Stackpoole reminds us that sport can be cruel

It was a difficult afternoon for Martin Stackpoole in the most difficult of all positions - between the sticks

Kerry’s Tomás O’Connor in action against Westmeath’s Shane Clavin. Photo by Domnick Walsh / Eye Focus
Kerry’s Tomás O’Connor in action against Westmeath’s Shane Clavin. Photo by Domnick Walsh / Eye Focus

Damian Stack

It's got to be the loneliest place in the world. Stuck there with the sinking realisation that it's all going a bit Pete Tong.

Heart sinking as you see it playing out before you. The crowd groaning or cheering depending on their point of view (the groans more deafening and stinging than any cheers, no matter the decibel level).

The ball whizzing over your head, close enough to tease you, not close enough for you to do anything about it. Turning around just in time to see the ball nestle in the back of the net. Your net. A goalkeeper's nightmare.

For Martin Stackpoole it capped a day to forget. Coming as it did after a first half mistake - for Shane Clavin's goal - it was just absolutely heartbreaking. If you didn't feel for the guy in that moment then your heart is truly made of stone.

Almost as soon as he'd done it, he realised his mistake. Taking the puck-out short to Fionán MacKessy. Seeing that MacKessy was under severe pressure from Robbie Greville and Niall Mitchell.

Taking the decision to go out and try to bail out his man. Realising almost straight away that he'd made the wrong call. That he was stuck in no-man's land after Greville gained possession of the sliotar from the young St Brendans man.

Stackpoole probably realised too in that very moment that with his mistake - or mistakes, with one building on the next - the Kingdom's chance of taking the two points their performance deserved went out the window.

Really and truly, you have to ask, who'd be a goalie?

The pressure they're under is monumental. The responsibility makes it so. Think about it: when a keeper makes a mistake there's nowhere to hide, there's nobody to bail him out, you're on your own back there.

It's not like that for every other outfield player. Take for example when, with the game still there to be won, Michael O'Leary - helping out in defence - passed a ball straight to a Westmeath man. What did O'Leary have that Stackpoole didn't? Back-up.

The O'Dorney man put his head in his hands briefly, but pretty much as soon as he'd done so the Kingdom had regained possession (through, we think, Jason Diggins who was Kerry's top performer on the day).

That's the difference between playing in goal and playing outfield. In goal you're playing without a wire, without a safety net, it's on you and you alone. There's a reason goalkeepers are a breed apart. It's because they have to be.

"These things happen," Kerry boss Fintan O'Connor conceded ruefully in the pavilion after the match.

"Nobody goes out to make a mistake and sometimes when you're in goal and you make a mistake it's highlighted more than everyone else and Martin has been unreal for us.

"He's made some very good saves. For the last one [goal] he's trying to do the right thing, sometimes when you're trying to do the right thing it's the wrong thing. You only know it afterwards."

When he's looking back at his game this week Stackpoole isn't going to remember all the good things he did in the match. He's not going to be thinking about the fact that the Kingdom retained 77% of his puck-outs (20 out of 26). He's not going to remember the moves and the scores he set in train with his quick puck-outs.

No his mind will go back straight away to that mistake - made in eagerness to get the ball out as quickly as possible to put pressure on Westmeath - and the one for Clavin's goal just before half-time. Sport is cruel and it's crueller on goalkeepers more than to most others and Sunday was cruelty itself.

This was a game Kerry really, really, really should have won. The Kingdom created more chances than Westmeath did - thirty two to their rivals' twenty nine - they converted more of them too, if only marginally so - a 59% return for O'Connor's men compared to Westmeath's 58%.

More significant was the amount of primary possession the Kingdom had at their disposal - in the first half especially. Overall the Kingdom won the lion's share of primary ball, at about 55% (30 out of 54).

In the first half that advantage was even more pronounced. Out of eighteen Westmeath puck-outs, the Kingdom won eight against the head, while only losing out on three of their own.

Considering that and considering that Mikey Boyle had Westmeath full-back Tommy Doyle in all sorts of trouble, Kerry should have been much further ahead at half-time, regardless of Stackpoole's mistake for Clavin's goal.

That's the thing we have to bear in mind. Yes Stackpoole's mistakes were the difference between the sides at the end of the day, but it's not as if the rest of the team was flawless or blameless.

Kerry should have been far more efficient with the chances they created. We lost count of the number of times an exasperated Mikey Boyle turned around to berate a player further out the field for shooting a somewhat speculative wide when he was there willing and waiting for the pass.

If you decide to play Mikey Boyle at full-forward - a week after he was man of the match at centre-back - then you better be sure you make full use of him. Kerry didn't, well not enough at any rate.

Out of the handful of balls sent his direction the Ballyduff man won a penalty (in the first half) and scored the second half goal, which looked to have put Kerry in the driving position before Westmeath rallied with two goals from Derek McNicholas and Cormac Boyle.

Those goals can't be pinned on the keeper. Those goals were the result of good Westmeath play yes, but also a little bit of laxness in the Kerry defence that he'd been there up until that most crucial point of the match.

These are the things we have to bear in mind before we judge Stackpoole too harshly, which is not to absolve him of blame. He did make those two fatal mistakes. Without them Kerry probably would have had enough to get over the line, but again we come back to that essential truth: a goalkeeper's mistakes are going to be that much more analysed. That much more obvious. That much more consequential.

It's important to remember too that Kerry's fate is still very much in their own hands. Should they win their final three games they probably will be in a league final - it's not totally certain, it could still go down to score difference - meaning Kerry are in a position they would gladly have taken a fortnight ago.

It's important on days like these to have perspective.