PJ Cunningham tells why Galway and Limerick’s benches could decide the destiny of this year’s Liam MacCarthy Cup
Rival managers Micheál Donoghue and John Kiely will know that the winning of this Sunday’s All Ireland final between holders Galway and surprise packet, Limerick, goes much deeper than picking the right team for the day.
After they sit down with their management teams and choose their starting line-up, they are only half way there. Arguably more important nowadays is how they decide to deploy their respective benches when the game is there for the taking in the last 20 minutes.
It’s about seeking to balance a strong starting 15 with reserves who will have a serious impact when introduced.
Donoghue bridged a 29-year gap for Galway last year in taking Liam MacCarthy across the Shannon thanks largely to the four late points scored by Jason Flynn and Niall Burke after entering the fray.
Victory came from keeping two trump cards up his sleeve to oust Waterford’s brave fight for glory.
This year, Kiely has played his cards like a seasoned poker player. Part of Limerick’s success is down to the changes he makes but another part was serendipitously hoisted on him by chance – the late return of Na Piarsaigh players from protracted All Ireland club activity.
Giving these players a window of time to recover from club activity meant that they didn’t line out in early championship games – a massive tactical blessing in disguise.
Against Cork in the All Ireland semi-final, two Na Piarsaigh players, Shane Dowling and Peter Casey, as well as Pat Ryan, were unleashed on a rapidly fatiguing Rebel team in the second half and made major contributions.
Dowling would start on most teams but due to his club involvement, he became Kiely’s Plan B. He scored a vital free to announce his arrival and by day’s end had contributed 1-4, the goal coming from a penalty after he himself had been fouled bearing down on goal.
Ryan has the pace of a young gazelle and he just ran away from the Rebel rearguard to lob home the goal that finally broke Cork’s resistance.
In total over the seven summer championship games, the Treaty’s replacements have contributed 3-16.
When you see how close Cork came to victory and then factor in that they only got 0-3 from their subs across the summer, it is easy to understand why they failed in hurling’s battle of inches.
This year Galway’s bench has worked – but not to the same devastating affect as 2017. That could be reversed if Niall Burke is held in reserve with Flynn once again with Donoghue hoping for a case of déjà vu in Sunday’s decider.
As Clare reflect on losing their own battle of inches by a point after a replay, they will bemoan most of all that after a poor start with their bench this summer, they deployed it well up to the semi-final replay.
The Banner got 3-12 from their subs, seven points more than the Galway bench which totalled only 1-11 ¬during the ¬summer campaign.
Aron Shanagher had come on in the drawn game to score a magnificent goal and shakes up their forwards but inexplicably was held until the last eight minutes before being unleashed in the second game.
That he scored a point with his first touch and was twice desperately unlucky not to score a goal showed how big a threat he could have been had he come on with 20 minutes to go. An opportunity missed by the Banner for sure!
Donoghue and Kiely will be seeking to optimise what changes they make this Sunday. Both teams are tactically adept at creating and exploiting space and are fit as fiddles to make those telling runs all day.
Managers in the modern game seek to gain every advantage whether it is putting a fast guy like Limerick sub Ryan onto a tiring defender in the hope that he can make a telling contribution before the manager of the other team reacts.
The two counties will have their homework done; they will have factored in such things as wind advantage or who to use in the event that it turns into a rainy or sunny afternoon.
Then like the card players sitting around a poker table, they will hope that their judgement is blessed with the rub of the green.
In the 1982 football final when Kerry were seeking a record 5-in-a-row, Offaly manager Eugene McGee met his selectors on the Saturday night. A man ahead of his time, Longford man McGee had all his moves made and agreed with his officials before they headed for bed.
One of the decisions was that if the game was close they would introduce young tearaway, Martin Fitzpatrick, against a tiring Kingdom rearguard.
On the day, however, when McGee saw his team two points down and playing in wet conditions with seven minutes left, he allowed his gut instinct to override the best laid plans of the previous night and unilaterally introduced Seamus Darby instead of Fitzpatrick.
The rest as they say is history.
Both managers this Sunday will also seek such a moment of inspiration to escape to final victory, but only one will actually deliver.
PJ Cunningham is a former sports editor with the Evening Herald, Irish Independent and Sunday Tribune in Dublin. He was part of the Offaly senior football squad in the late 1970s under Eugene McGee and served as a selector for Wicklow for three years (2015-2017).