In all the talk in recent weeks about who should or shouldn’t have won the various sports person or sports manager of the year awards, it got this column thinking about how marginal all these things are.
Davy Fitzgerald was a worthy winner of the RTÉ Manager of the Year on Saturday night but he knows more than anyone that there was a moment in September where it looked very likely he wasn’t even going to be the hurling manager of the year. The cameramen had all gathered around Jimmy Barry-Murphy for the money shot. Kieran Kingston was on his shoulder, about to be the first person to hug the All-Ireland winning manager. The substitutes and the substituted were ready to explode onto the field to embrace victorious teammates.
We’ve seen it hundreds of times through the years, where the manager’s eyes are still following the ball but everyone else’s eyes are half on him, there’s that pregnant pause before that final whistle goes and then that final whistle goes and the year has its script and its winner, as if it could never have been any other way.
But as we all know, Brian Gavin didn’t blow that final whistle for another little while.
As the clocked ticked on, Domhnall O’Donovan made the inspired and bold decision to go upfield and score the best first championship point anyone has ever scored. And it was fitting because that’s how Clare’s All-Ireland was won as well as saved — by inspired and bold decisions, on the line as well as on the field.
It’s also how Cork nearly won the All-Ireland, Mayo too, and how Dublin did get their hands on Sam Maguire.
Let’s go back to JBM. He may not have won a trophy this year, his team may even have been relegated, but he has Cork back playing with a vibrancy they haven’t played with in over five years and the man who personifies that daring is Anthony Nash. To think he’ll be 30 next year. To think he was an unknown to virtually everyone outside the county 18 months ago.
There was a good reason, of course. The most charismatic goalkeeper in hurling — Nash — was the backup to the most charismatic goalkeeper in hurling — Donal Óg Cusack. The Cloyne man redefined how the position should be played as much as he redefined how a GAA player could go about his and even other’s business. Donal Óg Cusack is still good enough to be a county goalkeeper. That he wasn’t even given the chance to fight it out for the number 16 jersey could seem harsh, even downright unfair. Barry Murphy was outnumbered by his fellow selectors who wanted Cusack retained. But JBM was brave and bold enough to make the unilateral decision and calculation that just as Keane couldn’t fully be Keane with Ince still the Guvnor, and once upon a time Donal Óg couldn’t fully be Donal Óg with Ger Cunningham ready to step in, Nash couldn’t be Nash feeling he was one slip away from being the number two goalie again.
Jimmy didn’t just say farewell to Donal Óg either. Seán Óg was told Go raibh maith agat ach slán as well. Cork hurling needs to welcome both back soon as coaches at some level but in 2013 that break was required and that call, inspired.
James Horan is like JBM, someone who nearly got all the plaudits and all the gongs only for a score or two in September. How he even got his team to September has been largely overlooked and what ignited one of the team performances of the year. In suddenly unleashing Keith Higgins from corner back to wing-forward for the All-Ireland quarter-final, he threw Jim McGuinness in a way no Mayo manager has an opposing coach in Croke Park before (Mickey Moran not being the brains behind the occupation of the Hill in 2006).
But it was another Jimmy that was winning matches in September, and again it stemmed from outside-the-box thinking. Even as Dublin were producing the most consistent and best league football we can recall and even as they were steamrolling through Leinster, Jim Gavin was continuously have to hear that Michael Dara MacAuley didn’t have a recognised midfield partner because Cian O’Sullivan simply wasn’t a midfielder.
O’Sullivan merely wasn’t a conventional midfielder. He created mismatches for teams and midfielders you’d have thought would have been the ones creating the nightmares for him and Gavin. O’Sullivan was both Dublin’s wild card and ace in 2013.
That flexibility of having someone who could rotate between midfield and the half-back line was key to Clare’s success too. Davy has rightly got a lot of plaudits for the manner and rationale in which he opted to go with Shane O’Donnell instead of Darach Honan in the final replay. But what was probably even more inspired and bold and vital was surprising Cork in the drawn game by playing conventional instead of going with a sweeper. The sweeper was pivotal to earlier wins, especially against Limerick. Being that one move ahead was why ultimately Clare finished one spot ahead of everyone else.
But it’s a delicate game, these big calls. Declan Kidney goes with Paddy Jackson instead of Ronan O’Gara and a couple of months later loses his job. Horan makes a few substitutions and Mayo lose the All-Ireland. Kieran Donaghy comes on at full forward for Kerry where he’s won so many big games for them in the past and people think it’s why Kerry lost this year.
Already some managers have made big calls which will define next year. Jim McGuinness has made the break with Rory Gallagher, the most important number two in football in recent times. Paul Grimley and Alan Mulholland have had the humility to bring on board future and past number ones in Kieran McGeeney and Liam Sammon as their number twos, moves we admire. Anthony Cunningham has handed Joe Canning the armband, another move we like. But it’s coming up with that game- changer or matchwinner, another Nash or another spot for an O’Sullivan that will most likely shape who gathers silverware in September and those individual gongs in December.