When Liam Cahill took over as Waterford manager last autumn, his first act was to take out his axe and get chopping. A host of names were dropped but when that list included team-captain Noel Connors, and another high-profile casualty, Maurice Shanahan, much of the discussion focussed on Cahill’s reasoning behind those decisions.
Most of it inevitably seemed to suggest that Cahill did so to make a loud statement to the squad and the Waterford public, as if he wanted to start beating his chest, swinging his gun-holster and waving his gun in the air to let everyone know there was a new Sherriff in town. Cahill was definitely sending a message to his players but, from my own inter-county management experience, there are always far deeper reasons behind dropping big-name players than just making statements.
You don’t just arrive at these decisions on a whim and I can see why Liam made them. Noel Connors was one of the best corner-backs of the last decade, almost taking over the most outstanding number 4 mantle from Jackie Tyrrell, but I felt his legs were starting to go, and that he was struggling with nippy corner-forwards on big pitches last year. When your fastest players now nearly have to be your corner-backs, Noel was always going to be on borrowed time, no matter who was Waterford manager in 2020.
Maurice has been a great servant to the county too but there has been a certain amount of inconsistency during the latter stages of his career. Philip Mahony’s retirement was another bolt from the blue but it may relate to Maurice’s decision too. I heard Noel was devastated to be released but maybe Philip, similar to Maurice, couldn’t give the commitment Liam was looking for.
But who knows? In a vacuum without sufficient information, nobody outside the camp really has a clue why hard and tough decisions are made.
When you make those calls as a manager, especially in your first job at senior level, you know you run big risks. When Cork bagged two goals in the opening three minutes of Waterford’s first league game, the clamour for Noelie’s return could almost be heard around Walsh Park.
But then a young Waterford team stormed back and the noise soon died down.
Inter-county management is a bit like social media now — the public with either press like or dislike, swipe left or right, or else quickly scroll down to move on to the next topic of interest.
Cahill has plenty of followers now but he’ll have plenty of un-followers if Waterford take a licking from Limerick Saturday evening, which Limerick are certainly capable of doling out in their current form.
Waterford won’t play a sweeper but they’ll flood the middle third with good legs and energy to get up and down the field to try and hustle Limerick out of their stride. Cahill will set the terms and conditions for a dogfight but trying to at least break even inside in the trenches has to be your first priority before you can even think of taking on Limerick in a shooting match.
This will be a good measure of where Waterford are really at. Their opening day win against Cork was impressive but Cork’s workrate was poor. Waterford were always going to be beat Westmeath and, with four points already in the bag, they have a licence Saturday evening to have a right cut.
They’ve had a two-week break. Waterford IT’s early exit from the Fitzgibbon Cup meant Cahill had a near-full squad to pick from. Some of their big names are coming back from injury. I’d still expect Limerick to win but I’m sure Cahill and his players will be pumped up to see how they match up to Limerick’s standard.
Liam Sheedy could probably take or leave a league quarter-final now but, while he’ll be happy with how competitive Tipp were against Limerick and Cork, Sheedy won’t want to lose three games on the spin either.
Moreover, his players certainly won’t want to lose to Galway, especially given the rivalry between these sides in recent years.
It’s only when you delve into the modern Galway-Tipp relationship that you realise how little there has been between these sides over the last decade. Apart from the 2017 league final, and the 2014 qualifier in Thurles, their big matches in that time have invariably been decided by one point. The last time Tipp went to Pearse Stadium in 2016, a draw plunged Galway into a relegation final, which later led to Galway’s slippage into Division 1B.
Wexford-Kilkenny may be the most attractive game of the weekend but Galway-Tipp is certainly the match with most at stake. Tipp want points while Galway — management, players and the public — want reassurance that the clipping they got from Limerick two weeks ago was just a bad day at the office.
Galway didn’t seem to be able to compete with Limerick for long stages, especially after Joe Canning went off injured, but the way they were out-hurled was far more worrying than being outmuscled. If Galway were brutally introspective, which I’m sure they were, they’d also have realised how tactically far off the mark they were, and how shallow their panel was when compared to Limerick’s.
In fairness, Limerick have more back-up than anyone else but, we all know how restless the natives can get in Galway. The war-paint will go on a lot quicker when the leader is not one from their own tribe. If Shane O’Neill doesn’t already know that, he’ll soon find out. And he’ll feel that wrath even more if Tipp win on Sunday, which I fancy them to do.
I’d expect wins for Clare, Cork and Dublin, who play Carlow Saturday evening, while the game of weekend is taking place on Sunday in Wexford Park. For years, Wexford-Kilkenny had lost its appeal and intrigue because Kilkenny enjoyed such dominance in th e relationship, but the dynamic between the two has changed dramatically since Davy Fitz arrived; his record against Cody and Kilkenny is more impressive than any other manager and county in such a short timespan.
Kilkenny are going well. Wexford were disappointing against Clare but I’m sure they went at it hammer and tongs over the last two weeks and they’ll be fired up and ready for Sunday.
It’s hard to know how many of the Ballyhale lads will return. Kilkenny will need them in this kind of a battle but Cody won’t be firing them all in either because he’ll need them fresh for later in the year.
Wexford never need motivation to beat Kilkenny but I think they’ll have even more of a cause after the Clare defeat. I fancy Wexford to chalk up another win against their old rivals.
You always find out plenty about yourself against Kilkenny but it’s funny too what different challenges throw up. Losing to a 14-man Clare two weeks ago will have exercised Fitzy’s mind, especially after losing last year’s All-Ireland semi-final to a 14-man Tipperary. In both of those matches, Wexford appeared to be in the driving seat but they veered off the road and crashed into the ditch each time.
Does the opposition going down to 14 men not suit Wexford? Who knows. There’s always a decision to be made, a problem to be solved somewhere. But that’s what makes inter-county management so fascinating.
And so ripe for likes and dislikes from the mob.