Six years ago, Eamonn Fitzmaurice was given the role of shackling Mayo playmaker Kieran McDonald in an All-Ireland final. On Sunday, a Cork defender will be handed a similar critical assignment – marking Marty Clarke. The Kerryman offers some vital clues
PURISTS can view defending as a necessary evil, and no more than that. They would prefer to see the game’s best forwards given the time and space to illuminate the big sporting occasions.
However, there’s a counterpoint to the theory that I subscribe to. Good defending is something to be enjoyed and admired. The great American football coach Vince Lombardi once said: “offence wins games, defence wins championships”.
One of the biggest challenges the Cork management face this week is getting their match-ups right at the back for Sunday. Five out of the six Down forwards are potential match-winners. However, the man that makes them tick up front is Martin Clarke. He is a first class play-maker. He is an excellent kicker but, most importantly, he has fantastic peripheral vision and sees the pass. Another uncoachable aspect of his game is his ability to find pockets of space to operate in. He is physically strong and has a reservoir of stamina from his Australian Rules days.
Do Cork detail a man marker to go after him? I think so. Who will do the job? More about that soon.
Paidí O Sé had a wonderful expression for his defenders as All-Ireland final day neared. He instructed us that “the closer you get to the big prize, the closer you get to your man”. Generally backs need to be as tight as possible to their direct opponent and the primary aim for any quality defender has to be to keep his man scoreless. Personal pride is at stake. Of course, there is collective defence and occasionally scores are leaked as a player covers one of his colleagues. Most backs, particularly half backs, like to get on the ball when their team are in possession and influence the game from there and as a result can play a looser game.
Sometimes a particular player needs special attention. Marty Clarke is one of those players. Brian McGuigan at his peak was another. Prior to the 2004 All-Ireland final Kieran McDonald was a shoo-in for player of the year if Mayo won. We identified him as being crucial to their chances and we felt that if we could reduce or negate his influence it would be very important.
While it might not have been my usual detail, I was given the job. My approach coming into the final was to make it personal. While there was a game raging around us, I was going to wire in on McDonald. He was never far from my mind in the lead up to the match. I constantly visualised myself being tight on him, being aggressive and physical and generally making life as awkward as possible for him.
As a centre back my natural instinct when my opponent went deep was to leave him off and mind the house. I had to mentally prepare myself to go to the end of the earth after McDonald. I could not allow him handy, uncontested ball. Anywhere. I studied video footage of him. I particularly focused on where he liked to go, any sidesteps or jinks he used and any other tell-tales in his game. I also decided that while my primary job was to mark and negate him, when we were in possession, I had to get on the ball. I needed to give him something to think about also. In many ways I was in a fantastic position as McDonald was expected to expose me and he was expected to influence the game very strongly.
The week of the game, I did an interview with this paper. I broke with my usual tradition and I read the piece. Satisfied that I had not given any hostages to fortune, I turned the page to see my obituary penned by a former player in the players’ strengths and weaknesses section (See Pages 10 and 11). I laughed it off and lapped it up. This perception that I was there for the taking and was going to roll over was everywhere. I knew I was ready. I had performed consistently all year and I knew I had a big game in me. If anything, it further sharpened my edge.
Early in the game, referee Pat McEnaney ran across my path as I was tracking McDonald and I had to avoid him. This bought the Mayo man two yards and to underline his brilliance and danger he bombed a fantastic point from long range. I gave McEnaney a piece of my mind but kept cool and refocused to ensure that was his final score from play. I was happy with my contribution and satisfied I won my personal battle.
I was most satisfied with the fact that through sheer concentration I curbed my natural instincts and I went everywhere with him and left the supervision of the middle of our defence to others for a day.
Who will get this man marking role on Sunday? Counihan has a habit of putting Michael Shields or Graham Canty on the opposition’s best player, but they may be needed elsewhere. Ray Carey is their best marker but might struggle with Clarke’s strength. Noel O’Leary could match his physicality, but could get himself into foul trouble. They might elect to put John Miskella on him and instruct the Ballincollig man to attack Clarke and to try and put him going backwards. To do this Cork need to win midfield.
Counihan has lots of options. None of them are the wrong option, but picking the right option could be game-deciding.
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