WESTSIDE COLUMN 28 FERRUARY 2014

 

It may have been a game of great spectacle for the neutral, but for the travelling Tipperary fans it was one of mixed emotions. A goal-fest it was, for sure, and a game of spectacular see-saw extremes – but behind the dazzle lay more heartbreak for Tipperary.

Nowlan Park is becoming a hurling graveyard for our ambitions. Three times now in twelve months we’ve gone there and returned on each occasion suitably cowed by the ‘cats’. If I don’t see the place for another ten years it won’t be long enough!

On this occasion there was the added frustration that we seemed to have built a winning platform only to see it torpedoed in those devastating closing minutes. It was like a re-run of the ’09 All Ireland with Kilkenny storming through with perfect timing.

Mind you we didn’t travel Noreside with any great optimism after the Waterford game but we were soon surprised as those green flags started to wave. There’s no denying that dodgy defending aided the first two with both Noel McGrath and Jason Forde getting behind their markers for the backhand flicks past Herity. There was more substance to the next two from Callanan, the first the best of the lot as he went past Kieran Joyce and planted low into the right corner.

After that we went ten-up but Shefflin’s tap in before the break coupled with Fennelly’s earlier finish off a crossbar rebound dented the impact and a lead of six was no huge barrier at the break given the stiffness of the wind.

Somehow I always felt a sense of inevitability about the second half.  Kilkenny had remodelled and reinforced their formation with Cody making big calls by withdrawing Tommy Walsh and Brian Hogan. They now had Lester Ryan at half back and with Richie Hogan and Cillian Buckley supplementing the effort in the middle third there was less of a flow into our forwards. Paul Murphy’s earlier arrival to the inside line had solidified that zone too. We’d manage a mere 1-2 from play in the second half.

Callanan’s third goal did halt the Kilkenny advance after Fennelly had rattled in his second but inevitably, inexorably they kept driving forward. An unwise kicked clearance from Shane McGrath saw Fennelly rifle in his third and then a luckless block on Stapleton’s attempted hand pass out of defence opened the gap for full forward Kelly to boot in the final major lodgement.

Devastatingly we’d gone from ten-up to six-down, the game ending as it did last summer to a chorus of Kilkenny whoops and hollers of delight.

You can look at the positives and be cheery about a score total of 5-14, enough to win most games, but a more holistic view of the event I’m afraid sees the plusses dwarfed by the minuses. On a day when Kilkenny were leaky at the back we ought to have been able to take advantage but instead we were comprehensively out-fought when it mattered most in the final phase of action.

One expected significant change in personnel after the Waterford game but instead it was all very minimalistic, just Paddy Stapleton’s return at the expense of ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer, though there was much positional shuffling. Then Thomas Stapleton was a late inclusion at full back for the unavailable Conor O’Mahony.

Positioning on the day though left many people baffled. Paudie Maher went in for the throw-in at midfield before eventually floundering at wing back. Mickey Cahill seemed to have no fixed abode popping up in attack to deliver a pair of points before the break. Conor O’Brien spent most of the day at centre back with Brendan Maher on the move too, ending up eventually at number six late in the action. There were times in that first half when I simply stopped trying to track player positions.

Now maybe there’s method to this and it’s all part of some grand design but I remain to be convinced.  Positional flexibility is all very well but surely you need structure and stability too beginning with a strong spine to your defence, something notably lacking on Sunday. And surely players need to be able to acclimatise to a particular position and not be shunted all over the park because a corner back’s instinct, for example, is very different to a midfielder’s or a forward’s.

Part of our problem too on Sunday was the dip in form of a few of our central players. I was taken to task last week for being too generous to Paudie Maher in the Waterford game. Well, I’d suggest that describing him as shocking against the Deise was well over the top, but on the more general point my critic is right. He has slipped considerably from the stellar performer of a few years back and Sunday provided more evidence of this slippage. His loss of aerial ability in particular has left him struggling in other facets of the game. Two stand out cameos from Sunday underline the point: in the first half Walter Walsh streaked away from him down the right flank before whipping over one of his five points; in the second half the much smaller Richie Hogan out-fielded him with ease. That would have been unimaginable a few years back.

Brendan Maher too has been struggling in recent games and the management seem unsure of his optimum position whether half back, midfield or half forward.

There were positives too of course on Sunday. Top of the list was undoubtedly the display of Seamus Callanan who surely rivalled Colin Fennelly for top billing. He was razor sharp and might even have poached another goal near the end had his touch been better. Noel McGrath had an influential first half – less so perhaps in the second. I though Paddy Murphy did more on this occasion that previously but Jason Forde failed to build on that early goal and Kieran Bergin showed his lack of forward nuance on a few chances that came his way. That looks like an experiment that may be revised too.

Woodlock’s wholehearted endeavour was again evident and Shane McGrath did a lot of positives as well, though that kicked clearance proved very costly. Cathal Barrett again showed real bite to his play though the lack of physique was evident at times. Darren Gleeson did well to prevent two other first half goals and he surely had no chance on those rockets that zipped past him.

Finally I watched a recording of the match on TG4 where there was generous praise for the referee. I disagree and one issue in particular that needs highlighting is the number of steps being taken by attackers. Kilkenny’s last two goals should have been ruled out. The rule allows four steps but both Walter Walsh in the lead up to one goal and Mark Kelly in executing the other took over double that number. Yet it’s an issue that the pundits seem happy to ignore. On the other side Brendan Maher should have seen red for his jab on Fennelly. Good refereeing indeed!

There’s a break now before Clare arrive at the Stadium on Sunday week. Time surely for reflection – revision even? – by the management.

 

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