Finding hunger in paradise in the search for an edge

Edge, by definition, is a margin of superiority, a quality or factor that provides an advantage over rivals.

Finding hunger in paradise in the search for an edge

Edge, by definition, is a margin of superiority, a quality or factor that provides an advantage over rivals. Managers, coaches, players will do everything they can in order to get that ‘marginal gain’. When Thomas Tuchel was appointed Borussia Dortmund manager in 2015, headlines hailed the now PSG boss as a “rule-breaking tactician and innovator”.

During his last season at Mainz, Tuchel was the first sporting leader to address a fascinating group of disruptive innovators called the Rulebreaker Society. Among its members was Walter Gunz, who set up Media Markt, Europe’s largest retailer of consumer electronics. The mission statement of the organisation, founded in Switzerland in 2013, was to “bring people together to innovate and inspire through their visions”.

Tuchel outlined in his talk the importance of shaping the personality of his players but concluded forcefully with a universal call applicable to all our everyday lives as much as sport: “It’s more important to forget and move on from the greatest, most unexpected success you might have than to forget and move on from the failures.”

The musings of Tuchel prompted me to think of John Kiely and Davy Fitzgerald and their respective teams, but initially of Brian Cody and Liam Sheedy. The deep-rooted, inherent tradition of hurling in both counties is well-documented. The talent pools, despite what some observe, will never run completely dry.

They are united by an ability within their counties to completely downplay expectations. Despite winning an All-Ireland U-21 title last year and having the best players in the country at his disposal, Liam has succeeded in ensuring the Tipperary public still follow the maxim, “Ah, I don’t think we’ll do anything this year.”

But Dónal Óg Cusack, on The Sunday Game a week ago, said that the only currency that matters in Cork is the Celtic Cross and this is the same in Kilkenny and Tipperary.

Consider the potential sextet of forwards on either team. Reid, Fennelly, Leahy, Walsh, Aylward, Mullen or McGrath, Callanan, Bubbles, Forde, O’Meara, McCormack. Add in St Kieran’s colleges dominance, winning five of the last six Croke Cups, and you might begin to see that Kilkenny’s and Tipperary’s edge undoubtedly comes from brilliant men in charge, well resourced support services in Avonmore/Glanbia and Teneo, but also on the raw facts that there will always be very good hurlers there.

Prior to the 2012 Waterford county final I was lucky enough to secure the services of Liam Sheedy to speak to the players on the Tuesday night before the final. Listening to Sheedy last Wednesday talk of feeling “free as a bird and loving being around the lads three times a week”, I thought of that night in Gracedieu. He spoke passionately about the flow from nervous tension to excitement and adrenaline but particularly about the need for an edge, what we in the room interpreted as being the perfect merger of savage discipline and attitude.

Nothing silly or stupid but no backward step or sign of weakness to be conveyed.

The edge would come from that mentality. The mentality would act then as a catalyst for the performance. In summary he instructed us to bring a ‘whatever it takes’ mantra onto the field. Watching him conduct his pre-match interviews, I am struck by his confidence, the genuine ‘edge’ for battle that he looks forward to imparting to his players. His body language is hugely impressive.

Often overlooked has been his ability to delegate responsibilities. He has huge personalities around him in Tommy Dunne, Darragh Egan, Eoin Kelly and Eamon O’Shea but all are united with a common goal in mind… what’s best for Tipperary?

But despite the brilliance of Sheedy and Cody, I deduce that Limerick and Wexford will always need to find more of an edge when playing one of the top three traditionalists. Ask yourself the question: If Sheedy or Cody were manager of Wexford what would they do, could they operate with the same modus operandi as or would they change their approach based on the players at their disposal?

It’s tempting from the outside looking in to assume that boldness defines Davy. That misguided perception, and the assumption that boldness equates to recklessness, is something he has had to deal with. Davy’s intuition is underestimated. He has an innate ability to take a concept, form an impression of the way things were, pose questions of relevance, and then formulate a plan on how to make things better. This process involves innovation and his key ingredient of boldness.

Davy also has no sense of ambiguity about his principles. By being bold tactically, he knows his players are in unison with his reasoned decisions. Never have I seen Conor McDonald or Cathal Dunbar display negative body language about their system. Buy-in seems complete. And there seems to be an awareness that decisions which do not come off are not unforgiveable acts of irresponsibility.

In Alastair Campbell’s book Winners and How They Succeed, Brian O’Driscoll outlines that:

In sport, boldness is not about doing ridiculous things, rather it’s about taking a risk in the moment in the knowledge that because of your experience and your mindset, it is more likely to work than not. And knowing that if it doesn’t work it wont put you off being bold again the next time.

While much has been made of Davy’s systematic approach to the game, the raw facts around Wexford’s scoring average have been overlooked. In 2015, their scoring average was 21 points per game, 2016 saw it drop to 17.5, whereas since Davy’s arrival it has steadily risen to 24.8. He will know that conversion of goalscoring chances must be improved and he’ll want more steadiness around that extra pass. But with 11 shots on goal in the championship so far, those goals will come.

In Wexford’s search for an edge I wonder has the All-Ireland final of 2013 prompted a rethink. Rightly, Davy never bows to conventional wisdom unless that wisdom is correct. Having won the quarter-final against Galway and semi-final against Limerick in 2013, Clare changed their approach for the final against Cork.

Many observers described Clare ‘taking off the shackles’. The reality was a detailed plan manifesting itself in Croke Park on the biggest day of all. Knowing that Tony Kelly would be man-marked, Davy played him at 11 and let him wander from D to D. He supplemented this by playing Podge Collins and Conor McGrath in the corners and 45 yards or further from the goal. The fact that they were tagged by man-markers duly opened the field for Darach Honan and Shane O’Donnell in the replay to wreak havoc on the edge of the square.

The backs were detailed their assignments in an individual and collective sense, helped by the defensive instincts of Patrick Donnellan at midfield and the work ethic and tracking back of John Conlon and Colin Ryan at 10 and 12. Davy had tried a similar approach when Waterford manager with the then teenage Brian O’Halloran during the 2010 All-Ireland semi-final. Boldness.

Perhaps Sunday, for the opening 20 minutes or at some period, this plan will reappear. Chin to 11 with licence to roam, taking Pádraig Walsh away from his sitting area. Rory O’Connor and Liam Óg McGovern providing the dogs of war cover at 10 and 12 for a zonal backline as Liam Ryan takes his chances with Colin Fennelly and Matthew O’Hanlon and Paudie Foley bringing savage concentration to marking roles on TJ Reid and Walter Walsh.

Could we see Conor McDonald supported by Paul Morris and perhaps David Dunne? It’s far from conventional, as Dunne and Morris will be expected to flood the middle third where necessary. An instruction from Davy to his maor foirne Seoirse Bulfin could see Kevin Foley back on the edge of the D with O’Connor back to the middle of the field. Though the possibility of Damien Reck missing out may steer Davy’s mind to the normal rather than the surprise.

Although not in the business of publicly proclaiming their search for marginal gains, Kilkenny are masters of wrapping unrivalled thought in the guise of simplicity. The Leinster final takes on added significance as Brian will be keen not to make it three years in a row without making it directly to an All-Ireland semi-final.

The issue of the dummy team raised its head in Wexford Park and having been inclined to avail of it during my term I recall before the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final replay receiving a text on the Friday saying that TJ Reid and Richie Hogan would start in the middle of the field for the Cats, and that Liam Blanchfield and Mark Bergin would come into their forward line.

Times were changing as normally nothing would leak from the Kilkenny camp. Unfortunately nothing changed in terms of the result. Sometimes when you think you have the edge or advantage, you are at your most vulnerable. An extra two weeks under the belt of Buckley, Maher and Walsh, the Croke Park factor, and the likelihood TJ won’t be as quiet as the last day, will feed the Kilkenny confidence.

However the edge that comes from years of hurt and disappointment, allied to genuine belief within the Wexford squad, may just defy logic. I am thrilled that John Kiely, a man of impeccable integrity and class, had the good sense to highlight during the week that no inter-county manager can create a culture of laziness by picking and choosing the mentality around games.

On Sunday, if Limerick win, shadow-boxing in Thurles will be mentioned. That defeat will form part of a masterplan John and Paul Kinnerk devised. In reality, the welfare of their players, the need for harmony in their squad, and the form of certain players ensured rotation was the order of the day for Limerick in Thurles.

Limerick will have an edge that was missing the last day, but not just because of the returning Declan Hannon, Cian Lynch, Gearóid Hegarty and Graeme Mulcahy. But because they wont be happy with the sloppiness of their execution and because their work ethic was nowhere near where it needed to be.

Their first term of engagement this Sunday will be to ‘outwork Tipp’ all over the field. Kiely is astute enough to learn lessons to gain that edge. An expectant home crowd, a reminder to his team of the ordinariness that is part of their make-up, allied to a meticulous approach to attacking Tipperary’s strongest points, may well be the starting point.

Whilst Kyle Hayes’importance to the Limerick machine is without question, Kiely and Kinnerk would have noticed that a huge amount of his work was done out the field, foraging, and hunting. But in Thurles he became the responsibility of Tipp’s ‘pack’ which included Michael Breen, Bonner and Jake Morris. This allowed Cathal Barrett and Sean O’Brien go toe-to-toe with Casey and Gillane while Padraic Maher situated himself at the edge of the D as a double enforcer.

Watch Jason Forde’s point just before half-time. Peter Casey comes under incessant pressure from his touch-tight marker Sean O’Brien 100 metres from goal. Hayes is part of the warzone but so too crucially is Seamie Callanan, who plays a beautiful reverse ball to Forde who only needs a millisecond to score.

Conspicuous by his absence from the picture is Padraic Maher, who has remained at the edge of the D. Kiely may locate Hayes, Hegarty or even Cian Lynch on the Tipperary pillar to ensure he is not allowed to free himself in this way .

This concentration on Maher would mean Declan Hannon and Diarmaid Byrnes haven’t the usual wall of bodies in front of them, so Kiely may look at Casey or Mulcahy sporadically filling that vacated hole. The hope would be that Hayes, Hegarty or Lynch can isolate themselves in space on the Tipperary centre-back.

I have written before that Limerick’s edge has come from their ability to create, like Sheedy and particularly Cody have done for years, ‘hunger in paradise’. An ability, as Rasmus Ankersen puts it, to “never trust success”.

Just like Tuchel, all the leaders and their players will hope to perfectly marry feeling, instinct, planning and process. Limerick to win part two of a prospective trilogy and the dancing in Leinster to be done at the crossroads.

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