Nowadays, a lot of people are inclined to say that sports in general are becoming over-oachoached. Sports have advanced alongside science and technology, and as a result almost every game is a shadow of what it used to be decades ago.
Games are not like they used to be, and it is often argued if this is in a positive or a negative way. Some would suggest that modern-day facilities are being over indulged in and a more old-school approach should be taken.
But the opposite is in fact the case. The teams that have moved with the times better than others are the most successful.
Let’s take a look closer to home. 2015 saw the conclusion of the worst hurling season in modern memory. Modern technology and media coverage tried to make it sound good, but it was absolutely shocking. There are no two ways about it.
There was one good game; the All-Ireland semi-final between Tipperary and Galway. Outside of that, there was no game that will go down in anybody’s memory. The All-Ireland final was the worst and least dramatic in this writer’s memory, realistically dating back to 1994.
People can lay the blame all they want at negative tactics from the likes of Waterford, but they really are fooling themselves.
A lot of the public laid the blame at Waterford’s doorstep. They played a specific system and they certainly applied a tactical element to their set-up. Tadhg de Burca operated as a sweeper. Maurice Shanahan played as a sole full-forward with little support.
The likes of Kevin Moran, Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh and Jamie Barron were given free roles around the middle third. They protected their full-back line in an attempt to keep clean sheets. A lot of their scores came from long range as they opted to work the ball through the lines as opposed to delivering it into their full-forward line.
Were these negative tactics? No they were not. Waterford may not have carried much of a goal threat but they were an attacking team that racked up rather high scorelines. They may not have been as open as other sides but they learned from previous mistakes, organised their team and made significant progress.
Their main points of attack were Tadhg de Burca, Jamie Barron and Brick Walsh offloading short balls to runners such as Austin Gleeson, Colin Dunford and Kevin Moran. And while Shanahan was isolated inside, they picked their times to deliver into him and he finished the year as a deserved All Star forward. This is not a defence of Waterford in particular, it is a realisation that this team improved immensely through good coaching and good management and there are many more examples.
Were Waterford over-coached? Absolutely not. They were very well coached any very well managed. Good management includes things like Dan Shanahan bouncing up and down the touchline. Dan was not in the faces of the opposition when doing this; he was simply showing natural passion and enthusiasm that rubbed off on the crowd and his players.
Watching the Waterford sideline in the National Hurling League final against Cork was another clear indication of good management. There was nobody of the field that day more calm and collected than Waterford manager Derek McGrath. He was in full control of his sideline and ensured that composure was restored whenever excitement began to develop.
Comparing the Waterford line to the Cork line that day was like comparing Senior to Junior B. Waterford were significantly better coached and managed than Cork were and it was all evident from the sideline, to what took place on the field and all the way to the final result.
This continued as Waterford and Cork faced each other in the Munster Championship a matter of weeks later. Cork narrowly lost an All-Ireland final in 2013 and have struggled since they were annihilated by Tipperary in the 2014 semi-final.
All of the blame has been attributed to Cork’s underage structure when no blame was laid at the poor quality of management and coaching that Cork appeared to be subject to. But whatever Donal Óg Cusack says goes in today’s society.
Back to Waterford – the point here is that good management and good coaching saw them make big strides in 2015. And that is what this piece is focusing on, the importance of good management and good coaching.
Calling Waterford, ‘the Donegal of hurling’, or accusing them of playing ’football style tactics’ or blanket defence is a very lazy statement to a large extent. They played a system and the quality of the coaching of that team was very high.
Journalist and sports book writer, Christy O’Connor is a well-respected hurling writer and he was vocal in his concerns about hurling over the winter. He mainly referred to players taking the easier options and playing the percentages as opposed to really going out and expressing themselves.
There was a lot of substance to his points. A lot of it does come to coaching and how players are are taught to play the game. It was a tactical championship, which hindered its quality to a viewer’s eye, but there is one point that continues to get lost in all of this.
The main point that fails to be acknowledged is that the 2015 hurling season saw the most tactical team triumph in the end. They were the team who were unquestionably the best managed and the best coached, yet so many people appear to have wool over their eyes when it comes to analysing Kilkenny.
Kilkenny are the best hurling team in Ireland and are deservedly the All-Ireland champions. But they are so well managed and so well coached on a variety of levels. The likes of Brian Cody and his selectors do not get enough credit for the Cats’ success.
There is a huge lack of attention given to their quality of management. This refers to their tactical style, their conditioning and so on. And of course, that lack of attention is exactly what they want.
When Kilkenny won four All-Ireland titles in a row from 2006-2009, very few questions were asked or analysed, and correctly so. They were looked at as the greatest hurling team of all time and it simply was a case of Kilkenny taking teams on man-for-man and beating them.
Other than the victory over Cork in 2006, there was not much tactical method to Kilkenny’s play. They were an awesome side with some of the greatest players to ever play the game. In most matches, they blew everybody away.
The one thing that was alerted to back then was the quality and intensity of their training and that ‘the way they trained was the way they played’. But that was not the most challenging thing to do when Kilkenny had the quality of strength and depth that they had at their disposal.
But that strength in depth is not there anymore. They have lost a lot of players, and not just any type of player; Tommy Walsh, Henry Shefflin, JJ Delaney, Noel Hickey, Michael Kavanagh, Martin Comerford, Eddie Brennan, Brian Hogan…the list goes on.
How can any team recover from losing a raft of players like those mentioned above?
Think about it, all those players vacated the scene, but there was one person who did not go anywhere. That person is the manager, Brian Cody. He has been the mainstay behind all of their successes particulalry in the last two seasons when Kilkenny have won back-to-back titles with a team that has not been half as talented as some of their previous sides.
So how do they win?
Kilkenny win for a few reasons. The first reason thing is their incredible hunger, which is mirrored by their phenomenal work-rate. These are two traits that come from a manager. A manager is responsible for instilling hunger in any group of players, particularly those who have won as much as some of the Kilkenny players.
Their work-rate has always been a major attribute but it has grown to another level since the ball was throw-in in the All-Ireland final replay in 2014. Kilkenny are undoubtedly the hardest working team in the country and as a result, they drag teams into physical battles and force teams to play games on their terms.
They are not the team that they once were, but they are still winning All-Irelands. And the primary reason is that they are best managed and the best coached team in the country.
People still look at Kilkenny as an awesome outfit, but this current team is not a patch on the teams that went before them. Their results in last year’s league showed how they have a lack of strength and depth. Kilkenny only managed to stay in Division 1A due to last-minute howler from Clare goalkeeper Patrick Kelly.
They struggled without their Ballyhale Shamrocks contingent and only stayed in the top tier with a lucky one-point victory over Clare. But these players returned and their full team along with their immense tactical set-up saw them conquer again on the big day in September.
It really is incredible how Kilkenny’s defensive set-up continues to go unnoticed. When Waterford play with a sweeper, they get vilified as being defensive but people fail to see how Kilkenny set up in a very similar way.
They fold bodies back behind the ball when other teams are attacking. Their midfielders, Conor Fogarty and Michael Fennelly, gain most of their possessions behind their own half-back line. Richie Hogan can often be seen playing very deep, as can TJ Reid.
Eoin Larkin wears number fifteen on his back but spends most of his time around the middle of the field hooking and blocking. Kilkenny basically play hurling without a half-forward line for long periods of games.
They focus on workrate and turnovers. In order to do this, a team must be conditioned to almost perfection. That means being strong, lean as well as having huge aerobic capacity. Players must be powerful, fast and a lot more.
This requires a lot of expertise in the area of sports science, while Kilkenny try and make people believe that nothing is won in gyms and All-Ireland’s are won on the field of play. They would also try and make you believe that there is no tactical side to their play. They simply go out and play 15-on-15 and take teams on.
That is absolute rubbish, but for some reason a lot of people seem to believe it. Kilkenny win because they are the best managed and the best coached team.
We only have to look at the All-Ireland finals from the last two seasons.
The drawn final 2014 saw potentially the greatest hurling game of all time, but it was also one of the main reasons for a poor hurling season in 2015. Why so? Because Kilkenny analysed that game in detail and changed their style of play.
They were too open and saw that they needed to change their ways in order to be successful. As a result Kilkenny have begun to turn games into dogfights. They turn matches into physical battles and nearly always come out on top in these exchanges.
And where does that all come from? Management and coaching. Not for the want of sounding like a broken record, but these are the main two on-field reasons as to why this Kilkenny team have won the last two All-Ireland titles.
There is an off-field aspect of management that contributes hugely to Kilkenny’s success. This aspect is one that leads to the regular comparison between Kilkenny and the New Zealand rugby union team. There are a lot of similarities between the two, and there is one word that hits the nail on the head here.
That word is culture.
New Zealand is a rugby-mad nation where almost everybody’s first love is the All Blacks and every young person in the country grows up wanting to wear the black jersey, looking to emulate the likes of Jonah Lomu, Dan Carter and Sonny Bill Williams.
A lot of this can also be said for Kilkenny, but this is a culture that Brian Cody has created. They are a traditional superpower in hurling but it is easily forgotten that there was a very baron period for Kilkenny hurling in the 1990s when Offaly and Wexford took over Leinster, and Kilkenny were hardly even competing for All-Irelands, never mind winning them.
But that all began to change in 1998 when Cody took the reins and what has followed since is a unanimous period of domination. During Cody’s 18-year stint in charge so far, Kilkenny have played in 15 All-Ireland finals. They have only lost four of those and two of them were in his first two seasons.
Players have come and gone in those 18 years but the manger has not gone anywhere. Cody has created a culture in Kilkenny where hurling is everything. There is little or no competition from other sports. Young boys grow up wanting to win All-Irelands with Kilkenny.
They coach hurling in schools. They do conditioning work in schools. They educate their coaches. They run a club championship efficiently seen as they know their inter-county schedule and allow players to play matches at whatever level. And nearly all of these resources are attributed to hurling.
This culture creation is all a result of top-class management. Cody has built something special in Kilkenny and while he gets a lot of credit. At times he does not get enough.
He illustrates the importance of management and coaching and how any team will struggle to be successful without both of the above.
There are plenty of other examples. One only has to look at the fall of Manchester United in the last three seasons since Sir Alex Ferguson departed the scene. Players who looked like world-class footballers went onto look very average in a very short space of time.
Manchester United won the Premier League at a canter in 2012/2013, and finished seventh the following season, with pretty much the same group of players. This change shows the significance of Ferguson’s presence, and the importance of… Yes, that word again – management.
Good management and good coaching is key to success. Finding good managers and good coaches is a hard thing to do. A great player does not necessarily make a good coach or manager. And as can be seen with Gary Neville at the moment in Spain with Valencia, a good television analyst may not make a great coach or manager either.
Even distinguishing between coaching and management is a skill in itself. Take Paul Clement. Clement was coach at Real Madrid under Carlo Ancelloti and guided Cristiano Ronaldo, Garth Bale et al to ‘La Decima’ in 2014 when they won La Liga and the Champions League.
He took up his first management position with Derby County at the beginning of this season and last week he found himself preparing for the dole queue when he lost his job. So the coach of the Galacticos failed in his first management position in the Championship in England. It does show that there are differences.
Back to hurling, and we look at the example of Clare. They won the senior All-Ireland in 2013 and have not won a meaningful championship game since then. This is with a team that has also won three All-Ireland under-21 titles in a row from 2012 to 2014.
Davy Fitzgerald’s erratic character definitely does not seem to have helped his players in the last two years. Clare also lost their head coach Paul Kinnerk and it definitely seems that poor management or lesser quality of coaching has seen Clare take backward strides since winning the All-Ireland.
Clare have brought Donal Óg Cusack into their set-up. He is seen to many as the most knowledgeable hurling man in the world, in a world where people struggle to form their own opinions and can only vouch for what ‘so-called’ experts say.
But as mentioned above, soccer pundit Gary Neville was seen in a similar light and he is yet to win a league game in his stint in charge of Valencia and saw his team lose 7-0 to Barcelona in a recent cup tie.
It shows that there is a lot more to coaching and management than simply having knowledge of a sport. There are so many elements to good management and good coaching, and what is abundantly clear is that for any team to be successful they need to be managed and coached.
Sean Cremin, Pundit Arena