All hail the clutch players who delivered when it mattered for Cork teams

All hail the clutch players who delivered when it mattered for Cork teams
Jerry O'Connor celebrates scoring the winning point against Clare at Croke Park in 2005. The O'Connor twins thrived when the game as on the line. Picture: INPHO/Tom Honan 

AT A time when we’re all rewatching and hearing about Michael Jordan’s career it makes sense to think about what makes a player clutch and what a clutch player does exactly.

Jordan was of course the most famous clutch basketball player in history, taking and missing and making so many match-saving or match-winning shots over his time.

In one very narrow definition of clutch that was made by ESPN a few years ago, using play-off games and only counting tying/winning shots in the last 30 seconds of the game, Jordan was nine from 18, a 50% hit rate which seems sort of low in some ways but is still higher than anyone else in history. Missing shots and still having the head to come back and make more is an underestimated part of clutch.

Basketball is of course different, more obviously set-up for the drama of that go-to player having that demand on his shoulder to deliver when the game was there to be won or lost, to drain the shots when they had to be taken.

The GAA isn’t quite as definite in its set plays when scores are needed, but there are areas of crossover. Any team will have some kind of strategy to get the ball to its main shooter at a time of need, a sort of rugby-style drop goal set play.

One drawback here of course, everyone mostly knows who that is and it’s much easier to stop that in Gaelic football than it is in rugby or basketball. I remember the Barrs in a county final a few years ago who desperately wanted to get Steven Sherlock in possession within scoring range but just couldn’t work that scenario.

Dublin will have Mannion and Rock shooting more in those last 10 minutes of games because they’re more likely to score. Mayo will want Cillian O’Connor on the ball.

As an aside, it’s hard not to look at Ronan O’Gara as one of the most incredible clutch players from Irish sport. The kick to win the grand slam of course, but so many other massive winning drop goals and penalties nailed on big occasions.

Ireland's Ronan O'Gara scores a drop goal to win the Six Nations in 2009. Picture: INPHO/Andrew Fosker
Ireland's Ronan O'Gara scores a drop goal to win the Six Nations in 2009. Picture: INPHO/Andrew Fosker

And yet, he missed that penalty in 2000 for Munster, had games where his place-kicking was doubted, had days at the start of his career he admitted himself where he didn’t want the responsibility, where he actively hoped his team wouldn’t score a try in case he’d be in a match-winning/match-losing kick situation and where looking for a technical reason for a miss often ignored the simple fact of a choke.

He kept on putting extraordinary pressure on himself to deliver in those big moments and has explained that balance of focus on the routine and really wanting those chances with the expectation levels. The misses come with the territory.

Luke Connolly told a story a while back about his kick to level in the qualifier against Mayo in 2017, how he was aware of a miss from a similar position in a Sigerson final previously, how a selector wondered aloud if he really had the stomach for this kind of kick; it all made him fairly focused on scoring and he did.

We did a piece last week about Donncha O’Connor’s penalty and frees against Dublin in 2010, the definition of clutch by any stretch really. And yet we didn’t mention that it was only earlier that summer there’d been open questions about his free-taking stats, how he and everyone else had wondered about his mentality when he lost a terrible important possession that lost the Munster semi-final replay with Kerry.

O’Connor knuckled down, locked in a routine for all kicks, worked on blocking out the score of the game and noise while taking all frees from there on.

Donncha O'Connor celebrates after scoring against Down in 2010. Picture: Paul Mohan/SPORTSFILE
Donncha O'Connor celebrates after scoring against Down in 2010. Picture: Paul Mohan/SPORTSFILE

Absolute clutch? Well, Pat Mulcahy gave a call out to the O’Connors during the week, referencing them as the players most likely to look for and create a winning score in that last five minutes of games. 

We watched back that last few minutes of Cork-Clare 2005 and there, with Cork two points down, is Jerry with a rampage of a run setting up Ben for a point, then setting up Niall McCarthy and then tearing off down the middle of the pitch to score the winning point himself, still moving with the same purpose and energy as if it was the opening minutes.

It felt at the time like it was an athleticism thing, that Ben and Jerry O’Connor were popping up on the end of moves at the business end of games because they had more legs and fitness and could exploit those spaces when the opposition legs got tired late on. 

But it feels like as much of a mental thing now, that they were just more willing to put themselves into those situations of having to take on shots to win and save championship games.

Ben O'Connor, Cork, races clear of TJ Reid, Kilkenny, in the 2010 All-Ireland hurling semi-final at Croke Park. Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE
Ben O'Connor, Cork, races clear of TJ Reid, Kilkenny, in the 2010 All-Ireland hurling semi-final at Croke Park. Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

You think back to that era and you can picture Cork attacking from half-back, Ben drifting off to the right wing to take a hand pass and then either tearing off up the wing or taking a strike on the run from out by the sideline. I can hardly recall misses and that was only Cork – Newtown won counties and Munsters and an All-Ireland with both O’Connors the main reasons.

Just one example: beating O’Loughlin Gaels in All-Ireland semi-final 2004, Ben O’Connor last-minute free to equalise in drawn game to end with five misses and 0-10, Ben O’Connor tour-de-force to win replay with 0-8.

This was fairly routine and there’s something in that surely, this persistent level of taking and scoring winning shots that pretty much ran right through the O’Connors’ careers, where they were always in the business of winning games, of being in these situations where games were being won or lost (won mainly as it happens) on the basis of their willingness to shoot and score. Skills yes, athleticism, sure, but mainly head at that part of a game.

In a TG4 Laochra Gael programme on Alan Brogan it was interesting to hear him talk of Dublin’s time before they became a winning machine, how the experience of losing games in those clutch moments eventually became a learning. The two Brogans were serious players to create big scores at big moments.

The O’Connors had it in them from very early with club and county. As did someone like Patrick Horgan say, a place hitter who has been hitting important frees and taking on shots at match-changing moments since he was a kid. Clutch players always make a difference in winning teams.

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