Jackie Tyrrell: Clare all the better for ditching sweeper system
Deploying a sweeper system fundamentally changes the mindset of defenders
Clare defender Brendan Bugler at the launch of the Littlewoods Ireland sponsorship of the All-Ireland Championship. Clare have excellent defenders and don’t need a sweeper system. Photograph: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
From a defender’s point of view, it was interesting to watch Clare develop over the course of the league.
You could see from the early matches that this was a team that had relied on a sweeper for the previous few years. People often talk about giving players time to get used to a system but this was basically the flipside of that. This was needing time to get used to not having a system.
It really jumped out at me in a couple of their early games. Their defenders were hesitant, not attacking the ball, not trying to get out in front of their men. It was clear that they had been mentally programmed for so long to having a Pat Donnellan or a Cian Dillon behind them and they were defending at times as if they still had that security.
They weren’t marking tight. Their body language wasn’t on edge. They needed to be aggressive, cranky, forceful. We’re playing without a sweeper – so what? We don’t need it.
Instead, I thought they looked a bit meek and stand-offish. I’m sure it was an unconscious thing but they played as if they were afraid of making mistakes that were heretofore covered up by a sweeper. They needed to let go of the past and allow themselves the freedom to defend.
It was a great illustration of the damage that the sweeper has done to the mentality of a defender.
A defender’s mentality should be about three main areas – striving to get to the ball first, denying the forward possession and covering for your team-mates. If you can’t do the first thing, you make sure you do all you can to achieve the second. And you trust that if the worst comes to the worst, help is on its way to carry out the third.
But when you have a sweeper, that mentality changes. I think it has made it acceptable to allow the attacker get the ball on the basis that there is a sweeper and cover inside. You step off your man because the desperation to be there first isn’t the predominant thing in your head. It’s no longer the be-all-and-end-all. And if you don’t have that, you’re a different sort of defender.
More than anything, that’s my problem with a sweeper system. It changes the basics of defending. If you’re part of a defence playing a sweeper system, there’s always a temptation to be passive and to just be happy to contain your man so long as there is no goal conceded.
I always loved playing on the edge. A 50-50 battle. Him or me – let’s see who wins. If my opponent got there first, my plan was to show him enough space to one side to tempt him into thinking he could take me. Almost dare him to round you on a certain side. Sometimes they got in but more times my plan worked. When the player went where I wanted, I tried to suffocate him.
Of course that sometimes ended in a score for my opponent. It happens. This is intercounty hurling – the other crowd are training since the middle of winter just the same as you. But as a defender I loved that risk-reward factor. I got a buzz when they took me on and I won the battle. There were times my opponent won a free which resulted in a score. Big deal. You go back to your spot and tell yourself it won’t happen the next time.
I completely see the thinking behind a sweeper system if you’re a developing team. If you’re starting from scratch and you’re trying to build confidence, then creating a system where you will most likely cut down on the amount of goals you are conceding is an obvious place to start. I don’t see any problem with that at all.
But after a while, you have to move away from it. The idea should be to make the players confident in themselves as hurlers without making them reliant on the system. If their confidence is in the spare man mopping up behind them, then they’re instinctively passing on responsibility. Long term, that’s a dangerous instinct to breed.
I would love to see defenders taking more risks and living more on the edge. Sweeper systems usually work against that. Brian Cody always gives players freedom to play their own game and take responsibility. I’d suggest that is one of the reasons Kilkenny were so successful. The players loved that responsibility.
In the three weeks between the drawn game and the replay of the 2014 All-Ireland final, our mantra as a defence was personal responsibility. We had been blitzed by the Tipperary forwards in the drawn game and only for our own forwards, we would have lost the All-Ireland and our defending would have been the reason why. Tipperary scored 1-28 on us. We couldn’t let it happen again.
That was what we kept saying to each other. Hold the Tipp forwards and we’ll win the All-Ireland. It’s down to us. Our confidence has taken a small bit of a battering but so what? Don’t hold back. Keep going. Do the things we’ve always done. Out in front, support each other. If you miss the ball, have confidence that the man behind you or beside you will be covering across. Don’t hold back. Stay true to your values.
The thing is, sweeping is a totally natural part of defending. Every good team has a sweeping system. If you’re being attacked down the right side of your defence, then your left half-back should be covering back a few yards deeper in behind your centre-back and your left half-forward should be dropping back accordingly to help out.
You defend as a team. You rotate your position on the pitch depending on where the ball is coming from. If I’m playing corner-back, I have a responsibility to win my battle with my opponent. But as well as that, my wing-back playing in front of me has to know he can go for a ball with total commitment, safe in the knowledge that if he misses it, I’m sweeping up behind him.
And my full-back has to know the same. If there’s a high ball coming in, he has to know he can go for it without worrying about me getting in his way. He won’t even need to think about it – he’ll know that I’m tucking back in between him and the goal. When you have players taking responsibility, trust in each other naturally follows. And trust is the basis for any good defensive system.
In Kilkenny, our motto was always, ‘Defend from 15 back’. The basics were the same for everybody. Get to the ball first. If that doesn’t work, make it hard for your opponent to get it. Cover across for the man ahead of you or beside you. Work.
For puck-outs, the full-forwards drop to the half-forward line, the half-forwards drop to midfield, midfielders tuck in beside the centre-back. Collective responsibility. If I’m not on the ball, how am I helping? Can I drop 15 yards to make us more compact? Can I discourage them from hitting a crossfield ball?
If I drop and the man behind me drops, then we narrow their options and funnel them into a corner of the pitch where we outnumber them. If everyone on the pitch is thinking that way, I honestly believe there’s no need for a sweeper.
Funnily enough, I never enjoyed playing against a team who sacrificed a forward to play a sweeper. It messed with my head a bit. I wanted to play mano-a-mano. Shake hands, throw the ball in, let the best man win. If I had Paul Murphy left as a spare man beside me to give me an insurance policy, it took an edge off my game.
It meant that when we went out the next day, playing 15-on-15, I couldn’t be sure if I was in the right place with my game. I had nothing to go on. I nearly felt a bit cheated because playing against a sweeper system hadn’t given me the examination I needed. I wanted the nerves of knowing that if I made a slip, the other team was in for a goal. I kind of got off on that.
Clare have excellent defenders and their natural game is to think the same way as I thought. As the league went on, you could see them becoming more confident in playing man-on-man. They needed those games to get rid of the doubts, to put all thoughts of relying on an extra layer of security out of their heads.
They reprogrammed their minds and trusted their natural defending ability. They took risks again. It cost them in some games but by the end of the league, they were getting back into the groove again. As an ex-defender, I was delighted to see it. I believe it will stand to them in the long run.
Since the big GAA story of the week concerns drug-testing, I guess I should tell the one good story I got out of it. I was tested four times in my Kilkenny career. Once, after the 2013 league final in Nowlan Park, my name was picked out and I went with the tester to the little room and started lashing water into me. An hour later, I was getting nowhere. I asked the tester if he had any tips.
“Well,” he said. “I’ve found that some guys go quicker if they have a beer. Is there a pub close by?”
“Are you serious?” I said.
“Can’t hurt,” he said.
So we headed around the corner to McGuinness’s, a pub jammed with Kilkenny and Tipp supporters. I was still in my Kilkenny tracksuit. People were looking at me half-cut, wondering what the hell I was at. I went up and ordered a pint of Guinness, my tester beside me all the way. Three-quarters of the way down the pint, I turned to my man and said, “I’m good to go here.”
And we walked out of the pub and back to Nowlan Park.