As Liam Sheedy sat down to draw up his master plan of getting Tipperary back onto hurling’s summit, he probably would have made a checklist of positions that needed reinforcing, reinvigorating or retooling. A goalkeeper, that position is there for the taking. A full back, maybe James Barry can come back and revive his good form. Cathal Barrett will settle one of the corner back positions. The midfield could be shaken up. Maybe we can try Noel McGrath deeper out the field. We could definitely restructure the wing forward line.
Full forward? Now that’s tricky.
2018 was a fruitful year as full forwards go. John Conlon had the best year of his career there and won the All Star for the position, leading Clare to an All-Ireland semi-final where they were ultimately defeated in a replay. He was old school – bullying and haranguing the opposition and potent when securing possession.
Seamus Flanagan was superb as a new arrival into the Limerick panel, inter-connecting the talent around him with creative and industrious displays that illustrated the ideal modern full forward. Conor Cooney was a good focal point for Galway, who allowed the supreme talent around him to inflict most of the damage.
And for Tipperary, Jason Forde was one of the most prolific forwards out there. If the season ended after the league, he would have most certainly won an All Star and would have been in the Player of the Year conversation. Sadly for the Silvermines player, Tipperary stuttered throughout the Munster championship and progressed no further, unlike Clare, Limerick, and indeed Galway in Leinster.
Of course, Forde initially benefited from the absence of Seamus Callanan who was nursing a back injury for the early part of the year which allowed Forde to flourish as the number one marksman in Tipperary’s forward unit.
So as Sheedy sat down to consider his full forward position, he had a serious decision to make. The newly-ordained manager ultimately put all of his eggs in a Seamus Callanan shaped basket. Not only was the Drom & Inch man handed the number 14 shirt, he was given free-taking duties and named the captain for the year. Sheedy clearly saw Callanan as his number one star – capable of taking on the full forward mantle, as he did so impressively for the seasons leading up to their 2016 All-Ireland success.
So where does that leave Jason Forde? He has been shifted to corner forward so far in the league campaign, and is the secondary free-taker. With the relatively small match sample size thus far, with only five games into a campaign that has come with a number of caveats such as the competitiveness of games and the likelihood of hard midweek training, the stats haven’t boded well for Tipperary.
Things began brightly on the open night. With Forde absent due to a knock close to throw-in, Callanan looked every bit the elite forward his reputation upholds, scoring 2-7, six of which from frees.
A week later, in the loss to Limerick, Callanan hit five frees while Forde scored three points from play having been sprung from the bench early on to replace the injured Dan McCormack.
In the game down in Wexford, Callanan scored a haul of 1-7, of which six points came from frees. Forde was awarded one long range strike which he pointed, in addition to one point from play. Against Kilkenny at the weekend, Callanan missed three frees, scoring 0-6 with one of those from play. Forde took over free-taking duty and struck twice, triggering a debate as to who should take the free-taking mantle next week against Cork.
Sheedy has brushed aside the missed frees, noting Callanan’s unquestioned experience. But has Sheedy placed too much pressure on the 30-year-old? Putting captaincy on the Drom & Inch man adds a significant layer of responsibility, in addition to the pressure of executing frees consistently. Perhaps returning Forde to placed balls could free up both Forde and Callanan to deliver better performances with a more evenly distributed level of responsibility.
The other conversation is whether or not Tipperary should move Forde back to full forward and it’s worth considering what it could do for both players. Callanan is a supremely gifted hurler, but can be starved of the ball when isolated up around the edge of the square. Forde is a fantastic all-rounder, with a terrific blend of power, skill and score-taking ability to make him a threat anywhere across the line.
Forde showed well at full forward last year. He was threatening, direct with the ball and dangerous in the air, and had the graft to link play with those around him. In the league, he tallied a total of 7-72, just over 13 points per game. Callanan, on the other hand, had the best year of his career at full forward in 2016, but a mixture of injuries and lack of form means we haven’t seen the same since.
Is it worth trying him at centre forward? It’s worked for Joe Canning, who gets on a world of ball deeper out the field, and Callanan slotting into a similar role would have the class to score and create with devastating ease. Callanan, operating in between the likes of John McGrath and John O’Dwyer, with a player of Noel McGrath’s calibre coming from deeper in midfield would, at least on paper, cause nightmares for any defence in the country.
In effect, this would vacate the full forward position for Jason Forde, where he’s shown his best form in a Tipperary shirt. The Premier have no shortage of corner forward options, with Niall O’Meara doing well so far and youngsters such as Mark Kehoe and Jake Morris as very viable options.
It’s early days in the second coming of Liam Sheedy, and it’s important to consider the importance of league form given this year’s permutations in 1A. But four games in, he must be looking at Callanan’s 2-3 from play and wonder are Tipperary going to get the best out of him at full forward. He must be looking at Jason Forde’s four points from play in three games and wonder has he cut off his nose to spite his face, when Forde was doing very little wrong at the full forward position.
There’s a long way to go in 2019 and Sheedy has most certainly not discovered his strongest 15 just yet. But he might have to go back to the drawing board on a position he might have already ticked off his list.
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