Billy Connolly famously said of then Scottish manager Ally McLeod, “Ally thinks that tactics are a new kind of mint.” It seems that Ally is not alone.
Nicky English made an interesting argument this week in his Irish Times column. Discussing last weekend’s big hurling semi-final, he wrote, “I hold firm to the theory that there are no tactics in hurling.
“Hurling,” he said, “Is simply about going hard to the ball,” and Kilkenny won because they went at the sliothar harder than Tipp. Nicky’s view may have been coloured by Declan Ryan’s bizarre tactic of giving Lar Corbett - their best scoring forward - a man-marking job on Kilkenny defender Tommy Walsh. But it is nonetheless an important point from a heavyweight hurling man. Nicky has, after all, won All-Irelands both as a player and a manager.
Len Gaynor, another retired Tipperary hurler and manager, followed this up by saying that, “When a management team starts with tactics in hurling, they are going the wrong way about it.” Having watched hurling develop over the last ten years, and in particular having watched the way Kilkenny have shaped themselves into the most formidable defensive and attacking unit in the game, these statements appear to be extraordinary, even in a game where skill is king.
Take the first hurling semi-final between Cork and Galway. Galway played two forwards in their defensive area. In a pattern we have come to know well in football and by half-time the game was a low scoring war of attrition, with both teams level. But in the second half, as we have seen so often with Tyrone, then the Dubs, now Donegal, Galway’s 12-man defence had a strategic and mental stranglehold on Cork and remorselessly stretched their lead. It was a very ugly game of hurling but it worked for Galway. A team of also-rans have suddenly beaten Kilkenny and Cork and are in an All-Ireland final. Why? Tactics. Galway manager Anthony Cunningham has imported a defensive method he used successfully when he managed Garrycastle’s Gaelic footballers, taking the Westmeath champions all the way to an All-Ireland club final.
The recent transformation of Gaelic football simply underlines the point that it is no longer the best footballers who win, but the team with the most enlightened training systems and tactics. Colm O’Rourke, the grand old man of Irish punditry, used to repeat the mantra ad nauseam that, “the team with the best footballers will win.” So he backed Kerry in ‘03, ‘05 and ‘08. He doesn’t say that any longer. Who for example could argue that the Dubs have better individual footballers than the rest?
The fact that better methods and tactics are the surest way to succeed is emphasised in even a cursory examination of other sports. The Great Britain cycling team has, over the past eight years, taken a vice like grip of the sport. Having come nowhere in the Olympics for decades, they exploded onto the podiums in 2008 and again a few weeks ago, utterly crushing teams that used to be their betters. The cannon fodder has become the cannon ball. Their success is founded on perhaps the most secretive and sophisticated training system in world sport. Their centre of excellence in Manchester is as forbidding to outsiders as the Headquarters of MI5. Journalists and members of the public are barred. Interviews are not given. Competitors sign confidentiality contracts. It is, I suppose, a little like Jim McGuinness’ regime, save for the fact that Team GB’s cyclists are allowed to have mobile phones.
I managed to get into one of the Donegal training sessions last year. Although I sat well back in the empty stand at Letterkenny I was quickly spotted. For some reason, perhaps it was coincidence, no tactical work was done. When I went back for the next session two nights later, I was politely refused entry.
“I only want to see,” I lied, “I promise I won’t write about it.”
“Sorry Joe, can’t help you.”
There was a bit of a furore about it in the press, but McGuinness was absolutely right. Their sessions behind closed doors, their banal interviews (“Derry are a great team, hi, and like you know Cavan are one of Ulster’s up and coming sides, like you know, and Fermanagh are another team, like, that are worth watching like you know”) and their carefully monitored vows of secrecy have ensured that although you can watch what they do on match day, you’re not about to find out how they do it.
What I saw that fascinating night in Letterkenny convinced me that they were a squad that were preparing seriously to go the distance. The eminent sports psychologist, Anders Ericsson, wrote that, “When the human body is put under exceptional strain, a range of dormant genes in the human DNA are expressed and extraordinary physiological processes are activated. Over time, the cells of the body actually reorganise in response to the new metabolic demands of the activity, by for example, increasing the number of capillaries supplying blood to the muscles.”
In effect, savage but sophisticated training makes you stronger, faster and more powerful. Put another way, your body mutates to cope with consistent high performance. Your heart size increases, your lung capacity gets bigger, your blood flow multiplies. In Letterkenny that night, this is precisely what was happening. Three hours of ferocious training, where after each activity players were gasping on their hands and knees, then quickly back up and at it, seemingly fresh. Ryan Bradley for example pushed himself in the sprints until his legs had turned into columns of lactic acid and he dragged them over the finish line. Within seconds, he was sprinting again, seemingly recovered. His body was being trained for Croke Park.
McGuinness’ regime has truly been transformative, creating the specific fitness and skills required to play the game he has decided to play, and putting in place a fail-safe strategy.
This is not to say Donegal cannot be beaten, only that it will take something unforeseen and remarkable to beat them. They haven’t precisely shocked the world yet, though two Ulster titles are pretty good. They will however shock the world in the next six weeks. Starting on Sunday. Tactics, as Jim will tell you, are not a mint...like you know like...