Rory Beggan wasn’t the first Monaghan goalkeeper to do it. But when one Patrick Kavanagh was making sallies up the field back in the 1930s, it was seen as a fundamental betrayal of a goalie’s duty to the safety and security of his team.
ccording to the poet’s biographer, Antoinette Quinn, Kavanagh wasn’t making these raids out of his goals as part of a radical new strategy concocted by the tactical brains trust at his club, Inniskeen Rovers. No, wrote Quinn back in 2001, it was because he was “easily bored with standing about when there was nothing happening in his vicinity.” And therefore he acquired “a bad habit of deserting his post to run up the field and take close-in frees, hot-footing it back before the action returned to his end.”
Today, that “bad habit” is considered a good habit. As always with a prophet, Paddy K was much misunderstood in his own homeland. What was heresy then is received wisdom now. Any ’keeper worth his salt these days is supposed to leave his line and become part of the outfield play as and when required. We are in the midst of a goalkeeping evolution that has become a running innovation in Gaelic football which is still continuing.
If the initial phase began over a decade ago with Stephen Cluxton becoming the first ’keeper to morph into a quasi-quarterback through his kick-outs, the current phase is seeing the ’keeper being integrated into general play like never before.
It is almost standard operating procedure now for the number one to become a link-man in defence as they try to shepherd possession out from the back. Goalkeepers are also more frequently coming off their line to act as auxiliary defenders on opposition kick-outs, enabling the full-back line to push a little bit higher and the half-back line to do likewise. And, pushing the boundaries back even further still, we are starting to see them venture beyond midfield and, like 18th century explorers, entering into virgin terrain for these hitherto most shackled of sportsmen.
In January, for example, Monaghan were playing a league game against Tyrone when a tall figure dressed head to toe in black materialised in open space. He didn’t look like he belonged to any team for Tyrone were in red and Monaghan in blue. But it was Beggan alright. He’d ghosted all the way upfield untracked and unheeded; he received the pass and stroked over the point from the 20-metre line completely unmarked.
“There’s always new ideas in sport in general,” says Gary Rogers. “People are always trying to make gains in different areas and there’s been massive gains made in goalkeeping. The position has been completely turned on its head. It’s become such an important part of the game.”
Rogers spent 22 seasons as a ’keeper in the League of Ireland. He won five Premier Division titles and five FAI Cups. He played Gaelic football growing up with St Ultan’s in Meath. He has been a goalkeeping coach at various times with the Cavan, Meath and Monaghan squads over the last decade.
“I would have worked with Rory last year [and] the way he’s taken it on in terms of being that extra player [outfield], and I think that’s been part of the evolution. [First you had] the kick-out strategy, I suppose we have Stephen (Cluxton) to thank for that, putting a massive emphasis on the kick-out, Stephen revolutionised the position. And now the way [they’re] taking it on in terms of being that extra player in the game … I think Stephen would always have been an extra option to support his defenders and be that outlet but he wouldn’t be going past his own 50-yard line, now we’re seeing goalkeepers playing much further up the pitch, they can score from play … and goalkeepers in general, a lot of top inter-county goalkeepers play outfield with their clubs so therefore they’re very comfortable in them positions.”
Shane Curran calls them “hybrid goalkeepers”. Long before it became acceptable, never mind fashionable, Curran famously became a ball-playing, ball-carrying, risk-taking ‘keeper. In the collective panic that would ensue among spectators as he came weaving and swerving his way around tackles, it wasn’t fully appreciated how good his ball skills were. A brilliant corner-forward before he became a full-time custodian, Curran’s soloing ability and swift, evasive footwork enabled him to do what no other goalie could do at the time. The Roscommon legend has long been a student of the position. He remembers a time when goalies were so limited in their ability that many of them were not even able to take kick-outs. And this at a time when all they had to do was lamp it out as far as they could. (The Galway goalkeeper in the 1974 All-Ireland final, for instance, did not take the kick-outs.) “Basically he stood in goal and got in the way [of a shot] if he was lucky enough, he punished the full-forward as much as he could, laid him out if he could, and that was about it.”
Gradually the job became modernised through top practitioners like Billy Morgan, Charlie Nelligan, Paddy Cullen, Gay Sheeran and John O’Leary.
Whilst playing outfield with Castlerea St Kevin’s as a boy and teenager, Curran played in goals for the local soccer team, Castlerea Celtic FC. From there he joined Athlone Town and aged 20 made his League of Ireland debut in 1992. He spent six seasons with the club. It was back with Roscommon and subsequently his new club St Brigid’s that he made his reputation as a maverick pioneer of the position.
While Cluxton became a one-man revolution on the kick-out at the start of the 2010s, Curran was dabbling with short restarts back in the early 2000s. Under Tommy Carr they practised it for specific games, such as Roscommon’s qualifier against Offaly in the summer of 2003.
“And we absolutely destroyed them with short kick-outs to a midfielder in the left wing-back position,” he recalls. “Destroyed them. And the inspiration for that came from Martin McNamara [the Galway goalkeeper] in 1998. He was actually doing short kick-outs in 1997. Roll that on 12 months, McNamara and Kevin Walsh [Galway midfielder] hammer Kildare [in the All-Ireland final] with kick-outs off his right foot to Walsh on the Cusack Stand side and Kildare can’t get near him.”
Therefore the short kick-out, or the targeted kick-out at any rate, pre-dated Cluxton at least to some degree.
The former Dublin netminder can safely be said to have been one of the most influential Gaelic footballers of all time. But again, the trend for goalkeepers coming upfield to kick long-range frees and ’45s, which he also popularised, had been done occasionally before. In a Connacht Championship game against Sligo in 2004, Curran scored 1-1: the goal a penalty, the point a 45-metre free from out near the sideline in Markievicz Park with the sides level and injury-time beckoning. Curran figured he had the range to make the kick, so out he came running from his goal. Back then, it was not the done thing.
“Tom Carr and Jimmy Deane [selector] were shouting at me to get back to f**k into goals,” he recalled in his 2014 autobiography. And the Sligo players weren’t exactly impressed either with a goalkeeper who had the temerity to volunteer himself for such a high-pressure, long-odds free-kick. “Where do you think you’re going, you f*****g muppet?”, was the general tenor of the Sligonian feedback. The ball sailed between the sticks with room to spare.
Curran was always of the belief that the goalkeeper was an underutilised asset in Gaelic football. A few developments, he says, have helped paved the way for the contemporary transformation of the position. In 2010 the GAA changed the rules so that all kick-outs be taken from the 13-metre line. Before that, you took it from the six-metre line following a wide or the 20-metre line following a score. As a result, taking a short kick-out from the edge of the small square was prohibitively risky because the ball started perilously close to one’s own goal.
“Stephen Cluxton started doing that [pinging short kick-outs] when every kick-out was from the 13-metre line. It was almost physically impossible to do it from the six-yard line because the ball had to travel at least 15 or 16 metres before it got to the 21 — but usually it was almost a 40-yard kick on the diagonal out to the corner-back. That was a very important change.”
The introduction of the kicking tee in 2005, he says, also made it easier all-round for ’keepers to begin varying the length and trajectory of their restarts.
The trend in recent years whereby forwards withdraw to the middle third has also created a lot of space for goalkeepers to venture out with ball in hand. “If you take a snapshot of when Rory Beggan or Niall Morgan come out of goal now with the ball, there won’t be a forward within 45 yards of him. So why wouldn’t you come out? Why wouldn’t you take that space? It allows you to push your full-backs up, your half-backs up, so they become part of the attacking mechanism of the team and the goalkeeper plays an intrinsic part in that.”
The downside for Curran of the revolution is that it is producing goalkeepers who are better footballers than netminders. The fundamental defensive duties are in danger of being neglected in the rush to find ball-playing custodians. “We are seeing examples of goals being conceded where a good specialist goalkeeper wouldn’t allow them to be conceded. I looked at 20 goals that were conceded in Division 1 of the National League this season and by my reckoning, close to 80 per cent of those goals, a good specialist goalkeeper would have stopped them.”
And sometimes goals are also being conceded because the ’keeper has made a wrong decision on his kick-out, or made a poor execution on the kick and gifted the ball to an opponent. A mistake like that, even one, can be devastating.
“Remember,” he says, “the confidence of the team is directly and intrinsically linked to the competence and security of the goalkeeper. Period.
“If the goalkeeper is not confident in executing the skill-sets that are required, the confidence of the team goes too. It radiates out from him and you can’t get away from that.”
The goalkeeper was always a crucial figure, therefore, even in the bad old days when he was something of a second-class citizen.
He and she is a first-class citizen now. They’ve never been more important.
The number one is the numero uno, in more ways than one.