TIPPERARY may have lost to Clare in the 2020 Munster SHL last Sunday, but their 2019 campaign was more than satisfactory from a Premier viewpoint.
Liam Sheedy’s men hammered Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final, of course, and one man that was central to that was Noel McGrath.
Last January, I considered the impact the returning Sheedy would have on Noel McGrath’s role within their group.
It was clear that Noel McGrath could benefit enormously from Sheedy being back at the helm.
The following case was put forward: ‘Noel McGrath registered 1-4 in open play in Tipp’s facile victory over Kerry in the Co-Op Superstores Munster SHL.
'On the face of it, it is nothing to shout home about, with respect to the Kingdom. Yet, it also could mean more, much more, in fact.
'Watching Noel McGrath over the years, it became apparent some time ago that he performs best when he is happiest with his role within the team. When I say that, I specifically refer to the times in which he is free to roam from the middle-third forwards.
'Noel McGrath is one of the most gifted hurlers the Premier have produced in the last two decades and if manager Liam Sheedy gives him licence to float around in attack, we might well see the very best of the forward again.
'He conjured moments of brilliance in the last two or three campaigns, but you often found that he tended to drift out of matches for spells as well. Of course, no player is going to constantly impact on any game. That is pie in the sky territory of thought.
'However, if Noel McGrath can reverse the times he spent being quiet in contests with those glimpses of marvel and make the latter a more frequent occurrence once again, then Tipp will have a serious weapon on their hands this year to supplement the potentially explosive inside-line pairing of Jason Forde and Séamus Callanan. It was mentioned here prior to the Championship last year that Mick Ryan should deploy both Forde and Callanan close to goal and leave them there.
'Yet, that did not happen half enough under his watch. If you have players as devastating in possession as Forde and Callanan at your disposal, you surely have to position both men on the corners of the opposition’s square.
'It will be interesting to see if Sheedy opts for this tactic during the Allianz NHL. The beauty of this tactic is that you can withdraw your half-forward line closer to the midfield and leave oceans of space in front of the Forde-Callanan axis.
'However, additional to that ploy, you then also have the option of stationing Noel McGrath at the bottom of what would then be an offensive diamond.
‘While the two half-forwards complement the midfielders, Noel McGrath could sit, essentially in isolation, in the centre-forward sector linking the play as well as profiting from the off-loads being afforded to him from the two inside forwards.
‘Now, what three defenders would fancy tackling that particular trio in any circumstances? The reality is very few indeed.
‘The Premier, when things were going against them last term, reverted to type far too often and withdrew Forde to operate in the No 10 or 12 role.
‘It was almost akin to substituting the corner-forward when your half-backs are getting cleaned out.
‘Sheedy should consider persisting with Forde and Callanan sitting on the corners of those squares the length and breadth of the country because the most likely outcome is that, between them, they could be totalling tallies in the region of 2-6 to 2-8 from play per match.
‘With Noel McGrath roaming menacingly outside of them, Tipp would be extremely difficult to overcome, especially when you would then have the likes of Michael Breen and Dan McCormack adding to their power in the middle-third having dropped deep from the wing-forward areas.
‘Then again, Sheedy might opt to utilise that pair at No 8 and No 9, in which case, whoever is positioned in the wing-forward berths would supplement their work-ethic.
‘Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher would slot in seamlessly to either of those wing-forward spots.
‘Some will argue he could work the role already suggested for Noel McGrath.
‘Yet, the latter possesses more craft than the former while the former displays more industry than the latter, so hence ‘Bonner’ Maher at No 10 or 12 and Noel McGrath at the bottom of the diamond.’
It’s fair to say Sheedy had the expected impact on Noel McGrath given his performances. In fact, his role within their team became so pivotal he finished the year as one of two Tipp men shortlisted for Hurler of the Year. That, alone, speaks volumes for the season Noel McGrath had in 2019.
The next question is: Can Sheedy elevate more players to an even higher level in a similar way next term?
If Sheedy manages that, and with Eamon O’Shea now presiding over targeting high-class performances from the squad given his revised role in the management group, then the Premier are going to be extremely difficult to stop again in 2020.
Finally, I would like to wish everybody a wonderful Christmas and a brilliant New Year.