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The Cluxton effect, converted forwards and sports psychology - the rise in free-taking goalkeepers

Cavan’s Raymond Galligan and Wicklow’s Mark Jackson both kick long-range frees for their counties.

THE GOALKEEPING ROLE continues to evolve in Gaelic football, with a growing number of stoppers entrusted by their managers to take on free-taking duties.

Niall Morgan Tyrone goalkeeper Niall Morgan. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Tyrone’s Niall Morgan even became the first keeper to score from open play in the Allianz Football League, doing so on two separate occasions against Mayo and Roscommon. Morgan clipped over a brace of frees against Dublin last weekend and pinging over placed balls has long been a part of his locker.

His opposite number last Saturday night in Croke Park, Stephen Cluxton, is viewed by many as the man who made it acceptable for netminders to venture outfield to hit frees.

He wasn’t the first goalkeeper to score a free in championship football, but he posted 0-6 in the 2011 All-Ireland series, including the famous game-winning free in the final against Kerry.

Cluxton doesn’t head forward to take placed balls for Dublin these days. Sharpshooter Dean Rock has taken over free-taking duties for the All-Ireland champions in recent years, but plenty of other inter-county goalkeepers have assumed the role for their sides.

Stephen Cluxton kicks the winning point Stephen Cluxton after kicking the winning point in the 2011 All-Ireland final. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Five stoppers converted frees in the 2018 All-Ireland SFC: Rory Beggan (Monaghan), Mark Jackson (Wicklow), Paddy Collum (Longford), Aidan Devaney (Sligo) and Niall Morgan (Tyrone).

Beggan was the highest scorer with 18 points across nine championship games, while Jackson finished in second with a very respectable 0-12 from three games.

Raymond Galligan may have been part of that list had he not been dropped by Mattie McGleenan for Cavan’s two qualifier games last summer.

But Galligan, a converted forward, has resumed his place between the posts this season under new boss Mickey Graham. He scored from placed balls in five of Cavan’s six Division 1 games so far this year while his pinpoint kick-outs are a key part of their game-plan.

In 2015, then Cavan manager Terry Hyland spotted Galligan’s potential as a goalkeeper. Back then the Lacken clubman was a full-forward, having spent around six years on the Breffni panel. 

He was a deadly accurate free-taker and despite enjoying some good days in front of the posts under Tommy Carr – he scored 0-11 in one league game against Roscommon – Galligan was struggling to nail down a regular starting spot. 

“Where I came from, my strongest attribute would have been free-taking with my club and Cavan back in 2014 and 2015,” says Galligan.

“The manager at the time, Terry Hyland, felt that the restarts were becoming so important that a place-kicker was probably more beneficial than maybe a good shot stopper.

Raymond Galligan Cavan stopper Raymond Galligan. Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

“I suppose it kind of built from there that possession was key. Cluxton showed that and counties like ourselves really zoned in on securing possession.

“I actually never played in goals until 2015. I went to play a McKenna Cup game against Down as a forward and our goalie got injured. That was the first day I was thrown in and that was the start for me.

“I’ve always been a forward. I played minor, U21 and senior as a forward. Then I wasn’t secure in my position from 2012, 2013, 2014 on.

I wasn’t guaranteed a place at full-forward in every game so when the opportunity arose to try the goalkeeping I said I’d take it with both hands and it’s paid dividends since. I’ve secured a place for the last couple of years.”

Hyland recognised that kick-outs had become such a huge part of the game and defensive systems meant shot-stopping had fallen slightly down the list of requirements for goalkeepers.

“My place kicking would have probably been the first thing,” explains Galligan. 

“Cluxton really set the mark in securing possession (from kick-outs). Terry saw the game was evolving and I think the players were feeling it was an area we needed to zone in on securing possession.

“That was really the start of it and it’s been a knock-on effect with other counties. They’ve shown that possession is key. That was one of the main attributes for myself to get in and get the opportunity.”

0030 Galligan was in Croke Park a Cavan GAA's Win The Dream in Dublin 15 Fundraiser for the Cavan GAA Polo Grounds Centre of Excellence. Source: Adrian Donohoe Photography. 086 3716199

He brought former Dundalk FC keeper Gary Rogers on board as goalkeeping coach to help Galligan with the shot-stopping side of things.

“Terry thought about the idea and to be fair I had Gary Rogers at the time, the Dundalk goalkeeper, and he worked me very hard for two years to see if it would work and to see if I could make it.

Terry gave me a lot of time and he persevered so I’ve him to thank for a lot as well to get the opportunity.”

Having Galligan between the posts means Cavan have an accurate free-taker from long-range, while he’s also happy to get himself involved in open play when the situation arises.

“I suppose looking at Division 1, most of the goalkeepers like Beggan, are excellent footballers. I’m sure he’d be well able to play anywhere with his club out the field if need be.

“The likes of Morgan and Cluxton too. It does help because you’re an extra link in your defence coming out with possession and you feel more comfortable on the ball. It also gives you a better idea of the forward movement, looking on from the goalkeeping side of things. 

“I definitely think with the way the game is moving at such speed, getting the ball out, quick restarts, that having that knowledge of what it’s like to play outfield is definitely a good chink to have.”

Richard Donnelly with Raymond Galligan and Padraig Faulkner Raymond Galligan collects a high ball under pressure from Padraig Faulkner and Richard Donnelly. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

While Galligan was successfully turned into a goalkeeper, Jackson is a natural netminder. Taking frees has long been part of the 20-year-old’s repertoire, who grew up admiring Cluxton from afar.

On his player profile on the Wicklow GAA website, Jackson names the Dublin man as his favourite footballer.

“I think any young goalkeeper coming up is always looking at Cluxton, he’s been the benchmark,” he tells The42.

“Just seeing him doing it was someone you’d look up to alright. He’s definitely one of those players that’s inspirational in what he does. He’s just that good.

He definitely would have been a role model, someone to look up to that was doing it (kicking frees) at the time. He probably would have been one of the first goalies that started doing it.

“From U16s with the club I started kicking them all the way up to minor and with schools and stuff. I was kind of known for kicking frees, so from there I was brought playing through the ranks.

“Some extra bits of goalkeeping you add to your locker. It’s just one of them things that’s good if you have it and exploit it. 

Mark Jackson Wicklow's Jackson averaged four points per game last summer. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“I think growing up when I was younger playing in goals for soccer, I would have had a big enough boot on me. U16 with the club no-one else could really kick it at that age. They were like, ‘Sure give an aul 45 a go there.’

“And after a while I kind of got used to it and started kicking a few. I just started practising them then. I try to practice two or three times a week and I got better with time.”

He largely played soccer in his younger days, but started lining out with local GAA side Baltinglass at U16 level. His progress was quick and as a Leaving Cert student he was handed his senior inter-county debut by Johnny Magee against Waterford in the league.

His championship debut arrived under John Evans against Offaly last May and it could hardly have gone any better.

Jackson saved a second-half penalty from Nigel Dunne and posted a haul of 0-7 (five frees and two 45s) as the Garden County dumped the pre-match favourites out.

“During the game you weren’t even taking notice of it,” recalls Jackson.

“It was only afterwards when you got to sit down and people were texting you and stuff, it was a dream debut.

“It was mad, it was a blur, it was a great game and to get the win there and more so the performance was the bigger thing. It was a massive game for us as a group and it was very good, more so to have that as a collective was very good.”

Mark Jackson celebrates at the final whistle Mark Jackson celebrates at the final whistle of Wicklow's win over Offaly last summer. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Evans had entrusted him with free-taking responsibilities during the league campaign last year and was happy to do so once the other aspects of the position were in order.

“During the league I started kicking a few and I kicked well enough,” continues Jackson. “He had confidence in me.

“Basically, he said, ‘Get your goalkeeping stuff in order first. Get your handling, shot stopping, your kick-outs done. That’s your main stuff. And if you’re doing that and kicking frees it’s bonus territory then. Get your house in order. Concentrate on that stuff first and then kick frees after that.”

The restarts are right up there with Jackson’s most important responsibilities.

Possession is key. You’re looking at your stats to see how many kick-outs you’ve got away and how many were successful.

“To keep possession now and winning your own kick-outs, it’s evolved massively in the last few years and it continues to evolve, especially with the new rules. It’s always moving up a step. It’s a fundamental you want to get right. If you’re winning your own kick-outs you’re doing well.

“You’d normally try to empty out a pocket. I think most keepers will kick it into a pocket it’s probably easier to do that than straight into a man’s chest. I think every team has different kick-out strategies and different things you work on.

“It can depend on the weather, the game, there’s lots of things that could change it up. But it’s definitely something that’s evolving at the minute.”

Mark Jackson Jackson takes a free. Source: Lorraine OÕSullivan/INPHO

In the Leinster quarter-final defeat to Dublin, Jackson sent a brace of frees sailing over his idol Cluxton’s crossbar. He added a further three points in their qualifier exit to Cavan to round off an impressive debut campaign in front of the posts.

“I think any free-taker has their technique. Frees are a small bit different to kick-outs, you have to get a bit more height and the accuracy of it has to be perfect. It’s a similar strike of the ball but your technique is a bit more measured when you’re on a kick-out.”

Jackson’s scoring form has continued into this season. He’s played in five of Wicklow’s six Division 4 games to date, scoring in every one of them with 0-10 to his name heading into the final round of league games.

That includes the five points he hit against Leitrim, who are managed these days by Hyland.

The DIT student has studied the mental side of the game too. It’s a long jog up the field to take a free and an even longer one back if the shot goes wide.

Following his debut against Offaly, Jackson spoke about how “zoned-in” he was as he stood over the high-pressure frees. 

He’s learned to deal with those situations by using visualisation techniques to keep calm under pressure.

“I developed it over time and off the different sports psychologists. I asked them, ‘What do you think is the best way to go about it?’

“They were going through a few different things like zoning in and imagining the ball going over the bar when you’re going up to take the frees. Just stuff like that.

“If it’s either a free or a 45 as soon as you’re jogging up it’s in your head and you’re zoned into it. After kicking them for a while now, it’s kind of second nature. 

John Evans and Mark Jackson celebrate at the final whistle John Evans handed Mark Jackson his championship debut last summer. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“It just comes to you. It’s just getting the practice of doing it. At the start it was tough. Having been kicking them from such a young age, you get used to it and you have that experience of it.

“As a young lad you probably would have (felt pressure) but as you get more experienced, you’re just so zoned-in to kicking them. On the way up you’re literally just in the zone thinking about it.

“Nothing else like the crowd or people talking to you, it doesn’t even go into your head. You just block it out. I think if you were thinking about the crowd and stuff it definitely would hinder you a bit.”

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Kevin O'Brien

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