It’s tough being a goalkeeper in the modern game.
Not only is more expected of you than at any other time in the history of football, you’re going to be examined and scrutinised on everything in a way that none of your ancestors ever were.
Goalies used to be told they were to save the easy ones, let nothing in over their heads and anything they could do with the hard ones was a bonus. Those days are gone.
Nowadays, people barely even mention saves. It’s nearly a half an insult when you’re talking about a goalkeeper now if you say, ‘Well, he’s a good shot-stopper’. You’re basically calling him a brave lad who’ll put himself in the way of danger but who can’t kick the ball the length of himself. Good shot-stopper is a polite way of saying he’s one step down from the full-back having to take the kick-outs.
And in some teams, it’s not even about the kick-outs anymore. There’s nearly more emphasis on what you can offer out the field now. How good are you joining the attack? What options do you offer going forward? Can you be an X-factor against a packed defence? Give me strength.
This is going to sound terribly old-fashioned now so brace yourself. Goalkeepers aren’t generally very good Gaelic footballers. If they were, they wouldn’t be goalkeepers. It’s a supply and demand thing. No county is so overloaded with high-class intercounty footballers that they can afford to stick one of them in goal. That would be silly.
I can see how good soccer players make good Gaelic football goalkeepers. That makes sense to me. If you're trusting someone with 40 kick-outs a game, you're going to want someone who has a range of passing, who can see all sorts of off-the ball running, who can disguise his kicking and who won't panic when the temperature gets turned up. It's no surprise that the best Gaelic football goalkeeper of them all, Stephen Cluxton, is a very good soccer player.
You often hear of intercounty goalkeepers who play outfield for their club. In Kerry, Shane Ryan plays outfield for Rathmore. In Tyrone, Niall Morgan plays outfield for Edendork. There's loads of examples of it around the county, always has been. But do you think for one second if their managers ever thought they were good enough to play intercounty outfield that they would be still stuck in goal? No chance.
This was all in my mind watching Rory Beggan playing for Monaghan last Sunday. Time and again, he was up the field joining in the Monaghan attack but not really adding anything to the mix up there. Beggan isn't one of the intercounty goalkeepers who plays outfield for his club and, without being too cruel about it, you can tell.
He’s a very good goalkeeper, everyone knows that. He has the kicking range that you need for the modern intercounty game. He can go short or long, high or low. And because his run-up is only a couple of steps each time, he keeps the opposition guessing right up until he kicks the ball. I’ve said it before – Conor McManus couldn’t do for Monaghan what Beggan does. But Beggan does Monaghan no favours by trying to be Conor McManus.
At one stage against Derry, Niall Kearns went to line up a shot from about 40 metres out. On a day when there wasn't a whole pile of space to be found anywhere, Monaghan managed to get him isolated and Darren Hughes found him with a good pass. Kearns had just kicked a fine score a few minutes earlier and was dominating the second half around midfield so he was the right man in the right place at the right time.
But just as he went to kick the ball, Beggan ran across his eyeline. Actually, even before he took the shot, Beggan had his hand in the air looking for the pass from Hughes. That to me showed a total lack of understanding of outfield play.
Monaghan had a man in position ready to take the shot – the job of the other players around him was to create space, nothing more. If you’re going to be in that area, at least make a run to take defenders away from the shooter or block off last-ditch defenders or something.
There are a few things you don’t do. You don’t call for a pass when someone else is in a better position. You don’t run towards him when he gets the ball. And you don’t step into the space around where he’s going to shoot from. But Beggan got so close that he actually had to duck out of the way slightly as Kearns took the shot.
Meanwhile, the nearest Derry player was miles away. Maybe Kearns would have missed anyway but Beggan being in his space definitely didn’t help his cause.
What’s the point of him being there? It would be one thing if he was coming at pace and breaking the lines, drawing a foul or pulling the Derry defence out of shape. But every time he got the ball, he just shipped it on.
Which is understandable because what else is he going to do? He’s not athletic or dynamic in the way you have to be to beat a man at intercounty level. He doesn’t have brilliant ball skills or deft handling to be able to weave his way around a tackler and dish off a killer pass. These aren’t criticisms – he’s a goalkeeper and Monaghan don’t need him to be able to do those things.
What they do need from him are kick-outs, saves and points from placed balls. He did okay in the first category on Sunday, in fairness to him. But he should have done better with the first Derry goal at least and that’s five that have gone past him in Monaghan’s first two games. And he missed a fairly handy – for him – kick at goal in the first half.
If I was him, I’d be making sure I had all the fundamentals running at or near 100% before I was getting in the way of the shooters up front.
In any business, you do cost-benefit analysis. You weigh up risk against rewards. For the life of me, I can’t see what benefit there is to involving a goalkeeper who isn’t a very good footballer in your attack.
The cost is obvious enough – three or four times a game, Monaghan have to scramble back trying to get shape on their defence after a turnover and instead of already being there and orchestrating from a position where he can see everything, Beggan has his head down and is sprinting back himself. Is it worth all that just to have an extra body laying off a handpass on the opposition 45?
When it comes down to it, the All-Ireland is more than likely going to come down to teams who don’t spend a lot of time working out how to get their goalie on the ball upfield. And the far more crucial area they’ll be concentrating on will be kick-outs. I’ve enjoyed watching Derry so far but I’d be a bit afraid for them when it comes to getting their kick-outs away against the really top teams.
Odhrán Lynch just about got away with it on Sunday. When Monaghan put on that squeeze at the start of the second half, he got into the one situation no goalkeeper wants – every kick-out he took became an event in its own right. You could feel it happening. Each time he put the ball on the tee, the crowd, the players, the people watching at home – they all knew this was the game right here, right now.
Kearns took a couple of big catches for Monaghan. Hughes got on another. Karl O’Connell and Conor McCarthy came flying through off the shoulder to push Monaghan on. It was like watching a fella putting his pint glass back up on the bar but leaving half of it hanging out over the lip. It always looked just one false move away from all coming crashing down.
But Monaghan's shooting was so bad that they never managed to get the margin down below three points and Derry were able to kick on. Conor Glass made a couple of great takes to help Lynch out of the situation and eventually they broke upfield and got the goal that killed the game.
By my reckoning, Donegal have the best kick-out merchant in the game in Shaun Patton
You can be sure that Donegal have taken note and they will want to make Lynch's life a misery in the final.I think that could be the big difference on the day, in fact. By my reckoning, Donegal have the best kick-out merchant in the game in Shaun Patton. Again, he comes from a soccer background so it's probably no big surprise. He has distance, he has accuracy and crucially he is a good decision-maker. That should give Donegal an edge, not just in the Ulster final but in the All-Ireland series as well.
Because when you look around the main contenders, it's slim enough pickings on that front. Since Cluxton left the scene, who are you left with? Morgan is generally pretty good but he can be prone to blazing the odd one out over the sideline too. Rob Hennelly was very good for Mayo during the league but we don't know whether he'll be back from injury in time for the qualifiers.
When it comes to Dublin and Kerry, I would say Evan Comerford has the edge over Shane Ryan. Comerford had one memorable wobble when the fat was in the fire against Mayo last year and things got a bit hairy down at the Canal End goal. But every man is entitled to get rattled once in a while – Cluxton was no stranger to it himself from time to time. As long as Comerford doesn't make a habit of it at crucial moments, he's the pick of what's left after Patton.
The edge I think he has over Ryan is that he’s prepared to take a risk and go long to get Dublin up the field. Kerry’s kick-out stats were huge against Tyrone last year but that was because every ball went short to the corner back.
I know possession is nine-tenths of the law and all that but I would like my goalkeeper to be braver than that. If you’re making your full-back line run the ball out every time, that’s going to tell on them in the closing minutes of a tight game.
Ryan is a confident boy when he plays outfield for Rathmore. I’d love to see a bit more of that confidence when he’s in goal for Kerry. Right now, he’s like a fella playing poker who’s only throwing pennies onto the table. That stuff keeps you in the game but if you’re going to go home with the jackpot, you have to put more on the line.