Clinical forwards separate the best from the rest and not just in GAA

Clinical forwards separate the best from the rest and not just in GAA
Duhallow's Donncha O'Connor shoots from Valley Rovers' Aidan Walsh. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

WHEN the England soccer team went out of the World Cup this summer, their manager Gareth Southgate was asked a lot why his side hadn’t made that final step. 

It was pretty easy to understand, he said, the teams that beat them (Belgium, Croatia) had better players. Here’s the thing: sometimes the winning and losing comes down to simple factors and most of the time the reason is that one team has more quality and almost always that more quality is in the attacking areas of the pitch. 

The team with more ability in the forwards, the team that has that magic match-winner or top scorer, that’s generally the team that wins games.

Chelsea's Eden Hazard. Picture: Martin Rickett/PA Wire. 
Chelsea's Eden Hazard. Picture: Martin Rickett/PA Wire. 

That’s the point with the forward who’ll perform week after week and year after year, the difference between say, Carbery Rangers who’ve been able to turn to someone like John Hayes for what feels like forever now, and maybe Douglas, who’ve consistently come up short for several years and have lacked a central attacking figure to build a team around and who might nick them through games with reliable batches of scores at times they’re not playing particularly well. 

Look at the other teams beaten last weekend. Valleys have had some serious players and Fiachra Lynch has been wonderful for them but even he’s not a marquee forward in the traditional sense. Clon haven’t been able to turn youthful energy and pace into consistent scores in attack. 

It’s probably safer not to make any inferences about Nemo’s bizarre struggles for scores last weekend and just write it off as one of those days (though honestly, they’ll be pretty sore out in the club themselves with two big non-performances now in the space of six months). Still, Nemo won the championship last year scoring 3-18, 5-13 and 4-12 in winning games from the quarter-finals on, which emphasises the overall attacking power they’ve still got and the importance that ability to run up big scores was for them. 

Teams generally come through at club level with the emergence of a group of players together but they very rarely do so without a star main scorer to take them that extra step, we’re thinking of someone like Dohenys who had a great spell at senior that coincided with Ger McCarthy’s peak or Ilen Rovers who reached a county final with Kevin O’Sullivan leading.

Now check out the teams going into the county semi-finals. 

The Barrs mightn’t seem initially quite as reliant on Steven Sherlock for scores this year but 1-5 from 2-8 was still match-altering last weekend. Duhallow wouldn’t be without Donncha O’Connor who top-scored again with six points, four from play. 

Castlehaven have always been about intensity and savage work-rate and tempo to their football and still there were barren years there between the two county finals of 2003 and 2010 and mainly it came down to the lack of proper scoring forwards between the Colin Crowley era and the Mark Collins/Brian Hurley era. It may be that we’re now entering Michael Hurley’s time as he tore Nemo to shreds in Dunmanway with his speed and running angles and the goal that finished the game. 

Michael Hurley celebrates his goal. Picture: Larry Cummins
Michael Hurley celebrates his goal. Picture: Larry Cummins

If there’s any doubt here it’s only in the efficiency of turning possessions in the opposition half into chances and scores, where there are games it feels like he could end with five or six scores but ends with one or two.

And then there’s John Hayes, who is probably the most consistent club forward in Cork over the last 10 years plus and who’s managed to influence almost every campaign since he came on the scene in some form. This is tougher than it seems, an awful lot of really decent forwards have had strong seasons or runs of games over that time and never quite managed the same level of consistency of match-winning scoring totals or moments or big scores. 

There was something in the way Clon huffed and puffed last weekend with loads of ball inside the opposing 45 without being able to create scores and then the ease at times that Hayes popped scores when needed. He kicked all his frees, both ones he should be getting and ones that were on the verge of forgivable for missing. His two scores from play were typically clinical. For the first he received the ball way out on the right wing moving away from goal, took a second or two to set himself and from a position that basically nobody else across the entire double-header even attempted to shoot he lofted a point way over the bar – with his left foot, and it was a lovely controlled kicking action rather than a swinger. 

John Hayes, Carbery Rangers, kicks a point. Picture: Larry Cummins
John Hayes, Carbery Rangers, kicks a point. Picture: Larry Cummins

For the second he made a run in behind the Clon defence to give Kevin MacMahon an option out in the corner and where there appeared to be little room he managed to sort of pause the game around him and handpass the ball over the bar from an angle. This ability to seem to have more time on the ball is often put out there as the identifier of a top player and it’s probably been Hayes’ standout characteristic on the field, being able to slow the game down or play it a different speed to others. 

At another stage of the second half he had the ball out in the corner of the right wing, Alan Jennings made a run into space across the other side of the goal, the sort of run and option that might have been spotted by someone up on the hill but would be beyond the view of the player on the ball usually with all the bodies in the way on pitch level; Hayes picked it out with a cross-field ball to assist a point.

Mainly it’s the scores though, the constant flow of somewhere between five and ten points a game that can almost be taken for granted on the team’s tally. It seems odd to think the ability to score can be overlooked as the crucial element but there are ways to compensate or make up the difference at inter-county especially sometimes, where it often comes down more to who can get the ball to their scorers most effectively. 

At club level it’s probably still going to make or break a season or even an era just having these kinds of players, where scoring forwards can still be the difference between a team winning a county title and reaching a quarter-final.

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