ON the 2010 Football All-Stars trip to Kuala Lumpur, Andy Moran spent some time in the gym one morning with Cork’s John Miskella.
The experience changed Moran’s career, because Miskella’s body shape and overall fitness levels convinced Moran of the level he needed to get to.
Moran was nominated for an All-Star in 2009 at wing-back and he ended up marking Cork’s Pearse O’Neill in that All-Stars exhibition game. That was a struggle but Moran soon realised how much of an ordeal it was for him to keep pace with the power and intensity of Cork’s running game.
“When the Cork lads started running in Croke Park,” Moran said in an interview earlier this year “it was all over for me.”
Football was changing towards the end of the 2000s and Cork were leading that charge because their half-back line was gradually becoming their greatest source of energy. In the 2008 championship, Cork’s defence and midfield scored 1-5; in 2009, Miskella exceeded that total on his own with nine points, which was a record for a defender over one individual campaign up to that point.
Players were becoming stronger, faster and more athletic, and with the tactical grid radically shifting, there was bound to be a knock-on effect.
The culture of attacking and scoring defenders has really been a product of how football has become so defensive in the modern era. In a numbers game, the onus is on the opposition to push more men forward and use the ball smartly. And with teams playing so defensively, it gives defenders more scope to go forward. There is less risk involved because there are always – or at least there should be - men behind to cover back.
Even players with a heavy man-marking role can still be thinking about getting on the scoreboard.
Nobody has underlined that culture more than Lee Keegan. Despite having huge man-marking roles in the 2016 and 2017 All-Ireland finals on Diarmuid Connolly and Ciarán Kilkenny, Keegan still managed to get up the field to score brilliant goals in both (the 2016 replay) matches.
Keegan is a phenomenon. He is the highest-scoring defender in the history of the game, having clocked 6-40 in 54 championship matches.
For years, Tomás Ó Sé was the greatest scoring defender of his generation but that status now firmly belongs to Keegan, who has accumulated 14 points more than Ó Sé final total of 3-35. And Keegan has played 34 less championship matches than Ó Sé.
Football has produced some brilliant modern scoring defenders like Keegan, Peter Harte and Ryan McHugh but the game has become so tactically fluid now that defenders spend so much time in the attacking half of the field that they need to be shooters as much as stoppers.
It is often impossible to differentiate in the modern game between defenders, nominal defenders, or forwards, but a case study of six games in the 2018 championship (Tyrone-Dublin, Mayo-Tipperary, Donegal-Roscommon, Cork-Tyrone, Kildare Fermanagh and Galway Monaghan) provided some interesting statistics. Of the total of 246 shots from play in those games, 59 were taken by defenders. That was just one case study but it was still close to the average where one in every 4-5 shots from play at inter-county level is taken now by a defender.
On the otherhand, Dublin’s numbers show a different trend. In last year’s All-Ireland finals (draw and replay), All-Ireland semi-final and Super 8s game against Roscommon, Dublin took 113 shots (which includes placed balls) at the target. Yet only 13 of those shots (albeit it includes placed balls) were from defenders, which is an average of one in every ten Dublin shots is taken by a defender.
Dublin have the best shooters, but those numbers also illustrate how well they play the percentage game, and how only the player in the absolute best position will shoot. Jack McCaffrey scored 1-3 from five shots in last year’s drawn All-Ireland final; the decisive goal in the replay came from Eoin Murchan, which was his only shot in both games.
McCaffrey and Murchan are probably the two fastest footballers in the game but footballers still need to be comfortable in every position. There are far greater scoring spreads than in the past but the increase in defensive shooters has been steadily evolving over the last four decades.
The iconic Kerry teams of the 1970s and 1980s had some brilliant defenders but the journalist Kieran Shannon once wrote how Páidí Ó Sé’s early point in the 1981 final was the first score from play by any Kerry defender in 21 All-Ireland finals.
The 1982 final – when defenders contributed 0-5 – was the first time in an All-Ireland final that both backlines had at least one scorer from play.
Scoring defenders was still a rarity for the rest of the 1980s until they started to become more prominent in the early 1990s. By the end of that decade, Galway’s Seán Óg de Paor was already establishing himself as football’s first great scoring defender of the new Millenium; de Paor finished his career with 2-28 from 52 championship matches.
The trend has gone to another level in the last decade, and the practise has become so common now that anyone can get on the scoreboard. Tyrone’s Niall Morgan has made a habit of scoring from play in the league but the next step will surely be goalkeepers scoring from play in the championship.
That may be the absolute extreme but in modern football now, anyone can score.