Do goals matter in hurling at the top level anymore?

Limerick won it all by picking off points without hitting the net
Do goals matter in hurling at the top level anymore?

Waterford goalkeeper Stephen O'Keeffe prevents a goal against Limerick, who hit so many points they never needed to raise a green flag. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

STRAIGHT after the All-Ireland hurling semi-finals in November, Bet365 offered odds of 40-1 on no goal being scored in the All-Ireland final.

Those odds were generous when compared with the average price being offered by other companies on no goals in the lead-up to the final — Paddy Power had odds of 16-1.

Bet365 were clearly out of synch in their betting predictions but, by right, no goals in a hurling match should be at least 50-1. Yet the reality is that no green flags is a viable bet now in any big hurling match.

The All-Ireland final proved as much. On the other hand, anyone who availed, and subsequently cashed in, on those generous odds could have been tearing up their betting slip after two minutes; Jack Fagan’s goal attempt whisked just wide when Nickie Quaid was beaten; shortly afterwards, Stephen O’Keeffe made an incredible double-save from Kyle Hayes and Cian Lynch.

Limerick didn’t threaten O’Keeffe’s goal again all afternoon, but they didn’t need to as they blitzed Waterford with a hail of points.

Waterford, who clearly needed goals — and who had targeted green flags beforehand as a necessity if they were to win the game — created eight goals chances but failed to take any of them.

Along with Fagan’s chance, Stephen Bennett had a goal shot blocked by Diarmuid Byrnes, while Quaid made six fine saves. His best stop was a body block from Neil Montgomery in the 13th minute, but a goalkeeper of Quaid’s class would have been expected to save the other five shots.

Waterford payers react to a missed goal chance. Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy
Waterford payers react to a missed goal chance. Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Quaid’s smartest save was from Bennett in the first half which Quaid killed on his stick and controlled into his hand because Dessie Hutchinson was only yards away and was primed to pounce on any rebound.

It was the first goalless All-Ireland final since 2004, but Limerick’s points total in the recent final (30) was four points greater than what Cork and Kilkenny accumulated together (26) in that 2004 final.

That’s a reflection of where the game has gone, but the lack of green flags was also an accurate barometer of the decreasing number of goals in inter-county hurling.

When Galway beat Waterford in the 2017 All-Ireland final, their failure to score a goal in that match was only the sixth time in the history of the GAA that a winning team had failed to raise a green flag.

Yet Galway had also failed to register a goal for four consecutive matches.

Limerick didn’t have a goal drought for as long this year but, similar to Galway in 2017, they still failed to register a goal in four of their five matches. And they still won the Liam MacCarthy pulling up.

Limerick didn’t need goals when they were shooting the lights out with points; they breached the 30-point barrier twice, and the 25-point barrier also twice.

The one game in which they raised green flags — against Tipp — Limerick still posted 23 points in conditions resembling a monsoon.

Limerick and Waterford registered a combined 49 points in the final, but Limerick and Galway accumulated 51 points in the semi-final, which the excellent GAA Stats Twitter account stated was the highest-scoring goalless game in the history of the championship.

Changes in the sliotar, increased levels of strength and conditioning, and greater tactical and defensive sophistication has expanded the scoring zone, while also condensing the space in front of goal.

And the impact on green flags is becoming more apparent with each season.

The ratio of goals per game in 1997 was 3.4. That figure held steady for 10 years, then experienced a slight drop in 2007 to 3.3. By 2017, the number held at just above three.

Nickie Quaid saves a shot. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Nickie Quaid saves a shot. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

In 2018 though, it dropped to 2.83, while it was down to 2.46 in last year’s championship. In 2020 though, the average was down to 2.41 goals per game.

The weather and the wintry conditions were an obvious factor, but the increased redrawing and expansion of the tactical grid has been matched by the decreasing number of goals; of the 41 goals scored in the 2020 championship, 25 of those green flags were raised in just five games; if you exclude those five matches, the average in the other 12 championship matches was just 1.3 goals per game; in the 17 matches played, a team failed to score a goal on 13 occasions.

So many teams now have so many good outside shooters that they don’t need to work goals, especially when three quick points has the same mathematical value.

Limerick have clearly done the sums — they have an ability to create goalscoring opportunities when they feel they need goals (as they showed early on in the All-Ireland final) but they have such a capacity to rack up huge points totals that they’re not hung up on scoring goals.

Defending and teams’ overall defensive shape has also become such a huge focus of teams that it has contributed to the dearth of goals. With most teams now defending as a collective group, goals are not as easy to source as they were in the past.

Cynicism and deliberate fouling, especially when players are through on goal, is another contributory factor and there is a realisation now that something has to be done about it.

The hurling public may not want a black card, but yellow cards are certainly no longer a deterrent in those goalscoring situations.

The game has changed. Teams have done the sums.

A hail of points now is often enough.

But goals still matter.

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