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The Last Line: Don't keep hammering poor number ones

Tyrone goalkeeper Niall Morgan came in for fierce criticism following his county's All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Kerry last year
Picture by Séamus Loughran
The Last Line with Cahair O'Kane

BENNY TIERNEY and I are not that different really.

Apart from the fact that he lives in Teacher World and therefore takes a three-week sabbatical from his column, which means that you get me until the middle of January.

We’re both goalkeepers for teams that play in orange. While he has worn the Armagh jersey, I have worn a jersey modelled on the Armagh jersey, which almost counts for the same.

We were both too short to really make it as goalkeepers. Except he sort of made it. You know you’re too short when you have to jump to touch the crossbar. If ever you saw me swinging off one, it meant that the nets were small, and I was only doing it to make myself appear taller.

We’re both loud. During his illustrious playing days, Benny was renowned as a great communicator. I am renowned as someone who would ‘deev your head’, as we’d say in north Derry. When much-loved local photographer Mary K Burke comes to cover Drum games, she deliberately sits at the opposite end of the field from me.

In fact, the only real difference between the two of us is how successful our respective football careers have been. Benny Tierney hasn’t got two Derry junior championship medals and a Neil Carlin Cup behind him. Thankfully, though, he does have an appreciation for good goalkeeping. It is a trait that the Gaelic football media, on the whole, sadly lacks.

Hurling punditry is laced with men who once fulfilled the loneliest, cruellest role in sport. Brendan Cummins has been a superb addition to The Sunday Game. Donal Óg Cusack will be badly missed following his departure to join another ex-number one, Davy Fitzgerald, on the Clare sidelines.

At various times over the past few years, they have both superbly highlighted the nuances of hurling goalkeepers. Puckouts have been analysed to the nth degree by men who once stood in the shoes of Anthony Nash and Darren Gleeson. They know what to look for. You don’t have to stood in goals for Cork to recognise what a Cork goalkeeper should do, but it does help.

Goalkeeping is largely misunderstood and, as a result, relatively unappreciated. Watching Cummins as a young boy, I could never understand the lack of attention given at the time to his shot-stopping. But it was given by a punditry team that had no goalkeepers on it. His ability to appear to go with the wrong hand at times and still make the gravity-defying save was a wondrous thing.

Cusack’s short puckouts redeveloped the art in the same way that Stephen Cluxton’s kickouts did in football, but Cummins was the best goalkeeper of the generation. His ability to adapt and implement the short puckouts in his own game were a mark of his ability.

Thankfully, those two men moved the appreciation of hurling goalkeepers to another level. They took saves and puckouts, dissected them, explained why they were brilliant and gave the ordinary viewer a greater understanding of what was so special about it. Sadly, football has not yet caught up.

I always think of Brendan Kealy. There’s a man who has had more derision than praise down the years. I don’t really understand it. The Kerry stopper is not the tallest either. That naturally makes him susceptible to the high ball. With the square ball rule changed in open play, it’s much harder for a small goalkeeper to protect against the aerial threat.

But how often has it actually manifested itself in his game? The Donegal goal in the 2012 All-Ireland quarter-final is the only glaring example that comes to mind. And he is as good a shot-stopper as you’ll see. His crucial stop from Mark Bradley in the All-Ireland semi-final barely got a mention thereafter, despite the fact he managed to stop his body going the wrong way and turn himself back with a strong enough hand to stop the Tyrone man’s powerful strike.

Instead, the post-match analysis centred on Kealy’s opposite number Niall Morgan. Tyrone went out with the gameplan to go short at all costs. The alternative was to kick long to a gargantuan and in-form midfield of Anthony Maher and David Moran.

In any sort of half-decent weather, it was a very workable gameplan. Conditions certainly went against Tyrone’s restart plan that afternoon. Inevitably, there came the point where Kerry put the full-court press on the Tyrone restart. You regularly had the sight of Morgan setting the ball on the tee and looking up to find 16 men inside the Tyrone 65. Space was very limited.

Stephen Cluxton is routinely, and rightly, praised for his varied kickouts, but they rely on his team-mates’ runs into space. Cluxton kicks to an area, not a player. Niall Morgan had to try and kick to a player last August because there was no space. Trying to pinpoint a kickout on to a man’s chest in those conditions is arguably one of the hardest skills in Gaelic football.

And it’s not just hard for the goalkeeper. When a team presses up and you try to go short, the ball has to be kicked with pace in order for its target to have any chance. And when it’s driven at you at pace in the kind of downpour that was in Croke Park that day, then the propensity for mistakes by both kicker and receiver goes through the roof.

The Edendork man got hammered by pretty much everyone after the game. Yet, there was no criticism of the failure to recognise the problem and throw on Pádraig McNulty sooner. When he entered and Tyrone went long, they actually dominated midfield in the final 20 minutes.

You had to feel sorry for Morgan. The Twitterati were venomous, buoyed by the TV criticism. And there’s nothing worse than having criticism affected upon someone simply because of a lack of understanding.

It was so much simpler in Benny’s day. You just had to set the ball down and lace it out.

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