IN 1970, the Dr Harty Cup became a 13-a-side competition for a few seasons and Canon Michael O’Brien fully exploited the new rules, and the tactical leeway it gave his St Finbarr’s Farranferris teams.
St Flannan’s, North Monastery and Limerick CBS had also won four in-a-row in previous decades but Farna’s crusade between 1971-’74. was unlike anything seen before in the Harty Cup.
They were brilliant teams, with excellent players, especially Tadghie Murphy, who just mowed down everything in their path. Farna scored 25 goals in those four Harty finals, which they won by an aggregate margin of 77 points. They hammered St Flannan’s in the 1971 and 1972 finals and Ger Loughnane got a close-up view of how the Canon used the 13-a-side formation to his teams’ advantage.
He had forwards criss-crossing into vacated pockets of space, where the Farna goalkeeper would ping puck-outs to runners on the move. Puck-out strategies may be more fluid and intricate now but Loughnane has consistently displayed an aversion to much of the modern talk of hurling tactics, systems and a new World Order. So much of what is happening now, Loughnane first witnessed as a teenager, just in a different form.
Loughnane played his own unique part in revolutionising the game in the 1990s. His newspaper columns are regularly loaded with razor blades but Loughnane has long had an issue with some modern hurling coaches and managers, regularly stating his belief that some of those managers think hurling tactics only began with them.
Much of modern hurling has been bound up by talk of tactics and systems, and many hurling people feel that a new game has restricted expression. Detailed structural planning is often the most logical way to marry expression with results in the modern game. But with so many tactical constraints now in that environment, the modern game has also found so many new ways of expression, which has manifested itself in so many new skills.
Like life, evolution is a natural process in any sport, especially elite sport. Hurling’s randomness has always been a fundamental part of its appeal, but the modern game has been all about reducing that influence, subverting orthodoxy, and limiting spontaneity. First-time, ground hurling or over-head doubling on the ball are effectively extinct. Some of the new skills may not have that same aesthetic beauty from that old traditional style but, those skills carry just as many attractive qualities considering the claustrophobic conditions in which they are regularly executed.
In the 71st minute of the Clare-Limerick league quarter-final in March, when the sides were level, and both teams were desperately hunting a winning score, Podge Collins won a key possession. With his back to his own goal and two Limerick players within a one-metre radius, Collins flicked the ball against his foot and into his hand, before turning and taking off towards goal. In Limerick’s league semi-final against Tipperary two weeks later, Cian Lynch performed a similar trick when surrounded by a gang of Tipperary players.
Most players routinely use that skill when casually pucking around but to carry it out in the white heat of battle further underlines a new form of expressionism in hurling. And that new art form is painted with so many different brushstrokes.
The new skills, or plays, may be subtle but they are obvious to the keen eye: reverse handpasses; the fake shot, before pulling it back in to deceive the defender or intended blocker, to buy more time and space for the actual shot; driving the sliotar into the ground at close range to bypass an incoming player, or players, so the sliotar can hop into a team-mate’s hand; batting the ball to the net; head-height forward-patted handpasses; playing snappy triangle passes to bypass a mass defence; dropping the ball to the ground in possession when the player has already caught the sliotar twice before quickly gathering it again in order to buy more time and options; playing the ball back to the goalkeeper in open play; quick sideline cuts where the ball is then quickly slipped back to the sideline taker; holding the ball in the hand and mimicking a play action to try and lure an opposition player in for a needless tackle or block; the ‘Brick Flick’.
Most of those skills have been stitched into the fabric of hurling’s expanding canvass because hurling has become so fast and physical that players have to think, and paint, quicker than ever before. On average, inter-county players have 1.7 seconds in possession before getting swallowed up. And with that timeframe decreasing by the season, improvisation is accelerating the evolution.
Innovation always forces more innovation, which leads to new trends and styles and tricks.
Players are supremely conditioned now but being able to perform such skills in combat zones is testament to so much of the modern coaching methodology, where players are over-stressed in small-sided conditioned games. They have to become much better decision makers now to escape the webs fluidly constructed and designed to tie them up. And getting the ball cleanly away – and into a team-mate’s hand, and in a better position – governs much of the modern game.
That was the guiding principle of the late Canon’s tactical masterclass with those Farna teams in the early 1970s. The same principles still apply now but they are just being carried out in different forms.
And in a completely different hurling environment.