Second Opinion: Impact substitutes now vital part of modern GAA
Coming off bench used to be seen as poor consolation but that mindset is changing
The Kerry panel before their league final win over Dublin in Croke Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
There are few simpler pleasures for the Gael on his travels than a pub-wall covered in team photos. Dublin has a few fine, off-the-beaten-track examples of the genre – like the Leeson Lounge, deep in rugby country, or Walsh’s of Stoneybatter. Behind the bar in Toners on Baggot Street there is a a photo of pretty much every Dublin team to have won an All-Ireland since 1974, but of course something changes after 1995.
By the time of their four most recent wins, the team photo is now a squad photo, and all those extra substitutes means the photographer has to be 20 yards or more away – robbing you of the sort of up-close detail which meant you could (after the event of course) accurately read which man was going to be a nervous wreck for the day.
It has been a vital part of the pageantry of a provincial or All-Ireland final, and it was referenced for years by players determined to make sure that next time they were back in a final, they would be in that team photo or a part of that pre-match parade, and not looking on from the sideline.
The game has moved on of course, and the importance of having a strong panel is never more obvious than it is now. But there are still a couple of barriers to be passed before it can truly be said that making the starting line-up, rather than seeing out the game to the end, has lost all its cachet.
The England manager Eddie Jones spent the Six Nations calling his replacements bench the “finishers”. It came across as pompous and a little arrogant . . . but maybe that’s ascribing meaning to the messenger more than the message.
In truth, there’s a lot to be said for holding your better options in a given position on the bench in rugby. Having your better lineout thrower playing at hooker in the last 30 minutes rather than in the first 50 seems like an idea with a lot of merit – particularly if you’re four points up with a lineout on your own five metre line in the last couple of minutes.
Being a finisher is great, but most people would still see a starting position as an upgrade. Players would still rather start the game, and run the risk of being taken off before the game enters its most important phase, than sit on the bench and wait for a call that may never come.
But if the set-piece offers players in rugby the chance for a sub to make his name and perform under the most intense pressure, then we have seen Gaelic football develop in such a way in recent years that the game in the last 20 minutes presents a rather different challenge to the game in the first 50. How many times in recent years have we seen games start cagily, before suddenly turning into Mickey Ward/Arturo Gatti?
Often a guy flourishes in a game off the bench, only to disappoint when given a starting berth. When that happens, we put that down to a mental failure of some kind – he just couldn’t handle the pressure of starting, it doesn’t suit his personality.
Hence the hard-to-shake-off supersub tag that sticks to people, when in reality it’s case-by-case . . . different games evolve in different ways, and whether a guy starts or finishes, it has more to do with a specific set of match skills and situations than anything to do with temperament.
To say there’s less pressure on a fella who gets his first touch with 15 minutes left in an All-Ireland final, than the guy who gets his first touch around the same time as every other player gets his first touch is just wrong. It’s all pressure!
It can be hard for players to accept, but it’s getting easier. Jim Gavin questioned his own team selection last Sunday, for starting Diarmuid Connolly, Bernard Brogan and Cian O’Sullivan, three of the finest players in the game. Starting three players of that quality and second-guessing yourself is not a feeling that too many other managers have experienced.
Kevin Walsh told RTÉ after the Division Two final that “subs came in and made a big difference. The lads who came off had really pushed the boat out early on and that’s something we asked them to do – leave everything on the pitch, try and wear down the opponent, and let someone else come in and finish the job.”
Being given the task of “finishing the job” used to be seen as poor consolation. That mindset is starting to change. If your skills are better suited to a more open game, and you get the opportunity to win big games for your county, as Cormac Costello did so thrillingly last year, surely you’d prefer that to a number under 16 on your back. You’re going to be in the team photo anyway, so why not?