Ernest Hemingway once said courage is “grace under pressure”.
Watching Mattie Kenny bravely face the assembled media in Portlaoise on Sunday last, this grace and honesty was very evident.
Disgusted by his own team’s lethargy and “unacceptable” performance, Kenny was acutely aware of both the excellence of the Laois performance and the need to impart this message.
His hurt was obvious but his class and sportsmanship shone. An unexpected adversity had been placed at his doorstep and he ensured the focus was on the true story of the day, Laois.
Populist opinion will now decree that Dublin don’t really know where they are right now. The high of that Parnell Park victory over Galway juxtaposed with the devastation of the defeat last Sunday only serves to highlight the vagaries of sport.
Having personally experienced the depths and negative connotations that accompany relegation and a Munster final pummelling by Tipperary in 2016, I’ve often contemplated how to find your way out of a temporary storm.
I remember talking to Anthony Daly about Dublin’s loss to Antrim in 2010. I think about the difficult first seasons Micheál Donoghue and Kieran Kingston endured.
And I invariably come to the conclusion that the key to turning darkness into light is courage and fearlessness.
Almost two years ago, on one of the rare occasions I got to help my oldest son Fionn with his homework, I came across some much needed advice and guidance. His comprehension exercise was based on the civil rights activist Rosa Parks.
“I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up this diminishes fear, knowing what must be done does away with fear,” Parks said.
To which Fionn deduced: “Ok, this can make things clearer but does it mean I will be too stubborn to change where necessary?”
I wasn’t quite sure of the answer, nor am I still, but the quote and the subsequent dialogue acted as acatalyst for a belief system. The path you take towards being fearless can involve courageously making changes and evolving as you go.
This fearless, courageous approach has defined Eddie Brennan’s tenure at Laois. While still in its infancy, it is a tenure that has been moulded by past experiences as a player but more fundamentally by his short life as amanager.
Prior to the All-Ireland final of 2016, I was asked to be a guest panellist on TheSunday Game. It was my first encounter with Eddie and afterwards we spoke in the Montrose car park about the year gone by.
His debut season as manager of the Kilkenny U21s had ended in a headline-grabbing defeat to Westmeath. Just like for many of us that have been in this situation, the knives were out.
But Brennan’s resolve was obvious. Here was a man not for turning. He was hurting, but he would use this hurt as fuel for the annexing of the Leinster U21 Championship in 2017.
In echoing the didactic prerequisites of any team performance in terms of attitude, unity and ‘spirit’, Eddie undoubtedly mirrors his mentor. He has also shown both a social understanding of his group and a flexibility that has been particularly impressive.
Given his professed abhorrence for the sweeper system, it’s good to see his adaptability, his flexibility, in terms of a proactive and pragmatic approach.
While people rightly zoned in on the unequivocal, immeasurable togetherness of the performance against Dublin, the how and why often gets overlooked.
Eddie was keen to deflect praise away from himself but the influence of Niall Corcoran, from a coaching perspective, and Dave Moriarty and Donal Treacy, from a physical conditioning perspective, was there for all to see.
Long-term planning has also seen the possibility of a six-team Leinster Championship dominate column inches. I completely agree with the concept. Eddie and Laois know the development of this team would be enhanced and 2020 survival more likely.
Clive Woodward liked to talk about the critical non-essentials. One such occurred at the start against Dublin with Cha Dwyer’s midfield positioning.
Crucially, John Lennon initially went to full-forward which meant that on Alan Nolan’s puckouts Shane Barrett would be left free as opposed to the hard-running Paddy Smyth.
Lennon provided stability to the backline, ensuringMatthew Whelan had both cover and confidence in his battle with Ronan Hayes.
Ross King and Willie Dunphy didn’t stay inside all day but their dual roles in hounding Sean Moran and acting as offensive threats were performed to near perfection.
Scoring 1-23 in the process made a mockery of any suggestion that Laois were defensive.
Liam Sheedy is now faced with a different dilemma. My hunch is that he’ll have the courage to stick by the underperforming players of the Munster final.
A fully fit Cathal Barrett, and possibly one or two tweaks, sends out the message that he still has serious faith in this group to perform and win.
Having attended Tuesday nigh’ts U20 annihilation of Waterford, Sheedy will be licking his lips at the prospect of integrating Bryan O’Meara, Conor Bowe, and Billy Seymour into his squad next year. A plan for the future would have temporarily taken shape in his head.
But for now all focus and eyes will be on Laois and expect Tipperary to go for their throats early and often in what should be a comprehensive victory.
Brennan’s flexible approach may see him change his template on Sunday and it prompted me to wonder if his great mentor would or should do likewise.
Some weeks ago, a mundane Wednesday evening saw Kilkenny squeeze in a round of club games. I took myself and my two young lads to Hugginstown for the league clash of James Stephens and All-Ireland champions Ballyhale Shamrocks.
My admiration for the way Kilkenny go about their business is well documented. An inherent decency and ordinariness underpins their greatness and these traits were very evident on this night.
However, the James Stephens tactical set-up was striking. The Shamrocks were short several big-hitters including Colin and Michael Fennelly and Joey Holden. The Village set up with young Cian Kenny at centre-back in a man-marking role on TJ Reid, with Eoin Larkin operating as a sweeper in front of Adrian Mullen and Jackie Tyrell.
While Mullen slipped Jackie early on for a brilliant goal, the overall system of play, allied to their attitude, saw Stephens emerge victorious by 11 points, scoring 1-20 into the bargain.
I am not advocating Kilkenny play a sweeper on Sunday against Cork. In fact, taking into account our defeat in the 1992 minor All-Ireland when Pat O’Neill didn’t budge from the edge of the D and yet walked away with the man of the match trophy having controlled the game, my argument has consistently been that all teams have long played with a six who likes to ‘sweep, cover, track back’, or whatever terminology you wish to apply.
This has been the case from O’Neill to Brian Hogan to Cillian Buckley and now to Pádraig Walsh.
What I am saying though, is that because there is no Shefflin, Power, Walsh, Tyrrell, Delaney, Larkin, Brennan, Kavanagh etc, is it time Kilkenny presented others some of those questions and tactical innovations they have presented in the past.
Does Brian have to adapt to the players at his disposal to ensure the maximum is achieved?
I accept the ‘when you cross the white line’ approach and the absolute importance of a relentless driving edge but is there a need for more?
Cork’s ascension to the three-in-a-row throne in 2006, with their beautifully composed running game, was shut down when Dónal Óg was faced with a full-forward line that retreated 45 yards from the goal, leaving nothing but stripes visible when he looked down the pitch.
Nowadays, when you see all three full-forwards with hurleys raised 40 yards from the goal, it’s just accepted.
Have a quick glance back at Eddie Brennan’s opening goal in the 2008 final. Eoin Larkin 110 yards from his own goal, Taggy Fogarty out hunting 70 yards back, all creating space for the assassin from Ballycallan.
There was the confusion of the 2012 Leinster Final mauling at the hands of Galway. Damien Hayes in a third midfielder role with Tony Ógsitting on the D and Iarla Tannian screening. It was still confusing them in the drawn All-Ireland final of the same year but they managed to find a way, to ask the question, to have the courage to change.
The change came in the form of Henry’s relocation to 11 and the appearance of the gangly Walter Walsh for his championship debut on Johnny Coen.
Rewatch the Leinster Final and pause it on 4 mins 40 secs. Even though they havePádraig Walsh as cover, Paddy Deegan’s obsession with following Lee Chin everywhere, and Enda Morrissey’s similar infatuation with following Rory O’Connor, results in oceans of space being created in the Kilkenny half of the field.
Traditionally, the depth of the Kilkenny half-forward line, supplemented by one of the full-forward line, allowed the Kilkenny back line go man on man while acting as acollective operation. Pause the tape again at 12:05,18:10 and 19:30 and you will see the prairie of space Kilkenny have left in their defence.
Will we see Richie Hogan from the start like in theLimerick game last year? Will Walter be relocated to the corner or perhaps even to midfield? Would Ger Aylward at 11 ask a different type of question to the Cork rearguard, as he did in the league?
The narrative around the Rebels has centred on the power and pace of their forward sextet. Speed and skill is the order of the day.
However Cork will also be motivated by the perception their defence is flaky and the notion they wouldn’t have the stomach for a dogfight.
How will they deal with TJ? They like to allow Mark Ellis sit, so will Eoin Cadogan follow Reid everywhere or will Cahalane come into the reckoning, using his pace and aggression to stay in the face of the Ballyhale conductor.
One thing is certain: If Kilkenny follow the Cork forwards all over the pitch, they will fail to reach the championship semi-final for the third year in a row.
When Rosa Parks was asked to move from her bus seat in 1955 she stubbornly refused to bow for all the right reasons. While not quite in the same category in terms of civil rights, all four managers this weekend will follow a similar maxim to the great woman: “You must never be fearful about what you are doing when it is right.”
All four to try and do the right thing but Tipp and Cork to emerge.