Colm Keys: 'Niall Morgan's spectacular points from play illustrate continued evolution of the goalkeeper position'
If there was ever any doubt about the value of Stephen Cluxton to the Dublin football team it has manifested again over the opening period of the league.
For only the second time in Jim Gavin's seven league campaigns, they have lost two of their first three games, mirroring their 2015 start when they lost on the road to Cork and Kerry either side of a Croke Park win over Donegal. The common denominator? Cluxton missed all three opening games in both years.
Last Saturday night's loss in Tralee was only a ninth in the league since Gavin took over in late 2012, following on from Tyrone (2013), Cork and Derry (2014), Kerry (2015), Kerry again (2017 final), Monaghan (2018) and Monaghan and now Kerry this year.
In Gavin's reign Cluxton has sat out 14 of their 55 league fixtures. From those 14 games, Dublin have lost six, a 43 per cent loss percentage when he is not on the field. When he's there that loss percentage falls to just over seven per cent, three from 41 games.
His influence scarcely needs repeating but those win/loss percentages from seven years in the same competition capture it perfectly.
His influence on the broader game needs no further ventilation either and if there is a legacy beyond the medals and the records that he has clocked up at every turn in recent years, it is how the No 1 position has become such a source of improvisation that we continue to see with each passing season.
He wasn't the first goalkeeper to take short- to medium-range kick-outs but he is the one who refined it into an art. He wasn't the first goalkeeper to come outfield to convert a free but he is the one who made it more acceptable.
He has made it acceptable too to come off his line and play a limited sweeping role but apart from an odd carry outfield, he has limited his work in that regard to within his own 20-metre line.
Others have and continue to take that element of a goalkeeper's repertoire to the next frontier, however. It has undoubtedly been the position with most scope for development. To think that 50 years ago many didn't even take their own kick-outs. When Monaghan minor 'keeper Ryan Farrelly surged forward to score a point in an Ulster minor league match against Derry last April, it looked like another new departure for the position.
Farrelly would make those forays all summer, adding fresh legs and another option on the ball to draw an opponent and force an overlap.
It was no surprise then to learn that Beggan was goalkeeping coach to his county minor team and encouraged such movement as he has been a strong proponent in pushing out goalkeeping parameters himself with his accurate passing such a platform for Monaghan further outfield beyond a goalkeeper's more conventional habitat.
His wayward kick at the end of Monaghan's All-Ireland semi-final against Tyrone may have lacked composure and underlined the risks attached to such strategy, a risk that Maghnus Breathnach can attest to after he gave away possession far from his own goals in his club, An Spidéal's recent All-Ireland club semi-final loss to Naomh éanna, resulting in a spectacular goal from 45 metres for Joe Maskey who lobbed to an empty net vacated by the ambitious Galway goalkeeper.
But their interventions into passages of play looks set to become a more permanent feature, especially those athletic enough to make the runs and those skilful enough to apply a subtle pass or finish. Graham Brody from Laois routinely switched to attack last summer.
Niall Morgan's heroics over the last two weekends, in landing points from play from 40 and 55 metres for Tyrone against Mayo and Roscommon respectively, feels like the latest push to a new frontier, highlighted all the more by the paucity of his attacking colleagues in similar situations.
In the ongoing debate over football playing rules prohibiting the back pass to the goalkeeper has featured extensively as a possible future measure to guard against conservative play.
More and more it has become an option to alleviate pressure, crystallised extensively during Monaghan's opening round win over Dublin when, between them, Rory Beggan and Evan Comerford were in receipt of the ball from colleagues up to 20 times.
Review the closing stages of the 2015 and 2017 All-Ireland finals especially and see what a safe house Cluxton was as Dublin ran down the clock against Kerry and Mayo.
Cutting off that outlet would encourage opponents to press higher in an effort to force turnovers but at what cost? The potential for many more moments like what Morgan has produced over the last two Sundays if he couldn't receive from a colleague.
The previous rules committee, headed by Jarlath Burns, examined the possibility of banning the back pass to the goalkeeper but relented on the basis of how much it would reduce the role and potentially make it less attractive.
Morgan's flexibility and contribution to his county's last two games provides further evidence of the evolution of the goalkeeping role, something that shouldn't be tampered with or restricted.
How long before there is little distinction between a 'keeper and an outfield player, except for the colour of a jersey?