THE work goes on behind the scenes in Cork football.
A couple of weeks ago Conor Counihan tweeted a reference to the launch of a promotion throughout the county on the advantages of two-footed kicking. Videos were posted showing scores by players from the past with both feet, along with current players who’ve come through the system more recently in Cork minor and U20 football doing the same.
For the last year or so Kevin Murray has been researching various aspects of talent development in Cork GAA in CIT as part of his phD. An environment he describes as perfect by the way for anyone with an interest in/obsession with coaching, working in a department of people like Cian O’Neill, Con Burns, Ed Coughlan, sharing office space with Kevin Smith, the Cork football strength and conditioning coach: it’s a hotbed of ideas.
Anyway, one aspect of this became a study on kicking, where after simple questioning of players in Cork development squads on their perceived skill levels, skills testing and analysis of thousands of passes in games of development teams, the results suggest a very high tendency to kick with the dominant leg.
It’s hardly a massive head-turner, young players using their stronger foot more and Murray is keen to emphasise these are preliminary results. But there are layers to this that run right through what Cork is trying to create. Having county teams and players with an emphasis on kick passing won't work if the players aren't capable.
There’s the decision-making element, where say a player is in a situation in a game where he should use a certain foot/side but doesn’t because of a perception of deficiency. Or perhaps a player does try to use his ‘other’ leg where the situation calls for it but can’t execute because of a technical deficiency, where he’s made the correct decision but lacked the necessary skills.
Cork want to identify all these nuances, to educate players and coaches on the importance of this skill and then allow the opportunity for this skill to be acquired. There are different ways at all ages, from seven up.
Murray explains, “People talk a lot about kicking the ball off the wall at younger ages but even with that there are ways of making game situations of it.
"You can ask for one bounce only. Or that it goes over or under a certain height, that you introduce points. With the younger ages the key thing is patience with it and players will find their own way. From a technical point you’re looking at stability being the main factor, the balance of the standing leg when kicking.
"And as they get older you’re looking for speed, distance, direction with the kick. The main key is providing the opportunity to do it.”
Coaching and creating that environment are massive parts (another area of Murray’s work is the analysis and education of coaches involved) of any improvement. Studies show that the ages 14-16 provides the better window of opportunity for developing a skill like kicking with the non-dominant leg but after that will work too given the right conditions.
Language and words used are vital and there must be a freedom where a player feels he is able to try and fail rather than not try for fear of, as Murray explains, being the player with Cork who can’t kick with his weaker leg.
Development squad get-togethers might not necessarily be the place for basic skill work, the better players will be expected to put in the individual time elsewhere, that intrinsic motivation is a major factor that should drive kids who want to be involved in these squads, and then be given the opportunity to test their skills in game situations provided.
Expectation has to be realistic as well, in a world where even big Premier League forwards will still score most their goals with their dominant leg, nobody’s looking for 50-50 ratios, just that when it’s needed that the player is confident he has that ability in his locker.
Murray says: “Even with the stats, a forward might have three or four shots at goal, so most of those will be with his dominant leg. But if a player is running down the wing and has defenders inside him and the only option is to kick the ball with his left foot, can he do it?
"Or if a player cuts inside onto his left foot in a scoring zone, is he able to take that pop? It might be that one moment, a second of opportunity and it might come down to that decision not to take the shot because you’re not able, or the execution isn’t good enough.
"Like you’d love to have the guy who can sell a dummy both ways, who can solo with both feet when it’s needed. I’ve used Owen Mulligan’s famous goal against Dublin at a conference and it stood out because when he’s running he solos with his left foot twice and then shoots with his right.”
At the very top level of the game, Murray points out that two-footedness is seen as a giver of that second of time perhaps, where the details of player analysis that pinpoint any weakness in the opposition can be negated by a player who can use both legs.
Cork football is looking for buy-in from players and coaches. The pay-off might take time but it’ll come if it’s allowed develop.