TWO weeks ago, before the real knockout action started in the intercounty championship, I spoke about the importance of teams limiting turnovers and how costly turnovers would be when it came to clutch moments in big games. The quarter finals were littered with them particularly in the opening game of the weekend when Kerry’s defensive intensity really startled Tyrone and you could argue that Kerry did to Tyrone what Tyrone have done to Kerry in the past and really gained some vital energy from their defensive aggressiveness without the ball. The superstar talent of David Clifford undoubtedly was the catalyst for Kerry’s power packed attacking display as well that really blew Tyrone out of the water.
One standout feature across the weekend and particularly in the games won by Kerry, Derry and Dublin was the level of defensive intensity those teams brought when they didn’t have possession of the ball. Every top team now has a defensive template or organization when they are out of possession, but the template is one thing, bringing the fire and the belly is another! Too many teams have good organization and shape out of possession but don’t have that real defensive intent to pressurize the ball carrier or hunt, tackle and harass the opposition on a relentless basis. The secret to success isn’t really a secret, it stares at you in every game you watch. 99 percent of the time, the teams who work the hardest win the game!
The great Dublin six-in-a–row team were known for all the sexy stuff, the kick out strategy, the game management, the structured attack, the great defensive shape, the basketball style plays, the zonal press on kick outs, the 44 calls, the hand up and control moments. But ultimately what separated them from the rest was that persistent and unyielding hunger to go after the opposition even if they were leading by 10 points going into the last ten minutes. One abiding memory is the way they hunted Meath at Croke park despite leading by 18 and time nearly up. Their persistent approach in making sure they were the hardest working team even at stage of the game was so impressive in my eyes.
An interesting stat emerged post game from Ray Boyne, former Dublin Stats man. He looked at the effort count of both teams, Dublin and Mayo. He talked about relentlessness – “never slacking, but continuing always at the same intensity, the same demanding or punishing level. Persistently hostile, pursuing, attacking or opposing somebody or something persistently and without mercy.” Dublin’s effort count based on an effort being tackles, strips or blocks was 127 to Mayo’s 63, make of that what you will!
Derry are another side who have built their solid foundations on a hugely impressive defensive template out of possession and although they all work so hard collectively there is one difference to the Derry template in comparison to others and that is the Conor Glass effect. Glass is a colossus, a genuine gladiator in the Croke Park arena. He was immense on Sunday past but it is not just what he does in the midfield war-zone in kick outs or how he can contribute to the score board or the attack – it’s the stuff that isn’t properly analyzed.
Glass out of possession is the key to this Derry side and its unquestionably his AFL background. In the AFL players are coached to be always thinking where the danger is defensively rather than ‘where is my opponent.’
AFL coaches consistently coaching players to read the play and where the ball is likely to go, Glass is magnificent at this: knowing when to drop off, protect the D, knowing when to press out and engage a ball carrier, sensing danger all the time. Supreme levels of organization and control from him. As former AFL and down player Marty Clarke said to me, “the key is, where is the most danger and then players having the license, freedom, courage, to drop off their own opponent or opponents to either be the first back to help or actually intercept.”
That’s the game over there in a nutshell and Glass is the master at this role and no-one in Ireland is better. A lot of GAA players can’t spot the danger or know when is the right moment to drop or engage, Glass does it best.
In ten days, it will take every piece of experience Glass has to help guide his Derry side over the line against a hungry looking Kerry. But if one team has the template to do so, it’s Derry.