Kicking Out: Kicking instincts being coached out of players

The Cavan championship has provided more open kicking football than most - and finding teams that have the instinct to play with their heads up is becoming harder. Picture by Oliver McVeigh / Sportsfile
The Cavan championship has provided more open kicking football than most - and finding teams that have the instinct to play with their heads up is becoming harder. Picture by Oliver McVeigh / Sportsfile The Cavan championship has provided more open kicking football than most - and finding teams that have the instinct to play with their heads up is becoming harder. Picture by Oliver McVeigh / Sportsfile

FOUR weeks back, the fixture list was looking bare.

Round robin in Donegal? Waste of time. Same in Fermanagh. Burren-Mayobridge isn’t until Monday night. All there really is that carries any weight is Creggan v St John’s up at Corrigan Park, or Gowna v Kingscourt in Killinkere.

Cavan is the forgotten land of Ulster football. Just two of their 40 provincial title wins have come in the last 50 years, and for a long time their inter-county team was an irrelevance.

Their club scene was long out of sight and mind because of their geographical position. Too far north for the Dublin media to bother about and too far south for the northern press, they were caught in No Man’s Land.

What little most people outside the county will know about it is because in the last three seasons, RTÉ have shown two games from Cavan. Both have been gripping encounters.

In 2020, Crosserlough equalised with the last kick of the ball six minutes into stoppage time to take Kingscourt to a replay in the county final. Crosserlough won the replay to end a 48-year wait for glory.

On Saturday evening, the cameras were back in Breffni Park.

That day in Killinkere a month ago, both Gowna and Kingscourt were in danger of elimination if results had gone against them.

Kingscourt won by a point, saving themselves while other results meant Gowna took the eighth qualification spot.

I had the pleasure of sitting beside Padraig Faulkner’s parents that afternoon. His mother Jackie was the most knowledgeable person in the crowd.

After the game Padraig stopped for an interview.

“When we set out at the start of the week, we knew Gowna were a kicking team so we said we’d give them a bit of their own medicine. We kicked long. At some stages in the first half, we worked scores where it was three kicks from the ‘keeper and over the bar,” he said.

It’s an interesting psyche. Nowadays, most teams that feel the opposition kick a lot would set up to drop bodies back and cut off the supply. But Kingscourt went the other way.

Honestly, the game was a joy to be at. Sometimes you don’t realise the drudgery of what you’re subjected to until you’re offered something different.

It was hard, physical football in the first 20 minutes it was so enjoyably open. Three goals inside the first 20 minutes, the pace never let up. Both teams pushing up on the kickouts, forcing the ball long.

Saturday evening’s televised encounter was a much better spectacle than 95 per cent of club games now.

As a spectacle, Cavan’s championship is better than 95 per cent of what’s out there.

In those two games in particular, you saw the opposite of what normally happens on the field – teams kicking the ball.

I’ve been studying this for a while now. Not to the degree of taking stats, but just a mental note.

Take the typical situation in Owenbeg on Sunday evening in the double-header of Derry championship games.

A defender turns the ball over. Bodies stream past him. There are one, sometimes two, forwards ahead of them, isolated one-against-one. The sweeper is out.

Nobody lifts their head.

Nobody ever seems to lift their head any more.

I get it, the game has changed. But what I’ve noticed lately is that beyond being coached not to kick the ball when it’s not on, players are now clearly coached to never kick the ball.

Watch the next game you’re at from that perspective. Look at what players do when they get possession, particularly in the middle third where the dangerous kick pass might be on. Most never see it.

Everyone has become so conditioned to running the ball that they carry it with their head down, going as hard as they can, eating as many yards up as they can until the sideways pass to a runner becomes available.

It applies from top to bottom. Watch the All-Ireland final back and you’ll see pretty much the only exception Galway had to that way of playing was John Daly. There’s a man that plays with his head up.

And he caught the eye for it, he’ll win an Allstar for it. Is he the best number six in the game? Probably not. But he plays with head up, and that brings such a different dimension to Galway’s attack.

They can all play kick passes but you can’t kick to someone you can’t see, and you can’t see the forward’s run if you’re carrying the ball staring at the grass beneath your feet.

Honestly, being asked to play in the full-forward line now must be the equivalent of being asked to do goals thirty years ago. Playing inside is almost a complete waste of time. You might not receive a single kick pass in the entire game. Everything is played on the loop, coming off the shoulder.

Playing a match one night a few years ago at corner-forward, we had a man on the ball coming forward. I made four runs. Not once did he lift his head. Then he finally did, kicked it aimlessly up into the air, lost it and shouted “would yous f***ing make a run in there!”

Don’t get me wrong, the way the thing is, a lot of the time the kick isn’t on. Nobody’s saying kick it for the sake of kicking it.

So much of this goes back to the training ground, where so much of our coaching is done in squares too small to justify a kick pass. If you’re doing that over and over and over and over, night after night, then eventually your instincts are retrained.

It comes from the desire for intensity and endless tackling in training sessions, the feeling that if someone isn’t getting hit then it isn’t worth a damn.

You know this is happening because the players’ instincts in a game reflect it. You can’t hide instinct. If yours is to look up, you’ll look up. If it’s to look down and run, then that’s what you’ll do.

The instinct to kick the ball has been coached out of football. Young players are taught to carry it hard and support runners. The vast majority don’t look up.

There are, of course, exceptions. I’ve enjoyed watching Matthew Downey the last two weeks for Lavey. He plays with his head up all the time.

If Glen win the Derry championship this year, it will be because Jack Doherty lifted his head. He had the ability to cut Magherafelt with his pace on Sunday night but in the game’s crucial moment, he took a look. Danny Tallon had gotten in behind Fergal Duffin. Kick pass over the top, goal, and from two down and in bother, Glen were one up and on their way to the last four.

It’s not that this is to decry it as such. You can be sad about the lack of kick-passing surely.

It’s more to question what coaches are actually doing.

It might not fit with the modern science but it remains a simple fact that you learn from your first session at U5s – unless gravity changes, the ball will always travel faster than the man.

Really, it just surprises me that more teams don’t look to use the kick pass on the counter attack, when the space is there. That’s when goals are scored, if it’s worked right.

Is it fear of losing the ball? Perhaps. But I don’t see players looking up, seeing the kick pass on and saying ‘nah, I’ll keep it’. They’re just not looking up to see it.

Whether it’s good for football is questionable.

But it’s definitely not good for any team or its footballers to have the instinct to lift their heads coached out of them.