Wednesday 22 November 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Cork-Tipp was so exciting you could only react to it emotionally rather than rationally

21 May 2017; Seamus Harnedy of Cork falls to his knees as Cork supporters rush to celebrate victory, over Tipperary, after the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Tipperary and Cork at Semple Stadium in Thurles, Co Tipperary. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
21 May 2017; Seamus Harnedy of Cork falls to his knees as Cork supporters rush to celebrate victory, over Tipperary, after the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Tipperary and Cork at Semple Stadium in Thurles, Co Tipperary. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Last Sunday provided spectacular proof of why it's always a mistake to only see the hurling and football championships in terms of how they end. If neither Cork nor Tipperary win anything this year, it won't change the fact that the two teams produced something genuinely great at Semple Stadium.

Even if Cork lose to Waterford next time out or Tipperary are knocked out in the qualifiers, the joy they provided to supporters and viewers last Sunday will live on in the memory. We'll always, as the man said, have Thurles. Equally, Carlow's impending evisceration by Dublin should not detract from their win over Wexford. Less heralded than Cork's victory, it was a mighty impressive victory all the same which brought to an end six barren years in the Leinster football championship and set the seal on two years of gutsy improvement.

Forget the hindsight which will come in September, the most important meaning of the Cork-Tipperary classic is how it made us feel while it was happening. Right now we don't know whether it's the heir to the Rebels' 1999 shock opening round win over Waterford which sent an exciting young team all the way to an utterly unexpected All-Ireland title, or to 2010 when the victorious Cork team faded away as the season progressed while Tipp regrouped to take the big one.

But before we get to the analysis, it's worth taking a moment to revel in the sheer wonder of what happened in Thurles last Sunday. It was a match which swept you along, a match like a piece of music, a match so exciting you could only react to it emotionally rather than rationally. It was Exhibit A in the case for hurling being a game like no other.

Hurling remains unique. Over the past couple of seasons there have been suggestions that hurling was becoming more like Gaelic football and was poised to follow its disreputable cousin into an age of dullness. Sweeper systems, short passing and the ability of super-fit players to close down on the man in possession, we were told, would change the nature of the game. This always seemed a bit unlikely: hurling simply moves too fast to be constricted in this way.

Yet the idea became a kind of new critical orthodoxy which was taken on board to some extent by several teams. Clare under Davy Fitzgerald were particular victims. There was a constipated quality to their play as a team of gifted individuals seemed too hamstrung by tactical considerations to let loose and fulfil its potential.

There were those who welcomed this supposed new departure in hurling. For one thing, it salved football's guilty conscience. Those responsible for that game's descent into tedium could say, "Look, hurlers have become boring too. It's a historical inevitability." The serious men who are never happier than when talking about tactics seemed relieved that hurling had entered its great era of the chalkboard. It seemed hurlers would be getting praised for 'racheting up the physical intensity' in 'grimly compelling' matches before too long.

Cork and Tipperary blew all this out of the water. They showed that at its best hurling will always retain an irrepressible off-the-cuff quality and that it remains, to an extent unrivalled in other team games, founded on individual battles. They showed that hurling is the greatest of games because it is ultimately a game for the artist rather than the artisan.

Not every hurling match is like last Sunday's. It's fair to say that the nature of the teams involved produced a perfect storm of positivity and excitement. Last year Cork tried the constipated tactical route, focusing on countering Tipperary's strengths rather than playing to their own. The result was one of the most dispiriting defeats in the county's history. The nine-point margin between the teams didn't look so bad on paper but there was an awful sense that Cork somehow hadn't really participated in the game.

It's understandable that Kieran Kingston didn't want to repeat the experience. This time around the manager went all in and was rewarded for his boldness. Kingston has been short-changed by people who credit the victory to some ineffable quality in Cork hurling itself. Now that it's happened, the Cork revival is being portrayed as inevitable. It wasn't. In 1999 Jimmy Barry-Murphy's team was built around players who'd won two All-Ireland minor and two All-Ireland under 21 titles. They were something of a golden generation. Kingston, on the other hand, has taken charge of players who've been whipping boys at underage level. Never mind All-Irelands, it's been nine years since Cork won a Munster minor title and 10 since they won at under 21 level.

To get the players he has to play with freedom and without fear says a huge amount about Kingston's ability as a motivator. The manager rather than some nebulous quality of Corkness deserves the lion's share of credit.

Fresh challenges lie ahead of him. Waterford will be more defensively obdurate than Tipp, while Kilkenny, should they lie in Cork's future, will be considerably more physical. Cork benefited from the fact that Tipperary always give the opposition a chance to play their own game. Even when winning last year's All-Ireland final they conceded the second highest total scored by a losing team in the 70-minute era.

The old stereotypes which attach themselves to counties can sometimes blind us to reality. Kilkenny are always seen as the artists of the game but their triumphs have been based around a steely and uncompromising defensive attitude. Brian Cody's side conform more to the traditional picture of a Tipperary team than the current Tipp side do. There is no less physical team in the game than Tipp, and they seem to adopt a 'you score away and we'll get more at the other end' attitude. This makes them marvellous to watch but it does carry a significant risk.

Usually the magnificence of the Tipp attack compensates for the fact that the team can't really defend. Their goal the last day - the beautiful pass from Seamus Callanan and the emphatic finish from John McGrath - showed just how irresistible they can be. It also highlighted the extraordinary performance of a heavily criticised Cork full-back line in holding Tipp's front three to a scarcely believable 1-4 from play. That Tipp still managed 1-26 thanks to six points from play by their wing-forwards and an incredible eight from their midfielders shows the team's huge firepower.

Tipp will take comfort from the fact that their full-forward line will hardly be as unproductive from here on in. Yet they look short-staffed at the back; the return from the championship wilderness of John O'Keeffe indicates that Michael Ryan knows they need a shake-up in this area. Their fate will depend on the ability of their defenders to step up. The Premier will be putting up big totals all summer.

It's funny to think that just before the league final Tipperary had an unstoppable look about them. Assurances that this time they had found the right way to retain the title abounded. Now it's hard to escape the feeling that Cork have blown the whole championship wide open. Last year it looked as though Tipperary finally had Kilkenny's number. But if Tipp aren't there in September? Brian Cody may have had that old familiar feeling when he left Thurles last Sunday. That is, if it's ever left him.

The departure of Tipperary, so adept at making life miserable for Waterford, will take a huge weight off the Déise. Limerick and Clare will also feel that Munster has opened up, while even Wexford won't be without hope. We might be only one game in but already this championship has a 2013 feeling about it. There are no obvious favourites and a pretty good chance that, like four years ago, we might end up with a final pairing nobody would have predicted at the start.

And so to Carlow. When Turlough O'Brien took over there three years ago the team was at rock bottom. Literally. They'd just finished last in Division 4 and had won three league games in two years. This season they came within a point of winning promotion and last Sunday took another step forward when shocking Wexford at Dr Cullen Park.

People wonder sometimes how the likes of Carlow keep it going. Yet there have been some pretty good days in the last decade or so. Mount Leinster Rangers winning the Leinster club hurling title in 2013, the under 21 hurlers beating Dublin the same year, a first ever appearance in the Leinster minor hurling final in 2006, a first ever appearance in the minor football decider the year after. Thin stuff for a big county but manna from heaven for a small one. Trust me. Carlow keep on keeping on and show a lot of guts in doing so. I was delighted for them last Sunday.

It is Carlow's championship as much as Cork's. That's the beauty of it.

Younger, more fiery Conte leaves old boys Mourinho and Guardiola cooling their heels

That Premier League season was a bit of a let-down, wasn’t it? Before things kicked off the prospects were mouth-watering. Four of the best managers in Europe, perhaps the four best, who between them had won the Champions League, La Liga, Serie A, the Bundesliga and the Premier League itself, going head to head in what promised to be the most fiercely competitive title race in years. You could hardly wait for battle to be joined.

Instead it was hard to escape an impression of anti-climax. Before even the half-way stage had been reached Chelsea’s superiority was obvious. The way they hammered home that superiority was impressively remorseless — few people would have predicted that the champions would win 30 out of 38 games — but it was a pity no serious challenger ever really materialised.

Antonio Conte
Antonio Conte

The ability of the Blues to win week after week disproved the commonly bruited notion that the kind of domination enjoyed by Barcelona and Real Madrid in La Liga is impossible in The Best League In The World. Antonio Conte has shown that mid-table Premier League sides shouldn’t actually pose that much of a problem for a top-quality side properly attending to its business.

Such has been the impression made by the Italian that by the end of the season it seemed like we’d been watching him for years, patrolling the touchline like a wolf in need of Xanax and bearing a distinct resemblance to a club GAA manager who’s only dying to mete out a shoulder-charge to his opposite number. The extreme vigour with which Conte approaches his duties makes Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola look enervated by comparison and exacerbated the impression of a generational shift taking place.

At the start of the season Guardiola and Mourinho were probably, recent misfires notwithstanding, considered to be the top two managers in the world. It’s difficult to make a case for them having retained their primacy, given Zinedine Zidane’s achievements with Real Madrid, Conte’s with Chelsea and Massimiliano Allegri’s with Juventus. That Mourinho is 53 while Conte is 47 and Zidane is 44 adds to the impression of a new generation about to assume control. Guardiola may be only 46 but he took over at Barcelona  back in 2008 when Conte was cutting his managerial teeth with Bari in Serie B and Zidane probably hadn’t even thought of management.

It may be that the Manchester giants have secured the service of two managers who are past their best. Mourinho is undeniably in decline. In the 10 years between 2003 and 2012, he won an astounding seven domestic league titles and two Champions Leagues. What has he to show for the last four seasons? A Premier League title won in a weak season with Chelsea, two League Cups and the Europa League, a competition he would have been horrified to find himself in during his heyday. The football his teams play has become more grim and utilitarian with time. It’s a style which can only be justified by pointing at results. This season the results weren’t there.

Perhaps it’s harsh to suggest that Guardiola’s star is also on the wane. Yet his failure to win the Champions League at Bayern Munich suggested the Spaniard might not have been quite the irresistible force he seemed while at Barcelona. All the same, enormous expectation attended his arrival in England. City started the season as warm title favourites and began in exhilarating fashion with six league wins on the trot. Things dwindled away somewhat after that and the miserable Champions League exit against a Monaco team whose callowness was ruthlessly exposed by Juventus seemed symptomatic of the season. Too often City gave the impression of being a side who weren’t fully committed to the task at hand. That’s the kind of thing which gets managers a bad name and it means that Guardiola will start next season facing a kind of pressure he’s never experienced before. For the first time, the date of his departure might not be in his own hands.

The oddity about the season was that the member of the big four who came in for most criticism came out of it pretty well. Liverpool’s recent history of underachievement makes them an easier target for criticism than United or City so Jurgen Klopp got a much rougher ride than either Mourinho or Guardiola. Yet in the end grabbing a top four spot given the players he had available to him was a decent achievement.

Conte’s only rival for manager of the year was Mauricio Pochettino. Few people thought Spurs would repeat their form of the previous season. In the end they did better, finishing second with a points total that would have been good enough for the title in 2016.

But while his high-profile peers dream of war chests and big new signing, Pochettino will be dreaming of being allowed to hold on to the players he has. If Harry Kane and Dele Alli leave Spurs you’d imagine Pochettino won’t stick around to lament their absence.

He’d make a great manager for Arsenal.

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