Henry Shefflin: Galway don't need more from Joe Canning... they need more from others
Published 25/07/2015 | 14:00
I was in Thurles that remarkable July afternoon in '08 when Cork drew a line under Ger Loughnane's tenure as Galway hurling manager.
The script that day had more sub-plots than Harper Lee could squeeze between the covers of a novel. Donal Og's first-half dismissal; my old friend, Diarmuid O'Sullivan, being replaced at half-time in the necessary reshuffle; Joe Canning announcing himself to the world as a budding superstar and, ultimately, a Cork team at odds with their manager, Gerald McCarthy, dramatically catching fire to pull through.
You couldn't take your eyes off the field that day and, if we get anything close to a repeat when the counties clash again in Semple Stadium tomorrow, people will have had more than their money's worth.
But the big thing that hits home looking back is how, seven years on, Joe Canning is still dealing with the pressure of enormous expectation in a Galway jersey. If you look at teams like Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork this year, they all have a spread of scores through the team. I don't see that in Galway, albeit Cathal Mannion had a spectacular day in the Leinster semi-final replay against Dublin.
Joe's goal in the Leinster final was absolutely wonderful, yet I heard people saying after that Galway needed more from him. I think the truth is they needed more from others.
This is where the Championship starts getting really serious and it's where the likes of Mannion and Jason Flynn are going to have to make their presence felt. Maybe they were getting that little bit more space earlier in the year but, as teams come to know you, that space quickly begins to diminish. You don't get the same breathing room.
So tomorrow will be a good test of those young players. If they perform, Galway could be onto a winner.
But I think Cork are in a good position heading into this game. There's a lot of speculation about what they might do now in terms of set-up and, to me, that's an advantage to them. Having people trying to second guess exactly how they're likely to play hasn't been the case with a Cork hurling team for as long as I can remember.
Historically, when you played Cork you knew you'd face a conventional style, six backs, two midfielders, six forwards. Now, suddenly, Galway can't help but be wondering what Jimmy Barry-Murphy might have up his sleeve.
Will Patrick Horgan slip into that pocket between the two forward lines? Will Mark Ellis continue in that sweeping role?
I thought Ellis was excellent in the victories over Wexford and Clare. And, if he continues in that role tomorrow, it will mean he's positioned directly in front of a certain Joe Canning. Which presents a real predicament for Anthony Cunningham.
My view is that Galway will want to open this game up because they thrive on space. In the Leinster final, Kilkenny's backs and midfield brilliantly restricted that space albeit Galway did get through for goals from Canning and Flynn, having created one-on-one contests. Those one-on-ones are what Galway will be looking for tomorrow.
So I see an advantage for Cork here now in that they're the ones seen as keeping their cards close to their chests. They're no longer an open book tactically.
It's been a big philosophical leap for Barry-Murphy to take and one, maybe, that was taken with some reluctance. But it's given them another dimension. This time last week, my suspicion was that Cork would revert to a traditional style once they came up against more open opposition. Now I'm not so sure.
I just feel the sweeper system has given them extra protection. They'd been leaking too many goals prior to this and could have conceded half a dozen in the Munster Championship defeat by Waterford. But the new system has done more than erect road-blocks to Anthony Nash's goal. It seems to have freed up Horgan and given more space to the likes of Conor Lehane and Seamus Harnedy. All of the boxes we said that Cork needed to tick before they applied this system now seem to have been ticked.
So why change?
That said, I think - deep down - JBM would love to set his team up in the traditional way. To some degree, his hand was slightly forced the last two games in that Wexford and Clare were always going to have extra bodies back. But I thought Cork played with a really high intensity against Clare particularly and looked more used to the sweeper system than they had against Wexford.
Cork know the big thing they will have to avoid against Galway is the concession of goals, which is why I see a continuation of what they've been doing.
It's not ultra-defensive, after all. It's not as if they leave only one forward inside. There's usually two and, when they have possession, Cork have the ability to get bodies bombing forward.
A lot will depend on Galway's approach to this game. If they decide to really attack, go for it with six forwards all occupying forward positions, then Ellis might be under pressure to pick someone up as distinct from simply marking space. Now that would be interesting. Because if a team decides to go the other way with, say, five backs, three midfielders and six forwards pushing forward, then their opponents have a decision to make.
As I said last week, the sweeper system has its value, but it doesn't win you matches. It is tactically restrictive and you need the players to over-ride that restriction. Look at 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer against Waterford, fielding a Darren Gleeson puck-out and scoring from, say, 70-yards. Two pucks of the ball and a point.
I feel short puck-outs will be at a premium in this game and, so ball-winning half-forwards will really come into play. Galway might have the upper-hand here in Cyril Donnellan and Jonathan Glynn. The bigger the games become, the more important it is to have self-sufficient players.
One thing that impressed me about Cork against Clare was I thought they mixed things well. They weren't slaves to how they lined up.
Sometimes you look at what Waterford are doing and they might have only one player within 45 yards of the opposition goal. Cork aren't that rigid. They always keep two or three well up the field. You need to still carry a threat up there because, otherwise, the danger is you're just keeping the score down for an inevitable defeat.
I saw some criticism of Cunningham's Leinster final post-match assessment that Galway had been "very very close to Kilkenny". Once Kilkenny weathered the Galway storm early in the second-half, it always looked to me as if they were going to win. It was a decent performance by Galway but, at this stage in their development, I'd imagine they want to be measured by trophies, not performances.
That said, Anthony had no option but to accentuate the positives. He needs his players to feel they have some kind of momentum going into Semple Stadium.
Right now, you'd have to say it's going to be Kilkenny or Tipperary for the Liam MacCarthy Cup, but I wouldn't disregard either of these teams if they come out of Thurles with a good win behind them.
Cork look the more likely to me. Horgan seems to be thriving in the freedom of his new position and the system they're playing is bringing the best out of physical players like Aidan Walsh, Damien Cahalane and, especially, Bill Cooper. Ultimately, this game might come down to hunger and the willingness to go after dirty ball.
It's a massive game for both counties but, if we see the same aggression and work-rate from them that we saw in their defeat of Clare, I think Cork will just about get there.
Waterford likely to go on the attack
I suspect Waterford will try to be a little more offensive against Dublin than they were during the National League and Munster Championship.
This is going to be a different experience for Derek McGrath's young team in that they're going into this game as favourites. That presents a challenge they won't be familiar with. Paul Ryan was the difference for Dublin against Limerick, but can he get the same room against a Waterford team that places its faith in such a well-oiled defensive system? I'm not sure he can.
In that sense, this is a day that Dublin really need the likes of Mark Schutte to come to the fore in terms of scores. I expect a tight game personally because my suspicion is that Dublin will make life difficult for Waterford.
Winning this game would be a big statement for either team and, given they've no great history of a rivalry, it's a little difficult to know what kind of contest to expect.
I've spoken before about the restrictive aspect of Waterford's system, but my hunch is that they'll get just about enough points on the board to ease them through to the semi-finals.