Christy O'Connor: Goalkeepers have been key in Gaelic football evolution

'Change in a goalkeeper’s required repertoire has been evident right across the sporting world'
Christy O'Connor: Goalkeepers have been key in Gaelic football evolution

Tyrone goalkeeper Niall Morgan takes a free at Croke Park. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

IN THE dying seconds of the 1985 Monaghan-Kerry All-Ireland semi-final, with Kerry holding on to a one-point lead, Monaghan came raiding desperately for an equalising score.

Eamonn McEneaney worked the ball out of the Monaghan defence before kicking it into the middle of the field to Eamonn Murphy. The full-forward won the ball ahead of Tom Spillane before being fouled by Spillane and Ger Power.

The free was just outside the 45, but McEneaney had to nail it to secure Monaghan a replay. He did. “What a kick,” bellowed Ger Canning in his RTÉ TV commentary. “All the pressure was on him. That kick was from 45 metres out.”

For years, that score was lodged in the public consciousness’ memory bank as an iconic point, an almost mythical kick that appeared to be booted from Hill 16 over the Canal End goal.

The timing and setting of the situation contextualised its importance, but the distance defined the score. Scoring ‘45s back then rarely happened. Nailing a point from close to 47 metres was deemed almost impossible.

McEneaney had a lovely, languid, direct style. From the second he placed the ball on the grass to the moment he connected with it, only 11 seconds elapsed. He didn’t appear to be overly fussed on technique or routine; he just clipped the ball with force, curling it in from the right. Kerry had Eoin ‘Bomber’ Liston back on the line but he couldn’t prevent the ball from just clearing the crossbar.

Everything is relative now, especially in terms of where sports science, strength and conditioning and skill execution has taken the game. McEneaney’s point was of its time, a moment of supreme power, precision and accuracy in that time. It was all the better again because the pitch was wet, greasy and cut-up. But a free from 47 metres would barely even register now?

In the Kerry-Tyrone All-Ireland semi-final two weeks ago, Tyrone keeper Niall Morgan broke new ground when converting a free from 70 metres. David Moran was on the line but he didn’t even jump because the ball was two feet over the crossbar.

It was an incredible score but it wasn’t a surprise because Morgan and a host of modern goalkeepers have taken the kicking game, and goalkeeping in general, to a whole new level in recent years.

In the other All-Ireland semi-final two weeks earlier, Mayo goalkeeper Robbie Hennelly brought the game to extra-time with a brilliant 45 with effectively the last kick of normal time. Hennelly ended the match with 0-3 from placed balls, which made him Mayo’s joint-second highest scorer. One of his long-range frees was nailed from 57 metres.

The football goalkeeping position is continually evolving, but the part pioneers like Morgan have played in that process has really accelerated the evolution.

In the Ulster final in July, Morgan and Rory Beggan added a more unique identity to the position when both ‘keepers pressed each other’s kick-out high up the field, even contesting them in the air.

It was another forward step but it certainly wasn’t new in the Ulster championship. 

This summer, Sean McNally, Raymond Galligan, Blaine Hughes, Odhran Lynch, Shaun Patton, along with Beggan and Morgan, operated at various stages to try and fill that pocket of space on the opposition kick-outs.

When Beggan advanced on the Tyrone kick-out in the Ulster final, Morgan tried to exploit it twice by driving the ball straight down on top of Beggan. On both occasions, Tyrone won the break, one of which required Beggan to make a brilliant recovery in stealing the ball from Mattie Donnelly as he raced towards the Hill 16 goal.

The risk will always exist but balancing it with reward has been deemed worth the gamble. It also shows how the pathway to the position has changed. The current All-Star keeper Raymond Galligan began his inter-county career with Cavan as a forward. In recent years, Morgan has graduated to a full-time midfielder for Edendork. Kerry keeper Shane Ryan, and Galway keeper Conor Gleeson play outfield for their club. The list goes on.

Stephen Cluxton has been at the heart of the modern trend but that was more around kick-outs and long-range frees, and Roscommon’s Shane Curran was the original maverick.

Curran was a pioneering mind with the personality to be different, to try something different. Back then, the full impact and application of an attacking keeper in football was largely uncharted but the modern game has increasingly facilitated those expeditions.

If Curran started the trend, Ulster has hot-housed and grown it. Before Armagh played Cavan in the 2016 Ulster championship, Kieran McGeeney called up Paul Courtney, an outfield player, and played him in goal for the first time just weeks later. Courtney spent most of that afternoon looking and playing like an outfield player.

Modern goalkeepers, and coaching, continue to push the boundaries to new levels, but evolution often requires some form of revolution. The current change in a goalkeeper’s required repertoire has been evident right across the sporting world. 

Manchester City goalkeeper Ederson. Picture: PA.
Manchester City goalkeeper Ederson. Picture: PA.

Similar to Ederson, Manuel Nuer and Marc-André ter Stegen, Cluxton, Beggan and Morgan have become more renowned for their kicking and passing class than their shot-stopping ability.

The evolution will continue but the constantly changing narrative around the goalkeeper has also transformed the whole culture and perception around the position. 

As well as its increasing importance, goalkeeping is also becoming far more enjoyable and attractive for younger players.

In many county underage development squads, some of the best outfield players, especially kickers, are already being earmarked as future goalkeepers.

That’s real evolution.

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