IN the modern era, the game has developed a mantra of possession at all costs. This has heightened the emphasis placed on the importance of free-taking. Defensively teams are getting bodies back behind their 50 and offensively teams are taking less shots from outside the scoring zone and are actively coached to draw the opposition into fouling them within shooting range.
Any of us unlucky enough to watch the Donegal and Dublin county finals will have witnessed this very scenario. Teams would get into the opposition half and go backwards and sideways to shift defences across and out of position in the hope that eventually one of them would foul.
Effectively for significant periods attacking teams in possession have no interest in shooting from play, instead the coached plan is to engineer a free. This can be extremely effective but is about as exciting to watch as the remake of Home Alone.
So why do teams do this? It boils down to numbers. If they have a robotic free taker who will hit 90 per cent of his or her frees then statistically this is much more effective than shooting from open play where conversion rates can be less than half of this.
My pet hate is someone saying Jim hit nine points, but eight were frees, as if to say Jim should be embarrassed. A point is a point is a point, regardless if it’s volleyed over from the halfway line or chipped over from a 14-yard free.
Perhaps in the future the powers that be may award more for a point from play in comparison to a free, but for now having an effective free-taker is a massive weapon.
On the local scene, the championship winners in Armagh, Down and Louth were Clann Éireann, Kilcoo and the Martins respectfully with the sides having mixed success in the provincial arena.
In Conor Turbitt, Paul Devlin, and Sam Mulroy they all have expert free-takers. Furthermore, the runners up in each, Crossmaglen, Burren and the Mochtas, also have expert free-takers in Rian O’Neill, Donal O’Hare and Declan Byrne. If you are scoring the majority of frees then it chips away at the opposition, consequently if you miss them, it disheartens your own team.
So how do you tip the scales if you are not blessed with a Dean Rock or a Cillian O’Connor? Firstly, on the defensive side of things you must be incredibly disciplined in the tackle. This takes continuous coaching and a serious fitness level as often players foul when fatigued.
It is advantageous to pre-fatigue players in training before completing structure drills as their body will adapt to a level where they will function even when tired. You are much better off to force the opposition into a rushed shot through disciplined tackling and organisational structure than giving them an easy free through silly fouling.
Secondly, develop free-takers within your own squad. Open it to all comers as you cannot have enough free-takers and make sure they religiously practice.
This is where quality coaching comes in. For instance, if I have my free-takers selected, I then must ensure they are practicing effectively. Practice does not make perfect it makes permanent, so if you are practicing ineffectively then this will transfer to your conversion rate.
Personally, like a lot of managers, I couldn’t hit a free if my life depended on it. Yet up and down the country plebs like me will be telling lads how it should be done. In an era of professionalism, it’s best to delegate this task to someone who knows what they’re doing. Off the top of my head, maybe an Aaron Hoey or Donal O’Hare (I just happen to have both at my disposal with St Bride’s). They are masters of their trade and players will learn so much from them in terms of process and technique. Plus, as a manager, if it doesn’t work you can simply blame the coaches and if it does work you take the credit, it’s a win-win.
On a serious note, I’d like to wish you all a prosperous New Year.