After 21 minutes of the Tipperary versus Waterford game on Sunday there was a frantic piece of action in the middle third of the field in Thurles. Various players from both sides tried to put manners on the ball until eventually Paudie Maher played a lateral pass to James Barry, who in turn stroked a low ball to Ronan Maher, standing just short of his own 65 with his hand in the air.
The camera angle from behind the goal is perfect for seeing what Tipperary are all about now. As the ball was going from Paudie Maher to Barry, Ronan Maher and Brendan Maher (standing to his right) both took a quick look over left and right shoulders to check where the space was.
As soon as Ronan saw that John McGrath’s corner was empty, his hand shot up, looking for the ball off Barry. He collected the pass and striking across his body off his left side, played a diagonal ball that went 60 metres to top of the right where McGrath was running out from goal to collect it.
Catch, one touch, turn, over the shoulder, point. Not much Noel Connors could have done about it. If you freeze the frame as the ball is coming in, John McGrath is the only Tipp attacker inside the 45 and Waterford have three defenders in there covering zonally. The ball from Ronan Maher was so good and so well-disguised that it took out all three of them.
As I looked on it felt like I was watching my own funeral.
That’s because halfway through the first half of the 2014 All-Ireland final the exact same play happened to me. Talk about déjà vu. Different years, different pitch, different environment, different contributors. Same result.
I chased Noel McGrath around Croke Park that day, but really I was chasing shadows. I was sucking for oxygen, looking for a respite in the cauldron of intensity. The worst thing about it was it felt like Noel was just gliding around Croke Park, constantly out of my reach and I couldn’t shackle him.
At that point Noel was standing at the end of my bed with the plug from my life-support machine in his hand. Looking at me just like in the Mortal Kombat computer game with the finishing move in sight. GAME OVER!
He scorched me for four points that day, and scored an identical point to the one his brother scored against Waterford on Sunday.
The really interesting thing about that is that it isn’t as if Tipperary have been scoring those points day-in, day-out through the five years since.
The Tipp team that went out early in Munster last year was so easily bottled up and yet if you compare the forward line from this game to the one from their final game in 2018, Bubbles O’Dwyer for Billy McCarthy was the only change.
So how does a team who seemed so stuck in a rut, lacking ideas and direction, one that was essentially playing with the handbrake on last year, how does that turn into this?
There is no coincidence here. With Eamon O’Shea back in the Tipperary fold they have put together some off-the-charts stats from their attack. In two games they’ve scored 2-28 and 2-30, with 2-23 and 2-24 from play. Those numbers are devastating.
In these two games Tipperary have been all about movement, creation of space, giving the right ball to the right person at the right time, long ball, short ball, high or low, whatever the situation requires. To put up 4-58 over two games, with 4-47 from play, is incredible stuff.
O’Shea’s fingerprints are all over this attack. They are averaging a score every two minutes. They don’t have any really pacy players, but their roving style and movement opens up a world of space for defences to close off.
Defending against it is a nightmare. You're continually fighting fires and filling gaps. Bubbles starts inside, and moves to centre forward. Jason Forde starts inside, then moves out, Seamus Callanan the same. Out and around, in and away. And then bang – John McGrath is under no pressure even though he's outnumbered by three-to-one.
That’s why I was getting flashbacks to 2014 when I saw how this forward unit sets up and moves and creates space. You make space on a hurling pitch by moving the opposition around, putting them in places they don’t want to be. Tipp took us all over the pitch in that 2014 drawn final, never more so than in their forwards.
I'll never forget there was one stage where Darren Gleeson pinged a puck-out to Noel with me on his tail. His movement had been so constant in the minute or so before it that when he caught the ball, he was standing in midfield. Which meant that I was standing in midfield too. Not good!
I honestly didn’t know what to do. I was in an alien space. I’m sure anyone in the crowd who saw this was thinking, “what in the name of God is Tyrrell doing out there?” Trust me, I was thinking the same thing. All that was in my mind was, “I need to get out of here”.
I’d say it was pretty much the first time in my career that I had spent any significant time where I was closer to the opponent’s goal than my own. In an All-Ireland final! Crazy stuff.
The worst of it was I could sense that Noel knew this. Tipp knew they had our number that day. They looked us straight in the eye and just went past us as if we didn’t exist at times. It left us in a spin. I had a headache after the game, purely from trying to concentrate on what they were doing.
They beat our backs all ends up in that game. We conceded 1-28, which really hurt us. But then everybody knows that. A more interesting subject for this column to get into is what we did to turn it around in the 20 days between that game and the replay.
We bounced back and held them to 2-14 the second time around. Tipperary didn’t get any less talented or any less slick or any less motivated in those 20 days yet we were able to bottle them up. How? What was the difference?
When we sat back and looked at the game, we boiled it down to three things that essentially had to change if we were to contain them. Broadly, we split these into match-ups, defensive fluidity and cohesion.
The first one was obvious. We had to get our match-ups right the next day, which meant everyone knew early on who their target would be. I was detailed to be on Bubbles, JJ Delaney would take Callanan, with Paul Murphy going on to Lar.
Kieran Joyce was drafted in at centre-back to take on Bonner Maher, Cillian Buckley picked up Noel McGrath, and Pádraig Walsh came in at wing-back to make use of his aerial ability.
The next thing was defensive fluidity, the starting point of which was simple – when they set foot inside our 65-metre line they were ours, the backs. Outside of that distance it was the job of our midfielders and forwards to spot the danger and pick them up. We reasoned they wouldn’t be able to hurt us all that much that far out.
We decided as well that we weren’t going to be stuck to our positions. We were going to trust our match-ups and every man was going to do a proper man-marking job. We were going to be touch-tight at all times – if air or light could get between you and your man you weren’t tight enough.
The consequence of this fluidity was that we were going to find ourselves popping up in positions that we weren’t naturally familiar with. So in the training sessions during that three-week period we all made ourselves comfortable in different places on the pitch. When the ball was in play, you followed and tracked your man no matter where he went until the ball went dead.
We orchestrated training so that you could end up in three or four different positions over the course of one passage of play. You could start off corner-back, get pulled out to half back, follow your man back into full-back and finish in the other corner. You might have covered 80 yards and not seen the ball.
When the ball went dead we restructured our shape – JJ went to the edge of the square, Joycey went to six and we filled in around them. By the time the replay came around, we were used to it and expected it.
Great defensive plays
The third element was cohesion. Basically, none of us were to be out there defending alone. The best example of it came with JJ’s hook on Callanan, one of the great defensive plays executed in Croke Park. Most people who are any way into hurling could describe it to you – Seamie bearing down on goal, JJ trailing in his wake, Seamie pulling the trigger and JJ getting his stick in to foil him.
For us what came next was every bit as important. JJ got the hook alright, but he had to dive headlong to do it so when the ball spilled at Callanan's feet, JJ was sprawled on the ground, out of the game. Watch it back and you'll see that Callanan only had to readjust his feet and he still had a free shot, no more than six or seven yards out from goal. Eoin Murphy had moved his body to go to save the first attempt and was in the process of getting himself set again for the second.
JJ’s hook was amazing, but if Callanan had been able to whip on the loose ball and bury it to the net, nobody would remember it. The reason it lives on to this day is that Pádraig Walsh had made a covering run while JJ was chasing Callanan, and was able to be in and disrupt Seamie’s second swing at it. Pádraig didn’t even touch the ball – he just threw his hip into Seamie’s and Paul Murphy was able to come in and scoop it up and make the clearance.
That was the key to the cohesion part of the plan. You backed each other up and you trusted that if a Tipp forward got around you, the cavalry wasn’t going to be far behind. It was a simplistic approach, but when carried out with conviction and hurt it made for a dangerous and effective system.
Five years on and Tipperary look to be back in the groove, with all the old Eamon O’Shea movement in play again. We were able to hold them in the replay in 2014 so it can be done. But it takes a lot of planning, a lot of discipline and if there’s a bit of luck thrown in, it won’t do any harm.