Jackie Tyrrell: Problem-free Galway can reach their goal
Secure at full back and with a better balance in attack, Tribesmen get the nod over Déise
Galway players stand for the national anthem before the semi-final against Tipperary. Can they end the long wait since 1988? Photograph: Tommy Grealy/Inpho
In an All-Ireland final, there’s a mental battle to be fought and overcome before you ever set foot on the grass. I often found myself taking time in the week of a final to think about what the opposition were thinking or doing.
Did they go on a camp? Had they their team picked from 10 days out? If I had a marking job, I’d wonder about the guy I’d be up against. What was Lar Corbett doing that night? What was he thinking? What were his worries going into the game? What was he confident about? What were the things he was envisioning for himself on Sunday?
The mental battle here is interesting because it’s a unique final. No All-Ireland winners on either side. There won’t be one player on the pitch who knows what it’s like to see out the last 10 minutes of an All-Ireland final. Nobody on the sideline either. So neither side has that psychological advantage on Sunday. Everyone is in uncharted territory.
That means it’s actually quite straightforward for a player wondering what the other crowd are thinking this week. They’re thinking the exact same thing as you. They’re having to visualise what winning an All-Ireland will look like because they can’t say for certain.
Both sides are so incredibly similar. They’ve both suffered hugely disappointing losses on massive days. They’ve both been close to the promised land on many occasions. They both have long gaps without an All-Ireland, hugely passionate fans, tradition, expectation. Neither of them can say afterwards that the weight of all that stuff made any difference because it’s the same for both sides. That breeds comfort in a way, knowing that the other team is feeling that exact same thing.
The upshot of that is it cuts down on the likelihood of a game where one side goes behind early and loses heart. If there’s an early goal on Sunday, there’ll be nobody thinking, “Aw, here we go again, this crowd always does this to us”. Nobody has that sort of baggage in this game. For that reason, I don’t see one side or the other running away with it.
Galway come in as favourites. They haven’t made many changes to their team as the summer has gone on – and why would they? They found solutions to their age-old problems at full-back and centre-back in Daithí Burke and Gearóid McInerney. Men – and I do mean men – who form a spine and give them meanness and ruggedness down the middle of their defence. They dare anyone to come down their alleyway and unless you have a steeliness, brute force and maybe even an extra Weetabix eaten that morning, you’re at nothing.
That’s their platform and the rest of the team builds from there. The question of where to play Joe Canning has been resolved after years of them overthinking it. He has a clearly-defined role at 11 – go get on the ball and influence the game. Scoring is a bonus but making things happen is a necessity.
The burden of Joe needing to score upwards of five or six points a game from play is gone. Conor Whelan, Conor Cooney and Joseph Cooney have all picked that slack up and added to it, with Jason Flynn and Cathal Mannion contributing too.
They play a direct brand of hurling, feeding the forwards quick, direct and varied balls – high for the massive inside forwards like Joe and the Cooneys or else low to the dynamic and lethal Whelan. This attack has it all – variety, power, roving forwards, skill and finishers. They can mix it physically and also have the flexibility and ability to play against a sweeper system like they did against Wexford in the Leinster final. Aidan Harte has the flexibility to play sweeper or orthodox wing-back. He will have to do both on Sunday at different stages in the game.
Waterford have tinkered with their style and tactics over the summer. That’s just good management – if it’s not working, do something about it. They played a more traditional man-on-man against Cork in the Munster semi-final and it didn’t work. They looked confused at times, stuck almost, so they reverted to what they know best.
Seven backs with Tadhg de Burca free. Congest the middle of the field, win the battle in the trenches and move at speed to support their forwards. Dictate the game for the first 50 minutes to frustrate the opposition, then kick for home when Maurice Shanahan comes on. Spread the field, use speedy subs like Brian O’Halloran and Patrick Curran to run the finish out of tired legs in the opposition.
Maurice’s role is hugely influential. The other subs on both sides will come on and work within the confines of the game but Maurice is the only player who will come off the bench and change the pattern of how the game is being played.
When he is there, the Waterford players know that they can withdraw a little deeper because that long ball to Maurice is a viable option. When he isn’t there, they have to move it through the hands, use runners, be more careful. Maurice gives them a focal point in attack, a physical presence on the edge of the square, he contributes on the scoreboard and has an ability to win frees. As a result, he makes space for Jamie Barron and Austin Gleeson to do their thing.
The placement of Austin Gleeson at 11 has paid dividends. He basically has the same job as Joe Canning now – get on the ball, create chances, make things happen. Just wait for the buzz when he gets on the ball in the half-forward line on Sunday and turns for goal. You could say Waterford have overthought it a bit with him as well as times but now it’s pretty simple – get your most influential player in the best position to make things happen.
The positioning of Brick Walsh will be fascinating. He has exposed weaknesses in Willie Devereux and Mark Coleman over the last two games but that element of surprise is gone now. So do they try it again? Who do they match him up on? Maybe they go to the wings and try and go after John Hanbury.
Maybe they change it up altogether, play him at full-forward and make him Daithí Burke’s problem. I don’t think they will but it would be a ballsy move. Put him in there and puck the first couple of high balls down on top of him so that Burke has to get into a war with him. Then have him drift out to the wings so that Burke has to decide whether to go with him or not. Of all things, Galway won’t want Burke moving from full-back on the edge of the square.
That’s what All-Ireland finals are about. Making the other team feel uncomfortable on the biggest day of their lives. Putting them in situations they don’t want to be in. When I marked Lar Corbett in the 2011 final, the one question Tipp didn’t ask of us was how I’d feel if the rest of the Tipp attack moved out and left me and Lar one-on-one in front of the goal. That’s where he destroyed us in 2010 and got his hat-trick. But a year later, he played corner-forward, wing-forward, centre-forward, moved all around – just not on the edge of the square. I wasn’t complaining, put it that way.
The whole thinking behind Waterford’s game plan is to make the opposition uncomfortable. That’s why they congest the middle, that’s what the sweeper is for – to pick up the breaks when the rest of the defence makes the play scrappy and the ball untidy. So when you look at the challenge that is going to be set for the Galway attack, it’s going to take a lot of mental strength to overcome.
Those Galway forwards are going to be under pressure right from the start. No room, no time, no easy ball. They’ll be nervous already and every minute that passes without them getting into it, those nerves will jangle that bit more. It’s easy to say to them, “just get yourself into the game” but not so easy to do.
That’s where on-field leadership comes into it. You can’t stick rigidly to any game plan. You have to have the licence to be able to go, “right, I’ll switch with you for five minutes there, let me get on the ball”. You have to always remember too that there’s 30 players on the pitch and limited time in the game – you’re probably only going to get three or four possessions in a half.
What are you going to do with it? Where are you going to get it? Where are the posts? Know before it’s in your hands whether you can shoot or not. Where is the runner off your shoulder going to be? Where is the referee? Can you buy a free?
Conor Whelan, the Cooneys, Joe – they’re going to have to score points from the sideline, points with the short grip, instinctive scores that are gone over the bar before they’ve had time to wonder was it the right thing to do. That’s the pressure Waterford are going to put them under. They have to execute.
And if they do, those points nearly count double. I’ve been on fellas who’ve scored from the sideline and it’s a killer feeling for any corner-back. The crowd has that half-second longer to realise it’s going over the bar - one stand sees it, then the other stand joins in. The cumulative effect is of a bigger, longer roar than a normal run-of-the-mill point. Each of those Galway forwards has scored points from the sideline through the season and they’ll need more of them on Sunday.
The big question for Waterford is what happens if those Galway forwards start the game on fire. What if they’re five points down after 20 minutes? They haven’t really found themselves in that position yet where the opposition is sitting there going: “Right lads, you’re playing a sweeper but you’re going to need a goal to beat us – what’s your move?”
Waterford are so good at the sweeper system, every fibre of their being must want to keep doing it. It will be so hard for them to commit more men forward than they usually do. At best, they’ll push five men forward – but it’s still incredibly difficult to score a goal with five against six up there. They will want to keep it tight, hope that they get to 50 minutes with, at most, three points in it. Then see what they can achieve with Maurice Shanahan in the game.
All in all, I’m going with Galway for two reasons. Daithí Burke’s impressive displays at full back have helped to give them a secure platform this season. And two, the evolution of their attack that means Joe doesn’t have to carry the full weight of the scoring burden. That frees him up to be a creator and a worker around the middle third and not to feel he has to shoot every ball that comes his way.
Combined, those two factors give Galway a better balance and lead me to just about give them the nod over Waterford.