Stop-start trend putting game at risk of freefall
A few weeks ago, Eoin Kelly was added to an expanding Tipperary backroom team, although he's quick to play down his new role as a free-taking coach. Kelly gave 11 years of continuous service as Tipperary's dead-ball specialist and now he is imparting what knowledge he can to help Tipp's marksmen steady their aim.
The influence of free-taking on matches keeps growing and with games often decided by fine margins, every chance counts. Tipperary face one of the sharpest free-takers in hurling today, Patrick Horgan, who has phenomenal accuracy and range. Further evidence of that came in the third round of the Allianz League in mid-February at Páirc Uí Rinn where he scored 16 points, 15 of them frees, against Clare.
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Clare's movement and general play was superior on the night. They scored freely, but they were cursed by indiscipline - each aberration mercilessly penalised by Horgan's impeccable striking. In the commentary box, the former Tipp hurler Shane McGrath expressed disbelief that Clare had lost, given how much good hurling they delivered, but the cold statistics showed that Cork scored only 1-5 from play and still finished with 1-20. Horgan, who has scored 248 points in total from dead balls over 51 championship appearances, will almost certainly pass Eddie Keher's career tally of 252, from 50 matches, this afternoon in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
Of the 0-20 Clare accumulated against Cork in the league, 16 points were from play, including six from Tony Kelly and four each from John Conlon and Ian Galvin. They might have scored more memorable points than Cork but on the night, quantity trumped quality and the relentless mechanical precision of Horgan's eye and technique told.
Eoin Kelly has seen these trends and with Tipp showing an ongoing and frustrating tendency to lose tight matches, every free must be treated as crucially important if anywhere within scoring range. They started the league with Seamus Callanan assigned the free-taking role, but his shooting started to falter. In the game against Kilkenny, which Tipp lost by a point in injury time, Callanan missed a couple of frees that could have extended their advantage going into the final ten minutes. Kilkenny won with a free from their goalkeeper Eoin Murphy in injury time, from 85m, following another long-distance effort by the same player only a few minutes earlier.
"You had Eoin Murphy popping up there with two long-range frees to win the game for Kilkenny that day," says Eoin Kelly, "and then in the other league matches - now I know championship, I hope, is going to be refereed different than the league, but you had Joe Canning one day with 15 points, 14 frees, and Patrick Horgan another day, was it 16 points, 15 frees? There seems to have been ten-plus frees in a lot of league games. So I hope we don't have a whistle-happy championship."
Kelly remembers scoring 0-10 in the 2009 All-Ireland final from dead balls and considering it well above average. "Now that did not affect that game because that was still a great game," he says. "If Joe Canning has 15 points, 14 from frees, how many will the other team get as well, seven or eight? So you could have 21 or 22 points from frees, I don't think anyone wants to see that, not the neutral anyway."
Pa Bourke took over Tipperary's free-taking from Kelly in 2012, but in 2013 Kelly was back on them, with some being taken by Callanan who then assumed almost full responsibility in 2014, even though Bubbles O'Dwyer had the chance to win the drawn All-Ireland final against Kilkenny with a long-range effort from Tipp's half.
By the time Tipp lost to Kilkenny in this year's league, their third defeat in a row, there was growing support within Tipp to have the free-taking returned to Jason Forde. He scored two points from frees against Kilkenny but Callanan was still the first choice going in to the match. By the next game, against Cork, a week later in Páirc Uí Rinn, Forde was the chosen one. He is seen as a better free-taker than Callanan and was the team's first choice through last year's league and championship.
Once handed the responsibility, Forde hit 1-13 against Cork, 1-9 from dead balls, in what was their best performance of the league. After the game, manager Liam Sheedy described Forde as "unerring" from play and placed balls and noting that the latter "aspect of our play meant that when we got the chances we converted them".
Heading to Cork for that final round, Tipp had failed to win eight of their last nine matches in league and championship. With Forde on the frees they finished off their group games in style, winning 1-29 to 1-16. Forde left injured with 12 minutes to play but had made the switch justified by then. He remained in place for the disappointing quarter-final loss to Dublin in Thurles.
What can Kelly add to the party? "It's late in the day," Kelly says of his potential influence. "Really, you are back to basics of lifting and striking. I remember Nicky English came me to when I was taking the frees and I was only about 19 back in 2001 - he said, lift it and strike it well, and after that I don't care where it goes. That was some of the best advice I ever got.
"It is so prominent that it is a specialist piece of the game. People take them for granted really. Like what I found over the last few years the standard is set so high that if an inter-county player misses a free from 100 yards now you hear the moans from the crowd.
"Go back to last year's All-Ireland final when Joe Canning stood up to that last free, he would probably be disappointed he did not get the distance on it. Like when you think of it, that was the 78th minute because there was eight minutes of injury time, the 78th minute of a high-intensity game when Galway were chasing the game, so imagine the energy he had exerted and the fatigue that was in his body. And he had to face up to a 78th-minute free. It just shows you what some of these inter-county players go through."
Canning scored 0-15, including 13 frees and a 65, in Galway's league quarter-final win over Wexford this year. He struck them from all parts of the field and varying distances, although Wexford were hotly disputing some of the awards. Modern hurling has seen more frees being awarded with more body contact and short inter-change play.
Eoin Kelly is Tipp's record scorer from frees, 65s and penalties, with 4-250 over 63 championship appearances. That total of 262 points is over double his nearest rival, Jimmy Doyle, who scored 115 points from dead balls in 39 appearances. Callanan is ranked third on 103 points from 46 matches.
Henry Shefflin leads overall charts with 3-351 (360) from dead balls in 71 games. TJ Reid is on 5-190 (205) from 52.
The noted GAA statistician, Leo McGough, illustrates the changing influence of free-taking by reverting back to the 1932 All-Ireland final, in which Kilkenny beat Clare. In that match, only seven frees were awarded by referee Sean Robbins of Offaly, and just two to Clare. Neither team scored from frees, though each managed a point from a 70. McGough says 1932 was the lowest number of recorded frees he has come across in an All-Ireland final since newspapers started printing figures from the games in the early 1920s.
But it was by no means an exception as the free count remained in single figures for many of the finals of that era. It was 1946 before 30 frees were awarded. After that the average was in the mid-20s for the remainder of the 60-minute finals.
Scoring is going through the roof in recent years and frees are following suit. The league semi-final last year between Limerick and Tipperary, won by Tipp after extra time by 2-31 to 1-31, broke new ground in being the first time two teams went over 30 points in one game. In last year's league quarter-final between Clare and Limerick, which also went to extra time, Clare's Peter Duggan scored 0-19, including 15 frees and two 65s.
"You would often see the old clips of matches on the TV and if a lad missed a 50-yard free in an All-Ireland or an All-Ireland semi-final there wasn't much talk about it," says Kelly, noting how expectations have changed. "Look, it's thin margins. This game on Sunday, I can't see much in it and it wouldn't surprise me if it ended in a draw. It's that tight, 8/1 or 9/1 would be good for a few punters I'd say.
"It is just about focusing on technique. Your lift and your strike. It is a process and if they miss them they'll probably tell you they didn't lift it cleanly."
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