Hurling is evolving. It’s there for everyone to see. It’s there for everyone to hear too – you can’t turn on the radio these days without coming across hurling people sniping at each other over sweeper systems and negative tactics and all the rest of it. I’ve done plenty on the sweeper phenomenon myself.
But instead of getting bogged down in the pros and cons of all these systems, I think a more interesting way to come at it is to look at the effect of these changes on the type of player that has come to prominence. Or, more to the point, the type of player who has been lost along the way. I’m thinking here specifically of the great old lynchpin of teams of the past – the full back.
Growing up in the mid-’90s, I was blessed with one of the greatest eras hurling has ever seen. All that Guinness advertising – Not Men But Giants, etc – all those great games. I went to every Kilkenny game no matter where it was and come Sunday afternoon, there’s only one place you’d find me – sitting in front of the TV with my father ready to watch the hurling.
The truth is, full backs are different now because the game is different
Go through all those brilliant teams of that era and through the turn of the century and the one position that really jumps out at you in terms of iconic figures is full back. Brian Lohan, Diarmuid O'Sullivan, Philip Maher, Seán Cullinane, Ger Cushe, Pat O'Neill, Kevin Kinahan, Noel Hickey, Mike Nash. You never heard these guys referred to as mere defenders. They were full backs.
At the time, to be a full back meant something specific. You could close your eyes and picture a full back. Big, strong men. Six-foot plus. No nonsense – with everything that implies. Uncompromising. Guardians of the square, first and foremost. Protecting the goal, no matter what happened. Natural full backs who didn’t play any other position.
Think of that sort of player and think of hurling today. He doesn’t really exist. Go through the counties and pick your full-back – very few of them are out-and-out specialists any more. Richie McCarthy in Limerick, Barry Coughlan in Waterford. Maybe David McInerney in Clare at a push, but even there, he’s a guy who you could imagine playing in a few positions.
The truth is, full backs are different now because the game is different. No position on the pitch has been affected by the changes in the modern game as much as full back. The role itself is different. The demands required are different. Even the actual physical position on the pitch has changed.
It isn’t enough for him to just mind the square anymore. Most of the time, he’s one of two man-markers covering across the full-back line and the range of his responsibilities brings him away from his goalkeeper far more than in the past.
Because of this, there's so much more chopping and changing of players now. Neither of the last two All Star full backs have kept the jersey – Joey Holden was playing wing back the following season for Kilkenny, James Barry has been shifted out to corner back for Tipperary. As the demands change, managers try to adapt.
Full back has become a problem position in a lot of counties as a result. It looks to me like a lot of teams have struggled to define what a full back is and what they want from him. What sort of physical make-up do they want? A big strong man to dominate the square or a lightning-fast defender to mark a forward out of it?
What skillset do they prioritise? So far this summer we have seen Liam Ryan of Wexford break out of defence and knock over a point from midfield, not a thought in his head about where his man was. David McInerney did the same in the Munster final, a game in which Damien Cahalane went on an 80-yard solo-run the length of Semple Stadium to set up the sealing point. I was watching him do that and thinking of Ger Cushe in '90s – Ger could have torn both hamstrings even thinking about it.
Full back was always a specialised position. It demanded more thinking than any other position. You had to decide when to go for a ball and when to mind the square and leave it through to your goalkeeper. You were the fulcrum of the back seven, the key communicator between your goalkeeper, your corner backs and your centre back. The buck stopped with you. One slip and it was a goal. High pressure. Always on, no matter where the ball was.
Days of the hero full back coming out and making a massive catch before driving the ball 100 yards up the field are gone
I played with two of the best. Noel Hickey and JJ Delaney were different types of full backs. Noel was always mad to get out in front of his man and win the ball. JJ wasn’t as keen on that and preferred to stay behind the attacker. The big help JJ got was that our forwards were so good at hunting down men out the field that opposition defenders would have to lean back to get a swing on the ball and that would result in the sort of high, looping delivery into the full-forward line that JJ just ate up.
But what they both had was an innate feeling for decision-making. When to go to the ball, when to stay on the square. They were both able to delay until the last possible second the point at which they left the front of the goal, giving their corner back time to shift across and cover for them. Timing was everything.
In a way, the evolution of the modern game has liberated the full back. He still has to be good in the air but being good in the air means something different now. If you’re marking the opposition’s main strike forward, your job isn’t to catch that high ball coming in – it’s to stop him catching it.
Full backs now wouldn’t be encouraged to try and make that catch because there’s no need to risk it. The percentage play is to make sure the ball goes to the ground and one or other of your goalkeeper or spare defender/sweeper will come in and scoop it up. The days of the hero full back coming out and making a massive catch before driving the ball 100 yards up the field are gone. It’s not that nobody can do that any more, it’s that it’s more or less coached out of them.
Your relationship with the sweeper in front of you is as important now as the one with your goalkeeper behind you
And anyway, there just aren’t as many high balls coming in on top of the square in most games. The more tiki-taka the game has become, the more attackers who are drawn out the pitch, the more shots are taken from out the field. How many times in a game will the ball be pumped into the big full-forward? Tipp will try to feed Seamie Callanan on Sunday week, so Daithí Burke will have a big job on his hands under the high ball. But in the Cork v Waterford game the week after, you mightn’t see three balls land in the square in the whole game.
And when you do, there's no guarantee that the lad with the number three on his back will be the one who has to deal with it. Forwards rotate all the time, defenders rotate with them. You have to be fluid across your back six so that if, say, Austin Gleeson drifts in there for Waterford, it's not necessarily up to Damien Cahalane to be the one whose job it is to stop him. It could be Mark Ellis dropping back or Colm Spillane shifting across.
You wouldn’t call them full backs but in that moment, a full back is what they’re needed to be. A full back now needs to be adaptable. You need to be able to play corner back as well. You need to be athletic, be able to cover the ground, have good spatial awareness, and be a good distributor.
Your relationship with the sweeper in front of you is as important now as the one with your goalkeeper behind you. Before, you had two main choices – go for a ball and try to either catch it or break it to yourself, or do enough to put the full forward off and let it through to the goalkeeper. Now, your first option is nearly always to bring your sweeper in to mop up possession. You have to know how he thinks and he has to know how you think.
It’s one reason Tadhg de Burca is going to be massive loss if he’s missing for Waterford against Cork. Barry Coughlan nearly has a telepathic relationship with him. Go back and watch any recent Waterford game and count the number of times Coughlan deflects a ball into De Burca’s path. He always knows where his sweeper is and never worries about getting the ball into his own hand if he can get it into De Burca’s. That’s what modern full-back play is about.
At least that’s what it is at the minute. Like everything else, these things go in cycles and the old-style full back will undoubtedly come back into vogue again eventually. We might even see it by the end of this championship. It’s very possible that we could be sitting around on the first Sunday night in September saying that one of the key components to Galway winning the All-Ireland was Daithí Burke at full back. And then all of a sudden, full back will be a sexy position again.
With some positions, you can turn a good hurler into anything.
It’s like in football. For years, the big man at full forward fell out of favour. But then Kieran Donaghy came in for Kerry and won an All-Ireland and next thing you know, every team went looking for a six-foot-five lad to throw in on the edge of the square. The old-style full back will become the new-style full back eventually. Nothing surer.
I feel counties need to invest time in getting great former full backs back into their coaching systems and educate the kids in development squads, passing on those valuable instincts that full backs need. The position is too valuable not to invest that time and work into it.
With some positions, you can turn a good hurler into anything. When Galway's Aidan Harte started his career, I was marking him. He was a corner forward then, now he's a excellent wing back who is probably in line for an All Star.
But I do think that when it comes to full back, it’s the one position that you can’t turn a player into overnight or even over a number of games. It takes time, coaching and a strong mindset to get a player to a point where he will be able to survive in that high-pressured position. In that sense, I’m not surprised that some teams feel they need sweepers.
I’d imagine that more full backs that are grown and nurtured, the fewer sweepers you will see over time.