Hurray! All hail the return of football's free-taker
Eamonn Sweeney can't hide his delight at seeing an ancient skill saved from extinction
Criticising Sligo players for the late fouls which gave Donie Shine the chance to win the Connacht title for Roscommon last Sunday is slightly unfair. Because the two frees which Shine nailed, the second one from near the left sideline in particular, were on the outer edge of the scorable. Only a handful of teams carry a dead ball expert who would have put both of them away. It was Sligo's misfortune that Roscommon are one of them.
Shine is one of a remarkable trio of free-takers who have left an indelible mark on this year's championship. Kerry would have been beaten in Killarney by Cork had it not been for Bryan Sheehan striking a couple of monster frees at crucial stages. And Cian Ward, like Sheehan a player whose range extends beyond the 45-metre line, kept Meath in it against Louth with a couple of long-distance strikes late in the game. Like Sheehan and Shine, Ward seems to thrive under pressure and redefines the parameters of the scoring zone.
What this trio have in common is that, almost always, they choose to kick their frees from the ground, eschewing the option of kicking from their hands. This is noteworthy because when the GAA allowed players to take frees from their hands conventional wisdom was that the free from the ground would go the way of the bishop throwing in the ball and the half-time Ranizole ad.
After all, Gaelic footballers are trained to kick the ball from the hand, it is their natural modus operandi. So it would seem that there is something counter-intuitive about a player kicking the ball, in the words of a venerable cliché, soccer style.
Yet the fact remains that, with the possible exception of Maurice Fitzgerald, it's hard to think of any player who has kicked from the hand with the same length and accuracy possessed by the ground kickers. The kick from the hand is perfectly serviceable for the medium-range free but nobody who uses it can achieve the kind of distances bridged by Sheehan, Ward and Shine.
You might expect it to be otherwise given the very nature of the game, yet perhaps the kick from the ground gives the free-taker certain psychological advantages. The game calms down while he puts the ball on a suitable patch of ground, the very ritual of lining up the free gives him a chance to catch his breath, the relative silence attending the kick is conducive to focus and concentration. The kick from the hands can just seem like another part of the game, it lacks the ceremony of the kick from the ground and the free-taker rarely takes as much time.
He's also more likely to be assailed by team-mates looking for him to play it short. Maybe that's part of the explanation for the odd fact that the best kickers in a game based around kicking the ball from the hand prefer to kick it off the ground.
The importance of possessing an exceptional free-taker is often overlooked. Kerry's rivals Cork, for example, don't possess anyone of the calibre of Sheehan and have rotated the dead ball duties between Daniel Goulding, Donncha O'Connor, Paddy Kelly and Colm O'Neill. They're not missing any sitters but they never seem likely to land the kind of unlikely scores Sheehan specialises in.
The most graphic illustration of the problems this creates for Cork came in the very last minute of normal time in the Munster semi-final replay when a mis-hit free by O'Connor eventually led to Marc ó Sé's equalising point. And had Louth possessed a free-taker of Ward's quality, they'd have had the Leinster final won by the time Joe Sheridan did his Thierry Henry impersonation. Similarly, Sligo don't possess any marksman of the same calibre as Shine whose match-winning performance was, of all bitter ironies, spookily like those one-man shows which the greatest of all sharpshooters, Mickey Kearins, once produced for the Yeats County.
In many ways the free-taker has become the most crucial member of the team. All the stuff written about Cork's perceived lack of bottle vis-a-vis Kerry can't change one crucial fact: had the teams swapped free-takers, the
Rebels would have won with a few points to spare. Donie Shine's centrality to Roscommon -- he has scored 1-27 of the county's 1-41 in this year's championship -- may be exceptional, but you'd have to think that every side would be well served by selecting the best free-taker in the county no matter what he's like in open play. Someone can always pick up the slack of a wing-forward whose forté is collecting breaking ball. Free-takers, on the other hand, are like gold dust. Apart from his contribution on the scoresheet, he can change the whole approach of an opposition defence. Made aware that the area in which they can foul with impunity is smaller than they thought, backs end up giving forwards a bit more latitude. If they think the free-taker isn't of the first rank, however, they'll be under no such restriction.
Because, in an age of blanket defences and tactical fouling, the free-taker has become king. And the very best of the breed have delivered a clear message to the young crackshots currently honing their craft at clubs all over the country. You can do perfectly well kicking frees from your hands. But if you want to be great, put the ball down. You can touch the stars if you go from the ground.