John Allen has reached the last four of the All-Ireland series in four of his last five campaigns in inter-county management with Cork and now Limerick but sees the tactical battle against Davy Fitzgerald’s Clare one of the toughest challenges of his career to date, as Eoin Brennan found out.
You could tell immediately from his relaxed demeanour that Limerick manager John Allen had been down this road many times before. As first a Cork selector in 2004 and then manager in ’05, Allen helped guide his native county to back-to-back Munster and All-Ireland titles, with the latter campaign also noted for his masterstroke late substitutions that overturned a seemingly rampant Clare at the last four stage.
Now having won his third Munster Championship title with new side Limerick, Allen is back in familiar territory but is also not afraid to reflect on some bad managerial memories when asked if he was excited by the expected tactical battle with Clare on Sunday.
“Not really, no Jesus it does not [excite me] at all. I think the last game that the game went totally beyond me at times was the Kilkenny 2006 final. Cork were favourites and yet Kilkenny hit the ground running and we never just got a handle on it.
“Sometimes you can see the way things are happening but I don’t think we saw that Kilkenny performance coming. So we are all aware of Clare and whatever you may say about Davy Fitz, he’s passionate about his hurling and he thinks about his hurling properly. It’s well documented that his players had done a huge amount of training early in the year and have been together an awful lot so they certainly know how each other plays.
“And I know that they have been criticised for maybe over playing the short game but you couldn’t really say that their game is that short, I don’t think they are playing that short, it’s just that their work-rate is extremely high. That means that you will have players like bees around the place maybe and we need to contain that and I’m not excited about that.”
So more a tactical nightmare then?
“It is really. I suppose we have discussed that with the players in the last two games. Things happen in games like a corner-forward comes out to midfield or a centre-forward comes out a bit or even like the last day where Clare played a sweeper and Galway never seemed to use the loose man in their back line properly.
“You had particularly Podge Collins dictating the way the play went and yet you had a Galway player back loose and it didn’t make sense to me. So we have discussed that often enough with the players that I think fellas know what to do now if a corner-forward comes out to midfield or if they are trying to isolate a player in the full-forward line. Certainly Clare tried to do that against Galway and Cork anyway that they have tried to keep Darach Honan inside at full-forward, give him plenty of space and pump the ball into him. So there will be a lot of tactics involved in this game definitely.”
His knowledge of Clare is expectedly meticulous and along with focusing on Limerick’s unprecedented journey this year, he also looked at his opponent’s strengths in more detail.
“The first day we started out against Tipperary, you were obviously aware that Tipperary’s half-back line could influence the game and could put our backs under pressure by delivering quality ball.
“You could make the same case for the Clare half-back line which are particularly good as well and have three very good players in the air.
“So you are probably looking at a similar enough situation where we will be hoping that the three half forwards that we play won’t allow them to dominate and consequently keep the pressure off our half-backs and midfielders and not allow Clare to dictate the way the game goes.
“I mean up to a month ago, Tony Kelly was been written up as the playmaker, now you are adding Podge Collins into that and the two of them were very good with the Under 21’s the other night, very good against Galway so we need to ensure that they are not delivering quality ball and scoring points from 80 yards out.”
The St Finbarr’s man is also acutely aware of Clare’s momentum in contrast to Limerick’s five week break but doesn’t envisage those differing approaches as being a disadvantage to his side ahead of his first semi-final outing in seven years.
“There’s no doubt that it is relevant, I mean five weeks is a fair old break but at the same time, I think the way things have panned out for us now has been refreshing as well.
“I mean we came back the Wednesday after the Munster final, we trained hard the week after and the players then went back to their clubs the week after that. The players all came back uninjured from the club games and we’ve had a two week lead-in.
“And it’s like going back to school after term really in that you were lad to meet each other again really rather than being fed up of meeting each other so we feel we are really ready for Sunday.”