The role of a goalkeeper in Gaelic football is constantly evolving

The role of a goalkeeper in Gaelic football is constantly evolving
Mark White of Cork in action against Paul Geaney of Kerry during the 2018 Munster GAA Football Senior Championship final at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

IF Italia 90 is often mentioned as a stepping stone for a shift in Irish mentality, it can be forgotten that the campaign sort of contributed to a change in football overall as well in terms of the backpass.

Buried amidst the nostalgia of that tournament was it ushered in the backpass rule. It’s fair to say the impact was immediate and is still developing.

It was a game-changer for Ireland - let’s not forget Ireland’s three major goals from play in that entire World Cup 90 campaign (qualifying win over Spain, the tournament goals v England/Holland) came from long kick-outs – our favoured setpiece for attacking territory.

It was a gamechanger for the position mainly though, the extra demands that led to goalkeepers needing to use their feet more and that went from the early 90s keepers who adapted slowly and mainly booted the ball as far from goal as possible to the current number ones like Ederson and Allison who are as much a part of the team’s style of play as any outfield player.

It’s an interesting backdrop to the current discussion about the role of goalkeepers here in Gaelic football and their development over the last decade, where their emergence as a primary influence on the game has sort of corresponded with the notion that this can’t necessarily be a positive thing.

The kick-out of course has been refined to such an extent that analysis and approaches to any game really can be sorted into how teams use their own kick-out and how teams attack (or don’t attack) the opposition’s.

It’s striking how fast it’s gone from the days of a keeper like say, Diarmuid Murphy, whose relish for booting every kick-out as far as possible out the middle of the field is often referenced for laughs by Kerry players of that '90s-2000s vintage, to the current crop, led by Cluxton of course but that is being added to by the likes of Niall Morgan and Rory Beggan and Shaun Patton now, who are all bringing different skill-sets and variations to the position. 

Kerry’s Stephen O’Brien has a shot saved by Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton. Picture: INPHO/Tommy Dickson
Kerry’s Stephen O’Brien has a shot saved by Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton. Picture: INPHO/Tommy Dickson

Morgan can kick points from frees and from play with the way he strikes the ball.

Beggan and Patton have incredible distance in their boots. All are willing and able to impact the game out the field as much as on the line.

The transition to a possession-based game in soccer and Gaelic football has been key, where having the ball is more important than territory or where on the pitch the ball is.

In soccer, this has made sense, where teams went from booting the ball downfield and condensing spaces in the opposition half to wanting to play the ball out from the back and so trying to create spaces and overloads in front of their goalkeeper in order to work the ball up the pitch in control of possession.

The goalkeeper has to be a natural part of that strategy, as a comfortable starter of the kick-out and someone who can move the ball onto the next guy over and over if necessary.

In Gaelic football, one stat from the Galway/Mayo qualifier game last summer revealed that the two goalkeepers played more ball in play (that is, separate from kick-outs) than any outfield player, a fairly easy summing of the potential influence here on how a team builds play.

So the idea that an effective goalkeeper needed to hit the ball long from restarts became a goalkeeper who could find certain spaces/ gaps accurately with a defter touch became a goalkeeper who could take ball out the pitch into general play and create 2 v 1s and 3 v 2s in areas that would allow teams to move the ball and keep possession. Without creating that awful murmur in a stadium whenever a keeper generally comes out with the ball, like it’s not right.

By the way, shot-stopping? If most teams are averaging somewhere around three goal attempts a game (Dublin slightly more than everyone else), that’s not a huge amount of work compared to the volume of kick-outs to be gotten right and the amount of overall times the goalkeeper has control over where exactly the ball is going on the pitch.

Watch the warm-up routine or a training session involving Gaelic football goalkeepers now and a lot of it will involve smacking balls out to either wing to his fellow goalkeepers.

Teams that want to be ultra-aggressive on opposing kick-outs are using keepers to press up as the last man into the spaces and as markers of full-forwards to enable the full-back line push another 20 metres up the field (and really why not, he isn’t going to get lobbed from the other kick-out line).

Some traditional keepers have adapted their game but just like soccer eventually, where the evolution of the position led to more natural modern goalies coming through, Gaelic football goalkeepers are different now, they even look different.

When Cork seniors went looking for goalies a few years back, Mark White jumped out for the distance and variation of his kick-out; the rest could be worked on.

The next note of course is the effort to water down this grown influence a little with the rule change on not being able to receive the ball back direct from a kick-out, a small change but a significant one.

It’s suddenly far more difficult now for the team with the kick-out to create that extra man if they’re facing a serious press, where a defender that only needed a tiny gap to take a ball and hand-pass back, now needs to get turned and possibly break a tackle before he can properly move the ball.

Teams might look at the benefit and cost of a mid-handling in these areas and decide it’s not worth the risk.

The idea is presumably to encourage the movement of ball out the field from kick-outs to create clashes for ball rather than slow possession from the back.

It may slightly alter the necessary skills of the Gaelic football keeper again, an ongoing process this past while.

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