Brian Kelly wore the Kerry no. 1 jersey at various stages between his senior debut in 2012 and his inter-county retirement at the end of the 2020 campaign. He was between the sticks against Donegal in 2014 in the Kingdom’s last All-Ireland final victory. He remains a dependable custodian for his club Legion.
The 32-year-old has witnessed first hand the dramatic transformation in the role of the goalkeeper in Gaelic football over the last decade and more and, as it continues to serve up new dimensions each season, Kelly pinpoints the enormous impact of Armagh’s Ethan Rafferty this year as being a ‘breath of fresh air’.
Stephen Cluxton probably set the trend for what was to follow with the way he was often the catalyst for Dublin’s defence-splitting attacks with his radar-like accuracy from restarts, and while others like Niall Morgan, Shaun Patton and Rory Beggan have added to the skill-set required of the net-minder, Rafferty has been a whole different kettle of fish entirely.
Buccaneering runs up the middle of the field and into the opposition defence, making the last pass for scores, firing over long range points on the run, you name it, Rafferty has been doing it in 2022. While his year came to a shuddering halt with the dramatic penalty shoot-out defeat to Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final, it will probably take something special to deprive him of an All Star.
“It’s funny, the goalkeeper’s position has changed so much in the last ten years, and I think it comes down to the sports science more than anything,” Kelly told The Kerryman this week.
“Every year, teams are just looking for that extra one per cent, and how we can do things differently to others, and maybe get that extra edge on their opponents.
“I thought it was very interesting watching Rafferty because you can see clearly what Kieran McGeeney is trying to do. He wants to create overlaps coming out, basically get the ball upfield easily, stay out of contact, and I think he’s been a breath of fresh air really.
“It’s totally different to the conventional goalkeeper of ten or fifteen years ago, where they stayed inside in their box and kicked the ball out to the middle of the field. I’m not so sure that every team will adopt it, because I think there’s a balance. I don’t think we will see wholesale outfielders going into goal all over the county and country.
“While it’s obviously advantageous to have a fella who can carry the ball, and who is comfortable on the ball, and going in and out of contact, I still think that it’s important to have a good base as a goalkeeper. I’m not sure every team will do it, because there is a massive risk/reward element to it, but definitely it comes back to the sports science,” Kelly says.
“McGeeney was just looking for that extra edge, looking for that extra one per cent, and it nearly came off. [Rafferty] passed the ball off to Jamar Hall to go up a point close to the end against Galway. I’m looking forward to seeing how it pans out going forward.”
Life was possibly a lot simpler for a goalkeeper when Kelly was in his prime at the coalface. The number one had his range of tasks to accomplish in every game, of course, but it certainly wasn’t one of his primary functions to have assist-making and point-scoring from open play as part of his repertoire.
“I was in and out training with the Kerry seniors around 2010 and 2011, and I started making the panels in 2012. Back then, the core functions of the goalkeeper really were to be a good shot-stopper, good communicator with your backs, strong under the high ball, and I suppose having a good, long kick-out to the middle of the field. That was kind of your remit,” he says.
“Now it’s changed completely. Now you have goalkeepers coming out the field, creating overlaps, there are goalkeepers even contesting opposition kick-outs. You have seen Niall Morgan and Rory Beggan often coming out to midfield doing that, just filling a pocket. There are a lot of goalkeepers taking long range frees.
“Even with my own club now, Ned English is our manager with Legion this year, and he’s a big advocate for it. He likes creating overlaps coming out of the back.
“Now, I don’t think he wants me kicking points from play or anything, but definitely he’s encouraging us to create a one-on-one overlap, suck in a man and maybe release one of your wing-backs. Before you know it, you’re halfway up the field, which is really the core function of it.”
When Kelly casts his mind back to his greatest day in the Kerry jersey, that 2014 final against Donegal at Croke Park, he doesn’t remember ever leaving the confined space of his own square and 21-metre line. Heading off on a 100 metre gallop up the pitch, and plying Paul Geaney or James O’Donoghue with the final pass for a point wasn’t part of the game-plan that afternoon.
“That’s the most interesting thing. The position is nearly changing year on year. The funny thing about my career is that there was a bit of everything going on in the years that I played with Kerry. In 2012, it was kind of kick the ball out high, wide and handsome.
“Then, around 2015, 2016, 2017, the Dubs, and Cluxton, were hitting nearly 100 per cent, 95 per cent of their kick-outs, and there was a massive focus then on retaining primary possession. Nearly every team in the country started working on short kick-outs, kick-out plans and strategies, that kind of thing, and again it even evolved last year again with Tyrone.
“Teams were so used to going short that opposition teams started using these high presses where you’re putting four in the full-forward line, four in the half-forward line, four across the middle for opposition kick-outs, and you saw Kerry last year in the Munster final against Cork. They really pressed the Cork kick-out, pushing 12, 13, 14 players inside the opposition half.
“Tyrone kind of looked at that then and they said rather than going short all the time, we’ll actually go long a bit. We might lose one or two extra ones, but if we win it above in the half-forward line, it’s nearly a goal chance. So, the situation is ever-evolving. That’s the beauty of it.
“You have teams who want to get one hundred per cent possession, and they will work a lot short. Kerry are going short an awful lot, and they seem to get a lot around the D, which is good because if you’re a Kerry supporter, or part of the Kerry management, you know all the lads coming out from the back are very comfortable on the ball.
“Tom O’Sullivan, Jason Foley, Tadhg Morley, they are all great ball players, so in Kerry’s eyes, the more ball we have the better.
“Whereas you see Odhran Lynch there with Derry, they are doing a lot of piking it out the middle if you like, and Galway the same. There wasn’t much science behind Galway’s kick-outs last week against Armagh. It was just getting an overload of bodies to one side of the pitch and put it out there.”
As Brian Kelly says, it might not be the right thing for every team, but you are certainly going to witness a decent amount of Ethan Rafferty ‘imitators’ on the club pitches of Ireland over the next few months. Being highly adventurous is the new goalkeeping trend. Somebody will then come up with something different to counteract that. And on and on it will go. Continuous evolution cannot be subdued.