Westside Column 4 August 2017

WESTSIDE

 

The GAA was a centenarian before the Tipp/Galway rivalry really kicked off. It was at its most intense in the late eighties. Since then it has mellowed somewhat but remains an ever present feature.

On Sunday the counties clash in the championship for the fourth year in succession with Galway marginal favourites to unseat the champions. For both counties – albeit for different reasons – this is a defining fixture.

Unlike our relationship with other counties this rivalry with Galway is relatively new. Clubs from the counties did feature in the first-ever All Ireland final way back in 1888 but thereafter there were only sporadic clashes, too infrequent to generate much heat.

Given the provincial system we’ve mostly met in All Ireland semi-finals, though there was one Munster clash back in 1961 when the Tribesmen operated for a spell in that province. It was a failed experiment but interesting in view of the county’s more recent transfer to Leinster. They’ve always been a little isolated west of the Shannon, though in their glory days in the eighties it was no hindrance as they could win All Irelands with just two games.

That eighties Galway side was undeniably the county’s finest ever.  It was a strongly-built, well-balanced unit that developed a winning habit and gave an emerging Tipperary side much grief.

In an era of less tactical hurling Galway’s half back line of Finnerty, Keady and McInerney was really the engine-room of the side. Conor Hayes led from number three and then you had others like Joe Cooney, Brendan Lynskey (their version of ‘Bonner’), Noel Lane, Anthony Cunningham, Michael Coleman and others. It was an impressive outfit which put titles back to back, in the process denying Tipperary in an ’87 semi-final and ’88 final.

It was in ’89 of course that passions really boiled over. Tony Keady was reported for playing illegally in the US and incurred a twelve month ban so that he missed the semi-final clash with Tipperary. It continues to be a very sore point with Galway people who still like to see it as a conspiracy to do them down.

Galway went into that game feeling that the world and its mother was against them and it showed in a very tetchy display where they had two players sent off and eventually lost by three points. It would ultimately mark the end of an era for that team.

I’ve never quite understood the level of bitterness surrounding the Keady affair. After all everyone accepted that he had played illegally even if the penalty seemed very harsh. Trying to stick the blame on Tipperary was undermined by the fact that this county voted in favour of reinstating the centre back when it came to a decision. Then the target was the referee, which seemed to conveniently ignore the fact that they got plenty of refereeing breaks in the previous year’s final.

Anyway for younger generations that’s all the stuff of bygone history.  Incidentally the next meeting of the counties in the championship was the 1991 semi-final, which Tipperary won by ten points before going on to beat Kilkenny in the decider. That ’91 success was an essential validation for that generation of Tipperary players because there was always the begrudgery that saw ’89 as a tainted win due to the Keady affair and the fact that it was Antrim in the final.

Thereafter Galway had a modicum of revenge on Tipperary in 1993 and 2000 before 2001 saw the Premier again master the Westerners, this time in the final. Interestingly the last six All Irelands won by Tipperary, stretching back to 1971, all featured a win over Galway in the process. In the past decade we’ve met four times, Tipperary holding a three-one lead, the pivotal ones coming in 2010 and last year, both very marginal one-pointers.

It’s quite a statistic that of the last four championship games three resulted in one-point wins, the exception being that qualifier in Thurles in 2014 when we blitzed them at the end. It suggests that when these two collide at Croke Park especially there’s never much between the sides.

Arguably Galway is in a better place now than at any time in recent history. They humbled Tipperary in the league final and have since taken a second Leinster crown with minimal fuss. Kilkenny being out of the way was helpful, and the Leinster opposition wasn’t top grade either, but still winning will have enhanced morale and they are a dangerous proposition at this stage of the campaign.

For Tipperary it has been a strange season, oozing with optimism early on only to fall apart later. The reconstruction process began against Westmeath and has gathered pace, the win over Clare the most significant of the three outcomes.

However, it has been a patchy recovery. Difficulties at the defensive end particularly have sown the seeds of doubt so by now most neutrals opt for Galway as the more likely winners on Sunday. The bookies rate it very tight with Galway on 10/11 and Tipperary at 11/10. That’s pretty close to evens, a 50/50 contest, where Galway’s growing reputation is set beside Tipperary’s proven credentials as defending champions.

Team speculation since the Clare match has, inevitably, focused almost entirely on positions one to four. Given the disarray in that sector at Pairc Ui Chaoimh it’s inevitable that some adjustment will be made by management. However, it’s not the time of year for big-gamble experimentation so one expects some minimal adjustments to the goalie and inside defence.

The battle for number one position between Darren Gleeson and Darragh Mooney is a tight affair with little separating them. Mooney could hardly be faulted for the early goals against Clare where his full line was badly breached but he seemed to struggle a bit in the second period, which won’t help his cause.

Greater Croke Park experience on big days, as well as a superior puck-out, might just tilt the decision Gleeson’s way.

The full back line is probably our single biggest worry heading into this game. The manner in which they leaked goals to Cork, Dublin and Clare leaves everyone fretting over the consequences when faced by Galway’s more potent attack. It seems certain that the management will do some readjusting here, though the options are quite limited.

For me the major problem in this line, apart from the absence of Cathal Barrett, is the slump in James Barry’s form. For whatever reason, his form line has dipped dramatically this season. Early in the second half against Clare he raced out to a ball about forty meters from goal but fumbled and then fell allowing Shane O’Donnell step in and hit a point. Last year that situation would have been mopped up without fuss and the ball delivered into our attack. It suggested a player running dry on confidence.

In the championship this year so far we’ve conceded six goals; James Barry was central to five of them. Against Cork Seamus Harnedy got round him to lay off to Shane Kingston for the first goal; he mistimed a dropping ball to allow Michael Cahalane in for the second and decisive goal. Of course the other defenders were faulty too, left ball watching and not covering their men but the initial error was the full back’s.

It was the same against Dublin when Cian O’Sullivan rounded him before careering in – being so easily rounded is a major flaw in his game. Against Clare he was under both dropping balls which led to their rapid-fire goals in the first half.

All of that may sound very harsh on an individual player, one who deservedly won an Allstar award at full back last year. But inter-county hurling is a ruthless business and there’s no hiding place when things start to go awry.

Moving Barry to corner back in order to accommodate Tossy Hamill at full seems to have contributed to the difficulties and the consensus now appears to be that Barry will return to number three. Without doing too much wrong Tossy Hamill could then lose out with Donagh Maher in the right corner and a decision pending on number four.

Key contenders for the left corner are Mickey Cahill, Sean O’Brien and the recovered Joe O’Dwyer. I was surprised to see Sean O’Brien introduced ahead of Mickey Cahill at Pairc Ui Chaoimh; it would be even a greater surprise if such a rookie who only joined the panel a few months ago would make a start in an All Ireland semi-final. Joe O’Dwyer is also a strong contender here but the suggestion seems to be that Cahill might get the nod this time. That would leave one to four reading: Gleeson, Maher, Barry, Cahill. We’ll see. Whatever emerges it’s going to be a line we’ll worry about and Galway will try to target.

Elsewhere the team is likely to start as it did against Clare. That’s despite the fact that our midfield was absent for most of the game in the Pairc. Play just seemed to bypass the Tipp pair the last day so we’ll hope for much more involvement this time from Brendan Maher and Michael Breen. Once again if things go wrong in this area options tend to be limited.

From a Galway perspective this is a massive year. With Kilkenny, their bogey side, sidelined this seems like their chance to finally make the breakthrough. They seem to have shed this image of one-day wonders with more steady form evident from the end of the league onwards.

Besides the team has taken on a more solid shape now. The central spine of their defence looks more secure with the highly rated Daithi Burke at full and Gearoid McInerney doing okay at centre. Adrian Tuohy is a fine player too though there are areas of that defence we might expect to profit against especially given the potency of our attack.

At midfield David Burke is regarded as possibly the best in the business; he tends to be heavily involved and is well capable of taking a score.

Finding a home for Joe Canning at number eleven has been crucial to their development too. For too long he wandered all over the place unsure of his role. Now he orchestrates matters from centre forward, drifting and bringing others into play. Having a plan for when he drifts to midfield will be critical for Tipperary.

The remaining forwards are pretty even with any one of the Cooneys, Conor Whelan, Jason Flynn or Niall Burke likely to have a major impact. Jonathan Glynn is back in action also offering yet another option.

Overall Tipperary face a tough task given the turn of events this year. We’ll certainly hope that our full back line can steady up and avoid too many major breaches. We’ll hardly employ an outright sweeper system but having some extra help back in defence at different times could be useful. A bit more ruthlessness in that area won’t go amiss either. An old timer at home always preached the defensive strategy that while the ball might pass you or the forward might pass you, the two should never pass. Full backs please note.

We’ll certainly hope that our half back line will lay down a few markers; dominance there would be a great platform for the forwards. Midfield needs to be busy. If Canning strays he needs to be tracked because he’s the one player who’ll plant points from one hundred or more meters all day.

The attack of course is the area where we’ll hope to inflict most damage on Galway. Callanan was well mastered last year by Daithi Burke but the full forward has a habit of turning the tables on opponents so I’ll be watching that one with interest. The great facility our attack has is that there are so many threats. Silence Callanan and a McGrath or ‘Bubbles’ will inflict the damage. Above all we’ll expect a massive work rate from those forwards so that when clearances come they are at least laboured.

In past years we’ve been out-worked by Galway, even on days when we won. That can’t happen on Sunday and there is no excuse for it happening. Encouragingly our work rate has improved exponentially in past games so we need another big step up this time.

Overall this is a fascinating prospect. The dominoes seem to be lining up for Galway this time but one game can change all that. The winners here will be fancied in the final so it certainly has the potential to be a defining game for 2017. The league final was humbling; this is the chance to atone.

 

 

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