Saturday, 13 August 2011

First line of attack

In today’s era the transfer market has gone out of control.  When I was following soccer in the late 90’s three shrewd pieces of business stick out in my mind.  These were the signings of Henrik Larsson, Eric Cantona and Peter Schmeichel. 

Larsson and Cantona went on to become cult heroes.  The Swede was just what Celtic needed, a prolific goal scorer and Cantona was effectively the man that made United tick.

Big Peter at full stretch

Scoring goals is one thing but preventing them is another.  Schmeichel’s imposing figure, brilliant reflexes and his ability to perform on the big occasion made him, in my opinion the world’s greatest goalkeeper. 

It was fitting that on this last game for United, he captained them to the Champions League title.  Another two facts are that Chesney named his dog after him in Corrie and I share the same birthday as the big Peter.

In GAA terms when you think of a goalkeeper a few things spring to mind.  It can be the last person picked in the school yard.  The outfield player that couldn’t give up playing and in ended up between the posts, because he was a ‘great reader’ of the game. The big lad with a great hands and could kick it further than anyone else.  Those days have changed.

John O'Leary
As a fully signed up member of the goalkeeper’s union, I was the one that was in nets as I could kick it further than anyone else, might I add, in the day when there was no tee!  It was the era of Damien McCusker, of Finbarr McConnell and of John O’Leary, all in their Adidas Flanker rugby boots.  My brother is now the goalkeeper in the family and often wonders how we did without the tee.

In that day the simple task was to get the kicks to go out over the half backs to midfield and let them fight for it.  The days of Brian McGilligan, Anthony Molloy and Gerry McEntee.  It was up to the ‘keeper to leave ‘er out and the midfielders fought for ‘er.  The breaking ball was a sign of weakness for the men donning the number 8 and 9 jersies.

Hurling was much the same.  In the late 90’s, Athenry were the dominant club team of that era, winning the All-Ireland three times.  They appeared to have a simple tactic.  Their goalkeeper Michael Crimmins pucked the ball out to Joe Rabbit (of hurler and farmer fame) at midfield, he caught it and drilled it into Eugene Cloonan who did the rest.

Watching Dublin’s recent win over Tyrone, it was hard not to have been impressed with Diarmuid Connolly.  He was clinical, took the scoring burden away from the Brogans and was a great outlet for Dublin.  He was worthy recipient of man of the match.

Dublin's Stephen Cluxton
The goalkeeper in me was looking elsewhere though.  Another vital cog in the Dublin wheel was and continues to be Stephen Cluxton.  The Parnell’s player is fast becoming their secret weapon, not of the Dublin defence, but of the attack.  He scores 45’s on a regular basis, but his kick-outs are what separates him from the rest.

He can place them virtually anywhere.  Big Packie was an imposing figure for Tyrone, making a few great saves and keeping Tyrone in the game.  However, the contrast in kick-outs I feel had a major factor on the game.

McConnell didn’t have the accuracy of Cluxton, who was able to launch Dublin attacks.  Also it was the speed at which he was able to do it, not giving Tyrone time to regroup.  He is very much the first line of attack.

Now that the midfield area is so congested, the keeper who can vary his game is going to help his side.  Donal Og Cusack started the short puckout system for Cork Hurlers.  Benny Tierney’s kick-out in 2002 final, down the wing to Diarmuid Marsden, was the first play in the move that led to the crucial Armagh goal.

I used to think that Cluxton was overrated, but more and more I believe is the greatest ‘keeper to have played the game.  Accurate kick-outs, can score 45’s, excellent reader of the game, great shot stopper and has a presence that gives the new look Dublin defence confidence.  He ticks all the boxes.

Peter Schmeichel was the world’s best soccer ‘keeper.  Cluxton holds the Gaelic Football mantle.  Does this mean some kid in Fair City will have a new Labrador called Clucko in the near future?

Players all over Ireland will want to be Bernard Brogan, Henry Shefflin or Colm Cooper.  However, has Stephen Cluxton changed the face of goalkeeping? Will there be a new breed of young lads wanting to play between the posts?

Next Sunday will being Donegal and Dublin together, both battling for a place for September and football’s top table.  They are similar in that they pride themselves on organisation and playing to their strengths. 

Jim McGuinness will certainly be giving selector and team analyst Marc ‘Maxi’ Curran plenty of homework.  I’d say high up on the video analysis wish list will be Stephen Cluxton, Dublin’s first line of attack. 

What are your thoughts on the greatest goalkeepers?  You can leave them via the comment button below.

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