Monday 18 March 2019

Henry Shefflin: Clare at a crossroads and Davy Fitz might have to take new road

Davy Fitzgerald and Donal Óg Cusack were in charge of Clare this year. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Davy Fitzgerald and Donal Óg Cusack were in charge of Clare this year. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Henry Shefflin

For the first 10 seconds after the restart last Sunday, Clare had what only can be described as a systems failure against Galway.

When you take away the power of instinct from a group of hurlers and essentially play from a manual instead, you can expect such results.

I've been unwavering in my belief that teams who slavishly stick to rigid game plans, at the expense of freedom to react and freedom to decide, will struggle for air the higher the altitude soars. Those crucial few seconds, for me, illustrated perfectly the point I have been making.

When you're learning your craft in this game at underage there are a few guiding principles that don't, or shouldn't, change.

You mark out your territory and you play your position. You take responsibility for it. Of course you'll need back-up and you'll have to provide it but what's a few metres in front of you, behind you and to your side is yours whether you're wing-back, corner-back or full-back. Stick by it and you won't go too far wrong, simple and effective.

But here we had a situation where, All-Ireland winners in an All-Ireland quarter-final, couldn't decide who was where. So Johnny Coen cut through the middle, David Burke ran a line of support, they were able to create the overlap easily and Joe did the rest.

A seven-point lead became 10 and while Clare, to their credit, quickly got it back down to seven, there was never a sense that Galway were shaken in any way.

I believe that if Clare weren't so rigidly focused on adherence to their system of play they wouldn't have conceded that goal. And maybe that second-half ascent wouldn't have felt so steep.

Things happen in a match that no amount of pre-planning in the lab can legislate for. The ball was thrown in quickly and a gap appeared off that which is fine. But what developed after that is alarming for Clare. Because they are so accustomed to having the cushion of Cian Dillon back there, an element of panic seemed to kick in.

The body language was, 'What's going on here'. The instinctive reaction to cover across and block off the runners was delayed and the ultimate price was paid.

We speak about doing things off the cuff but Clare's performance was largely devoid of that, the system inviting, rather than deterring, the second goal.

Even more disappointing was how tepid the response was. The three points to get back to seven were executed quickly but the urgency petered out after that, as if the system had to be adhered to, regardless of their pressing need to chase.

That Clare declined to push up further on a Galway defence that I still wouldn't be sure about, given the plight they found themselves in after the concession of that second goal, surprised me. They played with five up front for most of the game and from that five two or three were detailed to drop deep. For me, too many players are out of the game for too long and their touch suffers.

There was no real goal threat. If you don't commit enough bodies to the danger zone, it stands to reason that you are not going to really hurt the opposition.

Conor McGrath had been injured but if he was fit enough to come in, he should have been fit enough to start. Even if he was a little off you'd trust that his class would see him through.

Clare played into Galway's hands. Galway set the terms of engagement and were never thrown off course because Clare did so little to shake it up. In fairness Micheál Donoghue got a lot right on the sideline.

Their response to the Leinster final was perfect. They fed off anger, hurt and passion. I wonder if being so subservient to a system has somehow thieved some of this from the Clare players.

Where does it leave the Clare project? At a crossroads, certainly. They made some progress but it was off a relatively low base after the previous two years.

They're still outside the top four and have yet to make a Munster final this decade. They won the league and were impressive in beating Kilkenny in the semi-final when I felt they attacked the game and had a bit of steel about them. But they never really attacked games like they could have after that.

Davy Fitzgerald is standing at the centre of that crossroads and has a much bigger decision now than 12 months ago because this year they seem to have got a lot in order. They had the backroom team they wanted, a good vibe back and the right environment, it seemed, to make real progress. They threw everything into it but have come up well short of where they would have targeted. Knowing they had so much right will amplify the disappointment now.

Some may have expressed surprise at the alliance between Davy and Dónal óg Cusack but I felt they'd strike a real balance. From sitting in Donnybrook over quite a few Sundays with Dónal óg last summer, I appreciated, at first hand, his sharp reading of the game.

I felt he'd bring something new, that he'd be able to coax Davy down a different path tactically. But I didn't see enough to say there was much different. Maybe in an effort to strike harmony they developed too much of it.

They only lost two matches all year but it goes without saying they were their two most important matches. That's when the pressure came on.

Davy still has the All-Ireland in 2013 but I believe there is more in these players and enough hasn't come out this season.

When Clare won three years ago and followed it up with a second successive U-21 win six days later, it seemed a new dominant force was ready to take hold, similar to Tipperary's emergence three years earlier which was followed up with such an impressive U-21 win over Galway in Semple Stadium. But it hasn't been smooth, so far, for either team.

Davy really has to consider that maybe it's for the best at this stage that he should take a different direction at the crossroads to his players. They need something fresh because they won't make progress with the rigid style they have set out for themselves. Something has to give, whether management or tactical.

On a separate note, I welcome the deal struck between the Gaelic Players Association and the GAA, especially the enhanced expenses for players. The likes of Dublin, Kerry, Kilkenny and Tipperary, who enjoy regular success and have the means to provide this, are fine but weaker counties will really get a lift from this and that's most important.

At a time when some counties are battling a player drain I'd feel it might just help to stem the tide.

The provision of a nutrition allowance can help to create a more level playing field too. Every player should enjoy the benefit of a protein or recovery shake during the day or after training to assist with preparation. I feel standards in some weaker counties can actually improve on the back of this agreement.

At the outset of the GPA's establishment I would have felt a 'pay-for-play' agenda at its core but I don't get that any more and haven't for some time.

The question might be asked: what about the club player, what's in it for him?

But I know in the Ballyhale dressing-room that I occupy now there'd be no issue, that they'd be only too delighted to see an inter-county player get rewarded a little better, knowing the time they're investing and the shop window they're in. Inter-county players just don't have the same flexible lives as a club player.

Irish Independent

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