A change in attack spurred Kilcoo to victory over St Gall’s in Sunday’s Ulster Club Semi-Final. Emmet Ryan was in the Athletic Grounds to break down the tactical battles that decided the day.
Laverty’s role too predictable
Kilcoo kept Conor Laverty placed high up-field and looked to use the Down county star to direct their attack. Breaks into attack were designed to work off balls directed at the lone inside forward. The target man role was too predictable however as Kilcoo leaned heavily towards the right flank. This made Andrew McClean’s job in defence easy as he could close the door on Laverty to come back inside. The rest of the Gall’s defence took care of Kilcoo’s alternatives. With Laverty forced to either pass backwards or shoot under pressure, the Down champions couldn’t get men open for quality chances. Instead they were forced to go long or try to develop play. The former option only worked once, from a 43 metre free from Paul Devlin.
When Kilcoo tried to work the ball through the attack, Gall’s closed down and forced turnovers. A 24 minute spell without a score from the Down champions was finally ended when Gary McEvoy switched with Laverty into the target man role. Laverty was now able to be the man open to finish and he ensured Kilcoo only trailed by the minimum at the break.
Poor passing sees Gall’s play into Kilcoo’s hands
For all Kilcoo’s woes up front, St Gall’s were faring no better. After Karl Stewart opened the scoring on 2 minutes, the Antrim champions failed to score for another 28. In the interim they missed 9 chances and had just one opportunity within 30 metres of the Kilcoo goal. Part of this was down to a clear strategy from Kilcoo to keep their defence deep and inside. That forced St Gall’s wide, reducing quality chances. When they managed to move the ball inside, ball carriers were isolated and quickly closed down. Kevin McGourty found this out the hard way on 26 minutes as he gather possession only to be boxed out by three defenders. Strong defence however was not the whole story. Gall’s struggles were as much down to their inept distribution.
Aodhan Gallagher was the only player making a positive contribution to the passing game. Balls were aimed poorly and handling from the targets was no better. Collectively the Gall’s attack was one turgid mess. Even when they scored, the Antrim champions made hard work of it. Michael Pollock took possession off broken play and Gall’s were suddenly in a 4 on 3 situation inside the 45. Pollock however paused and looked to move outside on the right wing, when all the options were to his left. Stewart eventually recovered the ball and scored from the 21.
It’s amazing what better distribution can do
That score provided the impetus for Gall’s to get their attack together. Through first half injury time and much of the second half, their passing was more accurate and attackers found it easier to get in scoring position. Pollock, who had set up Stewart’s first point, then turned creator for Kevin Niblock. The centre forward was put in position to possibly go for goal but took his point as Gall’s claimed their first lead in almost half an hour. Anto Healey started another move within a minute that led to Stewart’s third point of the half. The pace slowed after the break but Pollock remained a creative outlet, putting Kevin McGourty in position to score on 32 minutes.
All three of the scores Pollock created saw him absorb pressure and find a man in open space, giving St Gall’s the kind of chances they needed on a day where their shooting was below par. The full-forward completed a passing move to score on 43 minutes, just 3 minutes after the Niblock managed the first of just two long range scores of the day for Gall’s.
Shot selection was a big problem for the Antrim champions. Despite Niblock and Sean Kelly’s successes being theironly scores from far out, they repeatedly tried to score from distance. Of their 27 shots, 15 were from beyond the D. It was rather apt that their last was also the most costly. Trailing by a point in the fourth minute of injury time, Kieran McGourty was open around 40 metres out but rushed his effort and it fell harmlessly wide.
Kilcoo change direction
A change in how Kilcoo attacked, couple with excellent use of their bench, swung the game in their favour. Laverty was wholly removed as a target man and allowed to come out to the 45 to help with developing attacks. Playing their most dangerous attacker near goal had seemed like the logical choice at the start but this withdrawn role allowed him to contribute far more. Kilcoo switched to a strategy built around patient development before attacking with pace from the wings. Crucially they introduced Ryan Johnston in the 37th minute and Sean Devlin in the 49th minute to push the tempo as the game wore on. Despite being at a significant size disadvantage, Kilcoo’s attack wore down the Gall’s backs and started to find holes. Johnston had an immediate impact, getting outside on 39 minutes to score. The change in approach wasn’t perfect, cheap turnovers were still coming in Gall’s territory but with far less regularity than in the first half.
Like Johnston, Devlin made his presence felt immediately. Laverty could feel the pressure closing in on him and sent a pass into space on the left of the goal. Sean O’Hanlon was clear to take possession and he fed Devlin who finished into an empty net. Laverty remained the conductor as he set up Daragh O’Hanlon. The decisive score however showed just how in tune Kilcoo were in the closing stage. The move started off near the 45 on the right hand side. Kilcoo moved the ball around as though they were trying to kill a mythical shot clock. It was eventually worked to the left side near the 21 where Gerard McEvoy was in position to finish. An insurance point was added in the sixth minute of injury time but the job was done before the score, as Devlin’s run to the Gall’s 21 ensured the Antrim champions would not get one last attack.
The first half of this game was sorely lacking attacking nous. Kilcoo didn’t adapt a model they use in Down league and championship to cope with the greater challenges in Ulster. Laverty was a non-factor due to his advanced placement. The crucial changes came after the break. First Laverty was withdrawn closer to the 45 where he could aid the attack more. Then those two key changes happened, allowing Kilcoo to press on even after losing Niall McEvoy to a straight red.
St Gall’s problems came down to poor decision making. Their execution issues were effectively solved by half-time, with passing much crisper in the second period. The problem was that while they did what they did efficiently, it was often the wrong thing to do. Continuing a fruitless quest to score from distance, rather than making use of the control they had on play, hurt them. Until Devlin’s goal, it did not appear to be fatal, but Gall’s couldn’t adapt to playing from behind. Kilcoo could force the tempo hard down the stretch and won the day. Winning Ulster, and the black and amber elephant in the room that goes with it, is a discussion for another day.
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