I grew up at a time when playing long-established goalkeepers outfield was fairly rare, and these experiments (usually in preseason, when perhaps the individuals in question had made New Year’s resolutions to get the hell out of goals for the coming year) all went the same way.
They would stride out onto the field, chest out, shoulders back, before throw-in. The key thing that they would bring to the game was composure on the ball. They would survey the pitch like Franz Beckenbauer – they would pull strings, they would marshal defences, they would orchestrate.
They would ooze calm.
They would . . . remain blissfully unaware that there were 15 lads on the other team who weren’t really of a mind to allow you to stroll around like you owned the place. Unaware, that is, until the game began.
Their lofty ambitions of picking apart defences from centre-forward, or holding the line at centre-back and allowing everyone else to track runs, make tackles and generally defend as the role demanded, barely lasted the opening two minutes.
Thereafter they were brought down to rather more prosaic aims like trying to avoid getting stripped of possession every time they dawdled nonchalantly in vital positions of the field.
This is how most such experiments ended. Now, if you grew up playing in goal, these should be salad days for you. You can do all of that orchestrating, marshalling and indeed string-pulling from the comfort of your own goalmouth.
From a position 20 years ago when the kick-out strategy was for you to lamp it as far as you could, as often as you could, you’re now playing a key role for the team . . . so key, in fact, that some managers are putting an ‘actual footballer’ back in your position and ushering you towards obsolescence. Without doubt the traffic has been mostly in that one direction in recent years.
So it was heartening to see Shane Ryan doing the business for Rathmore in their All-Ireland Intermediate club final in Croke Park last Sunday, even if his story is a little more complicated than a big lump of a goalkeeper being converted into a deadly inside-forward.
He played all his underage career for Kerry as a goalkeeper, and even had a brief trial with Nottingham Forest as a goalkeeper in soccer but, one season aside, he has always played outfield with Rathmore.
And on Sunday he looked like so much more than a refitted ‘keeper – he really moved and played like an inside forward, which explains just why he has looked so comfortable taking the ball out of defence for Kerry in recent seasons.
At one stage the TG4 commentator Brian Tyers even started speculating about Ryan’s possible usefulness to Jack O’Connor solely as a forward, but having seen where the bar was with regard to Kerry inside forward play in the first of the club finals last Sunday, that idea rather withered on the rhetorical vine, even as Brian was voicing it.
No-one is really making claims for Ryan to play intercounty football anywhere other than in goal, and no-one is more aware of that than Ryan himself, judging by his own performances for Kerry in recent years.
The problem with my earlier examples from the dim and distant past was an inability to understand their own limitations. If you play in goal long enough, and watch enough football, maybe you start to think that it all looks a little too easy.
And if you’re Shane Ryan and you’re well capable of doing a number on intermediate club teams in Kerry at corner-forward, it might stand to reason that in Croke Park in June or July, you might think . . . ‘well, one game of football is as good as the next’. That is not a trap Ryan has fallen into, no matter how good he is on the ball. And that’s to his credit. Knowing your limitations is not as easy, or as common, as you might think.
Ethan Rafferty of Armagh actually was an inter-county footballer, so the equation is a little different for him. But there’s no doubt that Number 1s are having a moment right now.
Before the All-Ireland final last year, Ryan said: “When I was growing up, maybe I just didn’t notice it, but I don’t think too many people wanted to be goalkeepers at underage. I’m seeing kids come up to me now after games or in the street, and they’re really excited about playing in goal, and really thrive on playing there for their clubs, which is brilliant.’
The position is highly pressurised, but now there’s also a chance for self-expression, and that’s even before you consider that you might have four or five months of playing outfield for your club after the inter-county season, if you so desired.
When Shane Ryan gets the ball 30 yards out from his own goal, faced by Damien Comer or Aidan O’Shea or Ciarán Kilkenny, he’s not of a mind to see how his intermediate club football skills would transfer to the inter-county stage. Judging by some of the scores he kicked last Sunday, they might work out just fine in a pinch, but an All-Ireland semi-final or final is probably not the time to find out.