Comparisons of teams and players across generations need to be conditional, mindful of changes in a sport and in the science of sport.
This came to mind twice in the past week — once while watching the 1996 Leinster final between Offaly and Wexford and then fast-forwarding to the current debate about ‘tactics’ in 21st-century hurling.
That provincial decider of 23 years ago (shown on TG4) was an eye-opener on a number of levels. Without doubt, the proportion of ‘off the cuff’ to ‘tactical’ play was weighted towards the former but there was plenty of quality on show.
There were for and against arguments on social media that the pick of both teams would be well beaten by any of the current Liam MacCarthy teams. I think in fairness the pick of both in their time might struggle in terms of athleticism over 70 plus minutes but allowing for that, they’d give most teams a good go.
And would Wexford take Liam Dunne, Martin Storey, Tom Dempsey, and Larry O’Gorman now in 2019? I bet they would.
Equally, Galway football would jump at having the talents of Pádraic Joyce and there would always be a place in Kerry for Maurice Fitzgerald.
You could offer a similar position on comments that tactics are new to hurling or that some of the best half-backs in the noughties (presumably Cork) just got the ball and drove it down the field, not caring where it went. Of all teams, that Cork team, or any Cork team for that matter, played to prioritise the best attributes of Cork hurling; speed (of mind and ball) and skill, and when able to field hurlers who are quality at both, Cork invariably succeed.
And, what Cork wouldn’t give now for a half-back line launch pad of John Gardiner, Ronan Curran, and Seán Óg Ó hAlpín.
Even if they were susceptible to some hit and hopes every now and then, the proportion of ‘off the cuff’ to ‘tactical’ play for the three lads and the hurlers of their time was at least 50/50. In fact, I would say Brian Cody gets a good, albeit controlled kick, out of the notion that his great Kilkenny teams did not apply tactics either. For those of us who suffered at the hands of Kilkenny, it was an annual ‘not such a surprise’ surprise when Cody put Henry on the opposition’s newest defender, orchestrated a lesser-known player to be man of the match, or attacked at force, the opposition’s main strength.
At the same time, things have changed.
The growth of performance analysis across sport and a greater focus on the science of coaching has contributed to greater tactical preparation.
Overall though, a maybe more significant swing over the last two or three decades has been in relation to physical fitness. The time and specificity now attached to strength and conditioning, recovery, diet, athlete monitoring, and general lifestyle habits are incredible, and very much player and team led. I don’t think it is any great secret that Kilkenny were one of the slowest teams to embrace S&C, or that Tyrone were latecomers as well to this type of training.
At the same time, the talent was never lacking in both counties, which may explain why they are both top competitors once again. Going on the physique of George and John O’Connor, or the reported preparation of Larry Tompkins in the 90s, it wasn’t quite all ad hoc but pitch any county player from days gone by into current setups and most would thrive and excel with their skillset, athletic ability, and diligence.
And while it may be argued that some players wouldn’t appreciate the level of commitment required now, I think that is the case in any era and the majority, given the competitive and ambitious nature they possess, would do anything asked or required.
Some scoff at this and say there is no fun in the games and so on but almost all county players, male or female, that I have encountered will soak up information that will help them be better. And going on the content of WhatsApp groups around the country and how players miss the group and craic more than anything else when they retire, I’m fairly sure there’s still a lot of enjoyment involved.
Tactics are a given in sport, even at Junior B Camogie level you know there are certain players you need to mark and equally certain players you need to have central to your own gameplay. At a higher level, when you are working with the best, you will avail of everything on offer to help players succeed. At the same time all the tactics in the world won’t make a Beth Carton, Ciara O’Sullivan, Adrian Mullen, or David Clifford. Tactics are, at their best, a strategy to allow players and teams be brilliant and on occasion be beautifully off the cuff’.
After all, was it tactics or genius that created moments like John Fenton’s goal in 1987, Michael Donnellan’s solo run in 1998, Kevin Broderick’s point in 2001, Edel Byrne’s goal in 2002, Owen Mulligan’s goal in 2005, Ursula Jacob’s goal in 2012, or Nickie Quaid’s save in 2018?