IN the 57th minute of the recent Cork-Clare Munster senior league game in Ennis, Declan Dalton stood over a sideline cut in front of the north stand.
The rain was lashing down. Dalton was about 35 metres from goal but he only had one thing on his mind – a score. Striking from his left side, Dalton drifted the sliotar in from the right touchline. It was a superb point in the conditions but the score was even more impressive considering it is one of the most difficult skills to execute, and a score rarely seen from a striker cutting infield on his left side.
Trying to cut the ball from left to right, for a player striking on their right side, is more difficult than taking a sideline cut from right to left because it requires a degree of curl and power to draw the shot in. That may appear to be no harder than a player taking a sideline striking on their left side, and trying to cut the ball from right to left.
But it is because those attempts have rarely been scored, which is what made Dalton’s score so unique.
Another reason is because most players are strongest on their right side. That has been reflected in the style of almost all of the great freetakers of the last 20 years; Canning, Henry Shefflin, Eoin Kelly, Patrick Horgan, Seanie McMahon, Johnny Dooley, Gary Kirby, DJ Carey, Paul Flynn, Pauric Mahony. Growing up, Jamesie O’Connor was always strongest on his left side but when he began taking frees with Clare at inter-county level, he hit them off his right side.
Of course, there were, and still are, some notable exceptions of excellent freetakers striking off their left side. TJ Reid is one of the best in the history of the game but there were plenty of quality takers before, and after him, with a similar style (albeit with their right hand on top of the hurley as opposed to Reid’s left hand on top – with the exception of Pat Fox); Paul Codd, Ger Farragher, Paul Ryan, Shane Dooley, Tony Kelly.
Apart from Reid, the most effective left sided (striking) sideline cut specialist in the game now is Mark Coleman. He and Tony Kelly scored brilliant sideline cuts in the 2018 championship.
Coleman bagged three (which has taken Coleman’s championship tally to five) but Canning nailed five points from sideline cuts in the 2018 championship, which copper-fastened his status as the game’s greatest practitioner of the art. He first showcased that ability as a 15-year old in the 2004 All-Ireland minor final replay against Kilkenny when he scored points from two sidelines.
In 2008, Canning nailed three sideline cuts in the All-Ireland U21 semi-final against Kilkenny, and four in the epic LIT-IT Waterford Fitzgibbon Cup final.
That summer, Canning scored probably the greatest sideline cut ever seen at senior championship level when he cut a ball over the bar against Cork in Thurles that seemed to travel all the way in from around Holycross.
At senior level, no other player in history has scored as many championship points from a sideline as Canning, who has now notched 20. After Canning the next most prolific scorer is Clare’s Mick Moroney, who is on eight.
When Moroney scored three points from line-balls against Tipperary in the 1977 Munster championship, it was considered so freakish that his scores were shown on TV that evening.
Moroney was regarded as the first great sideline cut specialist. Although John Fenton’s championship sideline-scoring tally of 1-3 is surprisingly low (some of his scores though, may have been recorded as frees), Fenton was regarded as having taken the art to another level in the 1980s.
Martin Storey scored three points from sidelines in the 1993 drawn Leinster final but he was never regarded as a specialist. Adrian Fenlon, Brian Corcoran, Ger Farragher, Eamonn Corcoran and Ben O’Connor were highly proficient in the art but Canning took it to a different stratosphere; in one 37 competitive game period with club, college and county between 2007-2009, Canning scored 23 points from sideline cuts.
Canning altered convention and changed the way players and managers looked at the game because conceding a sideline against him was almost like giving up a score. And a practise that was once considered unique is now common in the modern game; in last year’s Tipperary-Limerick league semi-final, Ronan Maher nailed a sideline from 80 metres. It was the best sideline cut seen since Canning’s rocket against Cork in 2008.
The expert GAA statistician Leo McGough once showed how, prior to the 2010 All-Ireland final, there had been just seven points scored from sideline cuts in the history of All-Ireland finals. Yet there have been six points scored from sidelines in the last nine finals.
Canning’s numbers are so astronomical that, examining McGough’s statistics, Kilkenny have only scored 1-10 from sideline cuts in their championship history. Yet Kilkenny’s numbers are in line with their principle of ensuring the ball is kept in play and minimising wastage.
The overall increase in the skill has come about through a combination of advanced weights training, better hurleys, lighter sliotars and smoother surfaces. But players now are also far more confident in trying to execute the skill.
Guys like Canning, Coleman, Ronan Maher, Austin Gleeson, Jason Forde, John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer and Peter Duggan have no problem going for it from a sideline when the score doesn’t look on.
He has yet to nail down a place – and it will be harder still with the dead-ball brilliance of Horgan – but Declan Dalton can now be added to that list.