This weekend's Ulster final picked up where both semi-finals had left off and served up an absorbing physical and tactical contest.
Both Monaghan and Tyrone both had to dig deep and adjust their approach at different stages but what stood out was the role of the goalkeepers for both teams.
The imperious Stephen Cluxton has led the change to the role of the goalkeeper in recent years. However, Niall Morgan and – particularly – Rory Beggan have added further dimensions to how a goalkeeper can affect the flow of games.
Although traditionalists tend to recoil at the sight of a goalkeeper beyond his large parallelogram, the biggest question about the role should be why it has taken so long to get to this point.
The evolution of our game has brought the principles of Sevens football to the fore in the full field. Possession is king and counter attack is the most effective way to play the game. Anyone familiar with Sevens will tell you that, invariably, the player with the keeper jersey is the best attacker on the pitch.
Dropped off into a defensive pocket when the ball is lost, the keeper in Sevens has a landscape view and does not have the energy commitment that tracking a man requires. If the ball is turned over, then the keeper is relatively fresh and fully aware where the gaps are as he comes onto the ball at speed.
A lot of those opportunities sit with a cover player in the full sized game now but there is no reason why goalkeepers should not supplement and become a key player in breaking out of defence. Through Cluxton, the goalkeeper’s value with kick outs was the first evolution but slowly coaches are realising the opportunity that those players have to contribute in open play.
Defending the Kick Out
As he had done to good effect against Donegal in the semi-final, Niall Morgan pushed up into one of the spaces that Rory Beggan might be tempted with on either flank for a long kick out. In the first half it had a significant impact as a deterrent. Beggan looked short and lost his composure doing so at times.
Monaghan have also used the same tactic previously and one of the half time adjustments was to mirror that Tyrone approach and similarly pressure that longer option. With most goalkeepers this should have minimal effect if opponents think it through.
It would be worth Kerry’s while targeting Morgan sitting in that space with a prepared kick out that drops on top of him as one of their midfielders attacks the same space along with break ball hunters. In the first half on Sunday, the other Tyrone players marked runners on the other side as though they considered that space covered off and Monaghan didn’t consider Morgan’s side an option.
Beggan offers a different proposition in those positions as he is capable of attacking and winning the ball in the air in serious company. There are very few goalkeepers with that capability and most will be deterrents only – deterrents who may not be able to back the threat up.
Regular viewers of Scotstown won’t be at all surprised at Rory Beggan’s roaming and impact in doing so. He has brought the role closer to the sevens version and probably accelerated the national evolution in that direction. What this will have done is give confidence to coaches who have considered this option but not had the courage to implement it fully. This is where the goalkeeper role is going.
If we fast forward five years, the "goalkeeper" will be a dead ball specialist who excels at building play out of defence. It will be a central part of building attacks to use the spare player coming on an overlap. They will be comfortable ball carriers and probably the best long kick passer on the team. Shot stopping will be even more of a bonus than it already is.
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All of that has implications for how teams train and prepare. The goalkeeper will need the athleticism of a half back and potentially all defenders will be required to cover the goals in a given attack. That would mean dealing with high ball and understanding the basics of angles and getting in the way of a shooter.
It may seem like a different game but it is the logical evolution through the gate that Rory Beggan has opened and the first team to really grasp the opportunity with a player who can have a significant impact on the play will reap serious dividends.
It can’t have been a comfortable month in the Dublin camp since the beginning of their defence of both Leinster and All Ireland titles. Flat performances against Wexford and Meath reinforced the theory that standards were slipping and they are vulnerable.
That former captain Stephen Cluxton managed to find the most impactful way to undermine both Dessie Farrell and his former team-mates’ championship preparations certainly didn’t help. The vultures are circling.
Not a lot has changed in the meantime in terms performances but as the business end of 2021 approaches, Dessie Farrell may have all the motivational material he needs to generate a couple of reactions from the bear yet.
The first real doubts emerged about the champions’ defence after a league campaign that saw them concede, on average, more than 18 points across three games that included both teams that were subsequently relegated.
The Dublin dynasty has featured an array of attacking stars and some of the best attacking football in a generation. But, like all great teams, the quality of their collective and individual defence has always set them apart. With key personnel the wrong side of thirty and injuries impacting who they could get on the pitch, the doubts about Dublin’s defence followed from league to championship.
When the traditional Dublin-Kerry rivalry was renewed on the All-Ireland stage in 2019, the Kingdom arrived with their prodigiously talented young attack and almost got over the line in what was a shoot-out between two revered attacks. In the replay it was the Dublin defence who ultimately swung the balance of power, preventing Kerry from scoring a goal for the first time in that year’s championship.
The doubts about the rigidity of the Dublin defence and in particular if they can withstand the power of an even more developed Kerry attack have substance. However, the Leinster final may have gone some way to convincing themselves that they can produce those defensive standards again when the need is greatest.
Kildare are not Mayo or Kerry in an attacking sense but if you take out the goal that possibly only Daniel Flynn could score then holding the Lilywhite attack to nine points is a step forward.
With John Small returning, Jonny Cooper sitting deep as cover and James McCarthy anchoring the defence from midfield the structure and team selection felt like a statement from Dessie Farrell. If everyone stays fit, Eoin Murchan will probably replace Sean McMahon starting for the All-Ireland semi-final and suddenly there is an aura about their defensive unit again.
The doubters will ask for evidence that Fitzsimons, Cooper and McCarthy can still go head to head with the best attackers in the country and whether Brian Howard can cope defensively in deep water.
Those are questions that will sting and Dessie Farrell will know how to present them when the time is right.