Jackie Tyrrell: Every corner-back is an island now
Odds stacked heavily against corner-backs like Conor Delaney in the modern game
Conor Delaney tackles Dessie Hutchinson in last weekend’s All-Ireland hurling semi-final. Photograph: Inpho
With the 14th pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, the New York Jets selected Darelle Revis, a cornerback out of University of Pittsburgh. He went on to be considered one of the greatest cornerbacks of all time in the NFL and was elected on seven Pro Bowls - the equivalent of winning seven GAA All Stars. He also played one season with the New England Patriots, during which he won a SuperBowl.
Revis was so good in his position that the part of the field he was covering at any one time got its own nickname. He would take the best wide receiver on the opposing team and cover him one-on-one and wherever he was, it became known as Revis Island. He even trademarked the phrase so that he could sell merchandise with it written on it.
The reason they called it Revis Island is that in American football, the best wide receivers are so good at getting themselves open that they will often have to be double marked. Generally, it would take a very brave or very stupid defensive co-ordinator to leave just one guy to cover someone like a Randy Moss or a Chad Johnson, who were the best around at the time.
But Revis was so good that he flipped that script. He didn’t care who he was playing against, they were coming onto Revis Island. He went one-on-one with the receiver, regardless of how much space was open around them. And season after season, he generally came out on top.
We played different sports obviously but he was a player that I identified with because of his position on the field. I watched him closely when I played with Kilkenny because there was a certain amount of parallels between the demands we both faced. His were a lot more high-level and a lot more extreme, obviously. But when it came down to brass tacks, the fundamentals were very similar.
The big difference was that as a corner-back in hurling, I always felt I had more help from the structure of the gameplay around me than Revis would have had in American football. There was no such thing as Tyrrell Island because we defended as a unit. I had a full-back to my right and a wing-back in front of me. I knew they were there for me and they knew I was there for them. In the six-defender structure, the whole point is to try and not leave anyone hanging out to dry.
That was then. This is now. I retired from the game in 2016, a mere four years ago. But what was demanded of me back then and what’s demanded of a corner-backs right now are miles apart. Four years is a long time in the hurling world and the game is evolving at a breakneck speed. One major consequence of that evolution is that every corner-back is an island now.
No team lines out with three across the full-back line and three across the half-back line these days. The area of land that a corner-back is responsible for has more or less doubled in size in four years. Your full-back is still beside you but he’s generally a good 20 metres further away than he was when I was playing. And your half-back is either in the middle of the pitch fighting for ball or up taking a shot. You are on your own.
This has been clear to me for a while but I got a bird’s-eye view of it on Saturday night. The RTÉ set-up at Croke Park during this championship is down where the Cusack Stand meets the Canal End. We’re standing on a platform there during games and that gives us a brilliant insight into what goes on in the corner closest to us.
My main thought on Saturday night was to be thankful I’m not still playing. Conor Delaney had Dessie Hutchinson for company down in our corner - and nobody else! The space around the pair of them down in that corner was enough to land a 747 in. As an old corner-back, I was fascinated and thrilled in equal measure watching them take each other on.
Hutchinson is electric and has been having a magic season but for my money, Delaney won the battle between them.
Let’s look at what has changed to cause the demands on a corner-back to be ramped up so much higher in just four years. After all, there are still the same amount of players on the pitch as when I played and the pitches are the same size. So why are corner-backs so much more isolated now than before?
Whatever pace you have is only keeping you in the battle at this stage. But by now, space is the real enemy. The cavalry is too far away
First off, wing-back is a different position now. It’s about pressing, it’s about being an aggressor, getting on the front foot. Look around the teams and go through the names - Kyle Hayes, Kevin Moran, Joseph Cooney. All three have played in All-Ireland finals as half-forwards, all three have been nominated for All Stars as half-forwards. Now they’re wing-backs.
Why? Because teams now set up to push their opposite numbers back up the field as much as possible. Go back and watch Moran in the second half last Saturday and how he pressed John Donnelly back into his own half. Or go back to the quarter-final and keep an eye on how Cooney pushed Tipp’s Dan McCormack back as far as possible. Even go back to last year’s All-Ireland semi-final and see how Wexford’s Shaun Murphy forced Bubbles O’Dwyer into having to defend on his own 45 in the early part of the match.
The further you can force opposition half-forwards to play from your goal, the less chance they have to do damage. Therefore, wing-backs are now operating at times as an auxiliary half-forward. This leaves space in behind. It’s unavoidable.
We also know that the most crowded area on any hurling pitch these days is in between the 65s. The battle for possession out around there is what everything else flows from. So you have corner-forwards out roaming around there, usually dragging a defender out with them. And if your wing-back isn’t pushing forward, he’s probably in there as well hunting for ball.
So now, as a corner-back, you’re looking around and going, ‘Hello? Anybody home?’ You might have a sweeper, yes. But sweepers generally position themselves in the central channel, around 30 metres from goal. Their job is first and foremost to intercept the long direct ball so as to nullify any goal threat. If they can cut off a diagonal ball, they will. But they’re not going out to help you double-team your man, leaving an ocean of space down the middle. They’d be crucified for it.
All of this feeds into the general shape of how teams set up now. The six-two-six is long gone, clearly. Watch Limerick with their tactics board at the water breaks - their ideal set-up is to start with the three players in the full forward line in a straight line down the middle of the attack, with huge canyons of space either side for the ball to be sprayed into. Most teams try this tactic but Limerick do it better than anyone else.
None of this happens by accident. All these changes have come about by careful design and repetition on the training field. Natural evolution has always been part of the sport. Cork with their running game in the early noughties. Kilkenny with their deep-lying robust half-forward line to combat it. Tipperary with their emphasis on creating space in their forward division. Clare with a deep-lying sweeper. And now Limerick with this model.
Every one of these set-ups have been hugely effective. The flipside is that they never last for long. They are too hard to sustain over time due to the in-depth analysis the other counties carry-out after each one wins a Celtic Cross. We always say that the All-Ireland winner dictates the new way forward for the game but I don’t think that’s exactly the case.
It’s more that the process of defeating it, of analysing it CSI-style and finding a way to pull it apart - that’s what really shapes the next bit of tactical evolution.
One way or another, hurling as it is now puts huge demands on corner-backs. Sean Finn is the best at it in the game, closely followed by Cathal Barrett. To be able to survive and excel in this environment you need a certain skillset. The key ingredients are anticipation, great footwork, speed, discipline and a great deal of edgy, calculated risk. Playing safe will not get the job done here.
Your positioning is crucial. You have to edge onto an attacker’s shoulder on the side the ball is going to come to. This is risky because you are trying to interpret where the distributor is going to hit the ball. Will I go on his right or left shoulder? It’s a decision you have to make in a split-second.
Pick the wrong side and you lose the first battle and the attacker has an immediate advantage. Couple that with the fact that there are generally no slow forwards. Whatever pace you have is only keeping you in the battle at this stage. But by now, space is the real enemy. The cavalry is too far away.
Again, when I was playing, the fact that we defended as a unit meant that usually space got closed down quickly. If I had made the wrong calculation, got the wrong side and had been beaten to the ball, I still sometimes had the luxury of being able to shepherd my man towards whatever help was coming.
Not all the time, obviously. When a game opened up and things got a bit loose, I would sometimes be trailing after my man and realising I was on my own. At a certain point, I’d swallow my pride and take my beating, stand five-to-eight yards off and watch the shot go over my head. I’d be raging with myself and swear to get it right the next time.
If I was playing now, I think I’d have to be a bit more sanguine about losing the odd battle like that. The odds are stacked heavily against corner-backs. You are left out there to fend for yourself, so much so that I am constantly amazed at how good the best fellas are at it now.
On Saturday night, Conor Delaney consistently picked the right side to play Dessie Hutchinson. He edged onto the risky side and reaped big rewards across the night. Even when Hutchison gained possession, you could see Delaney’s foggy breath coming over his shoulder as a reminder that he was there.
Dessie shimmied and shook to try and get space each time but Delaney’s footwork and speed kept him in the battle and his discipline allowed him to limit any scoring threat. Hutchinson ended the night with two points from play. No corner-back likes giving up any score but I’d say Delaney would have taken that beforehand.
To my eye, Delaney won most of the mini-battles. And even at that, it just gives him an opportunity to get a blocking here and there or to push him out to an angle or position where the shot was no longer on. That is all success for the corner-back.
Out on that island, you take the scraps where you can.