Cahair O'Kane: Playmakers like Paul Finlay are disappearing from the game

Paul Finlay was one of the last remaining examples of a dying generation of playmakers
Picture by Colm O'Reilly

THIRTY-FIVE yards out, a wall of red shirts between him and the goal, Paul Finlay is on his right foot.

Ballybay had the game well won by that stage, but that doesn’t dull the instincts. As he shapes to kick the score, the Truagh defence stops momentarily.

That’s all it takes. Ryan Wylie continues his run and in the split second that he drops the ball on to his foot, Finlay changes his mind. The pass is gorgeous. Like Ernie Els from the final hole bunker at Muirfield in 2002, dinked wonderfully into Wylie’s path, cutting the Truagh defence to shreds and leaving his Monaghan team-mate with a simple finish on goal.

YouTube allows us to sample the delights of this piece of vision from the 34-year-old during the club championship this summer. It doesn’t allow us to sample the run that came before it, or how the pass had to be conjured up in his mind when his marker forced him to check back on to his right side.

Most footballers, be it in Gaelic or soccer, are hurtling towards retirement by the time they pass 30. In the modern era, the majority rely on their athleticism, which will naturally wane. It’s an irreversible process.

Paul Finlay retired from inter-county football last week after 14 years, winning two Ulster titles and writing himself into the record books as Monaghan’s top scorer in history with 5-544 from 168 appearances.

He was always destined to go on and play in the white and blue, following so proudly in the footsteps of his late father Kieran, to whom he was very close.

His star shone brightly from a young age, leading a Monaghan Vocational Schools side to an All-Ireland title in 2001 and helping the county minors to a provincial decider the same year, where he excelled against Tyrone.

Two years later, he almost kicked them to an U21 title against the same opposition, only for a late Tyrone penalty to turn him away after a brilliant individual display.

In 14 seasons of inter-county duty, Finlay had some exceptional afternoons. The first was far from the least as he kicked eight points to shock All-Ireland champions Armagh in the Ulster preliminary round in 2003.

“Bold as brass, and brave with it,” roared The Irish News’ match report the following morning.

“His two 55-metre strikes, splitting the posts in the last nine minutes, were the magnificent pressure picks from his baptismal fire. Awesome finishes, the points were brilliantly made. All their last five were his.”

There were many days with Monaghan that weren’t as joyous and as he turned 30 it looked like his seasons of toiling around the lower end of the National Leagues would leave his potential unfulfilled on the big stage.

Thankfully, two Ulster medals followed, and his star shone brightly once more. He will continue to play with Ballybay next year. He could easily go on until he’s 40.

After they finally secured the Monaghan senior league medal the craved to complete the set last weekend, the Ballybay players naturally settled in for a few days in the local hostelry.

When Mickey Donnelly, who managed them this year, rang Finlay early on Monday afternoon, he was back at work. Like most that maintain such high standards into their mid-30s, you’d spill more on a night out than Finlay would drink in a year.

There’s an expectation of such a player that everything he has is God-given. But many’s an evening on his way back from work as an area manager for Gyproc, which often had him on the roads around Cavan, Louth and Offaly, he would call to the pitch to stand and kick frees endlessly.

Many’s a God given talent was wasted, but Finlay’s application ensured that his wasn’t. In the end though, inter-county football passed him by. The last couple of years, he was easily good enough to have still flourished in a different era.

But this is not the era of the playmaker. He was one of the last of a generation that the modern game has turned to an unaffordable luxury. Who’s left of that mould now, other than Colm Cooper? He was once regarded as potentially the greatest to ever have played, but even his influence on the sport in recent years has waned.

There’s no Adrian Cush or Damian Barton or Greg Blaney or Paul Finlay standing out a mile at minor or U21 level. The players that stand out now have different attributes altogether.

Jamie Clarke came to the party too late. His natural ability was always apparent but he was quickly squeezed out by the gym bunnies. It’s very difficult to coach the vision that those men had when they were on the ball. It wasn’t just that they could see everything two steps quicker, but they had the artistry to produce the pass as well.

Instead of encouraging such free-spirited thinking, modern coaches teach their players the art of “decision making”. And the sad reality is that the kick-pass to the inside-forward line is a bad decision most of the time.

The two sweepers will either cut it out, pick up the break or force the ball so wide into the corner that it has to come back out to where it started.

If Paul Finlay had been reared in the modern era and told the whole way through his underage career not to kick the ball, told to wear 10 and trail for an hour after the attacking half-back, would we ever have seen his talents in a Monaghan jersey?

More worryingly, will we ever see a player with those talents emerge again? It’s only Colm Cooper left now. When he goes, all we’ll have is the runners.

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