Westside Column 22 June 2018

After the fall, here comes the fallout.

Tipperary hurling enters a period of soul-searching following our early exit from the championship. As management considers its options the rest of the county too is in reflective mood.

Post mortems are never pleasant. However, it’s always necessary to dissect failure to try and uncover the underlying causes and take corrective action to avoid a reprise. Matthew Syed wrote a book called ‘Black Box Thinking’. In aviation every incident, whether minor or catastrophic, is investigated and, crucially, corrective procedures put in place to ensure there is never a repeat.  Syed suggests that a similar approach to other areas of life will produce comparable results.

So it’s surely useful to take a look at the black box recorder of our season and try to recognise some problem areas that arose and what mistakes were made. You can rewind that recorder back to the very first league outing against Clare in January to pick up on some patterns that would persist for much of the season.

We overdid experimentation. Some experimenting and refreshing of the side is always necessary but it has to be measured and carefully managed. Winning is the first priority because it generates its own momentum and is particularly important for a side like Tipperary whose confidence tends to be brittle.

That day in Ennis we began with players like John McGrath, Brendan Maher, Dan McCormack and Michael Breen all on the bench. It was a missed opportunity. Eventually we had to call on reinforcements but it was too late. That was the day too when Cathal Barrett first played at midfield. More on that anon.

As the season progressed we kept experimenting. For our home fixtures we tended to field stronger sides and picked off enough wins to progress in the series. Our away game to Kilkenny, however, was yet another missed opportunity. With Paudie Maher and Noel McGrath warming the bench we lost out by a single point in a contest that was there for the taking. Imagine the morale lift a win would have given the team that day down in Nowlan Park.

It was no surprise then that when it came to the league final down at the same venue we’d blink once again. Like death by a thousand cuts these setbacks chip away at a team’s self-esteem so that when big championship days arrive the vulnerabilities again surface.

All of this acted as a build up to the May 20 championship opener against Limerick when management shortcomings surely reached their lowest point. There was consternation in the county when the line out for that game was announced on the Friday night.

Too many of the selections appeared to be ad hoc with no overriding vision of how the team was taking shape. Take the example of Tossy Hamill: full back for the first two league games, replaced by James Barry for the Wexford match, back in for the Kilkenny game, replaced by Sean O’Brien for the Cork match, James Barry back for the quarter-final v. Dublin and then, inexplicably, Hamill at wing back for the league semi-final v. Limerick. What was that latter move about other than playing him off the team – and panel?

Persisting with Cathal Barrett as a midfield option was difficult to understand either. Such wild experiments rarely work. Taking Ronan Maher from half back to midfield isn’t such a drastic adjustment but a corner back’s instincts are vastly different to a midfielder’s and Barrett’s decision making suffered as we saw in the Clare game.

Given our difficulties on the full back line it was amazing that Barrett wasn’t restored to that zone when he regained fitness. He wouldn’t have been the silver bullet, as suggested by Brendan Cummins the week before the game, but he would have added an element of security in an area where Seamus Kennedy seemed out of position. Incidentally Barrett, it appears, was likely to play full back in the championship against Limerick until injury intervened, so it’s doubly puzzling why he wasn’t employed on the full line when he recovered.

You could go through several other players too and puzzle over their deployment or non-deployment as the case may be but through it all what emerged was an erratic selection policy.

In fairness to the management injuries did restrict their options. The curse of the hamstring afflicted the team all spring with several players falling victim. Some have linked this problem to training practices, though I don’t feel qualified to make any judgment on that score. Gary Ryan did the physical training alongside S & C man, Ciaran Keogh. Both are highly regarded, although some are suggesting that the two posts could be combined with one man taking overall responsibility for the physical condition of the players.

A criticism that the management will have to face also is what appeared at times to be a lack of tactical nuance. The second half of the league final was a classic example where we seemed totally one dimensional pumping high ball into a failing attack.

Mind you I think the answer to this isn’t as simple as some suggest. Working the ball through the lines is a phrase that has become popular but it’s hardly an ideal tactic for this Tipperary team. Short puck-outs require pacey players who are very comfortable in possession and we tend to lack that type. In any case if the opposition pushes up on your puck-out then the short option is gone and the goalie has to deliver long. Variation seems to be the best option where player movement facilitates the goalie.

And there’s the rub from a Tipperary perspective. For most of our games this year the players seemed very static, even flat-footed. When that happens, I’m afraid, tactics become irrelevant. If the fundamentals aren’t right then the entire system malfunctions.

In view of our full back difficulties a popular solution regularly touted is playing Michael Breen at number three. It’s a suggestion that needs some analysis. He was there as a successful minor in 2012 and again as an U21. People tend to recall a few impressive displays from those years and conclude that he’s the panacea for our full back difficulties.

But is he? Down in UCC, I’m told, when he initially broke onto the senior team he was tried at full back, corner back and wing back before management concluded that he was ill-equipped for a defensive role. He’s hugely admired in Cork, being made captain of the Fitzgibbon Cup team, but not as a defender. On the ball he is a strong, dashing player with speed and finish but other aspects of his game come up short for full back.

Back to our black box and any reviewer of our season will feel puzzled watching the year’s footage. Performances were desperately uneven in the championship particularly where the team mixed phases of liveliness with a lot of lethargy. It was all so patchy and unconvincing. At times the side seemed to be weighed down by expectation and only performed when all seemed lost.

Worryingly a core element of the team is now approaching the thirty-year watershed. There’s no mention of any retirements but the generation that emerged to deny Kilkenny in 2010 is running out of time. Reinforcements are in short supply so it’s difficult to be optimistic about the immediate future.

In the overall scheme of things Michael Ryan and his management team will have to take the hit for the shortcomings this year. The job of management is to get the best out of available resources and when that doesn’t happen then the buck stops with the top man and his colleagues. This management team has served three years and after the highs of 2016 the side has been on the slide ever since.

There have been calls for the management to step aside but I’m not convinced that’s the best outcome for the county. For players who may have just a year or two left I suspect a change of management would not be welcomed either. Besides is there an obvious replacement waiting in the wings?

For Michael Ryan this team should represent unfinished business. I have no doubt he has the passion for the job and the open-mindedness to recognise the need for background changes. So my preferred option is for the manager to stay on with a major overhaul of the background structures. Either way a decision within the next few weeks is highly desirable so that the county can start looking ahead.

Finally, without hitting a ball last Sunday our minor hurlers got a major reprieve. Wins by Cork and Limerick let us through on score difference for a provincial final showdown with the Shannonsiders. Those goals against Cork and that late flurry against Clare in earlier games ultimately gave Tipperary the edge in the scoring tots. I suspect a huge exhale of relief was heard around Toomevara on Sunday afternoon last. Now the task is to take advantage of the let-off.

Before that Liam Cahill’s U21s face a really stiff one this coming Thursday at the Stadium against Limerick. They’ll be outsiders so it will be a mighty achievement if they can pull off this one against the reigning champions. In a year when the seniors fell way below expectations wouldn’t it be sweet compensation if the under-agers came up trumps?

P.S. It was sad to read that Brendan Maher faces surgery and a long lay-off following that knee injury against Clare.  It’s a massive blow to Borrisoleigh and we can only hope that he’ll be back in harness in time for next year’s inter-county season. He’s one of our best.

 

 

 

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