(originally posted on boards.ie)
I am still trying to get my head around the latest case of a talented Waterford underage team failing to deliver in a game that was there to be won. It is the job of management to get their charges into the right frame of mind, to pick and set out the team properly, and to devise an appropriate game plan. I think the Waterford management got all three of these wrong in the game against Clare on Thursday night.
I thought that Clare were the more determined team. They won the throw-in at the beginning of the first and second halves and most of the rucks that developed during the course of the game. They also won the 50:50 contests and generally were better to react to breaking balls.
The whole approach of the Waterford to this game was defensive and supercautious. It is not clear to me that playing a sweeper and just two full forwards was as successful a tactic as some on this thread seem to think. It seemed to me that the players generally were not sure where they were supposed to be and what they were supposed to be doing, and the lack of structure to the way the team was set out was obvious throughout the game.
A lot of the problem was that the defenders were obviously told to follow the players they were assigned to mark, a situation which meant that there was no settled attacking platform. Darragh Fives seemed to spend a lot of time at fullback while Ray Barry, who scored 1-3 from play against the Kilkenny seniors, spent much of the second half at left corner back. This was crazy stuff.
Up front things made no sense at all. We had a strong wind in the first half but played only two players in the full forward line. Numerous balls were send aimlessly into spaces where there was either no player at all, or else a loose and very grateful Clare defender. We had no big man to act as a target for high ball coming in. Both Clare goals came directly from long puckouts which broke kindly for eager Clare forwards who were there in numbers. I don’t know why Cormac Heffernan didn’t start, but he has shown before that he can win ball or break it down. Yet he was not introduced until very late in the game.
Playing Jamie Barron at centre forward was the biggest mystery of all. What was this supposed to achieve? Here we have one of the most prolific scoring forwards in the county being kept away from where he is likely to do most damage. Barron is a very talented prospect, but his self-confidence must have taken a beating by the way he has been misused by both the senior and under-21 mentors this year.
Clare frequently play a two-man full forward but they try to make up for it by having speedy players breaking from midfield to create overlaps and point-scoring chances. The one man capable of doing likewise for Waterford was Donie Breathnach, and he showed what he was capable of in a brief first half spell when his strong running produced a point and a pointed free. Especially when Waterford were reduced to fourteen men, his strong running capability could have been of immense value. Yet he didn’t play the ball once in the second half. No allowance obviously was made in the game plan for getting the ball into Breathnach’s hand.
Nor was Breathnach ever used as a target man. Instead numerous balls were played down on Colm Curran who was not at the races and should have been substituted.
If properly managed, Waterford, playing on their home pitch, should have gone out with a positive frame of mind and instructed to get stuck into Clare. Back in May, a Waterford team, short their seven senior players, gave as good as they got against a full-strength Tipperary under-21 team in a high-quality challenge in Carrick. Donie Breathnach was magnificent on that occasion, as was Shane McNulty when moved to wing back.
I would have started against Clare with McNulty at centre back, Kieran Power on the wing, Darragh Fives and Stephen Roche at midfield, Ray Barry in the half forward line and Cormac Heffernan in the centre of a three-man full forward line. In last Thursday’s game, the lack of response of the Waterford mentors as the game began to move out of reach was breath-taking. I would have moved Tadhg Burke, a proven ball winner who was almost completely out of the game, to midfield and Darragh Fives to centre forward.
The Waterford mentors are also culpable in not dealing with the Paudie Prendergast car crash before it happened. Right from the start it was clear that Prendergast’s attitude was all wrong. He made a token effort to win possession in the first 50:50 situation he was presented with. He sent a couple of totally aimless balls into the forward line. He gave away a foul which produced a Clare point. He made a mess of a pick-up early in the second half which led to another Clare point. He got involved in the first free-for-all before that in which he ended up getting booked. I remarked at half-time to the person sitting beside me that if the selectors didn’t take him off he would be sent off, and I didn’t need a crystal ball to make that prediction.
Waterford also had no puckout strategy. Clare won three quarters of their own puckouts and the majority of the Waterford puckouts. All told, according to my reckoning, Waterford won 17 puckouts while Clare won 31. You can’t win games without securing a decent share of primary possession. I also counted eleven instances of Waterford hitting the ball to an unmarked Clare player.
If you have only five forwards you have to be very careful how you try to play the ball up to them. Too often Waterford hit balls blind with no intended recipient. Last Thursday night’s team also repeated a major weakness of the senior team i.e. hitting the ball straight to players with a defender right behind them, rather than playing the ball into space for players to run on to. Clare were very good at this.
I was astonished to see Austin Gleeson listed as substitute in the programme, and even more astonished to see him being brought on as a substitute. As far as I am aware, he played in none of the many challenge matches Waterford played in the lead-up to last Thursday, so it is not hard to imagine how the other players on the fringe of the team felt at him being drafted in like this.
Apart from that, it was imbecilic (but unfortunately typical) of the Waterford County Board to even allow Gleeson to play in this game, just five days in advance of the minor hurling replay next Tuesday. I could see the obvious situation occurring where Waterford both lost the under-21 match and Gleeson got injured (although thankfully this does not appear to have happened). However, I can image how the minor selectors must have felt, as they tried to focus their charges on next week’s replay, to have their star player going off on a diversion such as this. No wonder Waterford win few titles at underage level.
The only really positive notes I took from last Thursday’s defeat were the fine performance of Kieran Power in his first year out of minor and the good shift Stephen Roche put in when moved to his proper position in midfield.