Monday 16 September 2019

Peter Canavan: 'Game has evolved but role of marquee forward still pivotal in chase for silverware'


Mayo's Cillian O'Connor. Photo: Sportsfile
Mayo's Cillian O'Connor. Photo: Sportsfile

Peter Canavan

As with anything in sport, the cream always rises to the top and great forwards are no different.

Football has changed drastically but the top teams still have prolific players lighting it up in attack. No matter who you are, if teams want to win big games and collect silverware, you cannot function without the marquee forward.

Kerry would not have been the same force without Mikey Sheehy, Dublin likewise without Jimmy Keaveney while Jim Gavin's Dubs wouldn't be the same minus Dean Rock or Mayo without all-time championship top scorer Cillian O'Connor.

Blanket defences and sweepers have forced attackers to think outside the box to stay relevant in games, and their role is scarcely recognisable from when I played. Their remit is much more than just kicking scores.

There was a time when a corner-back was the stopper, his job was to spoil a forward and get rid of the ball as soon as he got it. But now, the best corner-backs like Philly McMahon and Keith Higgins are scoring threats.

Oppositions will be aware of letting those players roam forward because they will do serious damage. Deficiencies, when it comes to work-rate and tackling, means that many forwards are not getting selected these days.

Dublin's Dean Rock. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Dublin's Dean Rock. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

You have to be able to work and tackle like a corner-back. How many games have you seen Cillian throwing his weight about and stopping the opposition? If he gets a chance to nail a defender, he doesn't miss the opportunity.

One of the best Dublin tacklers is their star forward Paul Mannion. There are numerous examples of him being the last defender or chasing someone back in his own half and making the perfect tackle.

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In my time it was called a 'forward's tackle' - it was lazy and usually a free - but that has been totally transformed. Creating space was always the trait of a good forward but forwards are now working in confined spaces and the idea of teamwork and runs off the ball have never been more important for an inside forward. With the way some teams are set up, you need other players making runs and taking defenders out of the game.

If you have one marquee forward in there and no-one else is making runs, then he can be easily closed down. Other players need to draw defenders away to create space and get them on the ball. The better forwards now are better thinkers and better movers off the ball.

Another facet of the top forwards now - the likes of Cathal McShane, Jamie Brennan and Con O'Callaghan - is that they get their shot away incredibly quickly. Defenders will either try to block them or they won't even think that they are shaping to shoot.

Brennan kicks the ball early, he hits it high up. The ball doesn't come to his foot, his foot comes to the ball and it gives less chance for a defender to block him down. When you look back at McShane's points against Roscommon, the ball was in his hands and then it was gone.

Without looking at the goals against Kerry, O'Connor turned and kicked over. It was spatial awareness, he knew he was at the edge of the 'D', he knew where the goals were. He knew how far out he was. He just instinctively knew.

Knowing the time you have on the ball is often the difference between the good footballer and the exceptional footballer. How many times did you see Colm 'Gooch' Cooper being blocked down despite having two or three lads around him? Rarely, if ever.

People often wonder how players from yesteryear would have coped in the current set-up but if you have quality, you will perform and adapt.

My old team-mate Owen Mulligan could play inside, he was a score-getter and could beat teams on his own. But he could also come outside and be a provider, he was a playmaker and he could score from distance.

Stephen O'Neill was the exact same. He wasn't just a finisher, and quality players will shine no matter where they are and no matter what systems are being played.

If you're good enough, it doesn't matter what you come up against. There's always room for the skilful player despite football's changes.

Irish Independent

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