Dublin could unravel if they do not sort out free-taking
David Treacy missed three frees against Kilkenny and was punished ruthlessly
Dublin’s David Treacy dejected after losing to Kilkenny in Nowlan Park. He missed three frees at key points in the match. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Even if time and tides have squeezed all available juice from the contention that Kilkenny are ruthless, last Saturday did at least remind us all that in Brian Cody’s 21st championship season, the old rules endure. Their talent for turning a crack in the footpath into an open sewer into which you must tumble will be their boxer’s punch, the last thing they lose. You show them a weakness, they’ll show you how it hurts.
Just under 14 minutes into Dublin’s visit to Nowlan Park, David Treacy came out under the old stand and lined up a free. It was just in line with the midfield hash-mark, about 10 metres in from the right sideline. All in all, around a 70-metre shot. Not a gimme but not the most taxing free he’s ever had to take either.
For any right-handed free-taker, the natural fade that comes from hitting from that side meant a thicker margin for error and the whole of the goal to aim at. For Treacy, a decade into his inter-county career and with a couple of club All-Irelands built on a foundation of his frees, it had to be money in the bank.
It wasn’t. Treacy missed on the near side and instead of Dublin pushing on into a three-point lead, Kilkenny immediately brought the margin back to one, with Walter Walsh arcing a point more or less straight from the puck-out. Just the usual twist of the knife.
Ten minutes after half-time, Dublin were 1-15 to 0-15 ahead. Treacy had recovered from his early miss and was popping his frees at will. An early one in the second half, from a tight angle on the left sideline, had split the posts with authority. Given that TJ Reid was relentless at the other end, the way Treacy was going stride for stride with him was impressive. It was also non-negotiable.
But then he missed two out of three in the space of 10 minutes. Again, neither were overly difficult – certainly neither as taxing as the one he’d just scored – and again, Kilkenny spared nothing in response. A minute after the first one clanked wide off the right-hand post, Reid had the game’s signature moment with his one-two off Colin Fennelly and his low finish for the first Kilkenny goal. Soon after, Reid buried a penalty for their second.
Though Treacy had replied to the first goal with a cool free from 65 metres, he couldn’t repeat the dose after the second. Almost immediately, he had a chance from the 45, again on an angle out on the right. Again, he missed on the near side, never threatening the posts. Again, straight from the puck-out, Kilkenny went further ahead, this time through Richie Leahy. It put them four up and they eased home from there.
In Treacy and Ryan, Dublin have had a couple of damn good free-takers in an era where free-taking has become great
In a sport of a thousand different coin-flips across an evening, it’s probably a touch unfair to zero in on Treacy’s frees. Three misses from nine in 70 minutes isn’t brilliant but it’s hardly a complete nightmare showing either. Go through the reasons for Dublin’s defeat and you can point to any or all of: Seán Moran blazing his second penalty over the bar; Paul Ryan whipping his first-half goal chance wide; or even the lack of action taken on the line as Pádraig Walsh assumed control after the break.
It’s really only worth mentioning because this is not a new problem for Dublin. For Treacy last Saturday, see Ryan last year. Against Kilkenny in Parnell Park, Ryan missed three frees and was subbed off after 48 minutes. On a night when Kilkenny found a combined 0-15 from placed balls through Reid and Eoin Murphy, it wasn’t the only reason Dublin lost. But it was right there in the mix.
“I know everyone was half-expecting a Dublin win on Saturday,” says the unrivalled former Tipperary free-taker Eoin Kelly. “But a stat flashed across the screen on Sky at one stage that said Dublin have beaten Kilkenny once in 70 years and that was after a replay. So for Dublin to beat Kilkenny they need to nail every single chance. Standing over a free has to be a done deal. There has to be a concentration and a focus and everything has to be nailed.
“They were beaten by five points – they missed three frees and Seán Moran put a penalty over the bar. So right there, you have your five points that were lost and that’s not to mind whatever they missed from play. It was crucial in the game. And that’s the way of it in the modern game. Free-taking is vital because you get so little leeway from the other team.”
In Treacy and Ryan, Dublin have had a couple of damn good free-takers in an era where free-taking has become great. Go down through the pre-championship list of contenders and the point at which the All-Ireland odds started to stretch out generally coincided with the point at which the free-takers stopped being unimpeachable. Aaron Gillane, Joe Canning, Reid, Patrick Horgan, Jason Forde – no serious side can be expected to survive without one.
Treacy and Ryan have won plenty of games for Dublin down through the years. But it’s not by accident that when you drill down into Dublin’s championship defeats over the past five years, they’ve generally lost the free-taking battle in the midst of the broader war. Ryan has always pointed to the All-Ireland semi-final against Cork in 2013 as the one game he’d go back to if he got the chance. “I missed frees that day that haunted me for two years before I could deal with it,” he said in an interview a couple of years back.
Last Saturday was Dublin’s fourth defeat in five games under the new championship format. In all five games, they’ve been outscored from frees by the opposition. Against Wexford last year, Ryan finished the day with six frees and a 65 but he missed another two from long range and Moran missed one as well. In response, Rory O’Connor potted 11 from 11 and Paudie Foley landed a bomb of his own.
Wexford missed one free all day, Dublin missed three. Wexford won by two. Perspective and plain common sense says it’s wrong to draw a straight line between the two. But they’re not completely unconnected either.
Same with the Galway game in Salthill last summer. Ryan missed three frees and was gone at half-time, with management handing the job to Treacy. By the end, a combination of the pair and goalkeeper Alan Nolan put up eight points from frees. Jason Flynn, deputising for Canning, hit nine. Galway won by a point. Again, not solely down to the free-taking. Again, the free-taking was not insignificant either.
“The level of analysis now, the scrutiny that goes into it, leaves a free-taker with very little breathing space,” says Kelly. “Your stats are there for everyone to see and you can be sure your opposition know all about it too.
“You’re looking through the papers on a Monday and seeing Joe Canning 0-15 (0-13 frees), Jason Forde 1-13 (0-8 frees, 0-2 65s), Patrick Horgan 0-16 (0-15 frees) and that was all in the league. Shane Bennett scored 14 frees in the league quarter-final against Clare. Those are numbers that never happened when I was playing. You’d never be in a game where you’d take 15 frees, not to mind scoring them all.
“The norm when I was hurling was that you’d take seven to 10 frees in a game. Very rare that you’d go up beyond that. Nowadays, it’s rare for a team not to be given 10 to 12 or more scoreable frees in a game. And the standard of free-taking has gone through the roof. If you concede a free now anywhere from your own 45 on up, it’s a chance for the Pat Horgans, Joe Cannings, TJ Reids.”
At a championship preview night in Nenagh a couple of weeks back, Derek McGrath produced a stat that sent a few low whistles through the crowd. In his past five championship seasons, McGrath said that Waterford’s Pauric Mahony had missed the sum total of five frees. Not five a season, five in five seasons.
Dublin just don’t have that sort of reliability to call on. Or anything approaching it. They know it too. When Treacy’s third miss leaked wide on the right last Saturday, the deflation in the Dublin ranks was palpable. Nowlan Park was bubbling after Reid’s two goals and this was Treacy’s opportunity for a show of defiance. Instead, Dublin went 10 minutes without a score and fell five behind.
With Wexford coming to Parnell Park tomorrow, it will be interesting to see if Mattie Kenny sticks with Treacy as the free-taker. He is on record as saying that he thinks Treacy is the best free-taker in Dublin. Then again, he was over Cuala when he said that, so he was hardly likely to say otherwise.
With Ryan waiting in the wings now though, he may find himself with a decision to make, if not before the game then during it. Dublin’s summer could be a short one if he doesn’t get it right.