Sunday 25 February 2018

Colm Keys: Recovery path well flagged for Robbie Hennelly

Some of the best goalkeepers of recent times have been able to put All-Ireland mistakes behind them and return stronger

Mayo goalkeeper Rob Hennelly must bounce back from this incident last Saturday in which he fumbled the ball, leading to his black card and Dublin’s penalty. Picture: Sportsfile
Mayo goalkeeper Rob Hennelly must bounce back from this incident last Saturday in which he fumbled the ball, leading to his black card and Dublin’s penalty. Picture: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Two days after Meath defeated Wexford in the 1994 Leinster semi-final, Sean Boylan hopped into Donal Smyth's car at training and delivered bad news. He was dropped, not just from the team but from the squad.

Smyth, an experienced keeper who had been in reserve for two previous All-Ireland title wins, had been Meath custodian throughout a season that had already delivered a league title in April but, by his own admission, he'd had a few shaky moments in that Wexford game as the effects of an injury sustained at work may have troubled him.

He never expected, though, that those moments would be enough for management to lose confidence in him.

For the Leinster final, three weeks later, Boylan and his selectors were returning to Mickey McQuillan, the team's back-to-back All-Ireland winning goalkeeper in 1987 and '88, who had stepped away after the '93 season.

Despite McQuillan's wealth of experience, it was a big call and one that, ultimately, backfired as Meath lost to Dublin, with McQuillan letting a Charlie Redmond free slip through his hands midway through the second half for a goal to put the reigning champions five points clear.


Meath closed the gap but lost by a point, and the goal was framed like the afternoon's pivotal moment.

There aren't exact parallels but there are similarities to last Saturday's All-Ireland final replay and the displacement of Mayo goalkeeper David Clarke for Rob Hennelly.

Even the best and most experienced managers take risks when they tamper with the goalkeeping position. In both cases the reasons for change were not glaringly obvious to the wider public: no major error had been committed; the deficiencies were apparent only to more forensic management minds.

When the Mayo management looked back on the drawn game, they are understood to have identified between five and seven Dublin scores that could have been attributed to Clarke.

But the reward for change in this instance never looked properly balanced with the risk of ditching a goalkeeper who had made two saves from close range and had commanded his area well the first day. These were All-Ireland finals and they are viewed through a completely difference lens that statistical analysis can't completely account for.

Hennelly had been omitted after the Galway game three and a half months earlier and had played just twice for his club in the meantime.

As the only change between the All-Ireland finals, the Mayo management were effectively putting most of their chips on the goalkeeping position, that it could make the biggest difference. That's a lot to absorb just a few days out from an All-Ireland final, especially when you know everyone's thinking that, on the surface, there didn't seem a lot wrong in the first place.

Clarke had been the beneficiary of a goalkeeping change for a replay himself when he took over from Ballina Stephenites colleague John Healy after the drawn All-Ireland quarter-final with Laois in 2006.

Healy had played throughout the Connacht Championship which they won and had kept a clean sheet in a 0-15 each draw with Laois the first day. But for the replay Clarke was preferred and played his part with a shut-out too on the way to a three-point win.

Hennelly's message of regret and conviction that he must come back from it which he posted on Monday will have been a big step to putting the game behind him. Today he plays a club game that will erect a further buffer.

That management, who it has to be said got so many big calls right during the year, have been in the eye of the storm more than the player provides a further shield.

But he need look no further than the long history of goalkeepers who endured misfortune on the biggest days but came out of it strong.

Cork's Alan Quirke faced a similar recovery mission after the 2007 All-Ireland final when he shipped some blame for two of the three goals that Kerry scored, but he played in two more All-Ireland finals without conceding a goal. It never looked like it took anything out of him.

Even Paddy Cullen, who was never short of confidence during a long career as Dublin's No 1, felt heat after the 1978 All-Ireland final when Mike Sheehy chipped him from a free as he raced back in to his goals - to this day, he still doesn't know what the free was awarded for.

"Even now, everywhere I go I'm reminded of it," said Cullen. "I can't say it shook my confidence because I didn't do anything wrong. It was never a free in the first place."

Paul Durcan is a gold-plated example of a swift and brilliant recovery from an All-Ireland final error by a goalkeeper.


Durcan stubbed the ground as he attempted to drift a kick-out to the right in that familiar style of his, presenting Kieran Donaghy with an opportunity in the 2014 decider that the Kerry forward gratefully took.

For Durcan it was a routine kick that he had executed hundreds of times before which just went disastrously wrong. But when you're in the goalkeeping game you know that these are occupational hazards.

It was, he would later recall, "a tough few months."

"You try to put things in perspective. It's hard the way it went for myself - the mistake I made on the biggest stage possible in my sport. I have to live with it and move on - try to enjoy playing football for whatever I've left in my career," he said.

He did just that. By the following summer a string of fine saves put him within touching distance of a second All-Star in what was arguably an even better season than 2012, while earlier this year he won an All-Ireland club title with Ballyboden St Enda's with no one in any doubt that it just wouldn't have been achieved without him.

The path to recovery for Hennelly is well trodden.

Irish Independent

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