The story of Rory Beggan is the story of Gaelic football goalkeeping. When he was 19-years-old, he owed his place on the Monaghan U-21 team to his kick-outs but not in the way you imagine.
Back then, he was a lamp-it-out merchant, a big-time hoofer, capable of crossing oceans with a single thump. But this was 2011, a time when distance was the only currency.
What did it buy him? Advertising, basically. In Scotstown, he still wasn't the first-choice senior keeper at club level when the county called him up. But Eamonn McEneaney had seen enough of him with the U-21s to know that the raw materials were there. Distance earned Beggan a visa, what he did with it once he crossed the border would be up to him.
“The reason I was on the U-21 county panel was the fact that I could kick the ball a long way,” he says. “That’s what I brought. A good kick-out was getting the ball 60 or 70 metres away down the middle. That was my original kick-out.
“Unless a short one was 100 per cent on, it wouldn’t cross my mind. If you asked me to pick out boys in the pocket 40 or 50 yards away, I would not have been able to do it. I wouldn’t have had the right set-up, I wouldn’t have had the right technique to do it.”
Neither, crucially, would he have had the coaching. At most, he reckons he had one goalkeeping session a year with the club through his teenage years. It just wasn’t the kind of thing that was around the place and Beggan’s placid, no-worries demeanour wasn’t exactly of the type that would demand it.
To get him from that point to this one, some planets aligned.
First, Monaghan were at their lowest ebb for a while. McEneaney's reign saw two successive relegations in the league, plunging what had been a competitive Division One team not so long previously down as far as Division Three.
By the time Beggan made his senior debut in early 2013, the opposition was Sligo. He kicked a ‘45’ that night and could afford to miss another one. In the midst of a 1-12 to 0-7 win, he was barely noticed. Perfect.
Second, Monaghan had recruited and retained Steve Williams as their goalkeeping coach. A Welshman whose professional playing career had spanned two decades in England and Ireland, he first got involved with Gaelic football when McEneaney was over Louth. Now Dundalk's goalkeeping coach, he has kept his hand in with Monaghan on and off since 2011. Beggan's transformation from workaday long-punter to laser-guided quarterback has been his creation.
“Where I am now would be very much down to Steve Williams,” Beggan says. “Steve is a soccer goalkeeper and possession is everything really. He changed the way I looked at it, changed my technique, everything. Once I met him, I was getting constant goalie training and I loved that. There was so much to learn.
“You can see yourself improving. Steve changed the way I set myself up for saving shots and then when I went back to my club and started making saves, I was going, ‘Jesus, he’s right’. And then all you want to do is get back to the next session and see what else can you take on board.”
Third, the game changed. The game, the players, the stats, the analysis. Beggan was a blank canvas at precisely the right time. He was young enough and open enough and willing enough to go whatever way the sport’s winds were blowing. For Williams, he was perfect project material.
“I was with Louth in 2007 and 2008,” Williams says. “And it was basically still a matter of putting the ball down on the cone and kicking it. But the players were taller then and the battle in the air was a lot more a part of the game. Over the past decade, players have got smaller, quicker, more mobile. You have to move on with the times and move on with the game.
“You can’t be predictable, you need to have variety. I want Rory to have every kick in his locker, like he’s reaching for a different golf club each time. And when he has the same short run-up to each kick, he can disguise them better – short or long, left or right. Nobody should know where he’s kicking it until he does it.
“It’s just technique. The run-up makes no difference. Running faster into a kick makes no difference. It’s just down to getting the right connection. If a long run-up meant more distance, then it would be very simple. But that’s not the case. It’s down to making sure that your body is solidified at the point of contact. Two steps and kick is all you need. That’s what he has had since the start in 2011.”
Fourth and finally, there was a template. Ready-made and still evolving there in front of his eye. The best keeper in the country was playing for the best team. And not just playing, dictating. Stephen Cluxton was shifting the outer boundary of what goalkeeping could be just when an impressionable young mind like Beggan's was getting more and more curious as to where the limits lay. Without the Dublin goalkeeper, Beggan doesn't know what sort of player he'd be now. He only knows it wouldn't be this sort.
“When I was 16, 17, 18, Cluxton was it for me,” he says. “As everyone says, he has revolutionised goalkeeping. The standard across the country now is very high and that’s down to him. It’s down to a lot of managers copying the Dublin way and trying to make their goalkeepers better. It’s not the fat kid who goes in goals anymore. It’s a skill position because of him. Goalie coaching is based a lot on what he does and what the Dubs do. It’s down to a lot of managers wanting to have the Cluxton method in their team.”
When it comes to the Cluxton method, the kicking gets all the press. But the way Beggan sees it, the actual kicking is the mundane part. For his day job as a coaching officer employed by the county board, he is based most of the time in the Monaghan centre of excellence at Cloghan. At his disposal every day are pitches, balls, nets and posts, if he is minded to go out and use them.
“Nah, I prefer to rest the legs really. You do enough kicking in training and sure then, in matches, you’re kicking the ball 25 to 30 times a game. I don’t put in a wild amount of practice – the game itself is where you improve. It’s the repetition under pressure – that’s your practice.”
The bigger part of it all is in his head. With the elevation of the position comes an exponential increase in pressure. If all you need to do to have a good game is make no mistakes and kick the ball long, it’s hard to fail too obviously. Different story when the match reports carry stats on your kick-out success.
To survive, he has to play against his essentially shy nature. Conor McManus says that for the first two years in the Monaghan dressing room, Beggan would hardly speak to his clubmates, never mind the rest of them. For him to be the player they need, he couldn’t hide in his shell. They needed him confident, dominant and never, ever cowed.
“You have to be a different person on the field than you are off the field,” Beggan says. “I would be a quiet person off the field. But when you get on there, you can’t be quiet and still survive. On the kick-out side of it, teams are so aggressive in the way they push up now, you need to be confident that you will hit the spaces when they eventually do come. You just have to be aware of what kick-out is right at the right time.
“When teams are pushing up, you have to be able to stay calm. You have to accept that there will be pressure from the sidelines, pressure from the crowd, the ref will be onto you to get it going and you know that if he blows you up, you’re on the back foot straight away.
“You have to make sure you don’t look like you’re panicking because that’s what everyone is watching for. If you look like you’re panicking, the noise will go higher and the ref will feel he has to do something. You just have to trust that the space will come and if it doesn’t, just get it out the field. I’ve been blown up enough times between club and county to know what the signs are by now.”
Against Kerry a fortnight ago, he stunned the country with the range and accuracy of his kick-outs, not to mention his four points from frees. And yet, when he went home that night and played Fifa with his friends to decompress, he knew his performance was far from perfect.
Of the six kick-outs he coughed up over the course of the afternoon, three came in the closing 10 minutes when Kerry were desperate for any sort of possession to save the game. David Clifford’s goal was the third time in this championship alone that he has given up an injury-time goal because of nothing more complicated than a long ball into the square. It has to stop happening, beginning tonight against Galway.
More to work on. More to improve. Same as it’s always been.