Sunday 22 April 2018

Henry Shefflin: Davy Fitz can almost over-think things...but Clare might edge this

Davy Fitzgerald (centre) takes issue with Henry Shefflin (left) during the 2005 NHL final in Thurles
Davy Fitzgerald (centre) takes issue with Henry Shefflin (left) during the 2005 NHL final in Thurles

Henry Shefflin

With so much talk about sledging in Gaelic football this week, a memory came to mind from the 2002 All-Ireland hurling final that made me chuckle.

As Kilkenny got on top of Clare, DJ Carey scored this sublime point from under the Hogan Stand without even taking the ball to hand. There’d been a few verbals between Davy Fitzgerald and me throughout the game and now, as DJ’s effort sailed serenely over, I went running towards the Clare goal, roaring in “Class is permanent boy, class is permanent. . .”

Davy, naturally, didn’t spare me, inviting me further inside his domain. I went within maybe eight yards, then thought the better of it and wheeled away.

Back then, we had a kind of a love-hate relationship, you could say. We certainly didn’t see eye to eye on the field, but then Davy probably didn’t get on with too many opponents in the heat of battle. Off the field, I like to think we had the height of respect for one another.

You know, reading about the sledging between the Donegal and Tyrone players, I can honestly say I’ve never come across anything like that in hurling. There seems to be a very malicious strain of abuse creeping into some football rivalries, but all you’d ever get in hurling is a bit of what I would call macho talk.

It’s like Brendan Lynskey telling a young Michael Duignan that the minor match was over when he was just starting out. Or maybe a full-back promising to wear a hurl across your knuckles, that sort of thing. Nothing that would stay with you.

It strikes me that there is less time for any real bad stuff to creep into hurling – the ball is just moving so fast, there’s not the same opportunity to get into a lad’s head.


What seems to be happening in football with certain counties now is that they’re actually doing their homework on opposition players, getting intimate detail about family members and using it to wind a player up, which is unbelievable. I don’t think there’s any place in sport for that type of stuff.

Macho talk is pretty much all you get in hurling and, if I’m honest, I’ve been known to deliver some of it myself.

But talk of Clare and Davy reminds me that, tomorrow, I’ll be attending only my second ever Munster Championship game. My first? The 2010 game between Cork and Tipperary in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. I just decided to make a weekend of it and get a taste of what Munster was all about.

Aisake ó hAilpín destroyed Tipp that day and I remember walking out of there thinking, ‘Well that’s the last we’ll see of Tipp for a while. . .’ Little did I know that they’d be the ones stopping us from the five-in-a-row three months later.

So I’m really looking forward to Thurles now because this is a game carrying a lot of weight for both Clare and Limerick.

I’d originally have said Clare can least afford to lose. They had such a poor year last year, I think they really need to make a bit of a statement now.

But Limerick need to stay competitive at the top level now too and get purchase from a couple of really good minor teams – which did not happen when they had those three successive All-Ireland U-21 wins.

Brendan Bugler and Colm Galvin are big losses for Clare, but Limerick will seriously miss Nicky Quaid, who I rate very highly.


Now I don’t think for a second that defeat will signal the end of things for either team. They’re both well equipped to have a big say in this championship.

But Clare, particularly, would get a great lift from winning this.

What I see in Davy more than anything is a love of hurling. He’s full of passion and a very deep thinker about the game. The creation of space in the forwards is a big thing for this Clare team, but you have to be careful not to fall into a trap of just creating that space for the sake of it.

The danger is you take certain players out of the game simply because you’ve become almost enslaved to the system. I’m all for having tactics in hurling but sometimes you have to go with the flow too. If there’s a lot of ball going to the wings and you’ve nobody there only extra defenders, then you’ve got to readjust.

I sometimes get the impression that, because of his passion, Davy can almost over-think things. Now don’t get me wrong. He did a great job in delivering an All-Ireland in 2013. Yes, Clare had the players, but they were predominantly young, skilful lads, some of them not even fully physically developed.

One of the main reasons Clare won was because of Davy’s tactical awareness and because their main players were at the top of their form. But the key for him now is how can they find it again or, better still, move it on.

Remember, in 2013 Clare played some great, off-the-cuff hurling too that I think has been missing from them of late. Maybe teams have copped on to them a little bit, but that brash explosiveness that the likes of Tony Kelly and Podge Collins brought two years ago hasn’t been as conspicuous in the Clare of 2015. Sometimes now it strikes me that they’re guilty of almost looking to make the perfect play.

If I think back to the relegation play-off against Kilkenny last month, it strikes me as a day that Clare had their old spark. They will take great confidence from that performance.

But when I think of that game, the two faces that immediately come into my head are Tony Kelly and Shane O’Donnell. I know the other Clare forwards were doing a lot of work around the field, but, to me, it was all about their centre-forward and full-forward that day. The others were all, in a sense, sacrificing themselves to the system.

When I was playing for Kilkenny, one of the things I’d be constantly shouting to my forward colleagues was ‘shape, shape, shape’. We’re fairly traditional about how we do things in Kilkenny so, for all the movement in our forwards, we still effectively kept three men in both attacking lines. In other words, our structure was never compromised.

I think Davy took the view that Clare, maybe, just did not possess six self-sufficient forwards who could be trusted to win 50/50 contests, so he created a system that suited those available. That’s his tactical awareness.

The best performance I saw from Clare this year was in that relegation play-off, when Kelly and O’Donnell were unbelievable. If you add a fit Conor McGrath into that mix, you’ve a serious scoring threat.

Paul Murphy was full-back that day for Kilkenny and the way I saw it, the two Clare corner-forwards peeled out the field, as did their two wing-forwards. So you had O’Donnell standing inside on his own with maybe four or five players in the half-forward line and three or four in midfield. In other words, you had this pocket of bodies between the two 45s.

By and large, Clare weren’t hitting any high ball in to O’Donnell. If a Clare player got it on the right side of the field, he drilled it down that wing, aiming maybe about 15 yards outside the posts for O’Donnell to run out to. He knew exactly where the ball was going to be hit, so was gone before Murphy could react.

And what happened then was that the numbers Clare had packed at half-forward came steaming through. O’Donnell would turn back towards goal and, most of the time, offload to Kelly on his shoulder for a score. This was happening both left and right and, because Kilkenny didn’t have anyone back to support Murphy, that room was always there for Clare to exploit.

So the form of Kelly and O’Donnell suggests that, if Clare can get both of them really involved tomorrow, they could be in business.

A big question for Limerick then, is how they set up defensively. Richie McCarthy is an old-style full-back who I rate very highly. The first time I saw him, he was playing centre-forward and, if I’m honest, he didn’t look much of a player.

But I’m so impressed with him as a No 3. He has a lot of the same qualities that JJ Delaney had – that ability to get in blocks and hooks. More than that though, he’s also a real leader for Limerick.

He reminds me of ‘The Rock’ when he was hurling for Cork – he has that ability to lift a crowd.

I’d imagine Richie would like protection tomorrow, because JJ would be the same. One to one, O’Donnell’s pace could conceivably hurt Richie, but he’s quicker than he looks. And Richie just doesn’t wave the white flag.

So what does TJ Ryan do? I suspect he will hold an extra defender back. I’ve always liked Limerick hurling because, a bit like ourselves, they like to keep that conventional structure and just hurl. Yes, they focus on using the ball as intelligently as possible, every team has to.

The point I’m making is that Clare have a really exciting full-forward line, but I think one of Limerick’s main strengths last year was their full-back line – Seamus Hickey, Tom Condon and Richie. So it’s going to be interesting to see the two managerial approaches.


Clare’s strategy is the creation of space for fast, skilful players and bringing in this football-style support play. But look back at the All-Ireland semi-final last year and how Limerick assigned Hickey to mark TJ Reid.

Richie played corner-back that day, which shows you the tactical awareness of this Limerick management too. I think they’ll be very much focusing on exerting pressure on the Clare man in possession, hoping to make that ball inside a forced, imprecise delivery, suiting the Limerick defenders.

A big factor in this game will be the form of Limerick forwards like Shane Dowling, Graeme Mulcahy and Declan Hannon, who all had excellent performances last year. Hannon will be particularly motivated to erase the memory of the 2013 semi-final against Clare.

Davy, I suspect, will have been worried by Clare’s concession of frees last summer when discipline was a bit of an issue for them.

The Clare backs are good hurlers but, if you run at them, they’re inclined to foul. On a leadership level, Bugler is a big loss too. Because this is going to be a physical game.

Look, anyone could win this year’s Munster Championship, but something tells me this could be a big year for Clare.

Davy will definitely be on a mission and they seem to have sorted out whatever issues they had in the camp earlier this year. Goals could be the key to this game, but I just have a hunch that Clare might edge this by a couple of points.

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