The Big Interview - Liam Griffin: Part 3
It is 20 years now since Wexford won the 1996 All-Ireland title, but the colour and drama of that achievement still plays vividly in the mind’s eye.
Just like Clare had the year before, Wexford burst from nowhere to claim hurling’s biggest prize. And just like Clare had an inspirational leader in Ger Loughane, Wexford had their own in the dynamic Liam Griffin.
The Rosslare man has always been an interesting and inspirational character and did not disappoint when he sat down this week for an in-depth interview with GAA.ie’s John Harrington (@jharrington79).
In the final part of his three-part interview he talks about…
- Why Wexford have failed to build on their 1996 All-Ireland success.
- Why the current All-Ireland Championship structures have made Kilkenny stronger and other counties weaker.
- Why the future may be brighter for Wexford hurling.
- Why he finds the modern brand of tactical hurling so absorbing.
- Why the day he met Muhammad Ali was one of the funniest of his life.
John Harrington: Had you been told in the aftermath of the 1996 All-Ireland Final win that in the following 20 years the county wouldn't win another and would only win two more Leinster titles, what do you think your reaction would have been?
Liam Griffin: I said something at the end of the speech in Wexford Town after the '96 All-Ireland Final. I said, "This has got to be the beginning and not the end." I remember saying that clearly. "Look at you, with the colours you're carrying over your heads, we've had a fantastic time, but this has got to be a beginning and not an end." I felt that otherwise it would be all in vain, but I didn't want to say it that bluntly because all the players were standing beside me and I didn't want them to think what they did was in vain. They had done their job.
You know, yes you would be disappointed that we haven't done it and you'd be disappointed for fellas that came in between. Because I often said, and I said it to players, and I'm delighted to see we've sons of five of the '96 players on the Wexford minor team that will play against Dublin in the Leinster Final. I did say to the '96 team when I was leaving that time, "Lads, if we're ever to win anything again in terms of All-Ireland Hurling Finals, then you will have to play your part. The torch is passed from me to you, and you must put Wexford at your heart and try to make sure we do this again. You have to keep the game alive and keep it going, because it's not a done-deal in Wexford that we're going to keep this going. We need you working hard."
And in fairness to the lads of '96, they have given back to the game in a major way, but it is disappointing that we haven't done more as a county since '96. And it's disappointing that we're not enthused enough to try to get enough people out there with a passion to want to do it more. The structures within the county need to be looked at to give us the best chance possible. And the structures within the GAA need to be looked at even.
One of the great satisfactions is that we won the last of the old knock-out All-Irelands. And I would not be surprised if it goes back to knock-out eventually, even if it is hard on a county to only play one Championship game in a year. But at the very least the All-Ireland Championship will have to be condensed more. In my view the All-Ireland Final should be played in the last Sunday in July and then August, September and October should be months for club hurling and that's it.
It's not good enough to be putting five weeks between a Leinster Final and an All-Ireland semi-final. We've got to stop this talk that you can't play a Leinster Final on the same day as an Ulster Final and you can't play the two National League Finals on the same day. They should have been this year, the football in Croke Park, and the hurling in Semple Stadium. Who in Dublin was going to go to the game in Thurles? Nobody.
Now, there's enough journalists going around nowadays to divide it up between them. And you can create more journalists jobs if it comes to that. There's no reason more major games can't be played on the same day at the same time.
JH: You have continued to give a lot to Wexford hurling in a variety of roles. You're currently Chairman of the Wexford Hurling Advisory Committee. A lot of work has been done, hasn't it?
LG: An awful lot, unbelievable. I've files that height (Griffin raises his hand a foot off the table). First of all, we suggested we needed to do a stock-take. We needed to see where we were. There was a plan to get some top fella in DCU to do a study for us, but it wasn't happening. I suddenly got frustrated and said to my son Rory who has hurled minor for Wexford himself and was studying for his Masters at the time, "Rory, would you do this study for us. I don't want you to do it for nothing, we'll pay you for it." He said, "Right, okay, I'll do it." He got paid a pittance in comparison to what it would have cost us otherwise, and it's an absolutely fantastic report.
It tracks hurling at every level in the county and compares it to the game in all the other major hurling counties. He interviewed Pat Daly in Croke Park and Joey Carton (Munster Hurling Coaching and Games manager) among others. He has done some fantastic things to gauge where we are at. He even studied some of the top soccer clubs in the world to see how they do things, what their policy is with youth, and the retention levels in hurling clubs in Wexford and in other counties. It's a very comprehensive document. It lists what we have won and what we have not won, and it lists the impact of being a dual player. It should have been published within this county, but Diarmuid Devereux (Wexford County Board Chairman) didn't publish it for general consumption.
I'm subservient to him because he's the Chairman and I don't want to be looking for publicity or making banner headlines in newspapers because it sends out all the wrong messages. It becomes about me. I don't want to do that. We have got an awful lot of other good work done in the mean-time, but not enough still.
I think people should have to consume that report and deal with it and stop journalists writing stuff in Wexford. The criticism of the team, factually where does that lie? Is it deserved, is it not deserved? We are not Kilkenny, we don't have just one sport. Now, I have nothing against Kilkenny, I have the greatest respect for Kilkenny hurling and Brian Cody. But he's playing in a completely different pitch than we are. He's not playing in anything like the same pitch we are. In fact, the whole hurling system is designed to suit Kilkenny. They can keep going with their clubs and if they keep winning at the top level they get more gaps to play more club games and they can move it on again. Because they have the resources to do it and the ability to do it because they have the volume. That's no disrespect to them.
The same happens whereby you have a predominantly hurling area where you're picking for hurling. But we're trying to do both hurling and football and that's proving difficult. So we've got to address it as a problem. We have to ask, '"How do we work this better?" I don't know, but what I do know is that for counties like Wexford you're going to have to shorten the season at inter-county level because we're trying to finish two club championships.
We need a gap between the club hurling and football championship where we play some rounds of football and get it up to a quarter-final stage before we start the hurling. Then you'll probably only wind up with the players who are predominantly football at that level. Whereas the rest are all being asked to play football at the same time of the year as hurling where they have no chance of going anywhere in the football anyway.
Someone needs to address this as a problem rather than me going on about it. Somebody needs to get a body together and sit down at County Board level and analyse this. That is what we have recommended they do. Look at this and come up with a solution. But the politics takes over and people start getting worried about football and hurling and who they're offending. I'm both hurling and football and I would not like my club to be anything other than football and hurling.
Now, if I was asked which one could keep us more of a good GAA club, I'd say probably hurling. Because it's not competing with another football game called soccer. I've nothing against soccer either, more luck to it, I watch it on the Match of the Day, I watch Barcelona, one of my sons is a mad Real Madrid fan and goes out to see them and another is an AC Milan supporter. I love all sport.
But it's not a coincidence that Laois, Wexford, and Offaly have all gone into decline since the back-door arrived. They've all gone into decline because what do they have in common? They're all dual counties that play hurling and football. And they were three powerful hurling counties at one stage. Back in the '70s and '80s, Laois were giving everyone a good run when it was a knock-out Championship. Somebody at the top level has to start asking where is the correlation between all of this stuff? Why is Kilkenny's graph going up, while others are going down? And you've got to conclude that theirs is going up because they only have one sport. That's the absolute, complete, and total answer.
Now, do we force them to play football at the same time as hurling just to make things more equal? No, of course not. You've got to ask what you can do to readjust things in the dual counties. This is called scenario planning. Plot out the scenario. Sending money down to Offaly and Wexford is not going to work. Sending money is not a strategy. Strategy and money together will work. But money on its own won't work. And strategy on its own probably won't work. So you've got to tie the two together to make it work.
So how do we accommodate these counties? How do we equalise things? The only way to do it is to condense the inter-county season and give more time to county boards to better schedule club hurling and football matches. The journalists are against that because they keep saying there'll be no GAA to report on in the winter-time. Do you know what? There will. A lot of club GAA will be reported on. There's good crowds going to club matches and more of them might go.
JH: You were behind the 'Hurling 365' initiative in Wexford that was designed to create stronger links between schools and clubs. How is that going?
LG: The 365 progamme has not been embraced enough by Wexford clubs. I had been arguing that one of the big problems in Wexford is that there is no proper club-school link. But where there was, just look what happened. There was a club-school link in Oulart. They had two teachers in the school, Breda Jacob and Breda Flood were two teachers in Oulart Primary school and it's no coincidence that Oulart are the only club that I can think of in my life-time where both both of their senior teams got to the All-Ireland semi-final in hurling and camogie. That all started with a small, rural National school. They're some club for a small club, and it all started in that small National School in Oulart as a result of Breda Flood and Breda Jacob. Because they were passionately interested in hurling. Breda is Mick and Rory Jacob's mother.
I knew we needed to start fostering school and club links in other areas, and we set up a FÁS scheme which is still going where we sent the FÁS lads into school and they'd bring the youngsters out for hurling. This was to introduce them to hurling more than anything else. But what happened with that was that the teachers would send out their full class, boys, girls, the lot. So what happened then was that the FÁS coach was left with a whole crowd of girls who weren't interested and a whole clatter of young lads who weren't interested, so that wasn't working.
We needed a model that worked, and Willie Cleary came to us with one that was working really well for him in his school in Ballymurn. Willie is the current hurling coach with the Wexford senior team and a really good lad. He had gone to the local club and got some fellas to agree to take an interest in the National School. There should be always lads available and willing to do that. As I say to lads who come to meetings about Wexford hurling, "Lads, ye could just come off the golf-course for one day a week. That might help us. If you're below a 10 handicap and you're working three days a week, just give us one day for hurling if you want to be so interested and you want to go to Croke Park."
Anyway, Willie's model was that the coaches would come down from the club. The parents would bring their children to the school at half past eight in the morning. And the kids would hurl at half past eight and then go to school at half past nine. They'd do that twice a week, once in the morning and once after school. That way, you were only getting the boys who were interested and no-one was wasting their time. So we said, "There's the model. That's the model we'll adapt." It gives us a club-school link and gets quality coaching done.
Now has it been a universal success? No it hasn't. But funnily enough, Ballymurn who are one of the smallest schools in County Wexford got to the Final of the seven-a-side County Hurling Final against Horeswood. And Horeswood do the 'Hurling 365' exactly like that as well. Those two teams got to that Final ahead of all the schools from the big towns of Wexford and Oulart even and all the best clubs. And they're doing 'Hurling 365' properly, so join the dots.
We're able to grant-aid schools that adopt 'Hurling 365'. But, typical GAA, they'd send you in a form saying we're doing it, but we're doing it during school-hours. "No, you can't do it during school hours, you've got to come in and make a commitment to doing it." Now, some clubs and schools have done it together and we're growing the numbers that are, but not nearly fast enough. And there's not enough passion for it. This should have been in place before '96, and on the back of '96 it would have flown.
My big issue with the GAA is that clubs are not being held accountable by the County Board. Let's say you're the club delegate for St. Mary's, Rosslare. You should have to stand up and account for your club and say, "This is our performance over the course of the year." So if you didn't field an U-12 team that year, someone should be asking you, "What the hell are you doing down there?" And if you held the clubs accountable, you could publish a list of them that are under-performing. The young lads shouldn't be the ones who lose out because the will isn't there in a club. Why should a young lad who could have been a good hurler never get a chance to make it to the top because he's in an inefficient county? There's 1,000 young lads in Wexford who should have played in Croke Park and never did. We'll be playing in Croke Park in the senior Championship for the first time in eight years this year. That's hard to believe.
JH: Is that gap between Wexford and the top, top county teams a difficult one to bridge?
LG: I think it's very, very difficult for us to bridge it. Because there's a lot of things in place in other counties that are very strong now. Kilkenny now are stronger than they ever were. A statistic we have is that we are ninth in hurling at the moment in terms of our performance over the last few years. Before us are Kilkenny, Tipperary, Clare, Waterford, Limerick, Cork, Dublin, and Galway. That's where we are at the moment.
If you go to Fitzgibbon Cup level, for the last five years, and you look at the make-up of Fitzgibbon Cup panels and see what hurling counties they are all from, where do you think we would rank? We're ninth again. There's an absolute correlation between our participation level in the Fitzgibbon Cup and our standing in senior inter-county hurling. The Fitzgibbon Cup is where it's at at the moment. And you need strong Colleges teams too.
Now, we got a combined Wexford Colleges team into the Leinster Championship for the first time a couple of years ago. Dungarvan Colleges won the All-Ireland with a team that went on to win the All-Ireland Minor Final which the current Waterford senior team is built on. But because of their success, they changed the rules. Now you can't win an All-Ireland anymore with a combine college. Because they say it's unfair to the individual colleges. So now a Wexford Colleges team can get to a Leinster Final, but win or lose they won't be allowed to go any further.
I'd make the opposite argument. Who's the fella disadvantaged? The fella in St. Kieran's or the fella in Bridgetown who could get a chance to hurl at a high level with a combine colleges team? Now, it's no coincidence if you look at the make-up of the committee who made that decision, who is actually on it. So now a combine team can get to a Leinster Final, but after that you're gone, you're out.
I was on TV3 analysing the All-Ireland Minor Hurling Final a few years ago and Daithi Regan was on it with me and so was Jamesie. Anyway, Waterford were playing Kilkenny, and I think Daithi said it would be a slam-dunk for Kilkenny. I was asked, and I said, "No, they won't. Kilkenny will not win this one. Because none of them have won All-Ireland medals in the Colleges, whereas Waterford for the first time in their lives are coming in with All-Ireland Colleges medals thanks to the Dungarvan Colleges lads. You're looking at a different animal playing Kilkenny today, Daithi. And that's what we need, Daithi, different animals to come out and play because that's what's going to equalise hurling."
Waterford won the All-Ireland and their Dungarvan boys were how like how I remember being when I was a cocky young lad because they have the medals. They felt good about themselves and were able to win a minor All-Ireland. We're talking about the greater good of hurling, and yet the very model that delivers this Waterford team, we're going to do away with it.
The Dungarvan Colleges team was made up of Dungarvan CBS and St. Augustines. But then St. Augustines won the 'B' All-Ireland as well and you have all these people jumping up and down saying it's a disgrace. It happened once in a lifetime. Once!
Rory did an interesting thing in his study. He did a map of Kilkenny and showed it was the epicentre of hurling. Because surrounding Kilkenny on every side are all these top-class senior teams. And he looked at the Kilkenny panel and gauged how far all the players were from Nowlan Park. I think the maximum was 20 minutes unless a player lived in Dublin. Most of them were within 15 minutes of Nowlan Park, Cody is within seven. So everybody is living in the nucleus and, even geographically, Kilkenny is set up to be successful. I'm not saying this to knock Kilkenny, don't get me wrong, I have huge admiration for them. They're fulfilling their potential. It's up to the rest of us to see how can we match that.
JH: Liam Dunne has put a huge amount of work into this Wexford Senior team...
LG: He has, a huge amount of work.
JH: They're playing Dublin in the Leinster Championship on Saturday. Do you expect them to win?
LG: They've suffered a massive blow with the players that are injured. They're missing David Redmond, Sean Murphy who played centre-back for Oulart and was the player of the Championship in my mind. He really grew into that job, I didn't think he would myself, but he did. They're also missing Andrew Shore who's a massive loss because he's a great big fellow who gives them something extra to the game-plan. In total they're missing six or seven fellas who would be first-team choices. Are we good enough to be missing that many? Not really. So the odds are stacked if you were Paddy Power in favour of Dublin.
JH: What is the general perception of this Wexford team in the County?
LG: The mood in the County is wait and see, I would say. Because it's a mercurial team. They should have beaten Clare in the League and that loss came through a lack of winning. They haven't developed a winning habit. They had the game to win easily, but didn't. And they had the Waterford game to win easily too. But what was the thing about that game? 11 frees conceded to Maurice Shanahan of which ten were converted and we missed five and were beaten by a point.
JH: You sound frustrated.
LG: Ah yeah, you'd be frustrated. In the GAA, unless you're from a place like Kilkenny then you're probably permanently frustrated because there's so much wrong that you see needs to be put right.
JH: Kilkenny are ahead of the rest, but country-wide has the standard of hurling not improved at all levels?
LG: It has, yeah. I think the standard of hurling nowadays is very good. The one thing that has made hurling all the better as far as I'm concerned is that the standard of control of the game has improved. For all the bad decisions like the one against Waterford in the League Final when Jamie Barron was fouled and it should have been a free in to Waterford and they should have won by two points, the control of the game has improved. You can't do what was done to me as a young lad. You can't just give a fella a butt of a hurl and have him taken off on a stretcher in the middle of a match. Because the umpires are forced to speak up and they are wired to the referees.
JH: Will Kilkenny remain ahead of the rest for the foreseeable future? You've mentioned the importance of club-school links, they have that down to a fine art...
LG: They have 95 per cent penetration in their National Schools with a hurling teacher.
JH: It'll be hard for any county to bridge the gap, never mind Wexford.
LG: They're determined that no-one will bridge the gap, and they're dead right. Ned Quinn (Kilkenny County Board Chairman) and myself are great friends, we were both in De La Salle together. He was the goalkeeper when I was playing in the half-forwards. He was a very good goalkeeper. Kilkenny have what the country as a whole doesn't have - leadership.
JH: You'd have to admire what they've achieved, but you'd miss the equality of the 1990s.
LG: The 1990s were what hurling should be about, but we can't manufacture it. The ones that make the breakthrough have to fight to stay there. Because the good guys get really motivated to come back and take you out again. And that's proper order.
JH: It'll be interesting to see how Waterford and Clare evolve over the next five or six years.
LG: I'd be hopeful for Waterford, though I'm watching their underage and they're not doing as well at Colleges hurling as they were.
JH: The standard of recent Clare minor and U-21 teams has dropped off as well.
LG: Clare have gone a bit backwards at underage, but what they have going for them is their geography. If you take Ard Scoil Ris, it's in Limerick but it's almost in Clare and a load of south Clare lads go there. In my time in Clare, there was hardly anyone from south Clare hurling. And for the same geographical reasons Limerick are going to be a coming county too because they have three Universities and the Fitzgibbon Cup is where it's at. They have three Fitzgibbon Cup teams every year and that's a great outlet for the Limerick and Clare lads. And they've got Ard Scoil Ris winning Munster Colleges Championships on a regular basis.
JH: Wexford have had a good run in the U-21 level in Leinster in the last three years and are in a Leinster minor Final now. Can the county keep building on that and win a senior All-Ireland in the next 10 years?
LG: From this remove it's very hard to see it. But there's one glimmer of hope. The Duffry Rovers won eight Wexford Championship in football in little over as many years. Now, they were back-boned by Fitzhenrys. There were six or or seven Fitzhenry brothers on the field and they were a brilliant team.
Now you have the St. Martin's hurling club coming with a lot of good youngsters at the moment. And they could be back-boned by O'Connors in the next two or three years. Now, young Joseph is a very good hurler. They got to a county senior hurling and county senior football final (in 2015) and I met Joseph, who's a cousin of mine, on the street. I said to him, "It's great to be playing in two county senior finals and you're not 19 year." And he said, "Yeah, it's brilliant, it's brilliant." Then I said, "But there's just one thing. Winning just Wexford county title doesn't mean a whole lot. You need to win Leinster. Now, I'm not telling you what sport to play and I never will. But you've got to make up your mind which one you want to win. The football or the hurling? And if it's the football, go for it! Concentrate on it and go for it."
He said, "Oh Jesus, no, it'd be the hurling." I said, "Well, if you get sucked into the system in the club where you have a selector saying, 'You're on the football team so you'll f**king train with us,' then you'll find it hard to make it to the top in hurling. You're young enough and good enough to say hurling is my number one priority and I'll play football when I can. But my main gain is hurling. Or else say my main game is football for the same reasons. And you need your cousins and brothers to do the same. Then you'll backbone a team with O'Connors."
That's how it happened for Duffry. If you have six or seven O'Connors going out to play, your ambition wouldn't be to win a county title, it would be to be in Croke Park on the 17th of March. And I said to him, "If you do that, then some day you'll play in an All-Ireland Hurling Final for Wexford like your father did."
JH: How many O'Connor brothers and cousins are there?
LG: There's six of them so far and they're all under 20 and they're all very good hurlers.
JH: I suppose a family dynasty is always capable of making a difference in any given generation for a county team.
LG: Tomás Codd and MJ Reck who were on the '96 panel, their sons are also on the county minor team at the moment so you have a filtration of really good little hurlers that are from other purely traditional hurling families coming down along the tracks who could join with those O'Connors to backbone a Wexford team good enough to get to an All-Ireland Final. But they'll need another five years.
JH: You were previously part of Liam Dunne's backroom team as a forwards coach. Have you any involvement now?
LG: No. What I did last year was we set him up with an analysis system to suit ourselves. I helped set it up with a few young fellas to give him a proper analysis of how the team performs. To be honest, the fact that they gave away 11 frees against Waterford means they're not using the analysis. And they're getting good analysis now. The only thing I saw when we got the stuff back from it was that it could be information overload. We had it done by very simple methods. It was hooks and blocks, clearances for and clearances against, and that would give you the measure of a match.
And the amazing thing about it was that you sit down on the morning after the match. This fella that was doing the analysis for me in the stand is a solicitor from Wexford who is mad into hurling. He'd send a fax to me and I'd have it on my desk before nine o'clock on the Monday morning. I'd often have it at eight o'clock. He'd do it early because I would have said to him that I needed it first thing. You could actually really see the whole game back through the stats. You could actually replay the game through the stats. And you could pick out the moments when certain things went wrong, and say, "Ah, that's what happened there." I found it good. But now it's over analysed, it's too much. It's an Avenir Sports software package.
I'm actually going away on Saturday as part of the Entrepreneur of the Year Program. We won an award here in Monart before in the Entrepreneur of the Year Program, and I'm on the board of that body now. We're going to Boston to MIT on Friday for a week. It's brilliant and I love it because I'm an older guy now but you get great exposure to great learnings. I'm able to bring someone with me so I'll bring my son (Michael). He's our CEO and in his early forties so it's brilliant for him.
There’s a guy who's a nominee in one of the categories this year and he's doing the analysis systems for the whole NFL so I'll be interested in sitting down with him and asking him to show me what he's got and what it's all about. He's got a software package, and it'll be interesting to see what he's analysing. It's a different ball-game, but having said that it's still a ball game.
In terms of coaching the Wexford forwards, I started working with Liam in 2014 for the year. So I used to stand behind the goal. The whole game has changed completely since my time. And it's an amazing thing to look at a hurling match from behind a goal now and see what's going on. You can see so much going on, and so many possibilities as well. From going behind the goal we designed a whole lot of systems and we got some great scores. We got a great goal against Waterford in the Championship directly from what we were doing. And we got a great goal from Clare to win the match from exactly what we were doing. Jack Guiney made it.
JH: Was that when Harry Kehoe ran through for a goal?
LG: Yeah. (At this point Griffin uses some objects on the table to demonstrates what he says next). We'd developed a drill which was one player is coming out from here (he demonstrates a forward running away from the opposition goal), and another is going in through there (he demonstrates another player running from a deep position towards the opposition goal and into the space left behind by the first man). We had sticks in the ground that signified the likely position of defenders and you had to put the ball across the field on the run to the fella that's coming onto the ball. But it must be after the next pole and in front of him at head height. That's it, that's the move. Because down there (Griffin imitates a ball delivered knee-height) is Junior B, on the ground is Junior Z, up there (too high) is Junior Z, and over there (behind the runner) is Junior Z. What are we playing, we're playing senior hurling, so it has to be all about accuracy, accuracy, accuracy, accuracy, and it has to be in his hand.
We worked really hard on it, and the runners were told to run regardless. It's up to the other fella to do his job and get you the ball, but always make the run. There's no point half-going. You have to run, and if it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out. But when it works out you're straight through because you've momentum with you. The lads watching you are static and you're coming at lightening speed. Now, the chances are you can use a body to hit the ball in behind and the goalkeeper won't even see it. So if there's a body coming at you, then shoot low and hard and the goalkeeper won't know where it us until it is in the net. We got two great goals that won two matches like that. The one against Waterford and the one against Clare. Jack Guiney passed both of those balls and the one in Wexford Park was on a plate for Harry Kehoe.
Accuracy of passing is so key, and I have to say I was really impressed by the Dubs in the Football League Final with the accuracy of their passing, and I was surprised by the inaccuracy of the Kerry passing. They were giving the ball at the wrong time. But the Dubs have the patience to work their way across the field, and their new game-plan is if they can't go forward down one channel, they're really not that bothered. They move it across the field in an arc and wait for a breakdown in the middle of the opposition defence or on the far side of the field and then they're through it like lightening and deadly accurate with their shooting.
Their accuracy of shooting is good, but the accuracy of their passing is nearly faultless. It's very hard to interrupt them. The Dublin backs were playing in front of their men, and the Kerry backs were playing behind their men. So once you play from behind you expose yourself all over the place. You might not expose your goal, but you expose yourself to points.
And in the game of hurling at the moment, all the play is in the middle third. Because if you can't get a goal because of packed defences, keep sticking the ball over the bar. So accuracy counts again. If you're not accurate you're not going to do anything.
We beat Clare after a replay in 2014, but we really should have beaten them the first day in Ennis. We really actually annihilated them in Clare and had them all over the place. Because we looked at their game-plan, what they were doing. John Conlon was playing as an extra wing-back and was coming back and trying to break the tackle and give it out to Pat Donnellan or someone coming up the middle. That had worked in the All-Ireland the previous year because the Cork backs were so weak when someone was running at them. It was crazy the way Cork were letting lads run with no counter-plan to stop it.
Colm Galvin is their playmaker, picking lads out from everywhere, so we targeted him and he was getting no ball away. We were hooking and blocking him. He got two great balls and was just about to drive them and Diarmuid O'Keeffe was in on top of him and took the ball it off him and then someone else put it over the bar. We had them at sixes and sevens and got a couple of great goals but missed a sitter. Rory Jacob missed a sitter when we were ten points up in front of the goal and no-one only the goalkeeper to beat, he should have buried it, like. That would have put us 13 points after something like 12 minutes.
JH: You're clearly just as passionate about the game as ever!
LG: I love the game, I love the game. And I love the modern game because it's asking questions of your mental sharpness. Can you match it? Can you read the play? We're awful lazy sometimes in the GAA. Someone would say, "Oh, this fella is no good," but there's no depth of thinking sometimes. Back in '96, we had to think to be successful
Take Pat O'Neill with Kilkenny. He had DJ Carey ahead of him up the field and Charlie Carter at the other side. Those lads had been playing together since they were 12 and Pat knew exactly where they would be running and exactly the sort of ball they wanted. What would Messi be like if the fella he was playing with when he was 12 was there with him as well?! Pat would love to get the ball at centre-back, break the tackle, and ping in a lovely low ball into DJ. DJ would take one touch, sell the dummy, gone, back of the net. And the same with Charlie Carter.
But we counteracted that by putting George in that day (1996 v Kilkenny) at centre-forward and told him his job for the day was not to let Pat O'Neill take a single step forward. Every ball he gets drive him back onto his back foot and then we have him trapped because it'll go up in the air off his back-foot and Ger Cushe tells us he can win it in the air. So Ger Cushe's first job is your job, George. You don't let him out with that ball. And once he's on his back foot and he's forced to hit in high balls, then the boys (Carey and Carter) won't like it up there. Ger is great in the air and knows he can beat DJ in the air, he's certain of it, he's said it himself and he will. He's going to play him from the front and if it goes over his head, then Fitzy is going to pick it up anyway. So we have no problems...unless you let Pat O'Neill come forward, George. It was the same with Brian Whelahan, he could do a lot of damage against you if he broke the tackle because he'd picking out John Troy with low balls. John Troy wouldn't win a high ball, down low was where he wanted them. But Larry Murphy never let Brian break forward once, so John didn't get the ball he wanted.
JH: Not many were analysing the game to the extent you were in 1996 and tweaking your tactics accordingly so that gave you an edge.
LG: No, I don't think they were.
JH: But is it perhaps harder now to break from the pack like Wexford did in '96 because most of the top teams now put such an emphasis on analysis that it's more difficult to get a new edge?
LG: I think it probably is, but I tell you this much, I'm still amazed that nobody has picked apart some of the game-plans we're seeing from some of the top teams. I cannot understand why Tadhg de Búrca is not man-marked. I was watching Tadhg de Búrca from the stand when Wexford played Waterford in the League. I knew he was the key man, so I went to the end of the stand in front of where he had positioned himself.
He sat in behind the half-back and the thing you want from an extra-man there is to be a good reader of the play, and De Búrca is a brilliant reader of the play. When the ball is on the other end of the field he'd stay slightly closer to the full-back line and he'd read the puck out how and far it could come. Once he saw the play starting to go into a forward movement and that the ball was unlikely to come to him there, he'd fall in behind the full-back line. Now, once in the game the ball went over his head, Conor McDonald caught it, and stuck it in the net and Wexford went into the lead.
But he cleared three balls in a row and the three balls he cleared wound up being hit over the bar. He picked up the ball with no-one on him behind his half-back line, moved out to the wing, and placed it accurately down the field. Three points came from those three balls he cleared unopposed - two from frees and one from play. So my point would be would why don't you pick up Tadhg de Búrca and put somebody on him that's going to man-mark him? That forces them then to play somebody else as the sweeper if they want, but whoever they put in there you pick them up. The sweeper system is their game-plan, so if you don't that you're not counter-acting their game-plan.
JH: So, just like you did in the '96 All-Ireland Final when you were reduced to 14 men, you effectively decide yourself who their spare man at the back will be? And you make sure it's the defender you think is least suited to the task?
LG: Yes, that's it, pick someone who is not as used to the role as De Búrca is because he's not doing it all the time. And if you want to really confuse them then, take your man off De Búrca for two minutes when they're looking at this on the line and you'll have them second-guessing. Then just when they think De Búrca is their free man again, put someone over on him again.
Back in 1996 Limerick had designated Davy Clarke as their spare man when we lost Eamonn Scallan. So I got Rory McCarthy to pick him up and Storey knew he had to switch off him, and then a little while later we switched Storey back onto him. I swear to God, I'm not making this up, the row that was going on between Limerick selectors at one stage on the sideline was absolutely amazing.
JH: Music to your ears!
LG: Yeah! They were falling out with each other. "For f**k sake, what the f**k are you doing?!" Then they started abusing the players. "You're the f**king extra man!" to poor Davy Clarke. And then we'd take our man off him and leave him the extra man for a minute or two and then we'd throw someone back on him again. The result was they got overly preoccupied who their extra man actually was, and lost focus on their hurling. I'm not saying that to be boastful, but we had thought it through.
JH: Are some managers being too reactive to opposition tactics? It looked like Limerick tried to simply mirror Waterford's tactics in the League semi-final this year instead of disrupt them. And because they don't have that system as finely tuned as Waterford do, they were taken apart.
LG: If your forwards are crowded, there's always the middle third. But if you're not able to shoot from the middle third then you have no chance. So how to beat Waterford is getting 23 or 24 points as a starting point, and any goal you can get then is a bonus. You have to work on your shooting from the middle third and the half-back line, that's crucial. That's where most of your opportunities will come from. So you must practice that constantly until all your players can put it over in their sleep from the half-back line or middle of the field. Once you score three or four of those, it's a killer for the opposition and makes them doubt themselves.
You need specialist players up front now as well who can survive and thrive in those crowded spaces. The reason Maurice Shanahan is so good is because of his awkward style. It's not that he's a brilliant hurler. In fairness, he's a good hurler, but he has an awkward style. He's a right-handed hurler playing of his left-hand side, or at least that's what it looks like. They're hard to block and very hard to handle. Joe Deane was the same. I don't remember him getting blocked down very often. Kevin Hennessy could fly through from corner-forward and bury the ball in the back of the net, Tony Doran could do the same. Liam Fennelly the same. Fellas holding the hurl that way are dangerous, especially when you have an orthodox full back on him. The ball is hit before you know it.
Anyway, I want to go back to this playing against an extra-man in defence again for a minute. The key is use your resources in the best way possible on their backs. If you don't have the right people to match up to a job, then you have a problem. But if I was playing Waterford in the morning, I would put someone like Andrew Shore on Tadhg de Búrca. He's 6'5'' and is brilliant in the air. And he hurls it off his left-hand side as well.
So now de Búrca has been put with a man that's unorthodox, that's bigger than him and can catch a high ball. I think that's a tailor-made fit. It doesn't mean that Tadhg de Búrca wouldn't still hurl the crap out of him, I can't guarantee that. But I can guarantee you won thing, de Búrca won't like it. It'll take him a bit of getting used to.
And if he goes to edge of the square, then he's bringing a big man to the edge of the square with him and that spells danger. One bang and it's in the back of the net. Feint to your right and shoot from your left and do it real quick. He'll have to buy it. Every fella that has ever been known as bought it. Don't look where you're hitting it, just bury it to your living best.
JH: The drawn game in the League Final was a really claustrophic game with so many players condensed between both '45 yard lines. On a number of occasions it was two on two at either end of the field because of that, and it was crying out for a quick ball to be hit in. But it never happened because both sets of players were so focused on getting the ball into hand instead of taking a chance and pulling on it first time. Is the modern game ripe for a player like Adrian Fenlon who was so long and accurate with first-time deliveries from midfield? Can that style of play ever be brought back in?
LG: I think it has to be brought back in. The ruck forming makes an awful difference. You can sense when the ruck is about to form. You could come in and pull first time before the ruck forms if you can get close to the ball instead of trying to pick it. Let it fly your living best. Now, if you do that, then you've got to have forwards who are on message and know that this is going to happen. If you're going to get a quick, fast ball in, then what more do you need as a forward? You've got to do your job, so you've got to have the balls to fight for that ball that's coming in low and hard. Because we think that's a good ball for you to get. Now, do you not like a low ball? If you don't like a low ball, say it. But most hurlers say they do like a low ball.
Now, I can imagine Tipperary's Eoin Kelly getting a quick ball off the ground. Remember that goal he got in down in Cork where he got it over here and turned around onto his right and buried into the net without even looking. He was good at that, that was his strength. Close to the goal, one touch, turn and bang. It wasn't running over there, running over there, and getting ball. It was one touch into the hand and gone.
That's Conor McDonald's Achilles Heel. Conor McDonald is quite a good hurler, I had him as a minor, but his first touch is rubbish. I kept saying to him, "Conor if you're going to make it in senior inter-county hurling then you must be able to go to a ball coming in on a ground, get it into your hand with one touch, sell a dummy, and strike it. You can't be down rolling the ball under your feet trying to get it up at this level. You don't have enough time to be able to do that. For every goal you get from catching the ball in the air, turning, and striking it, you've got to be able to do the same thing on the ground to be complete. You've got to be able to pick it without bending your back. Put the hurl down, one touch, and into your hand. You go out there and hit me in a ball your living best along the ground, I'm 100 years of age and I'll get it into my hand. F**k sake, if I can do it, why can't you do it?"
JH: When Wexford beat Kilkenny in the 2004 Leinster Championship they unsettled a team that was very strong in the air by playing a lot of low ball on the ground, but your rarely see that even tried anymore.
LG: I think you've got to mix your game now and I think you've got to be a little unpredictable. Fellas who are inclined to go into rucks, if they see someone coming and pulling his living best, they may not be so inclined to get into the ruck next time. That leaves you a chance to do two things with the ball. Liam Dunne was the best I ever saw at that. He'd come running onto a ball and let on he was about to absolutely let fly on it, but then he'd lift it and strike it without taking the ball to hand and it would be gone a million miles up the field. Or else he'd take into his hand with one touch and be gone with it.
JH: Before I let you go, or before you let me go, I heard a great story about you and Muhammad Ali in Croke Park. Is it true?
LG: That is true! Where did you hear that?!
JH: Go on! Tell it!
LG: Dave Beirne and myself are lifelong friends. We played football and hurling for Wexford together and we bought two houses side by side as well. Anyway, I was away and came back and Ali was fighting Al 'Blue' Lewis in Croke Park and Ali was my big hero. I loved him because he was so confident and boastful. I just thought it was brilliant at the time. "I'm gonna take him in five!" All of that stuff.
Anyway, we were sitting in the stand and I saw a box with RTE written all over it out on the pitch. And I said to Dave, "Listen, come on, we're getting up beside the ring." And he said, "How?" I said, "Leap over there quick and come with me, I'm going to grab that RTE box."
So I grabbed this RTE Box and made it down beside the ring with Dave, and no-one came near us. So we sat in behind Brendan Corish who was the then leader of the Labour party. He had played football for Wexford, he was a great footballer. I said, "Brendan, listen, we're depending on your to keep us here."
"You two f**kers," he said, "how the hell did ye get in here?" I said, "Never mind how we got in here, you keep us here now! I'm with you and that's it!" We didn't get challenged anyway. We just sat there and no-one came near us.
A hilarious incident happened then when Joe Bugner came into the ring to fight. It was announced before the fight that the fella he was meant to be fighting had to cry off, he wasn't well. So in came this other fella, honest to God, he didn't look like he was fit to be near a ring. Anyway, Bugner came in and he was carrying this lad around the place and doing all sorts of shaping. He was going like this (Griffin starts throwing a few feints), but the crowd were no more interested in him than the man in the moon because they were waiting for Ali to come out.
Anyway Bugner was doing this a thousand times (Griffin throws a few more feints) without throwing a proper box. Then all of a sudden a fella stood up in the Cusack Stand and roared, "Would you go on and throw it, Bugner, you have the wind behind you!" I thought it was the greatest comment ever! And you could hear it all over Croke Park, it was fantastic!
Anyway, then I said to Dave, "I bet you a fiver I'll get my arms around Ali." He said, "You will in your arse!" I said, "I guarantee you, I'm betting you a fiver I'll get arms around Ali." So he bet the fiver and that was that. So when Ali was getting out of the ring after knocking out Al 'Blue' Lewis, they started to form a sort of a guard of people with their arms locked to get him back to the dressing-room safely. Anyway, I jumped into this and locked arms with a Guard on one side of me and someone else on the other, and we formed a big chain. And then just as Ali was going by I let go and threw my arms around him and said, "Good man, Muhammad!"
My God, he was a monster of a man. But the next thing was I got an awful box in the side of my jaw. Oh my God! And I was laid out on the ground. And the laughs out of Beirne! I said to him walking off the pitch, "There were only two men knocked out in Croke Park today, myself and Al 'Blue' Lewis!
LG: But, Jesus, I was seeing stars everywhere! Oh my God, I got some box.
JH: I presume it was the Guard that boxed you, not Ali?!
LG: Yeah, the Guard. He hit me an awful box right there at the bottom of the ear. Oh my God, I was absolutely bursted! But I laughed the whole way home!
JH: I'll be laughing myself going home! Liam, thanks a million for your time.