There’s nothing like the day after an All-Ireland win. The slagging, the sense that nothing is a hassle, the satisfaction that runs through every conversation, every thought even.
I remember sitting in the bar of the Citywest Hotel in 2008 on the Monday afternoon, drinking a pint of Guinness and eating a packet of crisps. All-Ireland champions and the three-in-a-row secured. I hadn’t a care in the world.
The world was our oyster. What do you do in those circumstances? You sit and you share it with the lads you’ve shared everything with over the past nine months. There were seven or eight of us nestled in the corner of the bar, laughing our way through the day before, shooting the breeze about the game and how it had unfolded.
Given how the game had gone, the forwards were in bullish form. To listen to them, it was a wonder the rest of us were going to get medals at all. All the slagging was aimed at us in the backs – 'sure ye'd nothing to do, lads, with the forwards making life so easy for ye'. Eoin Larkin in particular was giving me a good grilling – were you on the pitch at all, Jackie?
Credit must go to John Kiely and his management team for backing their guy
In fairness, we hadn’t a leg to stand on. They had shot the lights out the day before – 3-30 scored from six forwards and two midfielders. There wasn’t even a score from a defender to offer up as a contribution – JJ Delaney took a shot at one stage and hit the post with it. So there wasn’t a whole lot we could say.
I had a tipsy head on me at this stage but I was trying to stand up for the defence all the same. But even through the haze that was gathering, I was able to do a tot of the amount of times I played the ball all day. I checked and rechecked and the news wasn’t great either time. My total contribution to the day had been to handle the ball three times in 70 minutes.
That wasn’t much to be going to war with! So I sat back and took my beating and let him belt away. Larks and the rest of them deserved their moment in the sun. We all did. Anyway, I knew I’d be marking him in club training before the week was out. I’d let him know all about it then.
All jokes aside, of course I knew I had contributed. Three touches in a game is no big deal for a defender as long as the man he’s marking has a similarly quiet day. Maybe that’s why I found myself last Sunday in RTÉ arguing that a lad who only had three touches of the ball all day in the All-Ireland final was worthy of a nomination for man of the match.
I lost the argument for Mike Casey's inclusion in the shortlist but it's fair to say it was the only battle he was beaten in all day. To me, Casey gave an absolute exhibition of how to defend and, more than that, how to man the edge of the square. For parts of the game, the battle between him and Johnny Glynn was the only thing I was watching. And to see a smaller defender overcome a much bigger attacker just through the art of defending did my heart good.
All the talk before the final was about how Glynn could exploit the five-inch advantage he had over Casey. Glynn’s aerial ability had caused Pádraig Walsh and David McInerney all sorts of troubles – and they’re two of the best in the business. He had ruled the skies all year long moving between 14, 12 and 11. Nobody or nothing could touch him in that area.
Casey had different plans. His first decision was to take away all notions or possibilities of him ruling the skies instead of Glynn. That was never going to be a battle he could win so why try to fight it? Instead, he decided he would make them so cloudy and foggy that Glynn could not see the ball or function the way he wanted.
By doing so, he took a so-called strength away completely and totally nullified it. When Casey was on the pitch, Glynn didn’t field one catch on the edge of the square and he didn’t break one ball down to a Galway forward. Just like that, it crippled the Galway attack. Suddenly, you realised that this was the main tactic they had been going with all year long and the one that gave them the edge over everyone. And now it was gone, what did they have left?
That's how important Casey's performance was to Limerick's win on Sunday. Apart from picking Man of the Match on Sunday night, we had to come up with a team of the year as well. Before the game, I chatted to Anthony Daly and we both agreed that Dáithí Burke had full-back sewn up and locked in. It was a no-brainer, move on. That nearly all changed on Sunday evening due to Casey's performance. Burke kept it but this was such a complete game from Casey that he could easily have dislodged him.
The beauty of it was that he never got sucked in by the temptation to do more than he had to. He touched the ball three times in the course of the game, only taking it into his hand twice. For a guy who came into the game under serious scrutiny, the discipline and lack of ego to go out and play a game like that is so admirable.
Credit must go to John Kiely and his management team for backing their guy and not making any tactical adjustments to the defensive unit. They didn't drop an extra defender back, Declan Hannon did not play any deeper at centre-back than he has all year. They basically said, 'This is on you Mikey. You're our guy, you've been our guy since round two of Munster, you know what we want, go and do it.'
I love that. What a vote of confidence to get going into your first All-Ireland final at the age of 22. Imagine being given that responsibility on the opposition’s main threat and going in knowing that the management trusts you and believes in you enough to take it on yourself. Casey must have gone out there feeling 10 feet tall.
He had to go and do it, though. And for that, he had to rely on the great arts of defending. The bits of defending that everybody sees are catching the ball and clearing the ball. But that’s not what defending is about. Catching and clearing is what you do after you’ve defended properly. They’re the result of good defending, rather than the act of good defending itself.
Defending is about body position, discipline, reading situations very clearly and quickly and making the right decision about what to do. If you don’t have those to begin with, you’ll catch nothing and clear nothing. Everything starts with those elements. I kept a close eye on the Casey-Glynn duel on Sunday and then again on Tuesday night when I watched the game back. Time and again, Casey did the right thing, not the spectacular thing.
Six minutes in, Glynn gets out in front to the first ball in between them. It's a low ball in a good scoring position 25 yards from goal slightly to the right. Casey uses nimble footwork, doesn't commit or tackle and forces Glynn to make the decision, all the time edging him towards a tighter shooting angle. In the end, Glynn shoots and Casey gets his stick up to block it out for a 65. Even though Joe Canning puts the 65 between the posts, it's first blood to Casey.
On 17 minutes, a lovely high ball in and everybody knows it immediately – this is Casey’s big test. The pair of them are standing 14 yards from goal and the nearest Limerick defender is Seán Finn, 25 yards away. This is exactly what Galway want and Casey is in the most vulnerable spot imaginable.
But this is what they prepared for, this is what Kiely trusted him with. And with good reason. As the trajectory of the ball drops to approximately 10 or 12 yards away from the pair of them, Casey’s body position is good – feet well spread which gives him a strong base and traction to generate power to dislodge the powerful Glynn. He is just to Glynn’s side, next to his catching hand. Just as the ball drops in, he gives Glynn a slight nudge, hip-to-hip, sending him ever so slightly off balance at exactly the right time.
As the ball lands, he holds a firm base on the ground. This is just pure strength, a result of all the conditioning work he has put in to get him to this point in his life. If he's weak in that moment, Glynn blows him out of the way and all his good defending is for nothing. As it is, he stands strong and the ball goes through to Nickie Quaid and Limerick are away.
The big bonus for Casey comes immediately – Glynn turns to James Owens looking for a free. His hands are in the air and he's frustrated already. You can see him giving out to the referee as Quaid comes out with the ball.
I'd say Casey loved seeing that. It would have been one of the markers he set for himself in the build-up. Frustrate him, get him crabby, break his composure. A few minutes later, Glynn comes running out with the ball and gets done for charging on Dan Morrissey. Even better for Casey – now Glynn is on the wrong side of the ref and the Limerick full-back is just doggedly doing his job.
He grows in confidence. On 20 minutes, he breaks out in front of Glynn to a ball sent in down the middle of the Limerick defence. Casey isn’t afraid to attack the ball – he gets out in front, secures possession, breaks a tackle and finds a Limerick man. He shows no fear.
Soon enough, Galway are forced to try things. Glynn roves out to wing-forward and then back into the edge of the square. Casey holds the full-back position and gives Conor Cooney no joy either. Half-time comes and he heads into the dressing room with a complete performance under his belt.
Casey went off to a standing ovation. You don't often see that for defenders
Casey only lasted 15 minutes of the second half but that was time enough to beat Glynn in a foot race to an early ball, starting a move that lead to a Diarmaid Byrnes point. And the one high ball that came in between them in the 42nd minute, he spoiled Glynn again with perfect positioning, strength and cuteness.
He went off in the 50th minute injured but at that stage, the job was more or less done. The big danger for Limerick coming into the game was that Glynn could explode early and put the game out of their reach. By the time Casey went off, Glynn was scoreless and frustrated and was moving in and out in search of the game. Limerick were on top everywhere and the platform given to them by their full-back line was a huge part of that.
Casey went off to a standing ovation. You don’t often see that for defenders – and certainly not with 20 minutes to go in an All-Ireland final.
Never was one more deserved.