Jackie Tyrrell: Cian Lynch is snapping at Tony Kelly’s heels
Lynch is fuelling Limerick’s campaign, while Kelly has been stop-start for Clare
Limerick’s Cian Lynch in action against Waterford in the Munster Hurling Championship at Gaelic Grounds on Sunday. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Back in 2013, Tony Kelly had the hurling world at his feet. Hurler of the Year, Young Hurler of the Year, All-Ireland winner, the lot. Greatness was bestowed on him even though he was barely out of nappies.
Five years later and Limerick youngster Cian Lynch is on a similar trajectory. Transformed and liberated with the switch to midfield this summer, he has become the all-action 70-minute dynamo that is fuelling Limerick’s campaign. He arrives to Ennis this Sunday to take on Kelly, who quite frankly has been missing from his throne for nearly two years at this stage. Stop-start performances are now becoming a dangerous norm for Kelly, who has to be careful that he doesn’t become a cautionary tale for the likes of Lynch to learn from.
Last Sunday against Tipperary, Kelly was completely anonymous for the entire second half. Clare pulled it out of the fire but their match-winners came in the form of Podge Collins and Peter Duggan. Kelly needs to decide very quickly whether he wants to be remembered as the poster boy for the 2013 “once-off” All-Ireland winners or the real deal who deserves to be mentioned alongside the TJ Reids and Joe Cannings of this world. Putting manners on a young pretender like Lynch and giving him a masterclass would be perfect start to a revival for Kelly as he enters his mid-20s.
He promised so much in 2013. I remember attending the All-Ireland semi-final that year between these two teams. Kelly caught a puck-out under the shadows of the Hogan Stand at one stage and weaved past two Limerick defenders before putting the ball between the posts off his left-hand side. That was his trademark score. In that sort of mode, there was very little any opposition could do about him.
But you have to try. I went to the All-Ireland semi-final and final that year for one reason only – to see if I would be able to handle these guys the following year if I went back. And, sitting in the stand, I can tell you that at that moment in time, it wasn’t looking good for me for 2014. When Podge Collins swivelled with the ball glued to his hurl and pointed in the 44th minute of the All-Ireland final, the sweat began to drip down my back. The nightmare of him doing that to me the following year began to become more real.
Tony Kelly was the big dangerman. He’d a bounce to his stride that year, a careless abandon that I have only seen in glimpses since. What made him great in 2013 was that he played with a freedom and a confidence that allowed him to just go wherever he liked. He wasn’t stuck to one area of the pitch, ticking a box and sticking to a script. He followed his instincts wherever the genius of his hurling took him.
He was a joy to watch. He never seemed to be caught in two minds. He didn’t question his own thinking, or at least he didn’t play as if he was questioning it. There was no wondering about where his best position was – it was wherever he went, simple as that. He didn’t care how many balls the centre back cleared, or how many shots he missed. He just went and played the game and didn’t worry about anything else.
The contrast with him these days is clear to see. He now plays with a ponderous approach. Not always sure of what to do – does he shoot or does he pass? Sometimes he ends up doing neither and the clarity of thinking and purpose that marked him apart in his early days isn’t a given any more. A real sign of his lack of confidence has been his erratic free-taking in the last few years whenever he has been given that duty. His constant changing from midfield to centre forward hasn’t helped either.
With the likes of Lynch and Kelly, the crowd sense something could happen when the ball falls their way
I’ve always thought 11 was his best position, with a licence to roam around that area and go forward when he wants to. When Clare defend, he shouldn’t be dropping any deeper than midfield. Any time I see Kelly collecting a pass 40 yards from his own goal, I cringe. That’s not where you need your go-to man. You want him breaking onto balls 50 yards from the opposition’s goal. You want him where he can hurt teams.
Cian Lynch is quite a similar player to Kelly. He is similar in age profile, he is dynamic, he has a keen eye for a score. He’s the type of player that good things happen around when he gets the ball. With the likes of Lynch and Kelly, the crowd sense something could happen when the ball falls their way. They have energy and vision bursting through their pores. They play a similar role for their team. They are creators, visionaries. Granted, Cian has more defensive duties than Tony. But going forward, they’re very alike.
Lynch comes into Sunday in Hurler the Year form. How does he keep that up? One thing to keep in mind is the fact that it can all go away very quickly. There’s a very good reason for the old motto: “You’re only as good as your last game.” It’s because people move on very quickly. They’re always on the lookout for the next star.
For Cian Lynch, it’s vital now that he doesn’t go away from the simple things that got him to where he is today. He will inevitably have to learn that with good form and becoming one of the top players in the country comes attention. Not just off the pitch and in the media, but on the pitch as well.
He’s going to be a marked man now, every minute of every game until Limerick’s season is over. Every team has its Sergio Ramos types, the lads who take pure pleasure in destroying your day. They’re the lads Cian Lynch will be dealing with from here on out. How he handles them will define him.
Top players like Tony Kelly and Austin Gleeson have struggled after their breakout season. Part of it has been trying to live up to what they’ve done before. Part of it has been the fact that they’re not surprise packages anymore. Part of it has been an inability to evolve and adapt.
This is the key to surviving at senior intercounty level. If you let yourself think that what you did last year is going to get you through next year, you’re in trouble straight away. Especially if you’re a forward, given the amount of analysis defenders are doing on you.
If Clare are really serious about this year, they need to go after Limerick and win this weekend
I loved working out the little habits and patterns that made up the playing style of someone I was going out to mark. How does he make his runs? What’s his first reaction when he gets the ball in his grasp? What’s his favourable striking hand?
Before the 2011 All-Ireland final, when I knew I was detailing Lar Corbett, I studied his every move. I even memorised the type of boots he wore, so that if I slipped during the game and could only see the ground and a few inches above it, I would know which boots I needed to chase after as I got up.
For the record, black Adidas Predators, with the back of the boot red and eight blades on the sole. Luckily, that day I never slipped. But this is what man-markers do and what Cian Lynch and Tony Kelly have to put up with.
If Clare are really serious about this year, they need to go after Limerick and win this weekend. They’re in danger of always being saddled with the flash-in-the-pan tag until they start shaking it off. They need to show that aggression on their home turf. Bring a physicality to the game that we haven’t seen before.
When I looked at the game last week, the difference between Clare in the first and second half was epitomised Billy McCarthy’s goal. He waltzed through the Clare defence in the first half and sailed past a flimsy challenge from David McInerney. If you wanted one man to meet McCarthy in that scenario, I would pick McInerney – a huge, athletic man who should have just met him with everything. But he didn’t and McCarthy got his goal.
Fast-forward to the dying moments of the game when Clare were in the lead. The ball broke close to the sideline and Shane O’Donnell just dived to get his hurl to the ball. He kept it in play and stopped Tipp getting out. Peter Duggan got a brilliant point from the sideline because of it but the dirty work was all Shane O’Donnell’s. He did what was needed, a big departure from McInerney in the first half.
Clare need more of that this weekend because Limerick will have it in buckets. Richie English gave O’Donnell a torrid time and buckets of hardship in the under-21 game in Cusack Park in 2015. Pulling his hurl, annoying him, just being a nuisance and bullying him. So Clare have to meet fire with fire here.
If they do that, we could have a classic, with Kelly and Lynch striking scores on the run at either end. No greater sight for either set of supporters to see. And the rest of us would get some kick out of it as well.