Thursday 29 September 2016

Billy Sheehan: If you want your attack to sparkle, find a good goalkeeper

You need a wider set of skills to be a netminder than any other position

Billy Sheehan

Published 02/08/2015 | 02:30

Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton celebrates after the game
Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton celebrates after the game

Christy O'Connor put it perfectly when he said in his book Last Man Standing that goalkeepers occupy a precarious position: glorified if the team wins, damned if they don't. In today's game between Fermanagh and Dublin, that line is more relevant than ever.

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In the evolution of Gaelic football, positions have become less relevant for outfield players, but the goalkeeper is still a stand-alone post.

There is a perception that outfield players require a more detailed skill-set than the keeper but on closer examination, that's not really the case. More stamina, yes, along with an ability to withstand more contact, but to be a top-class goalkeeper, there are in many respects a wider set of skills needed.

They need to be a good communicator and an organiser; have quick feet and safe hands; be extremely courageous, a good student of the game and have an ability to react to dangerous and game-changing situations.

In essence, the goalkeeper is the general, the person who dictates play from the starting position. Kick-outs have now become the key attribute that define the goalkeeper's importance.

Looking back at the 1990 All-Ireland final between Cork and Meath provides an interesting contrast in terms of how the game has changed.

In that game, there were 38 kick-outs, 35 of which were kicked long, with the competing midfielders - Gerry McEntee, Liam Hayes, Danny Culloty and Shea Fahy - all effecting superb catches.

Cork won just 55 per cent of their own kick-outs and Meath 45 per cent, a statistic which wouldn't sit well with current inter-county managers.

One fascinating element was that Meath continued to kick the ball into 50/50 situations even though their full back, Mick Lyons, was a spare man for over half the game.

Tyrone and Mickey Harte changed the landscape by swarming the midfield fetcher and as a result, high fielding has become less of a factor. Managers tend to lean on a more athletic type of player who can effect breaks and cover ground box to box.

In today's inter-county game, 48 per cent of attacks originate with kick-outs. A team on average will have 24 kick-outs per game and will get a scoring attempt over 55 per cent of the time. With a conversion accuracy hovering around 50 per cent, teams manage a score from every four kick-outs. Up to 12 scores per game develop directly from kick-outs, which emphasises the importance of this aspect of the game.

Some changes which have had a direct effect on the improvement of kick-outs include the lighter ball, the kicking tee, and the rule whereby all kick-outs are now taken from the 13-metre line. Some managers even consider shot-stopping to be secondary to kicking duties when assessing their goalkeeper.

Codes, similar to rugby line-out calls, will give a team an advantage in terms of gaining possession. Gone are the days of signals such as hand in the air, pulling at the sock, and tipping the feet.

Trust between the goalkeeper and his outfield players is paramount. The movement of the players into predetermined positions is a huge part of a successful kick-out strategy. They need to work for and with their keeper to create space. It's almost a game within the game.

The speed at which the ball is kicked back into play is also vital. In the 2013 All-Ireland final, Stephen Cluxton averaged eight seconds per kick-out and completed 20 of 23, with Mayo's intensity and application waning after the first half hour.

In the 2006 All-Ireland semi-final between the same counties, Cluxton took an average of 28 seconds to complete each kick out. Amazingly, just one of the 21 kick-outs landed inside the 45, with all of them aimed at the fielding capabilities of Ciaran Whelan, Darren Magee and Shane Ryan. Mayo won 12 of those 21 kick-outs.

When considering and preparing to counteract the modern kick-out strategy, video analysis software - availing of cameras placed behind both goals - provides a lot of information in terms of signals, movements and kicking styles. These give both management and players concrete patterns of where their opposition's kick-outs will be targeted .

Players must be alert and able to react when the ball goes dead and not when it is being kicked out. Concentration must be high.

When it comes to pressing, it must be either zonal or man-to -man. For zonal, players hold the six forward positions, with midfielders taking a side each or going man-to-man. Players must compete when the ball drops in their zone. You must have trust in all of your team-mates to hold their sector and compete even if the back-line try to move them around. Kerry implemented this strategy to great effect against Dublin in the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final.

For man-to-man, each player picks up and tracks his marker to limit all short kick-out options. This situation creates a lot of movement from both sets of players, with much criss-crossing. A good goalkeeper will exploit this and kick into any empty space to his team's advantage.

A team can also give up the kick-out and drop deep with a defensive unit in place; the aim is to force turnovers and try to attack on the break. However, all the top teams are now coached and comfortable coping in such situations. In this year's Leinster final, Westmeath handed Dublin 11 kick-outs, resulting in a shot from over 70 per cent.

It must also be noted that not all teams want to waste their energy and effort trying to counteract kick-out scenarios.

Picking out the centre half forward is also an option as generally the centre half back is encouraged to sit rather than leave the defence vulnerable in such a pivotal position. Ryan Jones from Fermanagh has excelled at being that option in recent years.

Some teams locate two players in their inside line to keep their sweeper and defensive structure in place. This encourages a team to go short, and depending on the work rate and movement inside, implement a press to try to force a turnover high up the pitch. Monaghan's inside duo of Conor McManus and Kieran Hughes are top performers in this regard.

However, if a team does go short inside their own 30-yard line and the opposition press, they are putting themselves at risk of a turnover. We all remember Kieran Donaghy's defining goal in last year's All-Ireland final.

If the ball is kicked long, it will break the majority of the time, so it's important to get players to capitalise in the area of the breakdown. Currently there are two to three times as many breaking balls as clean catches. The advantage here lies with the half forwards as they need to box out their opposing marker, who covers goal-side.

Foragers of the dirty ball are key in these situations and players now specialise in positioning and movement in this sector. A player of Paul Galvin's qualities can thrive here.

Some spectators may not be familiar with the amended rules which apply to kick-outs. Players can now receive possession inside the 20-metre line once the ball has travelled 13 metres and they have started outside of it. Opposing players also need to be outside the 20-metre line before the ball is kicked. If players stay inside the line with the intention of delaying the kick-out, the referee has the option of punishing the offender with a card.

Cluxton is the benchmark for the current kick-out phenomenon. He never fails to react quickly and restart at speed. His eyes are always on the space presented to him by the constant movement of his team-mates, reaping the rewards of his vision and accuracy. And as expected from a five-time All Star, he plays with confidence, but more importantly the outfield players have supreme confidence in him.

The master craftsman is a number one in every sense of the word, and he's the player turning the wheel as his side endeavour to regain Sam Maguire.

Billy Sheehan has been a member of the Laois senior football panel since 2005.

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