Thirst for goals driving Waterford’s championship challenge

Every Cahill and Bevans team has traded on goals as the preferred currency

If goals are going to decide the 2022 championship, no team has given more notice of their intent to supply them than Waterford. They scored 22 over the course of the league; nobody else scored more than 12. The nine they plundered during the semi-final and final beat the respective totals of Limerick, Tipperary, Galway, Dublin, Wexford, Clare, Offaly and Laois in the five games of the group stage.

"Ah yeah, we train that way," Liam Cahill told TG4 after they ran in five against Wexford last month. "We do our best to create those opportunities. Sometimes we create them and we don't take them. Today we took them. If we're to have any success going forward next Sunday or beyond, we have to take our chances. We have to create them first and we have to take them then. That's the reality of it."

They know all about reality, of course. They don't have to go far back to access it. The 2020 All-Ireland final was barely a minute old and already they were thirsting for goals. From a smart Stephen Bennett turnover, Neil Montgomery pulled two defenders towards him and flicked out a stick pass to Jack Fagan, bearing down on the Limerick 20-metre line.

Freeze the frame. Fagan had jinked away from the crowd as soon as Bennett's interception stuck so now they had a clear run on goal with two men joining in inside him. In any of the scenarios gamed out pre-match, Cahill and Mikey Bevans would have had something exactly like this in mind.

I always think of that as a Tipperary pass – that extra hurley pass. There's a point on but if you take that extra pass, the path to goal opens up

They wouldn't have been preaching restraint either. A year previously, their Tipperary under-20 team started the All-Ireland final against Cork in uncannily similar fashion – turnover ball in the Cork defence inside the first minute, a quick transfer from Conor Bowe to Billy Seymour in behind the cover, a goal there for the taking.

The similarities ended with the finishes. For the Tipp minors in 2019, Seymour dropped the ball low and hit it even lower. It went under the advancing Ger Collins, skidding off the ground short of the goalline and Tipp were away. By the eighth minute, they had four goals on the board and Cork were buried. Case closed. Goals the assailant, no other suspects sought.

For the Waterford seniors a year later, you could say that Fagan tried to go across Nickie Quaid to pick out the top corner. A less benign view would have it that he just turned and shot and hoped a good connection would be enough to send the umpire scurrying. Either way, it flashed high and wide and an unruffled Quaid fished a sliotar out of his bag for the puck-out. As he did so, Dessie Hutchinson stood in the middle of the goal with his arms spread wide, lamenting the extra pass that never came.

Spin the tape on. Waterford v Cork, league final, April 2nd, 2022. Across the 70 minutes, Waterford created four goal chances and didn't waste a single one. Patrick Curran, Stephen Bennett (twice) and Hutchinson all found the net at key times in the game. Every finish was the same. Low, skiddy, bouncing off the ground before it crossed the line – the hardest shot to save. If experience is the name you give to your mistakes, Waterford are at least showing signs of having learned plenty along the way.

“They look really good,” says Derek McGrath. “They’re potent now in a way they weren’t before. That 2020 final against Limerick, they created a lot of goal chances without taking them. You can see the work they’ve done on finishing and you can see that they’ve worked on taking that extra pass when it’s needed to give someone a better shot.

“I always think of that as a Tipperary pass – that extra hurley pass. There’s a point on but if you take that extra pass, the path to goal opens up. They are doing that now. They aren’t getting excited at a handy point. They have their heads up, looking for the extra pass.

“It’s the natural age development of the 2016 under-21 team. It had Stephen Bennett as the fulcrum, with Patrick Curran and DJ Foran coming flying alongside him. Now you have Aussie up in the forwards and Dessie Hutchinson in there as well and you have six forwards who can hurt you any way they want. And they’re all 26, 27 now. Now is their time.”

Cahill and Bevans have been together since 2015, when the former brought the latter on board to coach the Tipp minors. Every team they’ve sent out since then has traded on goals as the preferred currency. Dig through their record together and the pattern of running up merciless goal totals is right there in the dirt.

Seven against Galway in the 2016 All-Ireland minor semi-final. Eight in the 2017 Munster minor championship, despite not making the decider. Six in two games in the All-Ireland under-21 series in 2018. Eight in the under-20 semi-final against Wexford the following year. And now this run-riot league campaign with Waterford.

None of this is by accident. Every team Cahill and Bevans have been involved with together has followed a similar curve. With every group under their stewardship, the goals-per-game ratio has risen with each successive campaign. With the Tipp minors, they went from a goal game in their first year to two a game in their second and 2.66 a game in their third. The 2018 under-21s managed a hefty two goals a game before the 2019 crew went buck mad and scorched the competition with 19 goals in just four matches.

If you portion out their time with Waterford into five separate campaigns – three leagues and two championships – the progression in goals scored is clear. They went from 1.1 per game in the 2020 league to 1.2 a game in that year’s championship. Last year’s league ratio went up to 1.6 goals per game, the championship rose to 2.4. They go into the 2022 championship of the back of a league where they posted 3.14 goals per game.

The numbers can be a little hard on the head so let’s boil it down to this. In 10 straight campaigns, their teams have increased their goals-per-game ratio over the previous one. And in all but the very first of those, they have equalled or beaten the average goals per game per county of the rest of the competition they were in. If both of those trends hold for the summer ahead, Waterford must have a huge chance of going all the way.

So many of their goals come from breaking through the lines and bursting past tackles. But to do that, even though it sounds counterintuitive, they actually set up deeper

The question is how they go about it. Goalscoring went out of fashion there for a few years, with both Galway and Limerick carrying off All-Irelands without sweating over how they were going to get the net bulging. But with Limerick having scored at least a goal in every game last year – not to mention three in the final – it’s clear that whoever is going to top them this time around needs to have that club in their bag.

It’s not enough to say you want to go out and score goals, obviously. You may as well say you want world peace. It has to come with a plan and a pattern of play and a series of priorities that tilt the gameplay towards the opposition goal. McGrath has watched Waterford closer than anyone over the past few years and can see a few different trends in how they attend to their business.

“Believe it or not, the key to it all is how deep they set up,” he says. “So many of their goals come from breaking through the lines and bursting past tackles. But to do that, even though it sounds counterintuitive, they actually set up deeper than you’d think before they come at you and counter-attack you.

"So Montgomery is nominally a wing-forward but effectively he's a right half-back helping out Jack Fagan. Jack Prendergast is a centre-forward but he's doubling up helping out Tadhg [de Búrca] and helping out Darragh Lyons. Patrick Curran is doubling up from centre forward as well.

“And what it means is that they have a wall of five in front of Tadhg and all of them get to break forward at any given time. It means there’s an unpredictability about them in that sector and all of them bring attacking pace. And what it does is suck out the opposing defenders so that when they run, they run into grass rather than running into bodies.”

All of which is fine in theory and even pretty good in practice. But it still only buys you the space to make the chance. By far the most notable aspect of Waterford now is the improvement in their finishing. Go back to that 2020 All-Ireland final against Limerick and Fagan’s early miss was far from an only child.

They bring it on another yard if they can so they create cleaner chances for themselves. They are cold-eyed about it

In fact, by the time the final whistle came that day, Waterford had winkled out six goal chances and scored none of them. Fagan's one went wide, Aussie Gleeson tried a miracle shot that whistled a foot over the bar, Stephen Bennett had one blocked by Diarmaid Byrnes and two more saved by Quaid. The Limerick keeper also got down to save one late on from distance by Calum Lyons. Of the six chances, not one was hit low. None of them bounced or skidded. All were taken from outside the large square.

Contrast that to the nine goals Waterford scored against Wexford and Cork to tidy away their league title. Five of the nine went low and bounced short of the line. Three came from a player bearing down on goal until he was one-on-one with the keeper. The other was a roofed finish by Prendergast after Mikey Kiely took the extra pass when he could have shot. The right choice, the right shot, the right man each time.

“There’s a bit more of a killer in them now,” says McGrath. “They bring it on another yard if they can so they create cleaner chances for themselves. They are cold-eyed about it and they have a bloodthirst about them. They’ll take your head off to get a goal.”

Whether it’s enough to bring down Limerick, only the coming months will tell us. The thrill will be in watching them try.

Goalscoring in stats

Liam Cahill and Mikey Bevans have been together running inter-county teams at various levels since 2015. Higher-than-average goalscoring has been a feature of each team they’ve been over – only once in 10 campaigns in league and championship has their team posted below the average goals-per-game-per-team of the competition they were in.

2015 Tipperary Minors
Average goals per game - 1
Competition average - 1.5

2016 Tipperary Minors
Average goals per game - 2
Competition average 1.35

2017 Tipperary Minors
Average goals per game - 2.66
Competition average 1.45

2018 Tipperary Under-21s
Average goals per game - 2
Competition average - 1.76

2019 Tipperary Under-20s
Average goals per game - 4.75
Competition average - 1.39

2020 Waterford (League)
Average goals per game - 1.4
Competition average - 1.17

2020 Waterford (Championship)
Average goals per game - 1.2
Competition average - 1.2

2021 Waterford (League)
Average goals per game - 1.6
Competition average - 1.3

2021 Waterford (Championship)
Average goals per game - 2.4
Competition average - 1.7

2022 Waterford (League)
Average goals per game - 3.14
Competition average - 1.5

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