GAA Football

Kenny Archer: Scutiny on goalkeepers in Gaelic football has become far too intense

Mayo goalkeeper Rob Hennelly is black-carded by referee Maurice Deegan during last Saturday's All-Ireland SFC final replay    
Picture by Séamus Loughran

IT WAS a simple catch to the chest under a dropping ball, under no real pressure from an opponent. Yet, the player inexplicably fumbled it - and his team subsequently lost out on the trophy.

However, I can’t remember who made that mistake in the Monaghan senior football final. Indeed, I barely remember which team was at fault, except that I have a mental picture of the ball bouncing off a yellow Clontibret jersey. I didn’t make a note of that error as it happened around 30 yards from their goal and didn’t result in a score for the opposition.

Yet, even if that fumbled ball had ended up in the Clontibret net, some of the blame would have been apportioned to other defenders for not reacting, perhaps even to the goalkeeper for not making a save. Credit would have been given to the attacker for taking advantage.

It’s different, very different, for goalkeepers, as poor Rob Hennelly and Mayo have had harshly confirmed since last Saturday evening’s All-Ireland SFC final replay. Every player - everyone - makes mistakes, but goalkeepers are always under the most scrutiny. Their mistakes are often much more costly, even if the level of error is the same or even less than one made further outfield. No-one equates an off-target shot when in on goal with a fumble that ends up in the net, even though they have the same net impact on the scoreboard. Poor kick-passes by an outfielder usually only get a mention if he makes three or more of them. 

There’s no escaping the fact Hennelly’s error, leading to Dublin’s goal from the penalty spot, was a major moment in the rematch. Yet, there were many other factors that went into deciding the outcome of that match - not least the brilliant penalty conversion.    

Equally though, there were far more reasons why Mayo didn’t beat Dublin in the drawn game than a few wayward kick-outs by David Clarke. Hennelly and Clarke and Mayo are the latest victims of the modern obsession with kick-outs, the idea that the goalkeeper is all-important.

The Mayo management’s decision to drop Clarke for the All-Ireland final replay was apparently the consequence of a few slightly wayward kick-outs late in the drawn game. Never mind that he’d made some good saves against Dublin and was not at fault for either of the bizarre own goals that Mayo conceded. Besides, maybe tired team-mates hadn’t been making the right runs for Clarke to target.

In a strange way, I might have applauded the decision to pick Hennelly if it truly was for his longer-distance kicking. I’m not suggesting teams should just boot the ball up the field and hope for the best. However, the obsession with winning your own kick-outs carries its own risks. The further the ball is kicked, the greater the likelihood of the opposition catching it or breaking it. Yet conversely, as teams ‘go short’ in an attempt to increase accuracy, they also increase the chances that the opposition will get their hands on the ball closer to the defending team’s goal. 

I’ve got tired of constantly being told how much the kick-out matters. A team might ‘win’ 100 per cent of their own kick-outs, but that’s largely meaningless if the opposition has decided not to contest them. Some in the GAA have long been fixated with winning kick-outs - at least until even the biggest bonehead of a midfielder realised it didn’t really matter.

What counted was who got the ball next, a team-mate of the high-fielder or, more often, the opposition because they crowded the big man out and won the ball off him or won a free. The pressure has since shifted from the big men in centre-field to the goalkeepers.

Generally, keepers have welcomed that, in their version of ‘revenge of the nerds’. In the past, they were regarded as the worst players, those picked last, who were told to ‘go into nets’. That was a silly attitude given the importance of goals, both numerically and psychologically - but it’s a 15-man game.

To my knowledge, no kick-out in senior football has yet gone either over or under the bar. However, we’re often told that X’s kick-outs ‘led directly’ to 1-5 (or some such figure) of their scores. No they didn’t. There is some great analytical work being done on kick-outs. Journalists are often accused of not criticising each other, but the truth is we like praising each other even less - but you know who you are in this regard, MC.

Yet, too often there’s no real scrutiny of what happens immediately after the kick-out is ‘won’, as if the job (and the subsequent scoring) is done at that stage. Between the kick-out and the score much usually happens, though. There are passes in between, and good runs - perhaps including decoy runs. Maybe some missed tackles. Perhaps some silly fouls that are punished by frees. Maybe perfectly good tackles that are punished by frees. Great shots. Lucky shots. Defensive mistakes. Goalkeeping errors.

Hennelly's replacement David Clarke was unable to stop Diarmuid Connolly's penalty
Picture by Séamus Loughran  

Rob Hennelly had a bad game last Saturday evening, but that happens to all players sometimes and it was hardly wholly his fault. Hennelly is a very good goalkeeper, but any keeper has to develop a working relationship with his defence and midfielders (even the forwards who drop back or run back into the catching zone).

Clarke had started Mayo’s previous six matches - ironically since a Hennelly kick-out was seized upon before Galway’s goal in the Connacht semi-final. Dublin captain and goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton is a wonderfully accurate kicker, but much credit also has to go to his team-mates who make the right runs at the right time to the right area. Their alertness and energy levels play a big part. Such expert ‘finding’ of men is obviously honed by much practice in training sessions.

Goalkeepers are being put under serious scrutiny by their own managements - perhaps being put under too much pressure. Maybe managers and coaches should think more about preparing better man-markers, so that the man who runs to catch a kick-out has an opponent breathing right down his neck. And they could also coach better tackling technique, so that the man in possession after a kick-out can be quickly and fairly dispossessed.

Keepers are important - but that importance has to be kept in perspective.

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