Most of the time we’re disappointed. We want to find hidden diamonds; we rarely do. Two months ago, however, back on April 3rd in Salthill, a game took place that just may have held most of the secrets of the summer. Galway 1-14 Tipperary 4-23.
It wasn’t a match but a rout. Tipperary looked not merely like the All-Ireland champions of 2010 but like the All-Ireland champions of 2011 too. They’d gone through the motions in the league up to then and they’d go through them again in the concluding fixture at home to Wexford. The day in Galway was the day they gave a glimpse of what’s under the bonnet.
Under the coaching of Eamon O’Shea in 2009-10, Tipperary formulated and developed their attacking game. Perpetual motion, creating space, finding holes. There was no mantra. It was all about instinct, trust and unceasing movement. Use the ball to the maximum effect. Everyone is a creator, from the goalkeeper out, so that when anyone gets the ball in any part of the field a score is on. Defend from the front. Create from the back. And never forget that three points are better than one point.
Under Tommy Dunne that attacking game will be refined and taken to the next level. That is the hope, the theory, the plan. A couple of early vignettes from last month’s provincial quarter-final encounter with Cork indicated that it’s on track and that no wheels have come off the wagon in the transition from Liam Sheedy’s regime to that of Declan Ryan.
Brendan Cummins aimed his first puckout down the left-hand side of the field. Among the players chasing the sliotar when it ran loose was Seamus Callanan, who had come all the way over from right-half forward. When Tipperary won possession Callanan drifted back in towards goal, ignored by a flock of Cork defenders too busy ball-watching to notice him. Had John O’Keeffe’s pass in his direction been a little more accurate, Callanan, unmarked beyond the defence, was straight through.
A few minutes later came another revealing incident. Callanan had the ball on the touchline under the Old Stand, 50 metres or so out, with Patrick Maher on the edge of the Cork square and no defender within an ass’s roar of him. In the event Callanan went for his own point and put it wide. Maher had every right to aim a few choice words in Callanan’s direction, just as Donal Óg Cusack was shouting at John Gardiner to get tighter on Maher. Betcha Callanan won’t go for his own point the next time Maher is loitering with intent.
It’s this constant movement that oils the engine and manufactures the gaps. A Tipperary forward doesn’t play his own position, he plays every position. One minute Noel McGrath is popping over lineballs; the next minute he’s popping up on his own half-back line to drive the ball down the field, as he did in the run-up to Lar Corbett’s goal against Cork. One minute Corbett is finishing a move started by McGrath; the next he’s taking himself out to the area between the half-forward line and midfield, as he did when Cork began to get uncomfortably close in the second half, or even materialising on his own endline to help out the defence, as he did in the closing stages against Waterford in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final.
Nine months ago Tipperary crafted two of the most extraordinary goals ever scored in an All-Ireland final. For Corbett’s first they isolated him on the edge of the square with Noel Hickey. For the second they blew open a new Grand Canyon down the centre of the champions’ defence for the Thurles man to saunter through. Kilkenny at their peak made a virtue of murdering space; Tipperary are making a virtue of liberating it again. Thus the tactical cycle takes another rotation.
Tipp’s evolution is partly illustrated by the things they don’t do any more. When the 2009 All-Ireland final shivered in the balance prior to Kilkenny’s late double-barreled blast, Pat Kerwick and Shane McGrath hit aimless wides from out the field that sucked a little of the air out of the losers’ challenge. Aimless wides are not an element of Tipp’s game these days. When they do hit a wide it’s not because the decision is wrong but because the radar is off. And as the accompanying table demonstrates, Tipperary wides have become rarer: another indicator of their evolution.
Opponents must take their goal chances because Tipp will sure as eggs take theirs. Paudie O’Sullivan and Patrick Horgan didn’t do so in the first half at Semple Stadium three weeks ago; Lar Corbett and Eoin Kelly did. That was that. The three goals the MacCarthy Cup holders hit the same afternoon are likely to become the norm for them this summer should they so choose.
Keeping the Tipp forward line at bay makes all manner of demands on opposition defenders. Anticipation. Communication. Decisiveness; mark the man or mark the space? A crisp first touch; no point in being first to the ball if you miss it. A crisp second and subsequent touch; ask Eoin Cadogan. Peripheral vision. Eyes in the back of one’s head. Expect to see opponents make a habit of conceding close-range frees by fouling the runner, as Tipperary themselves did in the first half against Kilkenny last September, instead of letting him through on goal. And how soon before the other crowd play a seventh defender to plug some of the gaps? What renders the opposition’s task more difficult is the fact that everyone in the Tipp attack can do damage of some description. Eoin Kelly – is it any wonder he’s no longer suffering from back trouble now that he’s not carrying an entire county on his shoulders any more? — scores points. Lar Corbett scores goals, 13 of them in his last 11 championship starts. (If hurling had a transfer market he’s the man for whom Cork would be breaking open the piggy bank.) Noel McGrath can do both. Patrick Maher does practically everything, literally, except score. Seamus Callanan does almost nothing, literally, except score. It’s a neat balance.
Eventually the day will come when Corbett has an off-day, Callanan is not mapped and Maher has his clock cleaned by a wing-back with too much hurling for him. But not tomorrow. And probably not this year.