Keeping pace with the long and the short of it
Cork's All-Ireland win showed the vital importance of a good kick-out strategy, writes Dermot Crowe
AMONG the lobbyists favouring Alan Quirke for an All Star over rival Brendan McVeigh one point reigned supreme: the quality and superiority of his kick-outs.
The purist might declare it unacceptable that this discipline be placed ahead, even alongside, the core fundamentals of protecting the goal. But the tactical importance of kick-outs is now widely acknowledged.
Hurling, with the rifle-like restarts of Donal óg Cusack, has led the way in redefining a practice that for most of GAA history was rarely considered cerebral or sophisticated. Power and distance were the simple principles that applied: you hoofed it as far as possible.
The modern and innovative version of Gaelic football has seen the possibilities in broadening the kick-out's role. McVeigh won an All Star thanks to some outstanding saves, including two in the final itself. But he had to admit to being second best to Quirke in the kick-out and it can't be ignored that it had consequences for the outcome.
The stats don't lie. McVeigh kicked the ball out 21 times and went long for the most part, mainly down the centre -- seeking to drive the ball as far as he could. On a couple of occasions he bypassed midfield and the ball was mopped up by a Cork half-back. A few times he didn't apply full force and sought to find a player with precision rather than play the percentages. But of his 21 kicks, 13 led to turnover possession, and very few did not land in the middle of the field.
Quirke had 19 kick-outs and 15 of those were won by Cork, a marked difference to the Down ratio. Two of the kicks were short and several were directed to the side, or at medium distance, towards players running on to the ball. Much greater variation characterised Quirke's kick-outs than those hit by McVeigh even though Cork ruled the middle. The fact that McVeigh continued to kick long when Cork were monopolising that area of the field suggested that Down hadn't a clear contingency plan if the long kick-out didn't work.
Early next month at a major GAA coaching conference in Donegal, orchestrated by the Donegal manager Jim McGuinness, one of the guest speakers is expected to talk about the increased importance of kick-outs in Gaelic football. Benny Tierney will address their growing influence and may use the All-Ireland final as a useful reference point. Tierney has vast experience from his playing days and more recently as a coach.
McVeigh's first kick-out in the All-Ireland final set the tone -- straight down the middle and fielded by Alan O'Connor. From the attack that resulted, McVeigh made a wonderful save to deny Cork a goal. From the next kick-out he went long through the middle again and Aidan Walsh made a clean catch. In that sequence of play the two disparate elements of McVeigh's performance were captured.
"I hadn't the longest kick-out in the world myself," admits Tierney. "Towards the end people were criticising me because I wasn't hitting them the same length maybe as Declan O'Keeffe and Paul Hearty who took my place later on; these guys were booming the ball. And I think Gaelic football has realised that the length of the kick-out is not necessarily the most important part of it and that possession is critical. And some 'keepers, particularly the likes of Stephen Cluxton and Alan Quirke, have taken a whole new approach to kick-outs that are not going over the 40-yard line."
But there is an inherent risk in not playing the percentages as McVeigh mostly does. Cluxton, having established a rapport with Shane Ryan for some years who acted as a running receiver, suffered some high-profile errors when his judgement lapsed, such as an intercepted kick five years ago against Tyrone that led to Owen Mulligan's famous goal. Quirke is no different. In the Munster final against Limerick, his short kick-out was intercepted after Cork had conceded a late goal, and the point that resulted sent the game into extra-time. But, as Tierney points out, it is the "way forward".
In the hurling final, Brendan Cummins, who has worked diligently on puck-out strategy in the latter phase of his career, mixed his deliveries and continued to do so despite some of his short pucks backfiring.
"I can remember playing Kerry in the 2000 All-Ireland semi-final," says Tierney, "and Declan O'Keeffe was obviously told ahead of the replay that he was kicking it down the throat of Kieran McGeeney and this had awarded an advantage to Armagh; you could see him putting a lot of effort into shortening the kick-outs in the replay. In the old days, it was hoke it out as far as you could, that was the south Armagh mantra -- hoke it out -- and I think people are beginning to realise at long last that accuracy is much more valuable. Or, equally as valuable."
Eight years ago, Tierney came out of retirement to win an All-Ireland medal before handing over the duties to Hearty. Having replaced Brian McAlinden, he has witnessed at first hand the sweep of changes in goalkeeping preparation and, in particular, kick-out strategies.
"Brian McAlinden was well renowned for his use of the short kick-out. By the time I came along, it was far as you could hit it. I played with Neil Smyth at club and county level and we literally won matches with 100 per cent possession by not going long. I found it frustrating after playing club to see the onus to drive it long at county level.
"I can remember playing a match one night for Mullaghbawn and Jarlath Burns was marking Neil (Smyth) -- he (Burns) would have thrived on long floated kick-outs and I did not kick it past the 45-yard line . . . this is 20 years ago. I knew any high ball in the middle that he (Burns) would mop it up. I think we won 18 out of 20 kick-outs. You need a very confident goalkeeper to do it; the safe option is this massive booming kick. You need a goalkeeper who can place his kicks to a very high standard."
Tierney's most cherished recollection of a kick-out for Armagh isn't a long missile but a ball aimed at Diarmaid Marsden which he collected in the 2002 All-Ireland final. Marsden started a move ending in the crucial Oisín McConville goal against Kerry. "He knew we needed possession, he made the run and I floated it only about 40 yards. And he moved it on and we got a goal from it. That to me is indicative of how important a kick-out really is."
Pete McGrath says Down only focused on tactical kick-outs once in the time he was county manager. That was against Derry in Celtic Park in 1994 when they faced the aerial might of Brian McGilligan and Anthony Tohill.
"At midfield we had Conor Deegan, who had been our full-back, and Greg McCartan, in his first full year on the team. For that particular day we had a number of goalkeeping kick-out strategies. Most of the rest of the time the goalie was supposed to use his own initiative or if there was a problem during the game I would get instructions to him.
"For many years kick-outs were just kick-outs. I think people have to take account of them and spend time and the goalie may have to make an adjustment technically but I think anyone can make that with time. But there's a bigger picture, the people in the middle of the field and management need to be working on strategies."
For all that, it is only part of the solution. Goalies have to be good at saving the day, and sometimes the impossible, to earn their stripes. Tierney's All Star choice is still McVeigh. "Brendan deserved it. He made the important saves at the important times, he was so important to Down's progress and Quirke was not maybe as flamboyant."