GAA Football

Cahair O'Kane: Fortune favours the brave

RTÉ pundit Kevin McStay was critical of Niall Morgan and modern goalkeeping in general at the weekend. Picture: Seamus Loughran

AS a young boy throwing myself around the front garden at home, or even out the back learning a valued life skill of how to dive on concrete without wrecking yourself, I just wanted to be Peter Schmeichel.

There were so many reasons. The way he’d spread himself, using arms, legs and whatever else there was to stop a shot.

I was also particularly fond of his ability to fall out with his own shadow.

But there was also his ability to get the distance and accuracy on a throw over 60 yards was one of the great counter-attacking weapons that Man Utd side had at their disposal. He’d have found the toe of Beckham or Giggs before the opposition had even turned their heads.

It was a skill that other ‘keepers didn’t possess.

That’s what made him stand out. That’s what made him great.

Every skill is a weapon, as long as it’s improved and encouraged.

Goalkeeping in soccer didn’t change much between the adaptation to the back-pass rule and the very recent rise to prominence of Ederson, who has brought a new dimension to English football.

He’s basically an outfield player that’s handy wearing gloves. And there have been few elements as vital to the Manchester City revolution.

His comfort with the ball at his feet is everything to their system. He’s always the out-ball at the back, always creating the 3v2 that they’re looking for.

Ederson has made mistakes. He’s cost Man City goals.

Mistakes are a natural by-product of risk. But so are rewards.

The basics of goalkeeping in Gaelic football have, by contrast, changed dramatically in the last ten years.

For the average goalkeeper, the in-game workload is now around about 90 per cent kickouts, six or seven per cent high balls and the leftovers are for shot-stopping.

With teams becoming so proficient in working overlaps and palming the ball into an empty net, there’s so little of the latter even to do.

Take the best two goalkeepers in Ireland last year, Rory Beggan and Stephen Cluxton.

Between them, they took 317 kickouts in last year’s championship.

By contrast, they both conceded six goals each and made just three saves each.

Three. In an entire summer.

The number of high balls they each had to deal with was barely in double digits.

On League Sunday, Kevin McStay took apart the performances of the two goalkeepers in the Tyrone-Galway game at the weekend, namely Niall Morgan and Ruairi Lavelle.

The former Roscommon boss basically used them as evidence for an argument that goalkeepers shouldn’t be getting as involved in open play, and that short kickouts are more risk than reward.

As footage rolled of Galway scoring off an intercepted kickout, McStay said: “Like, that ball, instead of being 70 yards down the field is now going to be returned with serious interest. In tight games, these are the moments that can count. I counted today overall, about 2-8 was directly attributable to goalkeepers.”

GAA statistician James Robinson, who’s well worth a follow on Twitter at @dontfoul, crunched the numbers on last year.

Dublin’s biggest source of scores was their own kickouts. From the beginning of their Super 8s campaign, they scored 5-37 off Stephen Cluxton’s restarts. 3-35 came from turnovers, 2-15 from the opposition kickout and 0-7 from other sources.

Whatever a team loses off its own kickouts, it will gain far more in the modern game by doing whatever it can to retain possession.

Look at Down on Sunday. They did exactly as McStay suggested, operating an exceptionally limited kickout strategy that saw them boot every first half kickout into the middle of the park. They were annihilated on their own restarts, and missed out on promotion because of it.

It was fitting that he chose Ruairi Lavelle too. His limitations on kickouts were a problem for Galway last year.

All summer they loaded bodies on one side of the field, almost always the right wing, and laced it out 50-50.

They stood no chance whatsoever of beating Dublin in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final because of the predictability of their setup.

Morgan was also criticised for getting beaten to a high ball by Danny Cummins on Sunday, which resulted in a Galway goal. There was a legitimacy in that, but not the rest of it.

Some will see Morgan’s attacking exploits, or those of Beggan or Graham Brody or any of the other fly-keepers, as a vanity project. Something to get themselves noticed and talked about.

That completely misses the point. Exactly like Ederson, Morgan has become Tyrone’s outlet to create overlaps. He’s become an extra attacker when they have the ball.

This is a man that won a TeamTalk Allstar for his performances at midfield in last year’s club championship, when his exploits were a huge part of a surprise run by Edendork.

His ability to kick a point from play has been an asset to Tyrone this year, especially down in Roscommon, but it’s about far more than the glory of raising a white flag.

Take Brody too, an excellent forward for Portlaoise down the years who last year found himself playing an extraordinary role for Laois. His overlap in the last minute against Wexford created the space for their equaliser, a score which ultimately helped them reach a Leinster final.

There was all that to his game, but when Monaghan rolled into O’Moore Park last year, he produced a remarkable display of shot-stopping, making no fewer than six saves – some of them exceptional – and earning himself an Allstar nomination.

If goalkeeping was to allow itself to stagnate and restrict itself to the old traditional values, there’d be a lot of cold men standing about.

Shot-stopping is still hugely important in big games. You’re not suggesting abandoning the need for it as a skill.

But a goalkeeper’s workload has become so changed and so reduced in terms of its traditional elements that it was only natural the question would start to be raised: Why have we someone standing doing nothing in open play for 70 minutes when they could operate as our 15th man in attack?

As the Peter Harte effort from 45 yards when Lavelle got caught off his line showed, even when the rare chance provides itself, it’s not all that handy to punish a wandering goalkeeper.

The risk will always exist, and there will be days when ‘keepers get punished.

But the rewards from using your number one as an extra attacker are potentially far greater.

And fortune tends to favour the brave.

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