Sunday 21 January 2018

Tommy Conlon: Shifting goalposts can make an ass of even the most cat-like custodian

Paddy O'Rourke scrambles back to the goal line. Photo: Sportsfile
Paddy O'Rourke scrambles back to the goal line. Photo: Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

As Tiger Woods has recently and rather poignantly demonstrated, it can be hard sometimes for a man to walk in a straight line. So one can only imagine the challenge for someone trying to run backwards in a straight line. Especially when you're a goalkeeper facing an emergency situation.

It was shortly after half-time last Sunday in Parnell Park when Paddy O'Rourke found himself in this predicament. Paddy had miscued a short kick-out. It went straight to Louth substitute Ronan Holcroft, who immediately sensed an opportunity.

The Meath man was about 15 metres out from his goal. And now Holcroft is dashing onto the ball. Paddy is suddenly in Paddy Cullen mode, backpedalling at a rate of knots. And this is where his spatial awareness deserted him. The Sat Nav in his brain got scrambled.

O'Rourke is involved in farming. If he was competing in the ploughing championships we doubt he'd be delaying the judges too long. The whole point, we gather, is that the contestants in their tractors try to churn an impeccably straight furrow. On this evidence, Paddy's plough lines would look more like crop circles.

In his desperation to get back on his goal-line, he veers well off course. Instead of reversing straight, he reverses diagonally, drifting towards his left-hand post, thereby leaving almost the whole of the goal exposed. Holcroft by now is on the 20 metre line. With a deft lob he floats the ball into the yawning goal.

"And it's in the back of the net!" declares Marty Morrissey on commentary. Paddy by this stage is also in the back of the net, over at the left stanchion, finally getting his bearings.

It was left to the Meath manager Andy McEntee to helpfully explain afterwards what had happened. It is frequently said of a good corner-forward that "he knows where the goals are". McEntee's analysis suggested that his custodian had momentarily forgotten this rather fundamental piece of information.

"It looked to me like he thought the goals were somewhere else," he mused, no doubt prompting a few Meath supporters to ask the question: 'Well where the f*ck did he think they were - below in Nobber?' They're not noted for their charity, the Meathies.

"It was very strange," added McEntee, "I wasn't quite sure what was going on." (The Meathies: 'You weren't the only one, sonny'.) "When the Louth man mis-hit the shot and I saw Paddy turning and going away I thought to myself, 'well, it's obviously going wide', and then the net started to rattle. I think Paddy thought it was going wide. I think he actually thought the goals were to his left and they were really to his right."

It's the kind of thing that could happen in a Flann O'Brien novel, where the goalposts might literally be moved, disappearing in a puff of smoke, for the purposes of some sort of surreal joke.

But perhaps there may be a more plausible explanation, taken from the rich annals of Irish folklore. Maybe Paddy just stepped on a stray sod and found himself temporarily shorn of his senses, lost in a mysterious field with no idea where he was, or indeed who he was. On the latter question, he wouldn't have been long finding out, when the Meathies started roaring at him.

Holcroft, meanwhile, might have a bone to pick with McEntee. It didn't look like he had "mis-hit the shot" at all. He was alive to the chance, saw the keeper drifting, and duly executed what Morrissey described as a "exquisite lob" from 20 metres. "Paddy O'Rourke will have nightmares," added Marty, looking at the replay.

On the other hand, maybe he slept like a baby. Meath after all had won comfortably in the end, scoring a mammoth 0-27, and he had made a string of vital saves. Morrissey indeed described one of these saves as "cat-like", immediately evoking memories of Chelsea FC legend Peter 'The Cat' Bonetti.

Perish the thought, but we think Marty might have got his animals mixed up here, in his search for the perfect zoological analogy. When we think of goalkeepers making saves of a feline nature, we usually see them springing across their goal with tremendous speed and agility to divert a ball heading for the top corner.

O'Rourke in this case was facing a Louth player who'd raced in behind the Meath defence. "Hopping ball. Oh lovely lay-off. This has to be a goal. Oh what a save! Paddy O'Rourke saving from Páraic Smith. This should have been a goal but Paddy O'Rourke, cat-like…"

The keeper had quickly come off his line to narrow the angle, in the textbook fashion of a one-on-one situation. He stayed upright, stood tall and then spread himself as Smith pulled the trigger.

Now not to come on all anthropomorphic on this, but a cat would have run up the nearest tree. O'Rourke was more like a big bear confronting an intruder on his territory and chasing him off with an imposing display of height and strength.

To be fair to Marty, he never claimed to be David Attenborough. And we'd like to see that venerable BBC gentleman trying to understand some of the wildlife found roaming of a championship Sunday across a GAA pitch - and off it too.

Like the Galapagos, it is a unique and wondrous ecosystem, with someone somewhere always moving the goalposts.

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