For the second week in a row — and still a week out from the Super 8s — we face into an exciting and unpredictable weekend of football with plenty of questions to be answered by the protagonists.
Mayo or Galway? Do Tyrone stick or twist? Can Clare make the quarter-final stage for the second time in three seasons or can Meath recover from their shellacking?
What of Cork? Now with some expectation on their shoulders will they account for Laois who won’t be pushed aside too easily?
Can the Rebels continue their rehabilitation and play consistently at the levels they should be operating at?
There is bound to be one shock this weekend. But where will that happen?
With all the negative discourse about structures, Tier 2 Championships and Dublin’s financial muscle the fact that a serious championship is unfolding around us is being missed by some.
I understand the importance of debating these issues but maybe we should all concentrate on the football being played for the next few weeks, base our ponderings on the evidence in front of us and pause the other wearisome stuff until September and beyond.
I couldn’t even begin to attempt to answer all of the posed questions here but I will focus on a couple of interesting tactical scenarios to watch out for in the Mayo and Galway and the Tyrone and Cavan matches.
The Galway and Mayo game has the potential to be a monster. We all know what is riding on it for both teams. I feel it is going to be a big ask for Mayo bearing in mind the quality and quantity of their absent injured players and the high numbers on the odometers of many more. Opponents Galway must be smarting from their Connacht final second half no show.
They have had time to address that systems failure and should be returning to action full of vigour, hunger and with a bit of a cause. There has been much discussion and conjecture about Kevin Walsh’s style of play. I will be amazed if he changes for this game— or if he changes full stop. This was the set-up he favoured with Sligo and like it or not he has given Galway a new identity and made them significant again with his defensive setup.
This set-up really works well against James Horan’s men as they can struggle when robbed of that central attack channel which Galway protect so well and they haven’t lost a match in seven against Mayo. Coupled with these practicalities is the obstinacy and inner belief that is a crucial part of the makeup of any inter-county management. At times people think that if they bang a drum hard enough and often enough that they can affect how a manager or his management team think or act. This is rarely (if ever) the case as that level of self-assuredness based on what is going on within the group is vital to maintaining the spirit and unity of the camp.
A siege mentality has been built on less. Walsh won’t vary his plan much but he may give his forward players a bit more licence to attack.
When the All Blacks were at their height a few years ago opposition coaches would immediately look to see if Richie McCaw and Dan Carter were on the teamsheet pre-match to determine if they were at full strength. Without either of the two they were less of a force.
Damien Comer is of similar import to Galway. He is their captain and leader, is a damn good footballer in his own right but crucially he is absolutely central to Kevin Walsh’s gameplan. He is the fulcrum of their attack, gives them focus and shape upfront, and can win hard ball while being double marked. This drags the rest of the team up the pitch as they counterattack. As well as scoring himself he does the donkey work for the other forwards. It allows Ian Burke to use his quick hands and silky skills to create openings for the likes of Shane Walsh, Danny Cummins and Michael Daly. Without him so far this season they have lacked impetus upfront and have been unable to kick on from last year.
If a refreshed and hungry Comer plays this evening he can transform the Tribesmen and their season.
One interesting thing to watch out for in this game will be the Galway kickout regardless of whether Ruairi Lavelle or Bernard Power starts. It will be engaging because their approach to their own long kickout is slightly unorthodox in comparison to most of the other top teams. They will go short if the opposition is using a sweeper and they give them the kickout but when the opposition push up, as Mayo will, they like to go long.
The idea of pushing up aggressively as Mayo will do is to force the opposition to put their kickout long and up for grabs. Even winning 40% of the opposition’s restarts can put them under serious pressure. Most teams like to avoid long 50-50 kickouts where possible and like to at least give their own men an advantage by creating space wide and placing these long kicks in those areas as Donegal did against Tyrone in the Ulster semi-final.
Galway have a different approach that they repeat kickout after kickout with little variety. The goalkeeper signals usually with his two hands in the air that they are going long to alert his troops to ready themselves and to get into their slots. They will overload one side of the field with their big men such as Peter Cooke, Tom Flynn, Paul Conroy if fit, Fiontán Ó Curraoin and even Comer on occasions and then direct their kickout that way.
As the ball is in the air the law of the jungle prevails and through wrestling and sheer physicality they try to free up one of the big men to have an uncontested sweep at the ball.
There is nothing overly dramatic in this but it is the way they approach the setup for the breaking ball that is intriguing. They also overload their defensive side of the kickout with half forwards coming back around the jumpers and box their opposition markers out. Johnny Heaney is very effective at this. The movements are more akin to basketball than football but are very effective.
They make sure that if there is a break that it is on their side of the jumpers, where they have more bodies and by sheer weight of numbers win more breaks. Depending on the conditions, the refereeing of this contest and the will of the opposition it can be some battleground. Mayo love to contest hard in the middle of the field — it has been one of their strengths — so this breaking ball area will be massive, for both teams. Rather than watching the ball in the air as a long kickout is arrowing towards the middle of the field keep an eye on the antics on the ground and you won’t be disappointed.
Tyrone evolved during the league and this change in emphasis was overdue. Their system had gone stale and wasn’t going to win the All-Ireland. They started to kick the ball more and got great joy from landing good quality diagonal ball from the right areas into Cathal McShane and Mattie Donnelly. In the recent past when we played Tyrone by virtue of the fact that they played so many players back we would always have had the luxury of a sweeper. Generally we would have matched someone like Anthony Maher up with Colm Cavanagh who we knew was going to drop back and sweep and leave Anthony free.
When in possession we actively looked to get Anthony on the ball to hurt them. When Tyrone had the ball Anthony was a high sweeper with a starting position on our 65m line and tackled any Tyrone runners that escaped our forwards. We knew they weren’t going to kick much ball so we could leave plenty of space behind unguarded. Anthony was sweeping runners as opposed to sweeping and intercepting ball in the traditional sense.
The way they played for the second half of the league would have rendered Anthony’s positioning redundant and we would have had to rejig and place a defender deeper in the D in front of the full-back line, as Donegal did when they snuffed them out with their deep lying sweeper Hugh McFadden.
What surprised me watching on was that Tyrone didn’t mix it up. When McFadden sat deep, run the ball and draw him out. If he stayed, kick scores from outside and when he moved out to deal with this threat look to kick it inside. It was as if they were so invested in their new system and had spent so much time practising it that they wanted to persist with it. It cost them and played completely into Donegal’s hands.
Since then in the qualifiers they have gone back to their more traditional set-up. It will be informative this evening and worth watching out for which approach they adopt against Cavan. When they get to the point where they can mix it both ways and when the players are making good decisions on the pitch based on what they are being presented with they will be a major force again and a match for most teams.
In the other games I will be interested to see how John Sugrue deals with Cork’s strong runners and with Ruairí Deane and Killian O’Hanlon in particular. Sugrue is sharp and will know that by stopping them he will be well on the road to stopping Cork.
The final game of the weekend is a real 50-50 affair. I expect Meath to respond with fire and determination but Clare are playing well and with confidence. I wouldn’t be surprised if extra time is needed to separate them. By tomorrow evening we will have our Super 8s line-up finalised and things will really start to take shape for the coming weeks.
In the meantime focus on and enjoy the football over the weekend and forget about the negative stuff.
That is what I will be doing anyway.