Dick Clerkin: 'Kick-outs keeping top teams in hunt for glory'
If Helen of Troy had a face that launched a thousand ships, Stephen Cluxton has a left boot that launched a thousand scores. We all know at this stage how, more than any other player or single tactic, Stephen Cluxton's kick-out strategy has changed the face of Gaelic football beyond recognition.
In less than a decade the kick-out has been completely redefined from long, middle-third deliveries to 'An Fear Láidir', to the current concept of retaining every one of your restarts regardless of the territory gained.
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Putting it simply, the keeper doesn't send a ball out to an area of the field unless he is certain of winning possession. No more 50/50 contests for the high fielders or breaking ballers to contest.
Step one sees the goalkeeper scan for moving targets out the field as the premium option. Failing that, he then refocuses the lens back towards the 21 until the first safe pair of hands is sought out. Maintain possession, irrespective of the distance out from goal.
Keeper calls, coloured cones and hand signals are a thing of the past; space created by orchestrated movement dictates the final destination.
Five key elements have to happen within seconds for the perfect kick-out to come off.
Firstly the keeper has to get the ball on the tee within seconds of it going dead, and at the same time the outfield players are making space to create options.
The keeper then must be able to see the best option available, and make an instinctive decision to then execute the right kick-out in terms of distance and trajectory.
Lastly the player must obviously win the ball. The best teams make it look easy, yet it takes years of practice and repetition to perfect.
Next time you watch a top-level game, watch for the different movements of outfield players in an effort to create space for their keeper to target. See how on occasion defenders will hug the touchline to widen the pitch and create pockets of space inside. Alternatively they will bunch in the middle and then break out to the space in the wings.
Donegal's trademark over-the-top kick-out is one of my favourite tactics, and one Monaghan copied on occasion. Half-forwards drop deep, and a long kick-out goes over the top to a targetman, generally Michael Murphy, who then taps the ball down to on-runners at pace who have space into which they attack.
It is very much new-world v old, as a high, long centre is combined with orchestrated movement, pace and accuracy.
Remember Donegal's third goal in their 2014 shock defeat of Dublin. Straight off the practice ground and you can just imagine Jim McGuinness's satisfaction in watching it unfold, as Dublin's hearts sank around him.
In recent seasons, teams have begun to counter kick-outs by pushing a high press on the opposition restarts to close down the space and restrict first-phase options.
The goal here is to leave the keeper with no choice but to lamp the ball out into a 50/50 scenario. Or better again, force them into a high-risk short kick around the 21 - and we have plenty of examples this season of the calamities this can create.
Executed well and often, long early restarts provide a hugely effective launch pad for attacks, that repay the training ground work and effort in spades.
Think Stephen Cluxton to Jack McCaffrey 17 minutes into last year's All-Ireland final, and how it shifted the momentum in Dublin's favour after a flying start by Tyrone.
Executed poorly and defenders find themselves under pressure to transition the ball through the crowd, often leading to turnovers, or worse interceptions - like Kieran Donaghy's interception of Paul Durcan in the 2014 decider.
It boils down to risk v reward in the keeper's mind, with a Russian Roulette of sorts being played out between the white lines.
Of the remaining contenders, Stephen Cluxton, Shaun Patton and Niall Morgan are playing with close to empty barrels, such has been their incredible proficiency from restarts to date.
In Shane Ryan, Kerry also have finally found a keeper in line with modern standards. It is no coincidence that the lesser four teams in this year's Super 8s have all demonstrated a frailty in this sector when compared to the front runners.
Mayo's David Clarke continues to rely on his unrivalled shot-stopping ability to compensate for his limitations from the tee.
Mayo's first-half meltdown in Killarney stemmed largely from Clarke's inability to routinely find his target amidst a suffocating Kerry press.
Donegal's Patton was much more comfortable last weekend when facing the same vista, albeit David Moran's towering absence makes it an unfair comparison.
In Castlebar this weekend the performances of the respective No 1s could have a greater bearing on the result than any other two players on the field.
Keep a close eye on the restarts throughout. You will need to be quick, however.