IN the 29th minute of last Sunday’s Cork-Limerick game, Cian Lynch was pulled for over-carrying about 40 metres from the Cork goal.
In recent years, that would have been prime Anthony Nash territory, where the goalkeeper would have relished the opportunity to try and boom a long-range free.
Nash just strolled outside his square. Running out to hit the free didn’t appear to even enter the goalkeeper’s head. It wasn’t in the plan because Patrick Horgan was already making his way back the field.
It was a low-percentage attempt from such a huge distance but Horgan nailed it. “Allowing even for the sliotar, that is an incredible strike by Horgan,” said Michael Duignan in his TV co-commentary. “To have the confidence to go out and hit those, it’s just fantastic what that man can do on a field from dead balls and general play.”
Studying Horgan’s technique and how he addressed the free offered a neat insight into his mentality around placed balls. From the time he placed the sliotar on the ground, to the moment, he jab lifted it for the strike, just five seconds elapsed.
For that first three seconds, Horgan took a couple of steps backwards before first looking right, and then glancing around to his left to see if a player was free, or if a better option was on. Nobody was moving because none of the Cork players saw the point in doing so. They just expected Horgan to nail it.
After he had surveyed his options, Horgan dispensed with routine, took a millisecond to look at the goal before just stepping up and letting fly. Bang. Horgan absolutely nailed it.
After scoring 14 points from 15 attempts the previous weekend against Tipperary, Horgan had missed a couple of frees earlier in that Limerick match that he’d normally slot with his eyes closed.
Horgan spends countless hours honing technique and perfecting striking but that long range free last Sunday underlined how he doesn’t overthink routine too much.
“I don’t go too much into routine because if you do and things go wrong, your head would be fried altogether,” Horgan once said about his free-taking style. “It’s just about trying to be as confident as you can, no matter what has happened before it. Do your normal thing and hopefully she’ll go over.”
Horgan is a genius of a hurler but the best players also invariably have the best temperament too, and Horgan clearly has that mentality. Even after that long-range free, Horgan couldn’t get his radar fully working last Sunday. Yet he never panicked, or doubted himself, and Horgan’s brilliant goal in the 53rd minute confirmed the magic that perfect amalgam of class and mindset can create in an instant.
He has shown that patience throughout his career. When Horgan scored a superb point in the dying seconds of the 2013 All-Ireland drawn final, it was his first play of the second half.
In last year’s All-Ireland semi-final, Horgan scored 11 points from 20 shots but his most important score was also his most pressurised attempt; a last-second free from 75 metres to take the game to extra-time.
And yet Horgan was able to take the free without feeling that overbearing load on his shoulders.
“One thing I don’t feel from hurling is pressure, for some reason,” Horgan said recently. “[A free like that] is what every fella dreams about and practises for. I was lucky enough to be in that situation. I prefer to enjoy it rather than getting uptight about it. I don’t know how anyone would feel pressure from hitting a sliotar. I don’t know where I got that from but whatever it is anyway thank God I have it.”
Statistics can’t always measure impact and Horgan’s plays are invariably massive plays. He doesn’t just score ordinary points; they’re usually the best scores in a game. Despite the scoring exhibition Tipperary put on against Cork in the opening round, a couple of Horgan’s points were the pick of the bunch.
Examining statistics also further highlights just how influential and economical Horgan can be from minimal numbers.
From six second-half plays against Limerick in last year’s Munster Round Robin, Horgan either scored or engineered 1-3; from just six possessions in the 2018 Munster final against Clare, Horgan scored four points and was fouled for two converted frees; from six plays against Tipperary two weeks ago, Horgan scored four points and was fouled for a converted free; from eight plays last Sunday, Horgan scored 1-3 and had an assist.
They are incredible returns from those possession statistics. Horgan and the Cork forwards have never had, or always needed, the possession stats of other teams but those numbers also ask another fundamental question; what kind of damage could Horgan really do if he got more possession?
Horgan has always been able to win a game in a flash. Last Sunday provided further evidence that Horgan doesn’t need everything to be going smoothly, or for him to have a consistent involvement in the game from open play, for his confidence to remain bullet-proof.
Horgan will always keep his scoring stats high from frees but pictu
re the damage Horgan could do from play if he could get off nine shots – which Tipperary's John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer managed from play against Cork – in a single game?
O’Dwyer may have played a more withdrawn, deeper and roving role that afternoon than Horgan normally does. Yet Cork – and Horgan – still need to find a way to get him on the ball more often. Because when he is, the end result is normally devastating.
During the week, John Meyler said that Horgan is “owed an All-Ireland medal” and that Cork “have to work an awful lot harder in the upcoming games to deliver that to him because he deserves one”.
Horgan certainly does but both he and his team-mates need to keep improving, and evolving, if he is to finally secure that elusive Celtic Cross.