The Possession Game
When first introduced by Newtownshandrum on the club scene, then adapted by Donal O’Grady for Cork, the so-called ‘possession game’ caused major controversy and divided hurling fans. For traditionalists it was the ruination of what had always been a completely spontaneous game, for those watching the progression in other sports it was the way to go. Now the debate has spread to Clare but already, even after only a few months in the job, Davy Fitzgerald has had enough of it.
“I’m absolutely sick to the teeth of listening to people going on about this,” he said. “I’ve heard so many reactions to it. One day in Cusack Park I heard someone in the stand (criticising the short game strategy) and I reacted because I’m f***ing sick of it. The team actually gave into it in the end; against Wexford they started pumping high ball down on the forwards. I have it at home on DVD and there’s seven high balls cleared out of our defence and we lost all seven. The old traditional guys don’t have a problem with this because they think we have to play hurling the same way we did back 20 years ago. That is fine; if you want to keep getting the same results then keep doing that. I’m just not a believer in that, I’m a believer in trying to win games. Some days it works, some days it won’t.”
Fitzgerald is passionate about his hurling, even more passionate when it comes to Clare. But he has a point. In any team sport possession is key; you work so hard to win the ball, why just belt it away? It’s about intelligence, Davy explained, hurling intelligence.
“The reason for playing the short game is as follows: most of our team are 23 or 24 years of age. They’re not strongly built enough to compete with the likes of Kilkenny and Tipperary. We have legs, we’re able to move, we can hurl; we’ll try to hold possession then get it to the places we know we can get them and run them. That is basically it.”
It takes precision and skill, all done at tremendous speed, thus there are occasional problems. And Fitzgerald can understand annoyance from outside the wire: “When it breaks down I just wonder do people think we’re not frustrated on the sideline — of course we are, we hate when it breaks down. But if you put a high 50/50 ball up between Jackie Tyrrell and Conor McGrath I know who is going to win it. But if you put a ball ten yards into space where McGrath takes on Tyrrell in a sprint, McGrath will have a better chance. We know this isn’t going to be perfect all the time, we’re just trying to get a style that will suit Clare.”
And if that means shipping criticism? “I didn’t go into the job to try and win friends, I went in to try and win games for Clare. We have a young team, we should make the best of them. That means not doing what we’ve always done. Time will tell but if it is not working, if we have to change it again, then we’ll change it. But in the last 13 years we haven’t won very much, the last meaningful trophy we won was in 1998 (Munster title); maybe things have to change, maybe people’s mindsets will have to change a small bit too. I’ve had to change the way I coach and manage things. We all have to progress and move on — let’s see if it works, it can’t be any worse anyway.”
Count the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves, that’s the message from Fitzgerald to under-pressure county boards. “When I came in (to the Clare job) I asked what we’d spent last year — I’m very confident we’ll do better than that this year. I saw a figure in a (local) paper a few weeks ago as regards hurling and football (expenses), what they’d spent, and I nearly cracked up. There was a big thing that the footballers weren’t getting as much as the hurlers but when I got them to readjust the figures it ended up as only €3,000 in the difference.
“For the first three-and-a-half weeks of training in January none of our panel took any dinners or any meals whatsoever. We had five extra bodies on the panel, we decided not to take extra meals. For most of January, going into February, we had soup and sandwiches which cost just under €5 (per person) per night, so I knew we weren’t too bad in that.”
Spending is only one side of the equation; Fitzgerald is also very conscious of the fund-raising. “I think it’s very important — we started the Supporters’ Club ourselves. A lot of people are under the impression players get stuff for nothing and that they’re always handed stuff. I don’t think you should be handed anything. I spent a number of nights trying to get the boxing (an evening of bouts between members of the panel) up and going, trying to get the Supporters’ Club up and going. In fairness to the lads anything they’ve been asked to do they’ve done; they went out and sold tickets for the boxing night and memberships for the Supporters’ Club. What they’ve done is incredible, the amount of money they’ve brought back in. We’re using that ourselves and we’ll try and help other (Clare) teams with it also.”
A hot topic after former Offaly star Daithi O’Regan claimed Kilkenny manager Brian Cody has deliberately made it an integral part of his side’s style. Some believe physicality was always an integral part of hurling, and an acceptable part. Daithi’s former Offaly teammate Michael Duignan believes it was a lesson Cody learned after losing to Galway 11 years ago.
“Kilkenny have very, very big men now but they got beaten in an All-Ireland semi-final in 2001 by Galway. They were physically lifted out of it, intimidated and well beaten, and after that Cody changed the team. He went for huge men in the half-forward line, the likes of Martin Comerford brought in — he looked for ball-winners, and you had the likes of Derek Lyng, Michael Fennelly and Henry Shefflin, all big strong men able to win their own ball.”
The question is, should others try to match the Cats in that area or should they – as Cork are doing – focus instead on whatever suits their own particular panel of players (speed and endurance in Cork’s case)?
Clare wing-forward Fergal Lynch is one of those who is built to match anything anyone can throw at him. For Fergal, it’s a case of match up or match over. “I wouldn’t necessarily say the game is gone very physical but it is gone very intense. You have no time on the ball, you’re just being hassled more than anything. As regards the physicality and people trying to catch up with it, people are already doing gymwork and core-work just to make sure they are able to stand on their own on the field. You have to be at a certain peak to play inter-county hurling, and if you’re not at that you’re going to be blown out of it.”
Agreed, says Ken Hogan, a selector when Tipperary then beat Galway in the All-Ireland final in 2001.
“You saw Tipp and Cork in the league game semi-final, people were saying it was a classic but there was an awful lot of open space, a lot of players left unmarked. That won’t happen in championship. The corner-back will have hold of the jersey, he’ll have hold of the togs, he’ll hang on to what he can. It is not as expressive a game when it comes to championship; players are on edge, they want to go for it, they want to take it on — the adrenalin is flowing and people are pumped up. The thing about Kilkenny is that their forwards are able to win their own ball. They’re masters at bringing the ball down — Shefflin particularly — taking it down in front of them, as well as catching it. That’s critical and that is where Kilkenny hold all the aces. That’s where maybe the Tipps, the Corks and the Clares will struggle.”
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