THERE was a time, in both hurling and football, that it was all about the starting 15; those who were charged with the main responsibility of bringing a club or county the success it craved.
While that is still vitally important, the emphasis is now much more than on that starting 15.
It’s what’s outside that number that can now make all the difference; the five, six, or seven players who are nearly equally as good as those starting but who are maybe a tad unfortunate not to be on the field when the ball is thrown in.
Team managers at club and inter-county level are as dependent on the subs that they have at their disposal as the players that they have chosen in the first place. In fact, the stronger the panel, the greater your chance of being successful.
It’s almost a prerequisite now if that success is to be gained.
And that is becoming more evident at all levels of the game, something we are witnessing more and more all the time.
In the recent past we have seen games being turned on their head after a number of changes were made by the management teams.
The hurlers of Limerick and the footballers of Dublin are glaring examples of how the depth in their squads have made the big difference when push came to shove in big games.
We had a prime example of it here in Cork last season too when changes made during games by the Blackrock senior hurling management team worked the oracle.
The Rockies were the best team at the end of each day, but the enormous contribution made by some members outside of their starting 15 proved crucial.
You are never again going to get a team starting and finishing with the same 15.
A good management team will know when the time is right to bring in fresh legs and that’s the difference between a management team that is very much on the ball and one that is not.
We have seen players being introduced in games with just a couple of minutes remaining, sometimes maybe in the 69th or 70th minutes. In God’s name what are those players expected to do in that short space of time; all the more so when they are not even fully warmed up.
You might get lucky sometimes, a sub coming on in injury-time and grabbing a sensational winning score, but more often than not that doesn’t happen.
Surely if a player on the field is not performing to the levels expected of him it does not take management until the last few minutes to see that.
And a manager has to be ruthless too. If one of his marquee names is out of sorts and not making the contribution expected of him he has to be replaced.
There is no doubt that the greatest example, in hurling anyway, of the strength in depth that a team possesses is Limerick.
In some of their games last season, they sprung the likes of Seamus Flanagan, David Dempsey, David Reidy, and Pat Ryan from the bench. What other county had forwards of that calibre to bring in when the need was there?
All the successful counties, going back to the Kilkenny four-in-a-row team of 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009 have that depth in resources that separates them from the rest.
It’s often said that the subs on successful teams, like Limerick and Dublin, would walk on to other inter-county teams.
And it was said that when Kilkenny were at the top end of their game and winning Leinster titles at their ease, that if they entered a second team they would meet the first team in the final.
The Leinster SFC is so weak now that it could happen that if Dublin had a second-team competing in it it would be an all-Dublin final.
Here in Cork there is a widely held perception that the hurlers do not possess that type of strength in depth; that 22 or 23 players that can seriously challenge the starting 15 places and until such time as they have, they will struggle to match the current Limerick panel.
Long ago you relied heavily on your starting 15 and the three subs you were then allowed, but that’s long changed as has a player occupying the one position that he started in.
Versatility in a player; the ability to occupy two or three other positions on the field is hugely important now and the current Limerick team have players who can do that too and very successfully.
Being able to adapt to the requirements of the day is another attribute that constructs a winning team.
It’s no longer about the team nowadays, those outside it are just as important, maybe more so.
Outside of the GAA, a prime example of that strength in depth is Manchester City in the Premiership. They can leave out players of the highest quality and replace them with similar quality and that’s why they are miles ahead of the chasing pack for the title.
And with their financial resources, it’s likely to remain that way.