Raising the white flag - are goals becoming an endangered species?

The last time Cork won a championship game by scoring more goals and fewer points than the opposition was in 1991.
Raising the white flag - are goals becoming an endangered species?

Patrick Horgan celebrates the third of his three goals against Kilkenny in the 2019 All-Ireland SHC quarter-final. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

It’s a hurling-wide trend that there aren’t as many goals as there used to be, but it seems to be one that affects Cork more than most.

While it’s impossible to compare players or teams from different eras and little good can be generated by saying that X is better than Y who played a generation later, there is a clear pattern from the 1990s onwards.

To take that incredible year of 1990, when Cork won the All-Ireland double, Fr Michael O’Brien’s side managed 18 goals in five games, including five in the final against Galway – an average of 3.6 goals per game compared to an average of 2.25 across that year’s championship as a whole. It’s somewhat sobering to think that that final was the second-last time that Cork have won a championship encounter by scoring more goals and fewer points than the opposition: the last instance of that phenomenon was Cork’s very next championship game, the 2-10 to 0-13 win over Waterford in 1991.

By the time Cork claimed the Liam MacCarthy Cup again, in 1999, they did so by scoring just one goal in four games – the average of 0.25 well down on the national championship average of 1.75. Cork’s figure in going all the way in 2004 was 1.57 GPG (11 in seven matches) compared with 1.68 nationally, and the average of 1.0 in 2005 – five goals in five games – fell below the 1.5 national average.

Fast-forwarding to the last half-decade and in 2015, 2016 and 2017, Cork had a GPG of less than 1.0 (0.75, 0.66 and 0.75 respectively) but, by this stage, the national average had fallen too, the 1.5 in 2017 the highest of those three years and 2016 having an average of 1.09.

In 2018, with a greater sample size – six games, thanks to four in the Munster round-robin – Cork managed nine goals, an average of 1.5, just ahead of the average of 1.43. A year later, it was down to 1.21 per team per game with Cork’s at 1.66, ten from six matches.

After Cork snaffled two goals in the opening five minutes of their first league game of 2020, against Waterford, and three in total in that game, manager Kieran Kingston admitted that it was something on which the team were putting greater emphasis. Only in the last match, the loss to Galway, were Cork out-goaled by their opponents.

However, in losing to Waterford and Limerick at home, scoring more goals didn’t stand to Cork. In addition, while Cork’s tally of 11 goals in the league was well ahead of the next best, Waterford and Tipperary with seven, only Westmeath got fewer than Cork’s 90 white flags. As well, no team allowed more points than Cork’s 110 and only Westmeath’s 11-105 conceded was worse than Cork’s 5-110.

For the 2020 championship, the overall goalscoring average was 2.41 per game, just over 1.2 per team. With only three games to work from, Cork had a goal per game, one each against Waterford (loss), Dublin (win) and Tipperary (loss).

The question, of course, is whether it matters that much – while fans like to see goals, they’re not absolute momentum-changers and can be cancelled out in quick succession.

In the modern game, it’s easier to get three points than one goal, something borne out by the commonplace occurrence of scorelines like 0-28 or 1-26. 

Would it be worth experimenting with four points for a goal, or would such a move only lead to teams attempting to tighten up even more to avoid giving away such a boost to the opposition?

It's surely worth trying, if for no other reason than it’s easier to implement than trying to limit the number of defensive players inside the 45 or 65, for instance.

Former Tipperary manager Babs Keating has often called for a heavier sliothar, to make long-range point-scoring harder, thereby necessitating the ball having to be worked in.

Again, it’s not the worst idea in the world, but at the end of the day, the will needs to be there.

If things keep going the way they are, we’re surely not far away from the day a goalkeeper points from a puck-out.

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