I had two main concerns heading into Saturday. The first related to our fitness levels. The test results from a couple of weeks ago indicated that only a limited number of players were at the required level. This was not such a surprise considering the extended holidays people take in Brussels and that most people don’t consider including strenuous physical activity into their plans.
Based on the attendance of other teams at the Maastricht 7’s, it was a worry, as they seemed to have most their players around in August. This suggested they would have a head start on us on the training front.
The second concern was the player pool. As I mentioned on numerous occasions already, it was decimated during the summer. Not only did we lose numbers, we also took some big hits in terms of established footballers. The likes of Eoin, Colm & Collins had all played football to a high level at home. Mike, Duffer, Andrew and Ricky were also key members of the panels. There were more on top. Thus, you could say we are a team in transition but this could be said at anytime of the year and by any club in Europe, such is the revolving door nature of player personnel.
The goal on Saturday was to win, no question about that. If we weren't to achieve that, as a minimum, we needed to consolidate. By that I mean, our teams needed to stand their ground despite losing the lads. If we couldn't push forward and win then we certainly wouldn't be pushed back. In the end, I believe we pushed forward with some small but significant steps, even if we didn't achieve our ultimate goals.
There is little need to separate the basic analysis for the Shield and Championship teams. Both teams went out to play with the same plan and they executed it very well. We moved the ball in the ways we've worked on at training and some of the scores we got came from fantastic free flowing moves. There was a much better awareness of space than in previous tournaments and a greater confidence to go forward. Both defences were on top, possibly the tightest in their respective competitions. The Championship panel conceded less in the whole day than The Hague scored in the final alone. Bob only had two shots on goal to contend with (with 50% success!)
Our substitution 'strategy' also changed significantly. In Europe, you can rotate the subs as often as you want, within your panel of fifteen players. It's not something we did so much previously. The main factor was probably because we didn't put enough trust in the panel. I'm sure that lack of trust filters through to the guys on the line and in some way has a negative impact on their confidence.
To rotate players regularily, you have to change the mindset. Lads must not be focused on starting or finishing a game. They must not focus on how long they are on the pitch. What they must do is make sure they are always in a condition where they can deliver their maximum when they are on the pitch. If that means bursting a gut for ten minutes and coming off for five, then so be it. There is an element of selflessness about it. The lads bought in and saw its worth.
Back to the games and the Shield team scored freely in every game except for the first one against Amsterdam when both teams threatened to keep the scoreboard reading 0-0 to 0-0. It's difficult to pick out players but there were a few whose contribution stood out.
Bull's composure on the ball was much improved and his foul count drastically cut. Alongside him was Conor Mescall, who is growing in confidence and stature with each passing tournament and again got himself on the scorers list. Johnny Phelan showed plenty of gusto after his return from injury. Ger McMahon was very steady around the middle. Griff is back involved and his barnstorming play gave the team a massive lift. Up front Michael Hough complimented his usual scoring prowess with some great hold-up play and lay-offs.
When a club loses so many 'A' players, there is a big impact on the 'B' team because players will be pulled. Considering that fact, it was a very positive day. We lost out on the semi in a points shoot out and then to Prague by a point in the placings game. Two defeats by a solitary point (one against the overall winners) and two convincing wins. Final assessment; top third in the class with scope for improvement.
Over to the Championship and it was a case of opportunity knocks for many. Kev has spent most of the last two years battling injury but showed strongly in training during the build up and earned a starting berth. Ross, Conor Mul and Paddy had yet to prove themselves (or be given opportunity) at Championship level. Diarmuid Laffan was only just back in Brussels whilst Diarmuid Lynch was making his debut.
The panel interchanged perfectly through the day and two group wins set up a semi with The Hague. It was all going to plan until half-time when we were leading 0-3 to 0-2. Inexplicably, we failed to score in the second half. We did have sufficient possession in their half and created the only goal chance of the game. Composure let us down on that and one or two other occasions.
I didn’t realise at the time, but our two full forwards didn’t touch the ball in open play in the second half! It wasn’t a case of them being beaten to the ball either. We carried up the pitch rather than let it in. On reflection, I played too deep and this was one of the causes of this. Normally I’d be floating around the middle picking up loose ball and letting it in fast.
Linked to this, if I were to add a third concern to the worries mentioned at the beginning, it would have been that we only worked on our attack at the last sessions prior to the tournament. Plenty of time and ideas to address that though and we will need to ahead of Guernsey.
Our defence put massive pressure on The Hague but they were still able to get the crucial scores. We coughed up some very bad ball in the tackle, something we had avoided doing all day. We also gave a couple of frees when we had two guys swarming a man. We should be the only winner in a situation like that. Guys should be roaring ‘don’t foul, don’t foul’ in those situations and waiting for a sight of the ball to rob it.
We lost 0-5 to 0-3 in the end. Fellas were naturally disappointed in the aftermath. There were a lot of good constructive comments offered in the last few days. What I particularly liked was the absence of blame or excuses. There has been a good balance between comments related to the team’s performance and lads’ own performances. It’s good to see everyone switched on in such a way.
Now we move on to Round 2 in Guernsey. We’ll be down players but some of the Shield players did enough to suggest they would be comfortable stepping up. Everyone showed on Saturday that with clear instruction, the teams will still be competitive. On we go...