LAST weekend Stephen Cluxton was honoured at Croke Park for making an astonishing 100 championship appearances for Dublin, a remarkable feat.
It’s an even greater achievement when you consider that, on average, Dublin would have recently played just five games to normally win an All-Ireland.
Some might argue ‘ah but sure Cluxton is a goalkeeper’ but what Cluxton has done for goalkeeping can’t be measured, he has made the position sexy again.
There used to be an aura in wearing certain jerseys, particularly the number 11. Most players all wanted to wear that jersey, but number one wasn’t as attractive to wear.
However, that has all changed. Look at the goalkeepers in the game now and the role models amongst them. The likes of Cluxton, Rory Beggan and Niall Morgan are household names in the GAA.
Look at even Wicklow ’keeper Mark Jackson who has taken long-distance place-kicking to a new level and still doesn’t get the credit he deserves. A lot of counties now have a goalkeeper hitting scorable frees before their forward line, which is remarkable.
It was Cluxton though who revolutionised the game, particularly with the way he changed kick-outs. Even the rebranding of kick-outs as ‘possession restarts’ originated from the Dublin number one.
Cluxton began to get restarts away, albeit with the aid of a goalkeeping coach firing balls back into play in super kick time (which is now banned in grounds), from an average of 15 or 16 seconds down to eight seconds.
Changing the speed of the ball being back in play can only benefit the game for sure, but the idea was to retain uncontested possession for the team straight away and build from the back. Most soccer teams do the same now with full emphasis on the belief that possession is king.
Cluxton’s influence began to filter down through the academy squads. Dublin made sure there was a goalkeeping coach involved with every single academy team from u-14 right through to minor level to help not just improve the basics of goalkeeping as in the handling, agility etc, but also their kicking technique.
Goalkeepers were coached not to force their kicking as they’ll lose their technique but to be more measured and accurate with their kicking. They started teams working on heavier weighted balls so come match day the ball felt like a balloon while the kicking tee sizes were reduced to near ground level so as to help them simulate a turf of grass when coming up to strike a ‘45’ or long-range free.
The importance of possession restarts was pretty evident last Saturday evening at Kingspan Breffni.
I was shocked at Tyrone’s approach in trying to decode the Donegal kick-out, an identical approach to the one they carried into last year’s All-Ireland semi-final against Monaghan that also had little success.
Tyrone went man-to-man, but literally followed the man everywhere, leaving Donegal with a simple strategy of bunching players in a group around the ‘D’ and ‘45’ that left massive gaps in either channel either side of midfield. This allowed Patton to punch restart after restart into those gaping channels for deep runners to collect.
Last year when Carlow played Tyrone in the Qualifiers, we led 0-5 to 0-3 just five minutes before half-time. However, a suffocating aggressive zonal press, similar to the 44 call Dublin like to use, resulted in them kicking five points in a row off the Carlow kick-out and ultimately changed the course of the game.
Last week Morgan, particularly in the first half, had trouble getting kick-outs away and as a result of that hard Donegal press, the Tir Chonaill men were able to turn over about 30 percent of Tyrone’s kick-outs. Add that to the 100 percent retention rate that Donegal had on their own kick-outs in the first half and you can see very clearly where the platform for their six-point interval lead came from.
At the end of 2015, the Ulster GAA Sports Science department completed an analysis of kick-out patterns in the Ulster Senior Football Championship and some of the results were very interesting. Over 330 kick-outs were analysed and were broken into three types, short inside 45 metres, mid between 45 metres and 65 metres and long beyond 65 metres.
There were more long kick-outs than any of the other two but interestingly of the 120 short kick-outs, possession was gained by the kicking team approximately 96 percent of the time.
On top of these stats, it was found that kick-out possession led to a shot at least one in every two restarts, phenomenal statistics. Obviously you have to be careful with statistics like this but if you consider there are approximately 25 possession restarts from a goalkeeper per game and you manage to keep possession on these restarts, then you are basically creating approximately 12 scoring chances a game or possibly more excluding other chances you will create from winning opposition kick-outs or from turnover ball.
When coaching your team, it’s obviously important to consider a couple of key points when trying to implement a kick-out strategy. You have to consider what the opposition will do, the length and accuracy of your goalkeeper’s kicks and what your goalkeeper’s strengths are – is it the placement of the restart, the height, or the pace?
Spend time working on outfield players providing options with some lateral movement, decoy runs, possibly a basketball type screen on an opponent, well before the goalkeeper is actually on the verge of kicking, something which is going to help find that little yard of space which is crucial to the accomplishment of the restart.
Most importantly, make sure and develop the restart into an offensive move post kick. A lot of teams when coaching just take the kick out and stop, it’s important to work on the next phase of play.
I find this part of our game absolutely fascinating when I watch the top teams clash and it doesn’t get the proper analysis and recognition it deserves.
Teams looking to create goal-scoring chances off kick-outs, teams looking to retain possession, the opposition looking to decode the kick-out with zonal presses, man-to-man presses, other teams dropping off to negate the influence of ball winners around the middle and deploy a middle third press, just some of the restart strategies being employed in Gaelic football, the list could go on.