Just like every hurling team, every NFL team has a crop of corner backs. Some are up to the job, some aren't. Most are middle of the road. But there's a phrase they reserve for the top guys, the elite corner backs. They call them shutdown corners or lockdown corners.
The shutdown corner is arguably the defence’s most important player. He is the crème de le crème. He is the one who takes on the greatest responsibility and the greatest risk. If an opposing quarter-back senses a weakness, he can end a shutdown corner’s career in the space of a single game. The shutdown tag takes years to earn but you can lose it in the blink of an eye.
The shutdown corner has one job and one job only – to take out the opposition’s best wide receiver. Every day they go out, they’re up against the player who can do the most damage.
He never gets a handy day at the office. He has to be on it for every single play, every single down, for every quarter of every game. He is measured on what the receiver did – how many yards, how many touchdowns, how many catches and how many yards after the catch. There is no hiding place for these guys.
As a result, their profile has risen in the game over the decades. The likes of Jalen Ramsey have been able to earn some of the biggest contracts in the game outside the quarter-backs. Ramsey makes $20 million a year playing for the LA Rams. Most people wouldn't have heard of someone such as Marlon Humphrey for the Ravens – he earns $19.5 million a year.
To put that in context, the best running backs such as Christian McCaffrey, Zeke Elliott and Alvin Kamara – you're talking some of the most famous sportsmen in America – none of them earn more than $15 million-$16 million annually. That tells you just how much these teams value the shutdown corner.
It raises an interesting parallel when it comes to how we value the equivalent of the shutdown corner in hurling. Okay, so they don’t get shown the money and they don’t do the same line in trash talking in the media. But you can look around the game and rank them just the same.
At the top, the creme de la créme, are Seán Finn and Cathal Barrett. They are the studs, the masters of the craft. Then you have the next tier of guys such Richie English, Conor Delaney, Rory Hayes, Conor Gleeson and Shane Reck, all looking to move into the top bracket. The top teams all need one of these guys.
Last Sunday was a perfect illustration of the worth of having one in your team and the problems that arise when you're short that type of player. The loss of Conor Prunty meant Waterford had to play Gleeson at full back on Aron Shanagher. We can all see that Shanagher is a big threat on the edge of the square and when he develops a real cutting edge, Clare will have some weapon in him. But equally, we all know that he isn't Clare's go-to match-winner.
In the build-up to the game, Liam Cahill's number one problem was always going to be what Waterford did to try to shut down Tony Kelly. Now, I don't know if he got swayed by the fact that Calum Lyons had done so well on Kelly last year – even though Kelly was injured early on in that game – or if he'd have sent Gleeson to do the job if Prunty had been available for full back. One way or the other, I still think it was the wrong call to give Lyons that job.
Waterford basically solved two problems for Clare in one fell swoop
Gleeson is the same guy Derek McGrath used as his go to man-marker, the player who nullified Conor Lehane at his best, as well as Alan Cadogan and Richie Hogan in key games for Waterford. Not a bad list of guys to have on your CV, especially when you have them stuffed deep in your back pocket.
Gleeson has all you need for the job – speed, concentration, anticipation, but most importantly a defender’s instinct. He will naturally and instinctively take a step back instead of forward, he will stay and mind the house unless certain of plenty of cover, he will take a calculated risk instead of a chance. Although he plays midfield and centre-forward for his club, he is most comfortable with his own 65 in front of him. Those things matter.
Kelly needs to be handled by a shutdown corner. That has to be the first and foremost thought. Lyons is a brilliant hurler and one of the pillars of the Waterford team. But he’s not a shutdown corner. He doesn’t have that defender’s instinct that Gleeson has. That’s not his thing at all, especially not when someone like Kelly stays in the full-forward line and doesn’t go dropping back out the field.
Waterford basically solved two problems for Clare in one fell swoop. Not only did they not put their tightest marker on Kelly, they also took their most attacking wing back out of the area of the pitch where he does the most damage. It was clever from Brian Lohan to get Kelly to drag Lyons into his own full-back line and keep him there but Waterford should have seen something like that coming.
Lyons is an excellent distributor, he’s strong in the air, he’s athletic and pacy. He thrives on getting forward and creating scores, as well scoring himself from wing back. Because of all that, he occupies forwards in a way they don’t want to be occupied.
A forward’s headspace should look like a scientist’s chalk board, full of attacking formulas, ideas, brainwaves, equations, probability and arrows. His mindset should all be about positive thoughts – how to score, how to get into space, how to get forward, how to feed the ball inside.
No forward wants to have to be thinking about tracking back and carrying out his defensive duties. But that is what Lyons does from wing back. He tests them. He puts negative thoughts in their head. That’s a big thing to give up when you hand him a man-marking job.
I could even live with losing that if he goes and does a good job on Kelly but that wasn’t how it worked out. Kelly still scored 0-5 from play and won another free which he scored himself. Lyons didn’t score at all. I have never seen Lyons play cornerback before – he didn’t look comfortable there. It was shrewd from Lohan. Any day you make the opposition put Ronaldo doing N’Golo Kante’s job, you’ve won the coaching battle.
The elite defenders expect a shutout when they mark the best. No score from play has to be the standard they strive for. Finn and Barrett regularly deliver that type of shutdown and that’s what makes them the best. They know that’s the barometer – not how many balls they clear or how many scores they set up. Their bread and butter is totally defined by what is in the brackets after their opponent’s name in the paper the next day.
They are consumed with being first to the ball, getting (and staying) touch tight, being always there, like flies on cow s**t. Concentration is total and they play without fear. They’re bad news for the forward they’re marking and they get off on that. That has to be the way.
In 2019, Tipperary travelled to Ennis and dismantled Clare in a 13-point drumming. Part of the reason for that was how well Brendan Maher shackled Kelly. It will be interesting to see Liam Sheedy's approach to how to curtail Tony Kelly's influence because this is a different Tony Kelly to two years ago.
Back then, Kelly was struggling for form and confidence. Clare hadn’t really nailed down what his position should be. A lot of the time, he was coming too deep to get possession and was too far from goal to score and really influence the game. That suited Maher down to the ground – he had no problem being further up the pitch and could affect the game himself from there.
Now Kelly plays a floating role. He has no defined position but he does have a really defined role. He has a licence to go hunt the ball and express himself. Lohan deserves huge credit for Kelly's return to form. He can turn up anywhere from 9 to 15, but essentially he is playing with abandon and flowing with intent and confidence.
If I was Sheedy, I'd have been ringing Cathal Barrett last Sunday evening at 5.05pm. A very short call, one message. Kelly is yours. For two hours next weekend, if Kelly goes to Nancy Blakes in Limerick for a pint, you are there peeping over his shoulder going, 'And the bacon fries for me, Tony.'
When Kelly is inside the Tipperary half, Barrett should be by his side and the next Tipperary defender should be no more than 10 yards away
Tipperary have to plan for Kelly, that’s obvious. I think they do it through Barrett’s shutdown man-marking and an overall team awareness of where Kelly is on the pitch. You want to limit his space. You want to really target the areas and situation he likes to shoot from.
Clare will use Shanagher and, if he returns, Shane O'Donnell to help take the attention away from Kelly. But essentially, Tipperary players from 2 to 12 have to be very wary of where Kelly is at all times. They have to cut down the space around him and delay the delivery of ball into him from John Conlon, Colm Galvin and the rest.
When Kelly is inside the Tipperary half, Barrett should be by his side and the next Tipperary defender should be no more than 10 yards away. That will slow down the ball out of the Clare defence, giving Tipp that crucial extra half-second to see what’s what. Their goal will be to make the ball coming out of the Clare defence slow and laboured, which will eventually force Clare into hurrying up and making mistakes.
That’s the theory, anyway. There are a lot of ifs and buts involved but that’s always the way with someone as good as Kelly. That’s why there are so few elite shutdown corner backs in the game to tag these forwards. It’s a very difficult job.
Luckily, we get to see one of the very best take it on on Sunday. Can’t wait.