The best way to describe your state of mind going into an All-Ireland semi-final is maybe to jump forward for a minute and talk about what it’s like to lose a final. Make no mistake, walking out of Croke Park defeated on the first Sunday in September is the worst feeling there is. It is a special kind of torture because it stays with you all winter.
No words or actions for the months of September, October and November can ease it. No All Star, no holiday, nothing. You can’t run away from it. Sitting on a beach at the other side of the world with the sun on your back and a beer in your hand is bliss, but inside it’s still hurting and burning. Nothing heals that.
The only good thing about it is that it feeds into the following year in two distinct ways. The first is that there is consolation in making the final. You got there when everybody else except one other team didn’t. You were one step from the top of the mountain. You came away knowing what it is like to experience the greatest hurling day of the year, the thrills and spills, the build-up, the media attention, the huge focus on you and your team, when all eyes were on you. You fought the fight and you came out second. But at least you fought the fight.
The second is that you go into the following year with a really good idea of where you stand in the pecking order. You’re already motivated to get back there but you also know now what the distance is between where you are and where need to be. Couple that belief and experience with the hurt inside you and straight away you have an equation that can add up to success the following year.
Now, rewind back to a semi-final. If you lose a semi-final, you’re still in for a shitty winter. But there is no consolation. You don’t know how good you were or how bad you were. You don’t know if you’d have won the other semi-final – for all you know, you might be going into the following year behind both of the other two teams. That makes you, at best, fourth in the country when you start the slog of winter training. What use is that to anyone?
Lose a semi-final and you find yourself with people trying to look on the bright side. Loose words and phrases thrown about the place. Close enough. Potential. Top-four team. Maybe next year. “Maybe.” What are you supposed to do with “maybe”? It all adds up to nothing concrete, nothing you can hang your hat on for the winter. All it does is feed the doubts that already exist.
So when you hear people say – as you 100 per cent will over this weekend and next – that semi-finals are about winning and nothing else, that’s what they mean by it. Get through them however you can. Fall across the line, stumble, crawl on your hands and knees if you have to. Desperation stuff.
That’s why semi-finals are often disappointing games. I don’t care who you are or how long you’ve been playing the game, part of you is terrified when it comes to an All-Ireland semi-final. There is no worse game to go out in and you know that in your bones. The thing you have been aiming at all year is getting closer and closer but before you can get to it, you have to come through this game that you might lose.
You might lose! That’s in your head. You can’t avoid it.
When Kilkenny played Waterford in the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final, we were haunted by the possibility of not making it back to the final to play Tipperary. Tipp had beaten us in the 2010 final and by hook or by crook, we had to get back there and win the title back. That got into our bloodstream and knocked us off our stride just enough for us to put in a nervy, careless performance.
Level of nerves
My abiding memory of that day is the amount of wides we pucked. Our forwards, who were usually so ultra-efficient, missed chance after chance. I went back and checked it – we hit 17 wides in that game. By comparison, in the 2010 semi-final we only had 11. In 2009 we only had nine. That has to be down to the level of nerves we had at the prospect of not getting a chance to play Tipp again. We played like we knew it would be a disaster if we lost.
In the end, our experience probably carried us over the line, despite the flawed performance. You only have to go back to Waterford last year to see how it can end up when you don’t have that experience to fall back on. They had Kilkenny exactly where they wanted them in the closing stages of the semi-final but they couldn’t keep the nerves at bay to get across the line.
History was weighing heavy on them. They hadn’t beaten Kilkenny in so long, the vast majority of them had never been to a final. They could see it. But the sight of it nearly frightened them. That’s not being dismissive – I completely understand it. Semi-finals are always process of overcoming your fear and anyone who has played at the top level understands what that does to you.
When it’s something you want so badly, you can spend the early months of the year telling yourself you’re ready. But you only find out whether you are or not when it’s put in front of you. Waterford tried to defend their lead instead of attacking Kilkenny and putting us away. They had pucked four wides all day but now, when it really mattered, they hit six in the last seven minutes. They weren’t ready.
For the past two years, Galway v Tipperary has bucked the trend for All-Ireland semi-finals and they have served up a couple of epic matches. But both teams have gone into those matches in a different frame of mind to what they’re facing here. Galway haven’t gone into one of these games as favourites for the All-Ireland. Tipp haven’t gone in on a rescue mission for their season. Both sides have a massive amount to lose on Sunday.
It's cat-and-mouse stuff. You have to decide what's more important to you – shutting down Cooney or getting the best out of Maher at wing back.
Uniquely enough in modern hurling, I think this could be a game where match-ups are key. By the time you’ve done all the switches in most games these days, you come away with your programme looking like a two-year-old has been doodling on it. That won’t be the case on Sunday.
By my count, there are seven different match-ups that will go a long way to deciding the game. Bonner Maher v Gearóid McInerney; Séamus Callanan v Daithí Burke; Paudie Maher v Joseph Cooney; Donogh Maher v Conor Cooney; Joe Canning v Ronan Maher; Brendan Maher v David Burke; John McGrath v Adrian Tuohy.
Of all those, the Paudie Maher v Joseph Cooney battle really fascinates me. Rarely have we seen two strongly-built athletes collide like this pair. One at 6’1”, the other at 6’4”, both very strong in the air, but also well able to cover the ground. I really hope this is one match-up we see.
It's not always that simple, obviously. Tipperary could be thinking all week that they're going to send Paudie Maher out to mark Joseph Cooney and the first thing Cooney might do is shake Paudie's hand and then head straight in to full forward when the ball is thrown in. Obviously if Galway can get Paudie Maher stationed on the edge of his own square, that's great for them and not great for Tipp. So Mick Ryan has to have a plan for that.
It's cat-and-mouse stuff. You have to decide what's more important to you – shutting down Cooney or getting the best out of Maher at wing back. For the 2011 All-Ireland final, Brian Cody decided I was marking Lar Corbett and following him anywhere he went. We made that our starting point and filled in the rest of the defensive gameplan around that.
We knew that Tipperary would rotate their forwards so we adjusted our defence to deal with that. Brian Hogan prepared for the game knowing that at times he would be filling in at corner back and wing back; Paul Murphy got comfortable at centre back. The whole idea was that we had one out-and-out man-marker and five fluid defenders playing the position as they found themselves in it.
No plan is foolproof either. When we played Galway in the 2012 final, we were very conscious of how effective Cyril Donnellan had been in that year's Leinster final when Galway had blown us to bits. So we stuck Tommy Walsh on him and figured that if he could outhurl Tommy in an All-Ireland final, fair play to him.
Cyril promptly headed into corner forward and took Tommy out of the game. It was a very clever move and it wrongfooted us, robbing us of one of our best players in his best position. For the replay, Tommy was relieved of those man-marking duties. We couldn’t afford to have him on the periphery of the game like that.
So yes, these seven match-ups are going to be important on Sunday. But just as important will be what plans Galway and Tipp have for the unexpected. You can’t be too rigid. You have to have a mindset that is open to having to deal with different challenges within a game. There’s nothing worse as a defender than getting settled on the man you’re marking and then seeing him switched off you.
Imagine you’re doing well marking Joseph Cooney and then they switch Conor Whelan onto you. Your parameters change, just like that. You go from needing to be good in the air and guarding against him getting turned to playing a small, low centre of gravity player who is going to pull you around the place. The ball coming in will be different, the runs you have to anticipate will be different. Imagine then that you come out after half-time and suddenly Joe Canning is moved into your position. Another totally different proposition.
This is going to be a game of man-on-man battles and the winning of it is going to be a fairly simple equation. Whoever overcomes their nerves, whoever comes out on top in the head-to-head duels, that’s who will be in the All-Ireland final. And for the other team, it will have been a waste of a year.
That’s harsh but it’s the plain truth of it.