Lethal weapons: The importance of a free-taker in modern Gaelic football

Lethal weapons: The importance of a free-taker in modern Gaelic football
Seán O'Shea of Kerry kicks a free against Dublin at Croke Park last season. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

BEFORE Mayo’s 2012 All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin, Cillian O’Connor downloaded the favoured Dublin chant, ‘Come on ye boys in blue’.

As he religiously practised his free-taking and dead-ball kicking in the run up that match, O’Connor had that sound blasting from his earphones into his eardrums.

In that All-Ireland semi-final, O’Connor converted six placed balls, including three crucial 45s. Yet just four months beforehand, O’Connor wasn’t Mayo’s first-choice kicker of 45s because his dead-ball kicking range off the ground didn’t extend to that distance, especially in Croke Park.

After the 2012 league final defeat to Cork, O’Connor took on that challenge like a vendetta. He broke down his technique into minute detail and sought to improve every technicality.

Mayo's Cillian O’Connor takes a late free against Dublin at Croke Park. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Mayo's Cillian O’Connor takes a late free against Dublin at Croke Park. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

He nailed a critical 45 in the closing stages of that year’s Connacht final against Sligo when the sides were level. His rate of improvement accelerated at such a rate over the summer that he was kicking 45s for fun by the time they met Dublin.

It’s no surprise that O’Connor is now the highest-scoring forward in Gaelic football history. When he broke the record last July, it was almost fitting that he did so in Killarney, the home of Colm Cooper, who O’Connor took the record from that afternoon.

Cooper is one of the greatest players to ever play the game, but O’Connor’s statistics are extremely high when the numbers are compared; in just 55 championship games (30 fewer than Cooper), O’Connor has nailed 25-297.

That’s an average of almost seven points per game for the 27-year old, but O’Connor’s return from play is also impressive – he has struck 16-62 from play, an average of 2.04 points per game.

Of O’Connor’s total, 70% has come from placed balls; O’Connor has kicked 8-230 from frees (0-216), 0-12 from 45s, while O’Connor has nailed 8-1 from penalties.

O’Connor is a penalty specialist; when Kerry goalkeeper Shane Ryan tipped O’Connor’s penalty over the bar last July, it was the first time O’Connor had failed to raise a green flag in league or championship from a spot-kick.

O’Connor’s return from 45s may seem low, especially when he was landing them for fun almost a decade ago, but there are a number of reasons why; injury has been a factor in O’Connor not always kicking from distance; when he plays, Rob Hennelly is an excellent long-range striker, and he regularly hits 45s.

The outstanding blog and Twitter handle ‘dontfoul' has done some excellent work on 45s in recent seasons. James Robinson has shown that of 238 attempts in championship between 2014-’19, there was only a 54% success rate. When 45s were taken from the wings (outside imaginary vertical lines up from the D), that number drops to 43%.

Those numbers prove that despite the best players taking on those shots in the best conditions and on pitches ideal for place ball striking, 45s are not easy to convert.

Kerry’s Seán O’Shea still gave an exhibition of how to do so in last year’s drawn All-Ireland final, when nailing three 45s.

O’Shea is still in the formative years of his career, but he has already shown his potential to join the lineage of great Kerry free-takers stretching from Mick O’Connell to Mikey Sheehy, right through to Maurice Fitzgerald, Dara Ó Cinnéide, Colm Cooper and Bryan Sheehan.

Seán O'Shea of Kerry kicks a point from a sideline. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Seán O'Shea of Kerry kicks a point from a sideline. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

O’Shea has already scored almost as many 45s (10) in just two seasons as O’Connor. O’Shea has the potential to reach a similar standard to O’Connor, but Dean Rock has set the highest standard of all in recent seasons.

O’Shea has been so prolific that his conversion rate over the last two years has been broadly similar to Rock’s, with both players scoring exactly 0-61 from placed balls in 13 championship games.

Rock’s conversion rate from placed balls though, went to another level in last year’s championship, when nailing 32 of 36 attempts (89%). Apart from two wides in the drawn All-Ireland final, the only other two placed balls Rock missed was a difficult free close to the sideline against Mayo, and a 49-metre free against Roscommon.

Rock is already in the pantheon of great Dublin free-takers. During Dublin’s unbeaten run over the last five years, Rock is the team’s highest scorer, with 9-192. Of that total, 0-152 have come from placed balls. Rock has now become Dublin's most prolific free-taker of all time, his averages per championship game already putting him ahead of Jimmy Keaveney, Charlie Redmond, and his father Barney.

Dean Rock of Dublin kicks the winning point from a free as Lee Keegan of Mayo looks on. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Dean Rock of Dublin kicks the winning point from a free as Lee Keegan of Mayo looks on. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Given their huge profile, along with the storied history of Dublin free-takers through the decades, the role has invariably carried a more distinct status than in most counties, primarily because Dublin’s free-takers have often reflected a key part of the team’s personality.

Keaveney, Barney Rock and Charlie Redmond’s brilliance as placed ball experts largely mirrored the excellence and steadiness, yet oscillating fortunes of the Dubs during the 1970s and 1980s, and particularly in the 1990s.

By the time Redmond retired in 1997, the reliability of the Dublin free-taker over the following decade almost became a metaphor for Dublin’s overall wellbeing as a team; from 1998, Dublin went through 10 free-takers in the following decade. And that instability was reflected in Dublin’s results during that period.

The free-taking excellence of Bernard Brogan and Stephen Cluxton was central to Dublin’s emergence as a serious force in the first half of the decade.

Yet Rock’s metronomic reliability over the last five years has been every bit as important in keeping the Dublin machine raging on at such a relentless rate.

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