IF you were to reduce winning senior championships in hurling to a formula, then managerial leadership + player talent would be as good as any.
Hurling folk talk incessantly about underage structures and underage success, tradition and culture, but as vital as those factors are, they all just add up to the talent a managerial setup has to work with. The edge, the X Factor, is the leadership management provides. It is what makes some teams fight above their weight and others well below it.
Clare were the team of the late ‘90s because they had the manager of the late ‘90s. Management is why Cork went from being hammered by Galway in a 2002 qualifier to reaching the next four All-Ireland finals, why Waterford’s summers have lasted longer than Cork’s every year since 2007 and why Clare remained a top-four team in Anthony Daly’s three years in charge, consistently finishing ahead of equally or more talented sides like Limerick and Tipperary.
Actually Tipp illustrate our point perfectly. Basically they’re as good as their manager. When Nicky English stepped aside in 2002, they should have remained consistent All-Ireland challengers for the next five years. Instead they watched Cork sail off into the distance and let Justin McCarthy’s Waterford usurp them as Munster’s second force. By 2007 Wexford were beating them.
The following year Tipp won Munster and the league with largely the same players Babs Keating had at his disposal. While Cork took a wrecking ball to their player-centred, cutting-edge setup, Sheedy aped it, recognising it was the only way to contend with Kilkenny.
We’re not sure about Tipp this year, because we’re not sure about Declan Ryan. Although he has been able to retain trainer Cian O’Neill and replace the best coach in hurling (Eamon O’Shea) with probably the next best (Tommy Dunne), Ryan himself isn’t as seamless a fit as, say, John Allen was for Cork after their All-Ireland winning manager stepped down.
He successfully succeeded Sheedy as minor manager but at senior, every possible shortcoming is magnified. No one would expect or want Ryan to be another Sheedy, but being so less communicative than Sheedy could backfire.
Every profile of Ryan refers to his leadership as a player in his final year of 2001, but that was as much a testament to Nicky English who shook a passive Ryan out of his comfort zone. There was a reason, albeit perhaps not a good enough one, why Ryan famously didn’t start against Clare in 1999. Ryan is a deep thinker but as Sheedy appreciated, there is more to hurling than hurling, and you wonder is Ryan proactive enough to seek ways to inspire players accustomed to being inspired.
We do think he’ll reach the Munster final, if only because the Cork and Clare setups are so unconvincing. After protracted disputes with previous managers, not enough thought was given to whether Ger O’Loughlin and Denis Walsh had enough expertise and experience.
We can see why Walsh was identified as a prospective Cork coach, but instead of serving an apprenticeship with the U21s or as a selector with the seniors, he’s had to learn too much in the job because he got the job too soon.
You wonder how quickly O’Loughlin is learning. That’s two league final defeats now that have hinged on goalkeeping errors, yet there’s no goalkeeping coaching going on.
You could argue to lose two games like that is unlucky, but when you fail to win any of your six competitive games against fellow top-ten opposition, you cease to be unlucky.
Just as the most glorified defeat of last summer was Clare’s to Waterford in Munster, the most overlooked was their loss to Dublin in Croker.
It’s been said that 13 points wasn’t the real difference between the sides that day and in a way that’s true. The difference was Anthony Daly.
The other side of the draw in Munster isn’t lacking in inspirational leadership, between Davy Fitzgerald and Donal O’Grady. Don’t ask us so which of them will reach the Munster final, or even who’ll reach the All-Ireland semi-finals: there’s a glut of teams near the same level.
Back to our formula: Management leadership (out of 10) + talent (out of 10) = performance. Of the top 10 teams: Offaly: 6 + 6.5 = 12.5.
Wexford: 6.5 + 6.5 = 13. Clare: 6 +7 = 13. Cork: 6.5 + 7.5 = 14. Limerick: 8.5 + 6.5 = 15.
Then you have Dublin: 8.5 + 7 = 15.5. Waterford: 8 + 7.5 = 15.5. Galway 7.5 + 8.5 = 16. Tipperary: 7.5 + 8.5 = 16.
That just leaves Kilkenny: 9 + 8 = 17.
Maybe they can no longer roll over teams without Henry and Tommy but they’ve learned and moved on from the league final. And with Sheedy gone, only O’Grady inhabits Brian Cody’s orbit and O’Grady’s team doesn’t. John McIntyre and Galway might threaten, possibly Davy’s Waterford side too, but as long as Shefflin is fit and Cody’s still there, Kilkenny have the formula for ultimate success this summer.
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