Tuesday 20 March 2018

Billy Sheehan: Giants of the game still tower above all others when it comes to delivering final blow

The full-forward’s role is always evolving but remains vital, says Billy Sheehan

Donegal’s and Tyrone’s two marquee players, Michael Murphy and Sean Cavanagh, collide during Donegal’s big league win in March
Donegal’s and Tyrone’s two marquee players, Michael Murphy and Sean Cavanagh, collide during Donegal’s big league win in March

Billy Sheehan

The full-forward has always been pivotal to a team’s attacking strategy. Even if the role has evolved greatly through the decades, it’s still fundamental to every manager’s game plan.

In the modern era the position is regarded more as a target area with at times two or indeed just one player in the inside line. This underlines the defensive road the game is travelling.

In the past, size was always seen as vital when selecting a full-forward but that is no longer the case. Teams are now endeavouring to make best use of the pace and movement of one of their marquee forwards. Colm O’Neill, Conor Laverty and Eoin Bradley are the perfect examples.

Systems of play are now key up front, with the most common being a 2-2-2 formation. This requires two players staying inside, two outlets or links in the half-forward line and the wing-forwards dropping into midfield. Under Pat Gilroy, Dublin perfected this structure. It won them an All-Ireland title.

Another system sees teams use their inside line in a spine or a 1-1-1 formation up the centre, creating space on both wings. An agile, ball-winning inside man is vital for this to work, and Kildare’s Alan Smith was exemplary at this in the 2015 championship.

There is a tendency to rotate positions, with a specific player operating between midfield and full-forward. Sean Cavanagh was used in this role against Monaghan. He won possession in their first attack which yielded a pointed free and won three of the four balls which were directed to him when he took up a position inside.

Monaghan's Kieran Hughes celebrates after scoring a point
Monaghan's Kieran Hughes celebrates after scoring a point

Monaghan also used a rotation tactic, with Conor McManus and Kieran and Darren Hughes all featuring separately as an inside target. It proved difficult to operate and on occasion no particular player filled the spot. Tyrone’s defensive structure denied them space whenever Monaghan had one of these players in position.

The one-man forward line played by Donegal against Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final in 2011 was set up to stop the Dubs defensively and play a high-intensity support-running game from the back. Colm McFadden at all times had up to three defenders in his vicinity and Donegal only won 30 per cent of ball kicked directly in.

Locating a tall midfielder on the edge of the square is often used in times of desperation. In this year’s Munster final replay Cork rained four high balls in on top of Alan O’Connor late on, and from a standing jump he failed to win any.

All players are now encouraged to defend from the full-forward line and as a result the shape of the forward unit may become fragmented. Communication is key to make sure there is an option inside and a link in the half-forward line if possession is recovered.

Teams also try to isolate a ball-winning corner-forward in front of the goals by leaving him one on one with a corner-back, like with Paul Geaney’s pivotal goal in last year’s All-Ireland final.

Deploying a sweeper like Ryan McCloskey, Mark Collins or Kieran Duffy has become a common theme in protecting the last line of defence. But the opposition are now repeatedly engaging this particular type of player to take the sweeper out of his comfort zone by positioning one of their inside players out around him or with runners from deep.

Kildare initially played a sweeper in Kevin Murnaghan against Kerry this year. However, once they went man to man they were wide open, with Kerry’s superb range of kicking and hard running from all angles and distances opening up goalscoring opportunities.

The one player who causes endless debate concerning his roving and rotating role is Michael Murphy. Such is his versatility and leadership qualities, he is given a variety of responsibilities far removed from the opposition goal. So he is not being used as a full-forward in the traditional sense. He possesses a ball-winning capacity second to none and can make the most of any type of delivery.

In the 2012 All-Ireland final, Donegal initially sacrificed their running game and went long with four of their first five attacks. Mayo — who have since adjusted — didn’t employ a sweeper and Murphy brilliantly capitalised. But a reluctance to utilise him in what is surely his best position has limited Donegal’s chances of repeating that All-Ireland success. It wasn’t until very late on in last year’s All-Ireland final that he featured close to goal. In fact, in his 43 Championship games, his average scoring return from open play is marginally in excess of one point.

In Michael Murphy, Donegal have the best footballer in the game. He bleeds leadership and he delivered a masterclass last Sunday
In Michael Murphy, Donegal have the best footballer in the game. He bleeds leadership and he delivered a masterclass last Sunday

Dublin for their part have readjusted in the absence of the injured Eoghan O’Gara. Without him they have invented a ‘false’ full-forward. Kevin McManamon is now the outlet who comes out 30 yards from goals, dragging his marker with him, leaving the space for Dean Rock and Bernard Brogan. They position themselves on the 13 metre line on either side of the large rectangle and constantly make runs across this line once a signal is given. This creates space for the ball to be delivered into.

Brogan has thrived receiving the ball on the move and has scored 5-16 from play in the championship so far.

The 1995 All-Ireland final saw two players of a similar type operating on the fringe of the small square at opposite ends of the pitch — Jason Sherlock and Peter Canavan. There was no sign of a sweeper and both players capitalised on low deliveries and repeatedly took on their markers in one-on-one situations. It was a joy to watch.

Both men were ball winners with a wide range of visionary skills. Canavan was certainly one of the greatest exponents of the position. Fast-forward ten years and Mickey Harte’s side produced a similar type of footballing genius in Stephen O’Neill. He was undoubtedly the shining light in Tyrone’s march to All-Ireland glory.

His industry, movement and ability to kick to telling effect off either foot made it almost an impossible task for a defender to mark him. Generally a forward will make two or three runs to afford the outfield players an option. But the runs of O’Neill often extended to six and seven, giving Tyrone varying options in their offensive plays.

Tyrone are playing in a similar vein again with Darren McCurry the go-to player inside alongside Connor McAliskey. At times they are the only two forwards operating in the opposition half. Once the ball reaches the 45, McCurry becomes active, with McAliskey drifting deep and coming back into the play on the loop.

The key to utilising both is the movement of the ball at pace with a kick-pass into the space in either corner. Once in possession, McCurry has the ability to finish with clinical efficiency.

Kerry’s use of a towering physical presence close to goal has been one of their most valuable assets. During their golden era, Mick O’Dwyer recognised the need to find a player who would become the focal point in their attack. After they failed to win the All-Ireland in 1976 and 1977, Eoin Liston stepped up and was Kerry’s hat-trick hero in their emphatic win over Dublin in the 1978 final.

During the first half, due to the inclement weather conditions and Kerry’s poor start, he was deployed far from the full-forward line, tackling, tracking, and competing for kick-outs. He played a lot like Michael Murphy does today. In the second half he moved back in and 12 square balls were directed to him. He won eight, scored 2-1 as a direct result and finished with a tally of 3-1.

In the 2004 All-Ireland final Kerry took Mayo by surprise with a route one approach, with Johnny Crowley the target — 1-4 was scored from aerial deliveries from distance. But really it wasn’t until Kieran Donaghy arrived in 2006 that we saw the return of a Bomber-type figure. His impact was sensational and he steered the Kingdom through the back door to All-Ireland success.

However, defeat to Tyrone in the 2008 All-Ireland final — when he formed a twin striking partnership alongside Tommy Walsh — forced a rethink in Kerry.

Dubbed the twin towers, Tyrone detailed the McMahon brothers with the task of curbing Kerry’s aerial threat. Kerry directed the ball in long; they varied the delivery from high to low, and of the 26 balls kicked in, Tyrone won 14. Conor Gormley hoovered up any breaks with assistance from players retreating to help. The outcome of these duels was one of the main elements in Tyrone’s success.

Kicking quickly and efficiently has increasingly become the key requirement when it comes to unlocking compact defensive units.

And nobody does this better than Kerry. Down through the years we’ve seen Sean O’Sullivan, Paul Galvin, Tomás Ó Sé and Donnchadh Walsh as masters of the floated cross-field ball. It’s played to a forward’s advantage. The position they release the ball from is also vital. They work the ball up the wings where the space is available and they deliver it from distance.

In last year’s All-Ireland semi-final replay, Kerry directed 34 kick-passes to their inside line. They always had an outlet around the 45 — mainly James O’Donoghue — with Kerry winning 59 per cent of those deliveries.

Aidan O’Shea has deservedly received plaudits for his mastery of the full-forward position this season. Against Donegal he won seven of the deliveries directed to him.Cillian O’Connor’s movement away from the inside line and Kevin McLoughlin’s diagonal runs created a lot of space and whether it was crossfield or straight on top of him, O’Shea capitalised fully. His goal in a two-on-one situation epitomised his strength and skill.

But it’s Donaghy who has commanded this position for the last decade. From Armagh in 2006 to Mayo in 2014 his unique style is difficult to counteract. His strength allows him to hold off his marker and angle his body to his best advantage. He is a real threat when diagonal deliveries are floated in his direction at the edge of the small square. With Kerry facing defeat in last year’s semi-final against Mayo, he came from the bench and in the dying moments he won two airborne deliveries resulting in 1-1.

Questions surround the role he will play for Kerry today but it’s worth remembering that he has played in five All-Ireland finals, scoring four goals in these games. His career goal tally in the championship is 13. Let’s not forget either his equalising point from the sideline in the 69th minute of the 2011 final.

When planning for success, kick-outs remain a starting point, a solid defensive structure is a must, midfield is the platform, wing-backs and wing-forwards provide energy and industry, but the players who pull the trigger are the full-forwards.

They are the game winners. Every team’s crown jewels.

Sunday Indo Sport

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport