Budding free men seek keys to success
DEATH or glory: for the GAA free-taker on the Championship stage, there is no hiding place.
The men who are entrusted with the kicking duties can become heroes or villains at the whim of fate or a puff of wind that pushes a ball inside or outside the posts.
It's not a job for the faint-hearted, and the annals of the GAA are speckled with the names of the great dead-ball kickers.
Mikey Sheehy of Kerry and Matt Connor of Offaly were masters of their craft.
Dublin have been blessed with some big names in that department, including Jimmy Keaveney, Barney Rock, and Charlie Redmond.
Of a more recent vintage are the placed-ball specialists such as Colm 'Gooch' Cooper and Bryan Sheehan of Kerry, Cork's Colin Corkery and James Masters, Armagh's Oisin McConville, Peter Canavan of Tyrone and Wexford's Mattie Forde.
These are men who learned how to handle the responsibilities of scoring from frees on the big occasion, but remember: they had to start young, and they had to learn their trade far from centre-stage.
In that context, and with the season effectively just a week old, it was interesting for GAA fans at Parnell Park last Sunday to see two fledgling members of the 'Free-Takers Union' in action for Dublin and Wexford in the O'Byrne Cup.
Dublin started by giving 19-year-old Dean Rock a chance to take the placed balls, while Wexford had 22-year-old Ben Brosnan on duty for their free-kicks.
The importance of the place-kicker was underlined by the frequency of stoppages and consequent kicks from placed balls.
Dublin and Wexford both showed signs of rustiness and indulged in some lack of discipline, with each having a player sent off.
Despite the reds and a couple of other yellow cards, the game wasn't that dirty, but the free count of 48 underlined the dependence on the free-takers.
Not all the frees were in range of the goals, and Rock and Brosnan didn't take every one of them, but both players gained useful senior level experience in the spotlight.
So how did they do?
Rock, son of Barney, still has two years at U-21 level. He is only taking early steps at senior football, so he should not be burdened with unrealistic expectations.
Dublin fans who remember Barney in his prime may forget that he took time to develop into a potent force.
Dean got 35 minutes, and scored two points, one from play and one from a free. The wind swirling down from the Donnycarney end in the first half was a factor in some of his free-kicks falling short.
Usually, he tends to take frees more from the hand than on the ground, but he took most of his half dozen or so shots of varying yardage from the deck in this match.
Rock can only benefit from being involved in Pat Gilroy's preliminary squad as the Dubs seek to establish a panel for the league campaign.
Brosnan, older and more experienced than Rock, had an interesting day.
The blond-haired, lively corner-forward played with pace and passion and finished as the Slaneysiders' leading scorer, notching six points of their 0-8, and scoring four from frees.
He kicked another four wide, but was unlucky not to have scored at least two more points from play.
Those efforts were particularly impressive as he was taking heavy tackles from Dublin defenders almost simultaneously with his kicking attempt.
In each case, the ball was struck hard and firm, with his focus only on getting his shot away despite the hit from the opponents, and he missed the target by a narrow margin.
As the second half wore on, Brosnan began to get jeered by the Dublin fans -- something that he should probably take as a back-handed compliment.
If they're jeering you, they're afraid of you, and what better way to respond than by getting the ball between the posts. When that was put to Brosnan, he replied: "I don't know if they were afraid of me.
"I was just delighted to get the game. I felt myself that I kicked a few good scores and missed a few frees but hopefully that will come right as we keep playing matches."
Brosnan, who plays with the Bannow-Ballymitty club in Wexford, is no stranger to the panel despite his tender years.
A dual player, he played soccer with League of Ireland side Wexford Youths in 2007, and then came on to the Wexford panel for 2008.
He did well in the O'Byrne Cup and League but a suspension from an U-21 game and injuries kept him sidelined as Wexford went on to reach the All-Ireland semi-finals.
Last year he was in the Wexford squad early in the season, but later travelled to the USA where he played club football in Boston for the main part of the GAA season.
"I always wanted to go to America and I got it out of my system. Now I'm only focused on this year and playing football for Wexford. I just want to get fit and see how it works out from there," said Brosnan.
Wexford boss Jason Ryan wants to see young players such as Brosnan push hard for a place this year to freshen up the competition in the squad and to add much-needed depth to the panel.
"Ben is a talented young player. He was one of our best players in 2008, but suffered from different injuries. So even though his start was bright, he didn't get to play in the championship that year.
"But he's talented, has a great attitude and is working hard. I'm hoping he will progress as we move forward," said Ryan.
The manager was not unduly concerned about the few chances that Brosnan missed, saying: "He simply has done very little kicking practice because we couldn't get time on the pitch because of the weather.
"There is plenty of time and opportunity to practise kicking from now on."
Ryan had no difficulty making his New Year wish for the Wexford team.
"People would be asking what's the priority for this year, and for me it's simple -- to keep our players injury-free as much as possible.
"I hate to tempt fate talking about it, but injuries cost us dearly last year. There's a certain group of counties that have plenty of depth in their panel, but we don't. If we lose a chunk of players we're in trouble," he said.