Saturday 23 September 2017

Reading between the lines

So what of the match-ups in today's All-Ireland final? Jamesie O'Connor runs the rule over the key battles that await us as the Déise and Tribesmen go to war

Galway's Jonathan Glynn in action. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Galway's Jonathan Glynn in action. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Brick Walsh, Kevin Moran, David Burke and Joe Canning. Many would consider it an injustice were any of those four to end their careers without the All-Ireland medal they crave - especially considering the service and leadership they've given to their counties.

But referencing the incredible odyssey that this summer has become for the Mayo footballers, Colm O'Rourke wrote last week that sometimes there is no justice in court, and often less on the sporting field.

The good news is that two of that quartet will realise a lifetime's ambition this afternoon. And Burke or Moran will have the added honour of captaining their side, of raising the holy grail over their head and declaring a famine officially over - be it either 29 or 58 years.

For the two of the quartet that lose, the wait will go on and possibly on and on and on, because in sport, there are no guarantees. That said, with the average age of both starting 15s identical, 25-and-a-half to be precise, these sides are in their prime so there will surely be other opportunities, especially for the Galway pair.

Waterford's Austin Gleeson will be one to watch. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Waterford's Austin Gleeson will be one to watch. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Even though he's been around for what feels like forever, Canning is still only 28, with Burke a year younger at 27. But having already lost a pair of finals in 2012 (after a replay) and 2015, there's pressure not to lose a third. That's something no one wants on their CV.

Moran, meanwhile, has turned 30, which makes Brick, at 34, very much the elder statesman. Their performances this summer have belied their age. They have been inspirational for Waterford.

It's nearly a decade ago now, but like their Galway counterparts, they too have tasted the bitter pill of All-Ireland final defeat, or rather annihilation, at the hands of that great Kilkenny team playing at the height of their powers in 2008. Father Time isn't on their side, so the likelihood of either of them, and Brick especially, getting another shot is that bit slimmer. They have to make this one count.

For the neutrals among us, it's a final to savour, and what an occasion it promises to be. At the end of it all, the lives of the 33 or 34 players on the extended panel that wins will be altered forever. And a pair of players will have cemented their status as two of their county's greats in the process.

Waterford Defence v Galway Attack

In our half-time analysis of the second semi-final on Sky, I commented that with sweepers at both ends of the field and space at a premium, the game was being played on Waterford's terms. Denied the type of shoot-out that would have favoured them, Cork were effectively trying to beat Waterford playing Waterford's game. That's not an easy thing to do, irrespective of what might have happened if Damien Cahalane hadn't been sent off.

That's the quandary facing Micheál Donoghue this afternoon. It's not that Galway haven't faced down and beaten teams that play a sweeper before. They coped comfortably with Clare in last year's quarter-final, and showed the required patience, especially early on, before accelerating away from Wexford in this year's Leinster final. But Galway had the players at both ends of the field to dominate those sides physically. Waterford are a different proposition. Neither Clare nor Wexford possess anything like the same physicality and primary ball-winning ability that this Waterford side has.

Kevin Moran of Waterford watches his shot. Photo:Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Kevin Moran of Waterford watches his shot. Photo:Ray McManus/Sportsfile

With the attacking flair they possess, Derek McGrath will have identified the Galway forwards who pose the biggest threat, and thus the key match-ups he has to get right. Noel Connors looks a good fit for Conor Whelan, who's had a great season; Barry Coughlan at full-back should have responsibility for Conor Cooney, with Philip Mahony picking up Joseph Cooney, assuming they play as selected, at numbers 14 and 10 respectively.

The big quandary, of course, is who Waterford deploy to pick up Joe Canning. In that regard, the loss of arguably their best man-marker, Conor Gleeson, is a significant blow. McGrath would surely have had Gleeson, with his ability to crawl all over his opponent without actually fouling him, in mind for Canning. That job is now likely to fall to Darragh Fives. Physically, he's a better fit for Canning than Gleeson, but he mightn't have the same doggedness and defensive instincts and that could be crucial because it's a key battle Waterford might have to win to come out on top.

Of course there's a distinct possibility that Galway won't give Waterford what they're expecting either. What happens for example if Johnny Glynn lands in on the edge of the square, with Conor Cooney out on the wing? Canning could end up anywhere. And we haven't mentioned Cathal Mannion, who's another finisher and potential match-winner that Waterford have to account for.

So if the Galway forwards haven't met a defence like Waterford's, the reverse is also true: the Waterford defence hasn't met a forward line as potent or physically strong as Galway's. Even with Tadhg de Búrca back and manning the D, this Galway side will get scores. To have any chance, Waterford need to limit the damage and in particular not concede goals. Achieving that objective will give them a fighting chance.

Galway Defence v Waterford Attack

With Daithí Burke at full-back and Gearoid McInerney at number six, Galway now have stability as well as a strong physical presence in their central spine. All round, they've been better defensively in 2017, but a lot of that has to do with the help the defence has been getting from those further up the field.

Nonethelesss, John Hanbury has played well since coming in for Paul Killeen, Padraig Mannion looks more at home on the wing, and Adrian Tuohy's pace and athleticism are useful assets to have in the full-back line, especially given the space that Waterford will look to create. Aidan Harte was man of the match in the sweeper role against Clare last year and reprised it in the Leinster final so he'll be the extra defender.

David Burke will be a key player for Galway. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
David Burke will be a key player for Galway. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Because Waterford's attacking approach is anything but conventional, Galway will have thought long and hard about how they need to set up. Assuming Shane Bennett continues to play in what amounts to a one-man full-forward line, Burke will pick him up, with Harte playing deeper, almost as an auxiliary full-back, to cut out the goal threat. After that, I think they'll go man for man and it'll be interesting to see who marks Brick, given the influence he has been able to exert, especially in the last two games.

Waterford certainly don't have the same array of shooters as Galway, so they need to be efficient and accurate, particularly with their long-range shooting. Neither Jake Dillon nor Brick on the wings are going to wreak havoc on the scoreboard from play, but they will fight tooth and nail for possession and look to either draw frees or get it to Austin Gleeson, Pauric Mahony, or one of the midfielders coming in support.

If Canning provides the X-factor at one end of the field, it's Gleeson who's capable of weaving magic at the other, and who to put on him is probably the biggest decision Micheál Donoghue will have to make. Remove him from the equation and it's hard to see Waterford getting enough scores to win.

McInerney has the temperament and aerial prowess, but will Donoghue want his centre-back dragged away from the middle, where he's been so effective? Gleeson didn't score for 50 minutes in the semi-final, but finished with 1-2 as well as the assist for Jamie Barron's game-breaking goal when the match opened up. He has produced the goods on the big stage in Croke Park, and after dodging a major bullet in avoiding a suspension to be here, will surely feel he owes it to his team-mates to perform.

The other factor Galway have to prepare for is the subs Waterford will inevitably introduce. Donoghue mightn't be losing any sleep worrying about Brian O'Halloran or Tommy Ryan, but Maurice Shanahan's size and aerial ability, Colin Dunford's pace, and the finishing ability of Patrick Curran and Stephen Bennett are a different matter.

They all need to be accounted for and if the Waterford bench can make a sizable contribution, the odds on them winning get shorter.

Midfield

It's stating the obvious that Kevin Moran and Jamie Barron are integral to the Waterford game plan, and if the Hurler of the Year award was being dished out today, they would be central to the discussion.

Barron was the Déise's best player in the Munster semi-final defeat to Cork back in June; Moran was man of the match and scorer of the crucial goal in the quarter-final win over Wexford. Moran completely negated Michael Fennelly's influence in the season-turning qualifier win over Kilkenny, a game that Barron almost single-handedly turned Waterford's way in the first period of extra-time.

But if they were good on those occasions, they were immense in the semi-final win over Cork. With 2-5 from play between them, Moran had three inspirational scores in the opening half, breaking tackles and powering forward, while Barron wreaked havoc with a licence to get forward in the second half when he got those two vital goals.

If Waterford are to win, you sense they have to get on top in this sector, and no one will be more conscious of that than David Burke and Johnny Coen, their direct opponents. Galway's captain was surprisingly below par against Tipp, where Brendan Maher was head and shoulders above everybody. But Coen was industrious and effective, hitting two points and keeping his head at the death to find Canning with the pass for the winner.

I can't see Burke having as little ­impact and, frankly, Galway can't afford him to have another off day, because this sector could well be where this game is won and lost.

Goalkeepers and Puck-out Strategy

Considering how well they've played to date, both Colm Callanan and Stephen O'Keeffe will be going to the All Star banquet later this year. Both have proven shot-stopping ability and are playing with the confidence you need in a game of this magnitude.

In terms of puck-out strategy, both sides are blessed with an array of ball-winners in the middle third of the field. Johnny Glynn's return is massive in that sense, because it increases the options available to Callanan. With Canning at number 11 and 6' 4" Joseph Cooney on the other wing, Callanan will be going long for most of the afternoon.

With Brick, Gleeson and Kevin Moran all available as targets, O'Keeffe too is likely to be trying to find the big men beyond midfield. That said, neither 'keeper, with sweepers at both ends of the field, is likely to ignore the fact that the potential to go short is likely to be there. In that sense, Waterford are the ones likely to be more adept at working it up the field, given their style of play.

Again, it's an aspect that both managers will have gone over and in the big matches in Croke Park, the side that dominates the aerial exchanges invariably comes out on top.

Conclusion

Before the semi-finals were played, I felt the winner of this year's All-Ireland would come from the Galway v Tipperary match. Going back to last year, Tipp were far too good for Waterford in the Munster final, but had only a point to spare over the Tribesmen in that epic All-Ireland semi-final. Kilkenny beat Waterford, but were well beaten in the final by Tipp. Drawing a line from that form, you have to conclude the Tribesmen were ahead of the Déise 12 months ago.

If anything, Galway are better, fitter, and stronger than a year ago, and with both the Leinster and National League titles in the bag, they are playing with the confidence and belief that their time has come. Logic decrees that if their forwards click and they play anything close to their best, they could win this match by six or seven points. My head, so, says Galway.

Why then do I genuinely think that this is still a 50-50 game?

Because my gut instinct is telling me that Waterford are capable of pulling this off. They're also a better side than they were last year and have a core of players in the form of their lives. Galway have never beaten them in the championship. I was in Walsh Park in 2006, Thurles in 2009 and again in 2011, all games that Galway might have expected to win, but didn't or couldn't. Even this year, facing a second-string Waterford side in the League quarter-final, they struggled in Salthill to put them away. Don't think that doesn't matter, because deep down, the Waterford players have no fear and believe they can win.

Then there's the Brick factor and what he's given to his county, the loyalty the players feel towards Derek McGrath and Dan Shanahan, and what this group has been through together over the last four years. Mentally, they have shown the toughness required to win an All-Ireland this summer.

Who wins? My father would kill me if I said anything different. Provided they show the patience and self-discipline required, Galway can edge it.

Sunday Indo Sport

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport