Tuesday 19 September 2017

Kicking now key for 'keepers as making saves goes out of fashion

Joe Sheridan between the posts for Meath during last Saturday’s O’Byrne Cup game against Laois. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Joe Sheridan between the posts for Meath during last Saturday’s O’Byrne Cup game against Laois. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

John O'Leary calls it 'barber football' - short back and sides as the ball is moved laterally over small distances.

It's all systems and structures, leading inevitably to a much-changed playing environment. It even impacts on goalkeepers, whose art he took to such high levels during his long career with Dublin.

"Kevin Heffernan used to give me two instructions: keep the ball out of the net and keep my kick-outs consistent, which of course meant giving my colleagues the best chance of winning them. It's still advice that holds true today, even if the game has changed a lot," he said.

Brian McAlinden, a leading candidate as goalkeeper on the best 15 never to win an All-Ireland medal, is bored with much of the football he sees nowadays.

He co-managed Armagh with Brian Canavan in 1998-2001 and, more recently, was goalkeeping coach in both the Paul Grimley and Kieran McGeeney regimes so, although no longer involved with the county team, he is well in tune with modern trends.

"Systems are killing the art of goalkeeping as we knew it. You can watch an entire game now where all the goalkeeper does is kick the ball out and collect back passes or shots that drop short.

Dublin’s legendary goalkeeper John O’Leary. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Dublin’s legendary goalkeeper John O’Leary. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

"I was at the Armagh-Down game on Wednesday night and saw hardly any saves. At Armagh's first round McKenna Cup game against Derry in Owenbeg, the biggest cheer of the day was when Derry goalkeeper, Ben McKinless made a great save. You see little enough of that nowadays because goal chances are so few," said McAlinden.

Introduction

Fergal Byron went along to Stradbally last Saturday night to see how Laois were shaping up for the new season and, as a former goalkeeper, took a special interest in Joe Sheridan's first outing as goalkeeper.

Sheridan, whose lengthy Meath career was as a forward before being left off the panel, has been given a new brief by Andy McEntee, presumably because of his ball-kicking skills.

"Good luck to Joe but I'm not so sure he can become a top-class inter-county goalkeeper at this stage. Kicking might be important but there's a lot more to being a goalkeeper than that, even if in these days when there aren't as many clear goal chances," said Byron.

O'Leary, McAlinden and Byron, who between them have 40 years' playing experience behind them, don't like much of what they see.

Tactical formations have changed the goalkeeper's role to such a degree that they are now being judged as much on the accuracy of their kick-outs as on other facets of the great art.

It's happening in other sports too. Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola rates a goalkeeper's ability to distribute the ball accurately so highly that he got rid of England No 1 Joe Hart in favour of Claudio Bravo. Just past the halfway stage of the season, Man City have conceded more goals than any other club in the top seven.

Stats issued this week show that of the last 22 shots faced by all the goalkeepers in the Premier League, Bravo has let most past him, including four against Everton last Sunday, three of which were eminently stoppable.

Despite that, Guardiola appears to be locked in the mindset which regards kicking as more important than blocking for his goalkeeper.

Presumably, it was the same philosophy that prompted Mayo manager Stephen Rochford to replace David Clarke with Robert Hennelly for last year's All-Ireland final replay against Dublin, a choice that stunned most observers, including O'Leary, McAlinden and Byron.

"It was a very strange decision, especially after the way Clarke had been playing," said O'Leary.

"I couldn't believe it. Clarke is the best shot-stopper in the business, very good on all the techniques. In my view, leaving him out cost Mayo the All-Ireland. He came on and faced a penalty straight away. If he had been in from the start, there's a good chance he would have saved it but then it probably wouldn't have been given away in the first place. I was glad to see Clarke get the All-Star - he deserved it," said McAlinden.

"I could see no reason whatsoever for the change. Clarke had done very well up to then. Dropping him may well have lost the All-Ireland for Mayo," said Byron.

All three agree that while the modern-day possession game is changing the role of goalkeepers, the balance should still remain very much on the side of shot-stopping as the top requirement.

"It seems to be in fourth place in some places behind kick-outs, catching high balls and communicating with the numerous defenders that come close to goal. With so many players dropping back into defence, one-on-one between a forward and the goalkeeper is becoming rarer all the time," said Byron.

"I wouldn't fancy that. Goalkeepers like to test themselves on shot-stopping. Even when you win, you don't have the same sense of satisfaction afterwards if you haven't had a save to make.

"I used to stay back with Ross Munnelly after training to practise shot-stopping and for him to practise shooting. It helped both of us greatly. It seems to be all about kick-outs nowadays but it's not as if goalkeepers didn't work on that in the past.

"I could hit the ball a good distance and had big midfielders to aim at (Pauric Clancy and Noel Garvan) but I had to reach them to make it work. One day in Croke Park, I took a kick-out from the 20-metre line, Clancy caught it, took a few steps and kicked the ball over the bar. You don't see that now," he said.

O'Leary agrees that nowadays it's all about systems that cuts down the chances of a forward having a clear shot at goal.

"That's fine for coaches but it has taken away from the game as a spectacle. Stephen Cluxton has taken the whole kick-out thing to a new level and now everyone is trying to follow that. One of the things that drives me mad is the very short kick-out.

"It has played a big part in making the game what is it is today, a mixture of Barcelona (renowned for passing), basketball and rugby league. I would like to see a rule where all kick-outs have to pass the '45," he said.

Byron is amused by the stats produced after games, showing how many kick-outs were won or lost by the goalkeeper's team.

Target

"They don't tell you whether the successful ones were long or short so you don't get the full story. Shep the dog could kick the ball as far as some kick-outs go. You shouldn't miss your target with them but they're still counted as successful."

McAlinden confined most of his goalkeeping coaching to aspects other than kick-outs, including footwork, angles, speed, reactions and agility.

"An inter-county goalkeeper should be able to kick the ball accurately without being coached. If his colleagues are switched on, he has 11 targets (six defenders, two midfielders and three half-forwards dropping back) to aim at so there are plenty options.

"A lot of teams don't contest short kick-outs. That's down to all the systems which everyone is using nowadays. The trouble is that a lot of them are making the game hard to watch - more passes between the two '45s go sideward or back now than forward.

"I'd love to see players be allowed to express themselves more. If they have a football brain, they will work out the right thing but in many cases they are not being allowed," he said.

A high percentage of modern-day goals arise from a situation where the defensive system has been unhinged to a degree where the goalkeeper finds himself two-on-one, leaving the finisher with a tap-in.

"That happened me against Down in the 1994 All-Ireland final with Mickey Linden and James McCartan but it wasn't all that common then. You see it much more often now. It's not great to watch," said O'Leary.

Byron, whose Laois career finished 10 years ago, says he wouldn't get anything like the same level of enjoyment or satisfaction from the modern-day game.

"There are days when goalkeepers come off the pitch at the end feeling they had no involvement other than kicking the ball out, I wouldn't like that," he said.

Irish Independent

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