Of all the ingenious strategies Mickey Harte has come up with in keeping Tyrone so relevant and competitive over the last 15 years, his deployment of Peter Canavan in the 2003 and 2005 All Ireland finals remains among the most bold and brilliant.
Canavan entered that all-Ulster decider in 2003 with an ankle ligament injury that forced him to hobble off early in the semi-final win over Kerry. Everyone knew there was little chance that ankle could withstand 70 minutes against Armagh. But while the rest of us speculated whether the Tyrone captain would either start the game or come on in the second half, Harte calculated Canavan could do both.
He simply had to lead Tyrone out on All Ireland final day; if he did not, there would be such a sense of deflation around the stadium among the Tyrone supporters upon hearing the news that it could affect the team.
But Canavan had to be there for the finish too. If there was a late crucial free, who else would you want taking it? Even the sight of him running back onto the field would raise the Tyrone players and support and possibly unsettle Armagh. It had worked against Crossmaglen for Errigal Ciaran in the previous year’s Ulster club championship and it could work here again.
It did. Two years later against Kerry they repeated the trick. In the previous game against Armagh, Canavan had come on at half-time and kicked the winning point, the kind of late, clutch free that Harte had envisaged back in 2003. But Harte felt there was more than 35 minutes in the 34-year-old Canavan, there was potentially 55. So what way to optimally use those 55 minutes? By starting him and letting him play for the first half towards the end of which he’d score a game-changing goal; then taking him off and bringing him back on with 15 minutes to go in which he’d kick a crucial point.
It’s hard to know what’s the more surprising now - that Harte had the audacity to go with the Canavan Substitution Strategy in the first place or that it has hardly ever been replicated by anyone else. About the only time we see a player being reintroduced into the action is if the game has gone into extra-time, a la Richie Hogan in Thurles last Saturday week.
Maybe the Canavan Substitution Strategy though is one teams and coaches should revisit, particularly in the case of a county looking to make a similar breakthrough to the one Tyrone and Canavan made.
After Mayo were knocked out of the Connacht championship by Galway for the second consecutive year, there were calls within the county that at 33 years of age Andy Moran would be better deployed coming off the bench rather than starting. There was clearly no longer a full game in him, but the closing minutes in Salthill had shown just how much his craft and guile had been missed; it was easy to picture him winning the close-in free or curling over the point that would have helped Mayo equalise or win the game.
Fortunately for the proponents of that theory, Rochford chose to ignore it and instead started Moran in Mayo’s two subsequent games. Against Derry Moran was Mayo’s only forward to score from play in the first half. Against Clare he had kicked three points from play by the interval. Mayo might not have got out of Ennis had Moran not been there to keep them within touching distance during that turbulent first half.
Interestingly though, both days Moran was called ashore on 55 minutes, just as he was against Sligo in the first round when the game was still in the balance. Clearly, management don’t see him a full game in him; the only time in the last five years that Moran has played the full 70 minutes in championship was the 2014 All Ireland semi-final replay against Kerry – and on that occasion he didn’t feature in extra-time. The evidence suggests they see him as a 50-55 minute man. But the question then arises: what is the optimal way to get those 50, 55 minutes out of him?
A player who can come off the bench and dial right up and knock over a score or two is a rare animal in Mayo, though not that they especially appreciate the species. Enda Varley came in for some criticism among sections of the Mayo support, yet in his last 22 league and championship appearances off the bench he’d score 1-14 from play, the equivalent of three points for every 70 minutes he played.
Conor Loftus’s intervention against Derry brought to 2-5 the total of scores he’s notched over 140 minutes in competitive football off the bench, but with his subsequent promotion to the starting lineup, the Mayo bench appears to lack a similar instant dial-up capacity. Evan Regan has yet to score off the bench in over 87 minutes in league or championship the past two seasons. Jason Doherty, like Loftus, struck for 1-1 against Derry, is one possible option and Alan Dillon’s return provides another but the player on the panel with the most proven track record as an impact sub remains by a distance Moran himself.
In 2014 he turned a tight, tense Connacht semi-final against Roscommon in Hyde Park, with two points off the bench. He also scored 0-2 against Kerry in the drawn semi-final, and against Dublin 12 months later. In all, during the last four championships he’s scored 0-10 over 140 minutes and eight appearances off the bench – in other words, a point every 14 minutes.
It makes sense to start Moran. Ennis was hardly the first case of the blistering impact he can make in the opening 35 minutes. Last year in the All Ireland semi-final against Tipperary he scored all four of his points before half-time; in total only two of his scores last summer were registered in the second half.
But there is a case to start him for the second half too. The last time Mayo faced Cork in championship, Moran scored two points in the opening 10 minutes of the second half before being immediately called ashore. In last year’s drawn All-Ireland final he scored the first point of the second half, triggering another Mayo revival. Against Sligo and Derry this year he also scored within seven minutes of the resumption.
The data shows though that from minutes 47 to 55 though there is significant slippage in terms of his scoring. Though there is much more to the game – and especially Moran’s – it is a measure of effectiveness and the only time Moran has scored as a starter from minutes 48 to 55 in championship the last three years was when he blazed over the bar in last year’s drawn final against Dublin.
Maybe Mayo play him for the first 45 minutes, then bring him on around the 62nd minute mark, with six minutes or so of added time to be played, galvanising that fanatical support as he has coming on many a time before.
Or maybe they take him off at half-time and bring him on with 20 to go.
Or maybe they keep doing as they’ve been doing right now, taking him off as the game enters the final quarter, and have him watch the final minutes of their championship helplessly from the bench, as he did four of the past five years.
You know what Einstein had to say about insanity. And what Harte did about it.
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