We take a closer look at how the role of goalkeepers has changed in modern gaelic games.
“Paddy dashed back to his goal like a woman who smells a cake burning….”
The words of the great journalist Con Houlihan, describing the now infamous goal scored by Mikey Sheehy against Paddy Cullen in the 1978 All Ireland final. A very talented goalkeeper who made many a great save for his native Dublin, but will always be remembered for that one goal. Who would be a goalkeeper ?
However, the role of the modern net minder is more than just saving shots and clearing your line. The new generation are now seen as the most important tacticians in both our codes. Possession is king, so both kick outs and puck outs are now key components in the age of blanket defences and sweeper systems.
The current goalkeeper is no longer regarded as the best shop stopper or the longest hitter, but the most accurate from restarts. We also have our goalies scoring frees and we won’t even talk about the ‘Nash rule’!
However, it was not always this way. Who can remember Noel Skehan’s shovel-like hurley and Ger Cunningham’s booming puck outs, or Charlie Nelligan’s rugby boots and John O’Leary without any gloves.
The plan for restarts was strike it long and to hell with tactics. Hit your midfielders in football, and your half forwards in hurling, simple. Former Dublin goalkeeper Mick Pender explains it perfectly in an article with Hogan Stand magazine back in 1992.
“I always had a very weak kick out. I couldn’t rise the ball at all until I was about 20 or so, but then I noticed that nearly all inter county keepers were wearing rugby boots, so I bought a pair and they have worked for me. I can kick it to 70 or 75 yards now, either with or against the wind. There is technique involved, rather like a golf shot – just head down and follow through.”
Imagine this tactic being implemented by our current crop of keepers, where speed of thought, finesse, and the ability to find a teammate with a chipped kick pass off the tee or a flick of the writs with the hurl is the norm.
The modern goalkeepers are tactically astute, quick minded, with the ability to score from frees, and most important of all, a kicking foot or hurling swing that has the ability to hit short to medium restarts. The pressure to appease the statisticians with possession and puck out stats, makes the goalkeeper the most important player in the game. Failure to hit high percentage possession figures is now seen as unacceptable, even though you might be a world class shot stopper.
The Cork footballers have tried four different goalkeepers in this year’s national league campaign. A weak midfield and lack of ball winners in this sector of the field means Cork are looking for a keeper who can hit the darts from mid range around the half back line or in the hole between half back and midfield.
With such a high rate of goalkeepers over seven matches, experimenting with a pivotal position was another reason why Cork were relegated. However the Cork backroom team obviously deemed it necessary to find their quarter back come Championship time.
Our hurling goalkeepers have also evolved. From the hurling bag our goalies are choosing an iron instead of a driver to find their men. The short puck out is now seen as a better option, as the opposition are withdrawing their forwards to leave room for defenders or sweepers to gain possession.
Stats have shown that a hurling puck out at inter county level which takes over 10 seconds to be delivered favours the opposition as they set up to defend it. Imagine that, less than 1o seconds to make a decision once a ball sails over your head, to make a decision, to find your man, to refocus and deliver.
Stephen Cluxton has revolutionised the art of the football goalkeeper. Never before have we seen the importance of the kick out performed so astutely and consistently by any other player. But this did not happen by chance. Cluxton has been ahead of the game for a long time.
Over the last six or seven years Cluxton has been practising his kick outs in training with a 600g ball instead of the regular match ball which weighs 450g. This might explain his accuracy of distribution from close to mid range, where the lighter match ball must feel much easier to control.
Not only is he accurate from kick outs, in 2013 he scored a total of 21 points from placed balls in all competitions. His greatest achievement of course is that famous winning free to win the All Ireland in 2011. Not bad for a player whose main role is to stop scores!
The first controversy over restarts was when legendary hurling goalkeeper Brendan Cummins was controversially dropped by then manager Babs Keating back in 2007. How could such a key player, a leader, one of Tipp’s most experienced players be dropped over his puck outs ? However, in today’s tactical environment, this would not be seen as a huge surprise.
Donal Og Cusack was the first hurling goalkeeper to introduce the short puck out strategy, which has revolutionised the game and the ‘grip it and rip it’ style of goalkeeping is now but a distant memory. Donal Og was and still is a deep thinker of the game, and along with Corks effective possession tactic, he orchestrated the game plan to perfection.
We now see the short puck being implemented as a play by every hurling goalkeeper in the country.
Of course such tactics are high risk, just ask Donegal football net minder Paul Durcan. In the 2014 All Ireland, with the game in the melting pot, Durcan inexplicably chipped the ball in to Kerry forward Kieran Donaghy’s hands, and the goal which insued was a major part of Kerry winning.
Durcan’s tactical kick outs were a major play for Donegal that year, and a key play which Kerry knew they had to unlock. Such analysis was unheard of back in the days of our rugby boot wearing custodians. Kick it long and kick it high was the tactic.
Kerry had their homework done, and by pushing up on the goalkeeper’s restarts, Durcan was unable to utilise his kicking strategy which in turn led to his fatal error. Such detail and goalkeeping analysis is now key to every teams defensive strategy, as the possession stats are revealed to the nation every Monday morning.
Kicking tactics will certainly come to the fore when the mark will be introduced to our games in 2018. Once a goalkeeper kicks the ball past the 45, a player who catches a ball in mid air can call for a mark. Will such a play see another change to restarts? Will the reward of a mark see the return to the booming kick out and the end to the modern goalkeeper?
With an average of 23 restarts a game, kicking tees, and hurling swings, the goalkeeping position is now the most demanding and presurised position in our inter county games. The present crop of players have set a high standard for our future players, but the past players were also heroes and inspirational figures to many.
Players such as Art Foley, Wexford, Ned Power, Waterford, Ollie Walsh, Kilkenny were all heroes in hurling folklore, to later stars such as Noel Skehan, Kilkenny, Ger Cunningham, Cork, Brendan Cummins, Tipperary, and Damien Fitzhenry, Wexford.
Special mention also goes out to Kilkenny’s PJ Ryan for one of the finest performances by a goalkeeper in an All Ireland final back in 2009.
Johnny Geraghty, Galway, Billy Morgan, Cork, Martin Furlong, Offaly, John O’Leary, Dublin, John Kerins, Cork, all produced wonderful saves through a golden generation of football and inspired many to do the same.
None of these players knew nothing of helmets, protective cups, gloves or kicking tees, but they all have one thing in common. Be it past or present they have all given us great memories, and are united as members of the goalkeepers union.