IT’S one of the oddities of Gaelic football perhaps that for all the searching for skills and attacking flowing football and tactical nuances that one of the more arresting sights is still one of its most simple: the free-kick.
There’s something striking about the art and its traditions, something in the natural (or man-made really) style of a free-taker and the way they can step up to a ball anywhere in the vicinity of the goal and make it a potential score and it’s sort of reflected in their standing in the game.
It was notable in the reaction to Bryan Sheehan’s retirement this week, a recognition for the moments that anybody who’s followed Gaelic football for the last decade can remember, those thrilling pauses between the awarding of the free and the taking of it.
And it was remarkable when you thought about it just how many of the big standout Gaelic football memories are linked with free-takers and their attempts at deadball strikes.
Think about it. Kerry’s most memorable scores of the last 40 years?
Maurice Fitz’s sideline against Dublin in 2001.
Mikey Sheehy’s cheeky free over Paddy Cullen.
It’s hard to think of Cork’s glory years from 1987-1990 especially without picturing Larry Tompkins’s equalising free against Kerry or the equalising free against Galway or any of the several he kicked against Meath over the finals.
Even 2010 is hard to recall without thinking of the deadeye frees and 45s of the second halves of the semi-final and final from Donncha O’Connor and Daniel Goulding.
Clubs have the same history.
Think Nemo and immediately you picture Colin Corkery curling a ridiculous free over the bar from some crazy distance or angle.
Free-taking is a big deal and free-takers have been the stars of the game for the longest time now.
It’s thrilling basically and it’s still matchwinning an awful lot of the time and yet there’s a feeling that Sheehan’s retirement marks the end of a certain kind of free-taker in football.
You know, the type that can bang a ball over the bar off the ground consistently even when it’s 10 metres past the 45.
There was a Laochra Gael programme shown recently again on Anthony Tohill and one of his most stunning abilities was this knack of punting the ball over the bar from way outside the 45, even on a wet windy day up in Casement Park.
Even in the All-Ireland semi-final this summer, Kerry could have squeezed past Mayo with a placed ball right at the end of the first game but honestly it said more about Sheehan’s legacy that people even contemplated the decision to take the shot on from that distance.
It was too much in the end even for him and it’s tough to think of many footballers around now who’d take those kind of shots on with any great conviction consistently — even Corkery knew his range famously with that short free to work an extra 10 yards against Crossmolina in Croke Park.
Michael Murphy maybe, but he’s missed his share from that range too.
Dublin won the All-Ireland this year with a free of course but it was well inside the 45 and in the should-score category (and following the earlier thread, surely Dublin’s most iconic winning score in this run was Cluxton’s free in 2011).
Arguably the most heartbreaking moments from Mayo’s quest this past few years have been those missed frees from Cillian O’Connor, frees he missed from just outside his gettable range.
It’s an art that’s got its own pained and ongoing questions of course and the whole off-the-hands or off-the-ground argument is a major part of that and there seemed to be element after O’Connor’s frees of trying to shift the argument around towards the fact the kicks were taken from the hands.
Steve McDonnell had a piece recently bemoaning the absence of accurate kickers off the ground and it’s changed certainly.
Figures from the website Dontfoul for the championships of 2012-2015 show the vast majority of frees are taken off the hands.
They also show the success rate off the hands is significantly higher, even when adjusted for the fact that frees from longer range are normally off the ground.
Forwards are more comfortable now kicking from their hands, they’re more accurate and confident and the ability to punt a ball off the ground simply isn’t getting the same analysis or time because it doesn’t really need to anymore.
It was interesting to hear Bryan Sheehan speak this week about learning so much about the technical aspects and mainly just the hard time to be put into free-taking from watching Maurice Fitz down the local field in Cahersiveen.
There’s a definite lineage factor here and it’s hardly coincidence that certain areas or clubs tend to produce more free-takers than others.
Again, the Colin Corkery factor had to have had an influence on James Masters which must have helped to produce Luke Connolly, the latest in the line of Nemo forwards — funnily enough, we also recall Barry O’Driscoll popping a 45 over the bar as standard at U14 level — capable of striking the ball a fair distance accurately and producer of Cork’s last-kick equaliser from distance against Mayo in the summer.
Dean Rock hardly needed to look far for inspiration for kicking frees but has referenced Jonny Wilkinson as a serious influence in the past for the sheer obsession necessary for a placekicker and also told of the obligatory couple of hundred kicks a week away from collective training in order to perfect the craft.
The art of free-taking will go on in importance, if maybe in a different way.