Wednesday 17 January 2018

Keepers enjoy new freedom

Stephen Cluxton's influence has altered way goalkeepers play

Gary Matthews: 'We work with the 600g ball. A regular match ball is only 450g so you saw improved results very quickly
Gary Matthews: 'We work with the 600g ball. A regular match ball is only 450g so you saw improved results very quickly
Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton

Damian Lawlor

Two weeks ago, the Dublin under 15 development squad were playing a tournament game when midfielder Neil Matthews was summoned to kick a 45-metre free.

The team had only recently started working with a size five ball and so Matthews, son of the Dublin academy goalkeeping coach Gary, was the obvious choice for place-kicking duties. He is big and strong for his age and although his approach and technique were good, the effort fell short.

There's a culture of intensity and excellence in Dublin's underage academy these days, so the next time they were awarded a '45, another player was asked to strike it. This time it was their goalkeeper James Keoghan.

"James strode down the field and stuck it," recalls Gary Matthews. "My young lad was bigger and taller, but James hit that shot with ease. Goalkeepers are now hitting '45s and kick-outs from a young age, over and over again. It's become a reflex action and they see how the position has been refined by Stephen Cluxton and Niall Morgan."

Keepers average 23 kick-outs per game, so that's 23 chances to perfect their technique in each match. "They are now learning from a young age not to force their kicks or they will lose technique. Instead, they put all their energy into steering the ball in the right direction."

From under 14 to under 18, every Dublin goalkeeper is working with a low tee, not the brush tee used at senior level. That means that each 'keeper can approach a '45, place the ball on the merest tuft of grass and just let their technique take over. "It basically ensures that they can come out the field and kick off grass in the most natural manner possible," Matthews says. "So you're going to see a lot more of this in the future."

People from outside the capital are fearful that Dublin, with their vast resources and playing pool, will surge away from the pack in the coming years. But apart from their wealth and golden brand identity, the truth is they are also working harder than most to widen their competitive advantage.

At senior level, for instance, Stephen Cluxton has been working with a weighted 600g ball for the past seven seasons. It means that a normal ball can almost be treated like a balloon relative to the heavier ball he trains with. Matthews served as Cluxton's goalkeeping coach for six years and together they worked to develop every muscle that Cluxton uses in match-day situations. Before long, Matthews noticed how Cluxton's distance and accuracy had improved.

"He was literally kicking balls to the wing with the accuracy of a Peter Schmeichel throw," Matthews says. "Schmeichel worked with a 1kg ball on his throws. You couldn't bring that into the GAA so we work with the 600g ball. A regular match ball is only 450g so you saw improved results very quickly."

Goalkeepers kicking frees is no new practice in the GAA. Offaly's Pádraig Kelly was renowned for that skill in the early part of the noughties, for example. Tipperary's Philly Ryan spent 16 years at senior level in the gold jersey and said that he often fancied a crack at kicking 45s but could never get the ball from his team-mates.

"It just wasn't the done thing," says Ryan, who played for his county across all levels from 1995 to 2004. "But what Cluxton and Niall Morgan have done, apart from the place-kicking, is to raise the profile of the goalkeeper. They are now orchestrators of attack, not just netminders. When I was playing, you would nearly be shot for playing a quick one, or a short one. The tactics

were primitive enough and there were nights at training when I'd literally be left to myself, bored off me rocker. Then at the end of a session the lads would come up and try to take the head off me by drilling shots at me. That was a 'goalkeeping session' back then."

Nowadays it's footwork and handling drills, vertical jumping. Engineering quicker restarts and marshalling the defence. There are many other parts of the job specification.

From the time of Nolan's emergence to the trail set by Cluxton and company, goalkeepers like Brian Scanlon from Limerick and Portlaoise's Mick Nolan have helped raise the bar for those in the No 1 shirt. Scanlon hit a league title-winning free for Limerick against Waterford in Croke Park in 2010, while Nolan, despite conceding three early goals, showed his nerve to nail a '45 at a crucial time in a Leinster championship match against Longford Slashers last November.

The fact that Cluxton was Dublin's second highest scorer after Bernard Brogan last year (he scored 0-15), while Morgan hit 19 points in last year's league, tells you just how much the goalkeeping role has evolved. All of Cluxton's points came from frees and '45s and had Morgan not sustained a season-ending knee injury last June, he could have threatened the Dubliner's position at the top of the charts.

Critics are starting to get over the amount of time it takes 'keepers to hit a free up the pitch, and are instead figuring out ways to stop them raising white flags. Last May, Donegal placed three players with arms raised in front of Morgan. The plan worked – after a sensational league Morgan looked rattled and had an off-day.

Still, opposing sides will have to keep working because Cluxton, Morgan and others are demanding continual improvement and analysis. Matthews himself is already looking for a Grade 1 goalkeeping coaching certificate to be introduced to the GAA manual.

"It's non-stop, the demand for information from goalkeepers, and I think it needs to become part of the coaching formula.

"It's interesting to see how teams are stepping up their approach to this discipline now," Matthews continues. "I notice that questions are constantly being asked about goalkeepers. Like, could he have saved that? The days of a goal going in and everyone saying nothing could have been done about it are over. Now the only question is: is there a better 'keeper around?"

That was the reason Matthews, a former League of Ireland soccer player and qualified Uefa coach, got involved with the Dubs. After watching Owen Mulligan's wonder-goal knock Dublin out of the championship in 2005, Matthews rang Paul Clarke, a selector during Pillar Caffrey's tenure. The wider GAA world was still raving about Mulligan's swashbuckling run and devastating finish, but Matthews felt Cluxton opened his body up which reduced his chance of making a save.

He told Clarke that and ahead of the 2006 season took a session with Cluxton. It took some time to gain his trust, but eventually they forged a good working relationship and Matthews joined the set-up officially in 2006, staying there until Davy Byrne came in under Jim Gavin last year.

Matthews says that Cluxton has subsequently laid the foundation for a new era of goalkeeping.

"In many ways we are doing the same things goalkeepers were always asked to do," he notes. "But we're being asked to do them better. Stephen's kicks are into space and it's up to the outfielders to run into the relevant channels. That lifts the bar for them. If they do that right, the likes of Niall Morgan or Stephen will find you. We're also now encouraging 'keepers to attack the ball in one-on-one positions – 'into the line, down the line' is the phrase we use. It's basically encouraging aggression in making a block, instead of taking a step back and opening up the shoulders."

In the Dublin set-up, kick-outs are no longer referred to as such. Instead, they are called 'possession restarts'. It's a more positive description aiming to take the risk element out of kick-outs.

Philly Ryan argues, though, that 'keepers are becoming more renowned for those restarts than for making actual saves. "Sometimes you can go quite a while without seeing a proper point-blank save," he says. "That's disappointing but it shows how the new ways are perceived. Distribution is as important as making a block. It's hard for me to get my head around that, I suppose, but the game has changed. The lads are attackers now as much as defenders."

In an interview last year, Pascal McConnell recalled how his initial approach to goalkeeping involved carrying a pair of heavy rugby boots with him for the sole aim of hoofing the ball as far as he possibly could. McConnell realised, though, that things had to change when he saw no championship action in 2007.

"That's when I knew I really had to look at the whole thing again, especially in terms of where I was with my game," he says. "That rugby boot I had worn for years was just designed for gung-ho kick-outs the whole time. If I had tried to pick out a man who was just 30 yards away, I might just as easily have taken out the umpire behind me! So everything had to be looked at, right down to my kicking technique. I was looking at taking fewer steps and focusing on getting the ball to the man I wanted.

"Now everything has gone to a new level and that's been led by Stephen Cluxton. The man's a master craftsman. There's so much emphasis now on analysis and recovery, strength and conditioning and dissecting opposition teams – as well as your own game plan. Possession is absolutely vital from the kick-out so the opposition are under pressure right away."

Ryan agrees. "There's been a massive change. Now the goalkeeping position isn't just about standing in there and stopping goals. You're the vital cog now. You're the playmaker, the spare man and the sweeper. And if you don't make a block you still get f**ed out of it."

Matthews would like to see more flexibility work in the discipline, but says the prehab process helps keep goalkeepers relatively injury-free. With the future Dubs, he continues to preach the same principles – working on high balls, keeping possession from kickouts, catching when surrounded by a lot of bodies and trying to dispel the traditional ways of lobbing a rocket down on top of four towers at centrefield.

He uses the 2013 league final as a template when Cluxton emerged from his goal-line to take control of the ball on eight occasions and dispatched a perfect pass each time.

"We're operating on the same basic principles," he concludes. Maybe so, but there's a whole new line of attack.

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