CHAMPIONSHIP week for Cork footballers and Ken O’Halloran is noting the extra free time in inter-county retirement.
Last Sunday he spent on the golf course. This Saturday evening he’ll try and convince a few friends to forego the Champions League final (he knows it’s a hard sell) and make the trip to Thurles to take in the Cork-Tipperary game.
Regrets about the call to step away haven’t bubbled up yet, not with the chance to properly go back with the club and play football and hurling with lads he grew up with like Shane O’Neill and Pa Cronin, not when he thinks of the evening spins to Fermoy for gym sessions or late nights back home or team meetings.
He enjoyed being part of the group and the training and the games while part of it but now he’s enjoying another, less busy way of life.
If the role of goalkeeper and sub goalkeeper in a squad has always been a little apart from everybody else (O’Halloran for example would tend to really downplay his part for the All-Ireland win in 2010 when he was second in command to Alan Quirke), then the position has become a real focus for analysis now in the era of Stephen Cluxton.
He played national league finals and Munster finals and agrees that there’s a fascination and a real influence to goalkeepers now, even if he reckons we’ve actually gone past peak goalkeeper level and are coming out the other side.
He explains, “When I was in goal at say U21 you looked at your midfielders and it was just getting the ball out as long as possible. Then the game became a possession game. So you had to look for pockets of space, work short kick-outs.
"You get to the stage where you’re constantly looking at the stats and the focus is changing. Are you getting 70% or 60%? On from that then, the shorter you go, obviously the percentage kick-out win goes up but how many of those kick-outs are ending up with shots down the other end?
"So possession is the key but there are other factors too. You can see Dublin the last few years if the corner-back was free they just gave it and trusted themselves to work the ball up to make a chance.”
Anyone who’s stood behind a goal for a football game can testify to the level of movement that goes on for each restart now and O’Halloran himself admits that when he watches a game of football his primary focus is kick-outs – he curses replays on TV as they can sometimes resume the game with one team in possession but no evidence to how it happened.
O’Halloran gives an insight into how prepared this movement tends to be.
“Yeah the work on the kick-outs is fairly detailed. The key people are the wing-backs, so if they vacate their position and come towards the ball, you give it to him if he’s not marked, if he’s marked you hit the space behind then.
"The wing-forwards, they’re tracking back and they might run back up the middle to leave space on the wings. Or they might go up one-side of the pitch and leave the other side free for the other half-forward to run into that space. It would be choreographed but the game takes on life of its own too.”
And would a game be ruined by bad stats, by losing a certain percentage of kick-outs?
“Yeah absolutely, I’d judge my game on kick-out stats, to a certain extent. You get the stats after a game and you’re going into the meeting after that game, and you know you’re either off the hook here or getting called up. But every game is different.
"We played Tipp last year and we had 100% of kick-outs as they just backed off. Donegal might push up for periods of a game and then back off for the last 15 minutes when the game is gone ragged and you can’t kick it long.
"Sometimes there’s an over analysis. If a team is going well it might have the same stats as a team not going so well but the outcomes and analysis will be different.
"You might have one bad kick-out and concede a goal and suddenly you’ve had a bad game. Three bad kick-outs another day and concede nothing and nobody takes notice.”
We have evidence of that. In the first half of Munster final 2014 Cork had won the kick-out stats in the first half 10-9. It’s just that Kerry had got eight scores directly from the nine kick-outs won and Cork had one chance created from their 10 kick-outs won.
O’Halloran got back to work and puts the two games in Killarney 2015 down as days where things just ran exactly as he wanted. Where the work done behind the scenes – the 45 minutes kicking ball before training, maybe nabbing three players to act as runners and then trying to hit one with the other two chasing, the 15 minutes in group training for overall shape from kick-outs, the kicking with and against the wind to practice the different distances and flights – paid off.
He looks at the younger keepers trying to grab that number one jersey on the Cork panel now and just hopes they’re given the space and time to make mistakes and learn and improve.
“Cluxton wasn’t perfect when he came in but he was left there and developed. I don’t think a goalkeeper should be wondering about being dropped for one mistake because then they start playing safe and that’s no good. Just let them develop and in two years they’ll be a better goalie.”
O’Halloran’s time in red and white spanned those years where Cork were winning All-Irelands onto much tougher places in recent seasons. He admits the players couldn’t avoid the negativity surrounding Cork football (just even people mentioning going to a hurling game and who wouldn’t go near the football) but doesn’t tend to get overly caught up about mental blocks.
One big win, Killarney 2015 and Mayo last year are referenced as very nearly occasions, could have completely shifted the conversation about this Cork group. Ask the main thing Cork has lacked since their slip from champions in 2010 and O’Halloran will expand.
“The game changed with Donegal’s influence especially and I think we were slow to change with it. I don’t think the managers were given the time or had the status to come in and say, right we are going to experiment for a league so we were always chasing results or under pressure.
"I think we should have embraced the defensive game a bit sooner, we were playing flat 15 football and not dealing with runners from deep, not bringing bodies back and closing off space. I think tactically, we got it right a couple of time, we got set up right, but I think we tended to not be set up right defensively, we left too many men forward when we didn’t have the ball.
"I’d like to see us dictate the terms of a game tactically now, to force other teams to play differently against us as well.”