Jackie Tyrrell: Sweeper masterstroke will not stop Galway again

Moving Colm Galvin saved Clare’s season but champions will be wise to it in Thurles

Colm Galvin attempts to shake off Galway’s Jonathan Glynn in Croke Park last Saturday. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Colm Galvin attempts to shake off Galway’s Jonathan Glynn in Croke Park last Saturday. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

Watching back the Clare v Galway game from Saturday night, it was fascinating to see how early Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor made the switch that saved the game and their season. Just as the clock ticked towards the 13-minute mark, Colm Galvin makes a great block-down on Johnny Coen in midfield, just down in front of the Hogan Stand. After a skirmish between them, the ball goes out for a Clare sideline ball.

On TV, they switch to the sideline camera so we can see – and hear – what happens at the pivotal moment of the game. Galvin and Peter Duggan go over to collect the ball and as Duggan bends down to place it, you can see Clare selector Gavin Keary come in from the left of the shot and put his hand on Galvin’s back.

“Colm, the D,” he says, or something to that effect. Galvin trots back on to the pitch and in towards the sweeper position and Keary runs out on to the field to organise the rest of the backline as Duggan takes the sideline. The clock reads 13:02.

Clare’s managers Gerry O’Connor and Donal Moloney look on as Galway’s Joe Canning leaves the field the injured. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Clare’s managers Gerry O’Connor and Donal Moloney look on as Galway’s Joe Canning leaves the field the injured. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

We know now that it worked out better than they could even have hoped for. But even if it hadn’t, you have to admire the fact they were prepared to completely overhaul their system and structure so early in the game. It might look obvious to everybody now, but those lads were making a call in the heat of battle with their season slipping away from them.

Fire-fighting

At that juncture, Clare were fighting fires all over the place. Not small sparks, now – I mean roaring forest fires with 20-foot flames. In that period, Galway had turned over two short puck-outs which resulted in Joe Canning and Conor Whelan scoring points. They were being murdered in the middle third. They weren’t winning breaks in that area of the field and when they brought the ball into that zone, Galway man-handled them and just took the ball off them, like candy from a kid.

On top of that, Clare couldn’t win a long puck-out. They couldn’t work the ball out from short puck-outs to create a half-back platform to deliver quality ball to their forwards. For Coen’s point that put Galway 0-5 to 0-1 ahead, he ran through the middle and pointed from 40 metres – there was so much space you could have had Ed Sheeran’s stage there and he still would have had room to score.

By shifting Galvin back, Clare were able to close off that space. The full-back line could afford to try to break high ball, with Galvin around to help. Donal Tuohy had an outlet for short puck-outs. Most of all, Clare were able to get numbers in and around the middle third so they could compete, come out with the ball and get a foothold in the game. It’s actually incredible that they were able kill all those birds with one stone.

Now, obviously, they were desperate and had to try something. But how many times have you watched a game where the sideline made their move too late? They did this after only 13 minutes. There was no question of them having undying loyalty to their system of play or anything like that. Remember, the first thing Moloney and O’Connor did when they came in was get rid of the sweeper. It was a key part of them taking ownership of the job.

They could have stood there and been stubborn about it and made a big show afterwards of going down in flames by sticking to their system. But instead, they rolled the dice and tried to save their championship by putting in Galvin at sweeper despite the fact he had never been used there before. If you want to know how big a risk it was, you only need to watch the five minutes after he moved back to see how it could have gone badly wrong.

Between the 13th and 18th minute, you definitely couldn’t argue Galvin improved matters in the Clare defence. He was one of the four defenders in and around Johnny Glynn when the ball squirted loose for Conor Cooney’s goal. By rights, as the sweeper, he was the one who should have been taking charge of the situation. A minute later, he botched a short puck-out and Canning put Galway 1-7 to 0-1 ahead.

Took over

From that point on, though, he completely took over the game. Galway got the ball into the Clare full-back line seven times over the next five minutes for no scoring return – and Galvin was the prime reason for this. Of those seven balls, he caught, turned over, or cleared five of them. Two of his clearances were direct passes for scores, one sending Shane O’Donnell away, the other finding Tony Kelly for a great point. It was like a dictionary definition of getting a foothold in the game.

For the next 78 minutes, he was simply outstanding. People say that’s easy when you’re a free man – it’s not. There is huge pressure on you to play the perfect game, even more so on Saturday when Clare were miles behind on the scoreboard and couldn’t afford any more mistakes. He had to be an option for every ball that entered that half of the field. Every touch and strike he made had to be of the highest quality.

He also had more decisions to make than everyone else in the Clare team. If you’re playing man-on-man, a lot of your decisions are made for you. Everything’s happening so quickly that you usually have very little option but to play what’s in front of you. But every time Galvin swept on to the ball, he had to make up his mind as he was going there what he was going to do. Run it, pass it, short ball, long ball, left, right, back to the ’keeper – all this with a pack of ravenous Galway monsters chasing him down. It was a brilliant performance.

What baffled me was that Galway found it so hard to play around him. They have been down this road before plenty of times recently ,with Wexford and Waterford last year, and have beaten those teams by just limiting the influence of the sweeper. Shaun Murphy and Tadhg de Burca have just been taken out of the game at one end through clever movement of the ball and Aidan Harte has been freed in those games to dominate as the spare man in the Galway defence.

Caught cold

Last Saturday, neither of those things happened. Galvin was a magnet for Galway clearances and I thought Harte had his poorest game in a long time. You have to think that Galway were just caught cold.

Funny enough, that’s where making the change so early probably worked in Clare’s favour. Galway had two weeks to prepare for Clare and would have broken them down piece by piece – strengths, weaknesses and playing patterns. I’d say it’s a good bet that the word sweeper wasn’t mentioned once. Why would it be? Clare haven’t played with one for two years.

So if you’re Galway and you’ve started the game like a train, you’re hardly going to change your gameplan just because Clare have stuck an extra man back there. Especially when you’re 1-7 to 0-1 ahead. Even as Clare found their way back into it by half-time, you could forgive Galway for being slightly caught on the hop. Things had been going so well, it would have been very hard to go away from what had been working.

But as the game wore on, I don’t think there’s any excuse for Galway not adapting. If you only take normal time, Galway lost the period after Galvin went in at sweeper by 0-25 to 1-17. When Seán Loftus went in as sweeper for extra-time, he definitely improved matters – the extra-time score was 1-4 to 0-7. There is a balance to be found when playing against an extra defender and it took them far too long to find it.

The question now for Clare is whether to go with the sweeper again in the replay. I get the feeling they might but I really don’t think they should. The chances of catching Galway cold again must be fairly slim. If we were looking at this as just a one-off semi-final, with no drawn game to take into account, you’d say, “Well, Galway generally have no problems with teams playing sweepers – I don’t see any reason they would start now.”

Forewarned

Galway are forewarned. Given a week to do their video analysis and to break everything down, I just think they’ll work their way around it. No way would Galvin get so much space again, no way would Harte be as ineffective as the spare man in the Galway defence again.

When Clare sit down to work out what was the real problem in those early exchanges on Saturday, it was that they had no platform in the middle third. It looked as if Glynn was destroying them but, really and truly, how much trouble were they in back there? The goal came off him but that was down to a mistake more than great play from the Galway full forward. Ironically enough, the mistake was simple bad sweeping rather than anything else.

I think when they look at it, they will realise the bigger problem was that Galway constantly outnumbered Clare in the middle third. Everything else followed from that. It meant Clare players had no time to do anything, which led to handling errors, which coughed up possession, which led to Galway midfielders and half-backs having all the time in the world to aim for Glynn one-on-one on the edge of the square. Johnny is a big man – with that kind of ball going in, you’re going to have problems regardless of how many players you get around him.

To me, the more immediate need for the replay is to get more bodies in and around that middle third. They just don’t have the physical brute strength in one-on-one confrontations with those bigger Galway players to make space for themselves so as to deliver good ball into O’Donnell and John Conlon.

Maybe drop a forward in there, more so than sending a midfielder back to patrol the D. Make it so that those defenders have a quick out-ball rather than having to fight their way out of the jungle. The knock-on effect is that the delivery going into the forward line is flat ball from 60-70 metres rather than high ball from 80-90. Presuming that Galway will have made a definite gameplan to counteract a sweeper, I think an extra man in midfield could be the way to go.

I still stand by my belief that a sweeper will not win you an All-Ireland. I accept that Clare scored 0-25 in an hour’s hurling playing a sweeper on Saturday, which might contradict what I’ve always said about it – ie, that you fundamentally curtail your scoring power by playing with five forwards. But I just think the circumstances of that game on Saturday won’t be replicated.

Galway won’t get caught so cold again and Limerick would have no excuses to get caught in the final. Sweepers absolutely have a role in hurling but the really good teams with players of sharp hurling minds find a way around it.

I have to say, though, for all that I’ve given out about sweepers in the past, it was some masterstroke by the Clare management to pull it out of the bag under those conditions. You have to take your hat off to them.

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