Having watched Davy Fitzgerald's Wexford team up close a few times now, it's impossible not to be impressed with the way he has them playing. Tactically, he seems to have come up with a style of play that is unique to the group of players he has at his disposal. It's definitely something different to anything I've seen in the past.
Ever since Cyril Farrell brought a corner-forward out to midfield in the 1986 All-Ireland semi-final, tactics and game plans have always been a part of hurling. It stunned people at the time but was probably dismissed to a certain extent afterwards as horse-for-courses, a one-off thing for Galway. But no doubt about it, tactics had landed in hurling and would develop to become more complex and detailed as time moved on.
Even saying that, I do think in general that hurling tactics are pretty basic. Essentially that move of bringing an inside forward out to either play around the middle or to supplement the half-back line has been the basis of most gameplans that deviate from the norm. Depending on where a manager feels his team is vulnerable, that’s where the spare man spends most of his day. Spare man, sweeper, seventh defender – call it what you like. It generally amounts to more or less the same thing.
There is the concept of half-forward lines dropping back and bunching the middle third, the war-zone where most games are won and lost. But to me, that’s not a tactic. Maybe I’m splitting hairs to a certain extent but I think that’s about recognising that the middle third is the crucial platform in any game and players taking on leadership roles to try and win that sector.
From time to time, a new team comes up with a game plan all of their own but it doesn’t tend to spread too far. The running game of the Cork team in the mid-noughties was unique to them. It was all about possession retention and when it worked, it was very hard to play against.
I think the reason it never quite caught on was that it demanded an incredibly high skill-set across the pitch and a relentless level of concentration. Basically, it was very difficult to perfect and would take too long for most teams to put into action if they tried. Newly-appointed managers are more likely go with the sweeper tactic if they want to try something different and freshen things up.
Davy has done that with Wexford but he's done it in a really interesting way. Shaun Murphy is the sweeper but it looks to me the greatest trick Davy has pulled is for people to presume that Murphy's positioning is a negative tactic. From watching them in the flesh, I would argue that the opposite is actually the case.
The more I see of Wexford, the more obvious it becomes that Murphy’s positioning is as much an attacking ploy as it is a defensive one. Wexford’s gameplan looks to be to try and suck the opposition into attacking them, turning them over around the 45 and launching their attacks from there. And the key to it is that the other defenders in the team are using Murphy’s presence as a safety net to go and lead the attack themselves.
Wexford's defenders have licence to attack. And it's not just a matter of joining in and being an extra body up there – Davy clearly expects them to get forward and contribute. When they beat Kilkenny the last day, Liam Ryan came up from full-back for a point, Matthew O'Hanlon did the same from centre-back.
Diarmuid O'Keeffe has scored a point in each of his last four games, raiding out from wing-back. Corner-back Simon Donohoe played a crucial role in David Redmond's goal against Kilkenny, sprinting 40 yards up the left wing to collect a Lee Chin pass, riding two tackles and dishing a long handpass into Redmond on the edge of the Kilkenny D. Not alone that, he nearly snuck in for a goal himself but got blocked out for a 65.
That’s four of their main defenders getting forward and contributing in attack in one game. And crucially, it’s not just they were getting forward – they were committing to it, going full-blooded and looking to get on the scoresheet. If it was just one of them, you could say it was a lad who fancied himself as more than just a defender. When it’s four of them, that’s a designed tactic.
It's certainly a major departure from any team I played in. Outside of Tommy Walsh, the Kilkenny defence rarely contributed on the scoreboard – and all of Tommy's scores were from long range. What's more, we wouldn't want to even try. You'd be afraid you'd make a complete bags of it. Do that and you'd have to listen to Richie Power, Eddie Brennan and Eoin Larkin moaning at you for the next week. "Will ye let it into us!" they'd be roaring. And they'd be dead right.
I used to get nervous when I’d find myself up in the forwards. When the rare opportunity came to venture past the opponents’ 65, it would be like an alarm going off in my head. I’d go but I’d feel wrong about it. I’d feel like I was betraying my buddies at the back. I’d nearly hear JJ’s voice in back of my head – ‘Get back here, your job is to defend.’ I wouldn’t shirk it if it had to be done but I was never as confident about it.
In the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final against Limerick, the heavens opened and the game got scrappy and shapeless. A ball broke in midfield, around where I had tracked the run of Seánie Tobin. Conor Fogarty got the ball and I supported him, really just as a token gesture, an extra body. Before I knew it, I was out on the right wing supporting Henry Shefflin. I'd say Henry was as surprised to see me there as I was to be there. I didn't want the ball because obviously Henry is the right man in the right place in that situation.
The most I wanted to be was a decoy who could maybe draw a defender out of position for him and create a bit space. I was way out of my comfort zone. Thankfully Henry didn't use me as an option. I quickly sprinted back to corner-back. Nosebleed over and potential embarrassment over. That's so far removed from the attitude these Wexford players are bringing to Davy's game plan. They're being used as weapons in their own right. And because they're getting success from it, the opposition has to react. At one stage the last day, Richie Hogan and Ger Aylward were the closest Kilkenny players to the Wexford man scoring a point.
Much and all as you’d applaud the lads for chasing back, that’s no good to Kilkenny. Their primary role is not to defend. You don’t want them 30 yards out from the Kilkenny goal making critical decisions on who to go to, which side to push them onto, where to cover. That’s not their game. Wexford must have been delighted to see them back there.
The key point here is that all of this is made possible by Shaun Murphy’s role as sweeper. Some teams use a sweeper solely to cut off the threat of a goal. Wexford use Murphy for more than that. Along with the usual sweeping duties, he is basically the facilitator for the rest of those defenders to commit to attack. They know they can go forward with his blessing and they don’t have that voice in the back of their heads when they get up there that I used to have.
Take Matthew O'Hanlon's point in the dying minutes of the Kilkenny game. Mark Fanning launched a free from the Wexford 14-metre line and Lee Chin made that unbelievable catch on the Kilkenny 45. When he came back down to earth, he laid it off to Jack Guiney who stepped back inside and played a perfectly-weighted diagonal pass to hit O'Hanlon in stride about five yards outside the Kilkenny D. Bang, Wexford were three points up again with 66 minutes on the clock. Chin's catch and Guiney's pass were both things of beauty in that sequence of play. But if you want to find the key to why Wexford are finding success this summer, think about what went into Matthew O'Hanlon being in position to take that score. In what other team would the centre-back run 50 yards from his position in the 66th minute of a game in the hope of getting a pass? That's Wexford in 2017.
It’s one thing giving his players the licence to get forward like that. Davy’s great achievement has been to give them the confidence to do it. Wexford hadn’t beaten Kilkenny in 13 years. But that didn’t matter to O’Hanlon, who knew he was able to go for it in the knowledge that Murphy was covering his position. He wasn’t being cagey, he wasn’t settling for a two-point lead. His instinct was to put the knife into Kilkenny and Murphy’s positioning gave him the freedom to do it.
You have to hand it to Davy. It’s a brilliant evolution of the sweeper system and his players have clearly worked on it over and over again in training to get it right.
Contrast it with Waterford retreating against Kilkenny in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final, where Austin Gleeson was back manning the defence in the closing stages. Conor Fogarty got the equalising score from midfield because Waterford had too many men back defending the D. They paid for being too conservative. Wexford got the reward for being brave.
Wexford have moved the goalposts with this system. It’s great to see defenders expressing themselves in this way and playing with no fear.
I’m just happy I’m not playing any more. All those lung-busting runs from the Wexford defenders looked like a pretty tiring way to spend an afternoon!