercounty team is successful enough then it can even start working in reverse – the top players go back to their clubs, take into account what’s worked at the top level, and have a huge influence on how their teams line out. The clubs end up taking their lead from their county team, rather than vice versa.

For all that, you see the comfort that Donegal footballers and the best club hurlers in Kilkenny have with playing in a style that would be immediately familiar to their followers, and it becomes clear that the most successful intercounty managers will find a way to marry their own philosophy to the game as it is traditionally played in a place. That’s why Jim McGuinness and Brian Cody were pushing through an open door in many ways in getting the best from their counties, and why they’ll go down without question as their greatest ever managers.

Even taking into account how the game evolves every few years, when the origin of your county team’s style of play under a manager becomes a question of the chicken or the egg, you’re probably on to a winner.