Jackie Tyrrell: How really good teams avoid falling flat
No better team than Galway to punish you if mental preparation not as it should be
Galway’s Niall Burke and Conor Whelan pressurise Cathal Barrett of Tipperary during the league final at the Gaelic Grounds. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
After watching Tipperary underperform so badly last Sunday, I came away thinking about what it means to be flat. No matter how well you’re going, a flat performance can happen to anyone. The question Tipp have to answer now is why it happened to them on the day of a league final.
I gave it some thought during the week. Why do really good teams have really bad days sometimes? Nobody is immune to taking a bad beating. Off the top of my head, I can picture Tipp last Sunday, Waterford in their last two Munster finals, the Kilkenny team I played on in the 2012 Leinster final and the 2011 league final.
None of those teams got a hiding because all of a sudden they weren’t able to hurl or because they had a load of injuries or they weren’t fit enough. And I don’t buy any of this ‘it-just-wasn’t-your-day’ crap. That’s an airy-fairy excuse that doesn’t mean anything.
All inter-county teams have highly professional set-ups. You’re talking ambitious groups of players, carefully-designed structures within the backroom teams, a world of information and stats to hand, leaders, psychologists, mind gurus. They have every facet of the game and preparation covered – tactics, systems, gameplans A, B and C. And still teams fall flat on the day.
To me, it’s a matter of mindset. And it’s days like these that really bring it home how important mental preparation for games is. By far the biggest reason a good team ends up on the wrong side of a hammering is bad mental preparation.
Success makes the mind go soft. You wouldn’t be human if it didn’t. The trick is to be able to harden it again when you need to. You might get away with it the odd time but if you come up against an opposition in the right frame of mind, you haven’t a hope.
No better team than Galway to make you pay for it, too. They did it to us in the Leinster final in 2012 and I knew all about it right from the start. A couple of minutes in, Iarla Tannian got on the ball out in the middle and instead of going for a long-range point, he dropped the ball in right on top of me and Joe Canning on the edge of the square. Joe caught it over me, took two steps and bang. Goal. Ruthless.
When I went over it in my head later, that summed up the difference between what we expected from that game and what we got. Why wouldn’t Tannian take his point there? The game was only a few minutes old and it would have been a great score to settle himself with.
But no, he and they had obviously decided that the first chance they got, they were going to try and bury us. They went straight for the throat and aimed for Joe in the spot where he could do most damage. We came to play that day. Galway came for war. We were blown away.
When we broke it down afterwards, we knew our problem was we came in with the wrong mindset. We had the wrong attitude. Without saying it, we had it in our heads that we’ve played Galway a load of times and we always beat them in the end. We had nothing to prove and nothing to fear.
Again, this is all unconscious. Nobody goes around training saying these things. Funny enough, it would nearly be better if somebody did because then everyone would come down on him like a ton of bricks and it might put us on edge. But nobody was on edge that week. Not properly, anyway.
When I was properly focused, I was in a constant state of preparation the week of a game
I remember one of the county board officials remarking early on in the week that ticket sales were slow. There was word it was going to rain on Sunday as well. The public wasn’t up for it because they thought it was a foregone conclusion. There was a casualness to it all.
That usually wouldn’t matter. When I was properly focused, I was in a constant state of preparation the week of a game. If you met me in the street, you probably went home thinking Jackie Tyrrell is an ignorant bollocks. I probably pretended my phone was ringing in my pocket and cut you off to “answer” it. Sorry. Not sorry.
In the week of a game, my bedtime every night was always 10 o’clock. I’d find myself some nights letting it slip to 10.10, then realising it all of a sudden and getting annoyed, giving out to myself that I wasn’t asleep already. My way of approaching a big game was to make sure every facet of my life was on edge so that I wouldn’t be flat on the day. It was about being in a constant state of unease, so that I would let nothing slip come Sunday.
Ticket sales? Don’t care. Rain? Bad crowds? Don’t care, shut it out. Concentrate
So the casualness is only a problem if you let it be a problem. When we were at the height of our powers, we had to almost have a 24/7 mental shield in our daily routine in Kilkenny. We had to learn that anywhere we went, in our day-to-day jobs or everyday lives, we had to protect ourselves from this talk, this bullshit. But we’re only human. Some of it seeps in, no matter how mentally strong you are. That was one of those weeks.
Me or him
We didn’t reset properly. We thought we had Galway’s number. We thought we knew what to expect because we’d faced them before. We weren’t on edge. We weren’t nervous.
I was usually good at shutting out all the noise. Ticket sales? Don’t care. Rain? Bad crowds? Don’t care, shut it out. Concentrate. Prepare for Monday training. Recover. Prepare for Wednesday training. Don’t drift. Think about who you’re marking on Sunday. Be ruthless. Me or him? Me or him?
I think the main reason I had to be like that is what I said at the start – you never know a flat performance is coming. You can’t detect it so you have to nearly be paranoid about it. You have to be over-careful not to let it in. Because by the time you find out, it’s too late. Joe Canning is wheeling away with his hand in the air and you’re done for.
The mind is in charge. That was one thing I learned down the years. People talk about the sky’s the limit but again, that doesn’t mean anything. In reality, the limit to what the body can achieve is in the mind. We stayed within our limits during that week and on that match day. Galway broke through theirs.
Every game is different but I think there are clear parallels with what happened to Tipperary last Sunday. They looked like a team that had been softened by success. There was no edge to them, no steel. And as a result, they were so sloppy when it came to doing simple things.
What those small mistakes told me was that these guys weren’t ready for the game Galway brought
Around the 25-minute mark, Mickey Cahill went to flick a ball out to Ronan Maher. It was a 20-metre ball, simple stuff. But not only did he play a bad ball, Maher wasn’t on his wavelength at all and missed it completely. Joe Canning nipped in and whipped it over the bar. Even Maher’s body language going after Joe was sort of resigned. He made a token effort and no more.
That’s not the Tipperary that won the All-Ireland. What those small mistakes told me was that these guys weren’t ready for the game Galway brought. They didn’t fancy a day where Galway were going to be constantly up in their grill. There was no pressure on either Cahill or Maher there and they still made a mess of it. Just not tuned in. Flat as pancakes.
When your day is going like that, it’s almost impossible it turn it around. Unless you have three or four unbelievable leaders who decide to take the game on themselves, you’ll just have to stick it out and wait for the final whistle so you can get on the bus and go home. Because the killer is that just as your confidence is draining and you’ve become resigned to your fate, the other team are growing all the time.
A perfect example of that was Conor Whelan’s point from the sideline in the second half. Cathal Barrett had a poor day but I don’t think he did an awful lot wrong there. He shielded him out until he had his heels on the sideline but Whelan jinked back and threw over an audacious score. That’s the sort of thing you have the confidence to pull off on a good day and it’s what happens to corner-backs on a bad day. Two guys in two different head-spaces.
The good news for Tipp is they won’t be as flat the next day. As long as they use this properly, it will be a warning they won’t forget for the rest of the year. The important thing for them now is to feel the hurt. Let it hurt. Breathe it in. Realise what it tastes like. It tastes like shit.
There’s nothing I saw in Tipperary that would make me think there was a serious structural issue or anything major that can’t be remedied. As long as they don’t brush it off as one of those things, they will be fine.
I can’t see Michael Ryan letting them take that attitude. I expect this to make them harder and you can be sure that the week of the Cork game, they will be on edge. The way they should be.