Jackie Tyrrell: Limerick need to become a moving target to keep the chasing pack at bay
The champions have the manager and players to go back-to-back but they still have to evolve
Limerick celebrate their victory over Waterford in last season’s All-Ireland final at Croke Park. They need to make subtle changes in personnel, positional switches and tactics to keep the opposition guessing. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpoho
The months after you win an All-Ireland are the rollercoaster of a lifetime.
Liam MacCarthy goes to so many social occasions, he has his own separate diary. Joe Biden’s diary isn’t half as full. Players go here, there and everywhere. And no matter how many times you’ve done it or how used to it you get, you still feel the wear and tear of it.
While you’re doing that, your rivals are sitting at home watching and waiting. They’re seeing you pick up All Stars, maybe a Team of the Year award, appearing on TV and radio and podcasts to beat the band. Brian Cody used to talk about lads “going around with a scissors in their pockets, cutting ribbons and opening up businesses”. That was usually the sign to start winding it up.
All the while, the opposition are building an anger. What you have is what they desire. Building up a hunger, a defiance to tear it from your grasp. And the coaches are building a game plan and a structure to give those players the platform to go after it. This is all happening while you’re in the pub.
Or at least you convince yourself it is happening. Come January when the dust settles and the belly hangs out over your togs as proof of the pudding, you feel you are behind the pack. At that time, I always got a heightened sense of anxiety and paranoia as training resumed. I genuinely felt other teams were miles ahead of us.
I had constant thoughts going on in my head. We have taken the eye of the ball. We have huge ground to catch up already. I am so unfit. There’s a load of new lads on the panel. What have the other teams been doing while we were partying? They’re bound to be fit, at least. We’re so far behind.
I can see now that this was me creating a cause. At the time, it was real. I was trying to keep myself on edge and this was the best way to do it. At no stage did I think I was fooling myself into thinking these things. I was certain of them.
I have been looking at Limerick this year so far and trying to get inside their heads. They are now what Kilkenny were year after year in my time playing. They are the team with the target on their backs. They are the ones everyone is gunning for. They make the stakes for every game – there’s far more than two league points on offer each time they go out. Everyone wants their scalp.
I liked it and hated it at the same time. In general, I liked playing under pressure. But having that target on your back meant that if you found yourself on a day when you just weren’t at it, you would invariably end up with a good solid beating for your troubles. The opposition sensed it in you and they took total delight in giving it to you.
So we ended up being drummed by 12 points by Dublin in the 2011 league final. And the following year, Galway gave us a 10-point mauling in the Leinster final.
From the outside, those games would have looked like sensational upsets – we weren’t just beaten by a point here or there, we were absolutely humiliated on both days. But we knew they came from having that target on our backs. We had dished out beatings plenty of times so when it was our turn to be on the other end of one, they weren’t going to spare the rod on us.
We became comfortable with that target after a while and tapped into it as we went along. We made it a factor in the culture of the set-up and used it to keep ourselves accountable. We used it to ramp up training, to set standards. Anything below that standard wasn’t accepted.
Brian had a great way of being able to read the temperature within the panel at any one time. He had a great eye and even just a great feel for the tension in the air, listening for the zip of the ball in the warm up. If a training match was getting hot and heavy, he loved it and let it flow. But if it was only lukewarm, he’d blow the whistle and call everyone into a huddle and let everyone have it for five minutes.
He wouldn’t be going, “Lads, we have a target on our backs”. But he’d stop the game and ask something like, “Is that it?”. And you’d know what he meant. You’d know that what we were after playing wasn’t going to cut the mustard against Tipperary or Galway or whoever else we were going to be facing. You’d know that whatever they were doing right at that minute in their training game, it was with us in mind. And you’d take that back out onto the pitch as soon as he blew the whistle again.
With Limerick, this is the type of experience that they are going through now. The target is a permanent fixture between their shoulders. Everyone is trying to combat their game plan. Everyone is trying to make plans for their half forward line. Everyone is trying to cut off the supply to Aaron Gillane. It’s a level of scrutiny that comes with the territory. It is the ultimate compliment.
The important thing for Limerick now is to become a moving target. Don’t stay static and predictable. For us, our moving target was our panel. Brian constantly freshened it up so that it never became stale or predictable. He was famous for wanting a settled spirit and he genuinely didn’t care who the players were to bring that to the table.
The team dynamic was always changing. Everyone was kept on their toes. Other panel members saw that there was a route into the team and wanted a piece of the real action. Nobody was safe and Brian was an expert at creating that unease amongst us all, almost turning us against each other in a pursuit of the jersey.
So not only did we feel that we had a collective target on our backs, we felt it individually as well. Richie Hogan came through. TJ Reid came through. Paul Murphy, Colin Fennelly, Walter Walsh, Kieran Joyce – all phased in over the years. Young players who came in and frightened the life out of us, made us paranoid that they would take our jersey. Which they did, eventually.
The other thing that management did with us to make us a moving target was to tweak the thing tactically each season. Some of it was just to distract other teams. Some of it was to anticipate where they would come after us.
It was only little things here and there and while the opposition was spending time wondering what they meant or how to combat them, we got on with playing at the highest intensity possible.
Something like moving Richie Hogan to midfield in 2012 is a perfect example. Richie was such a brilliant inside-forward that it didn’t seem to make a lot of sense to bring him out that far from the posts. But it gave him freedom to go wherever he wanted on the pitch to do damage and – just as importantly – it threw the other teams off balance.
It meant they had to plan differently for him, they couldn’t just pigeonhole him as a corner-forward who had to be marked out of the game. He ended up winning Hurler of the Year.
Brian and the management team kept moving players around like that, trying different things. Against certain teams we would place Henry Shefflin on their weakest defender and flood the ball to Henry early in the game.
If we sensed uncertainty in certain defences we would go for goals early. TJ Reid was a renowned ball-winning half forward but just when teams were getting used to that idea of him, Brian moved him to the edge of the square for a year and we rained ball down on him.
Mick Fennelly lined out at centre forward sometimes. Henry, Richie Power and Eddie Brennan all had spells lining out in the half-forwards. Eoin Larkin, Martin Comerford and TJ all had games where they trotted up into the full-forward line at throw-in time. These were subtle tweaks but it meant the opposition really didn’t know what way the forward unit would line up. It would take them five minutes to suss it all out for sure and sometimes by then the damage was done.
I look now at Gearóid Hegarty and Tom Morrissey for Limerick. Everyone knows they will be 10 and 12 and everyone plans accordingly. So why not try Hegarty in at full-forward for a game or two and instead of going short at times, go long to him?
Just to change it up. Just to make yourself a moving target. Just to plant that seed of doubt in the opposition’s head. Give them something they don’t see coming. Give Cian Lynch the number 15 jersey and tell him to stand in at corner-forward from the start. Then tell him to go wherever he wants to, roam around and get on the ball.
Does the opposition corner-back go with him? Does he get passed on? Whose responsibility is he? And while they’re working that out in the madness of the first five minutes of a game, Limerick can be doing damage elsewhere.
It has been a rocky start to the season for Limerick. They definitely seem to feel that they are being refereed differently to other teams. We used to feel that as well. Whether it’s true or not doesn’t really matter – if you tap into it properly, you can use it as a cause.
But they have to be cuter too. Personally, I feel Hegarty is highlighted too much for his physicality. The fact he stands over players does not help his cause – his stature makes him seem more threatening than he is. But he needs to be smarter in the way he tackles and the way he uses that stature.
He is the Hurler of the Year, he is someone that throws his weight around – that’s a combination that will make him a target every time he goes out.
It will be interesting to see how Limerick evolve and how this year goes for them. They have the manager and they have the players to go back-to-back. But they won’t do it by standing still. They have to make that target on their backs harder to hit.