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Monday 30 January 2023 Dublin: 4°C
Ryan Byrne/INPHO
# ball and a wall
Ross Munnelly’s legacy is a lesson for the next generation of sharpshooters
The Laois legend is the longest-serving player in the game currently.

THE STAT WAS incredible. Literally. ‘Ross Munnelly has scored in 20 consecutive seasons for Laois!’ Two decades of staggering shooting. His second-half point against Westmeath last Sunday the latest notch in an almighty belt. The longest-serving player in the game keeps delivering. 

Munnelly took the county by storm in 2003 when he burst onto the scene. He played in a league final, won a Leinster championship, was nominated for an All-Star and young player of the year. He also won a county title and senior Laois footballer of the year.

Ever since the Arles-Kilcruise clubman struck home with that left-footed goal against Kildare in Croke Park, he has produced clutch moments and huge scores for the O’Moore County.

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From that era of conventional positions, the veteran endured as the game transformed utterly. He fought for breaks as half-forwards started to retreat. He ran his loop when the ball was direct. He timed that run to perfection when buildup was slow.

Remarkable evolution enhanced by his comprehensive talents. Ball winner, creator or finisher. Munnelly mastered it all. 

All of this is accurate. The stat that did the rounds on Sunday, however, isn’t. In 2021, Munnelly only had one shot involvement and did not register a score. The anomaly seems to have stemmed from a newspaper match report after their league clash with Clare that wrongly credited Munnelly with a point. 

That is not to say the plaudits are undeserved. Such disarray is a direct result of the GAA’s lack of a proper statistical database. Players suffer as a consequence, as exceptional scoring feats routinely go untracked or miscalculated.

And yet, there can be no doubt that Munnelly’s staying power is exceptional. There is also a lesson in it for the next generation of upcoming players. The only active player outside of Dublin with a Leinster medal. How is he still going? 

“He never drank or smoked anyway,” explains Arles Kilcruise chairman Philip McLoughlin.

“He eats so well. He goes to bed very early. Even if he is out at a wedding now or a club night out, he wouldn’t be out until three in the morning.

“Don’t get me wrong. He is a great sport, the opposite of boring. But he takes care of himself. He is cinderella, gone home before 12. He always had the lifestyle right.”

darragh-bohannon-and-ross-munnelly Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

McLoughlin points to his breakthrough under Mick O’Dwyer as a defining moment. The Kerryman took him under his wing, recognising potential in an attacking canopy constructed around the tentpole that was an inside line of  Brian ‘Beano’ McDonald, Damien Delaney and captain Ian Fitzgerald. 

Feeding them and feeding off them. O’Dwyer drilled decision-making. If the shot was on, take it. If not, recognise that and lay it off. Smarts that Munnelly would digest and display for the next 20 years. 

That team were told to line out in their positions and get back to them after every score. As Gaelic football progressed, wing forwards had to work harder and further from goal. No trouble for Munnelly, this was his staple diet since he was a boy.  

“You couldn’t say you saw him coming as a juvenile,” says McLoughlin.

“You see, he was so small. Underage the big fellas often stand out. In secondary school, he started to show something special. The difference in him was that he was so committed.

“He wanted to be a success. The average guy does a certain amount, Ross will always do the extra bit.

“I notice it still. If he comes home to visit his parents he still has the bag of balls and brings them in to kick in the field. Nearly every day. Any day he’d be home. It is a good message for young lads. I would say there is not a day he doesn’t kick a ball.” 

That is telling in Munnelly’s play. He is proficient with the foot or hand with left and right. Some work hard. Others work smart. He does both. 

By 2013, the challenge had changed. The dawn of ‘the modern game.’ Evolve or perish. When Laois went to Carrick-on-Shannon for a fourth-round qualifier,  All-Ireland champions Donegal presented a new test. Munnelly started at 10, alongside his current manager Billy Sheehan, and ran himself into the ground. What’s more, he led the line. A final tally of 0-4, 0-2 from play.

In 2014, his partnership with Donal Kingston was telepathic. In some ways, it was classic ‘big man, little man.’ One understood the other. 

Against Dublin in the Leinster quarter-final, as soon as Kingston gained possession on the 45, Munnelly started to move and track the ball with perfect movement. Always side to side.

 

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Munnelly stepped forward and quickly doubled back, putting the defender on the back foot. The Laois forward then drifted into the passing line to receive the pass, turn and score.  

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Munnelly’s excellence lies in his ability to evaluate situations and create space so he can get an immediate shot off.

In the same game, when a long ball landed on the edge of the square, he recognised the opportunity and moved away from the goal before converting with his right foot. 

 

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For all his prowess on the field, McLoughlin is quick to stress he believes Munnelly is doing as much off it. 

“I’d say Billy Sheehan knows he is good to have in there. He is a good leader for the young lads. I saw them train recently and noticed, he was so good with them.

“He was talking to the other forwards the whole time. Where they should run, what should they do. I think he has a big impact nearly in a selector role.”

Marc Ó Sé was a Sigerson Cup team-mate of Munnelly’s on a star-studded Maynooth team that included Alan Dillion, John Keane, Barry Cahill and Rory Kavanagh. Speaking on The42 podcast, GAA Weekly, he highlighted the Laois man’s impressive longevity through good times and bad. 

“Ross was on our team. He was a serious player. The fact he is still going, fair play to him. It is hard for him because you are playing on a team that hasn’t had success in a while. He has. But that hunger is still there. That takes fair going. He has some drive.” 

Even with reduced playing time, he continues to add value. Munnelly hasn’t started a championship game since the 2019 qualifier against Cork.

Yet from 2019 to 2021, he had 13 shot involvements. 0-3 and five assists. He came off the bench to score in both of their 2020 championship games, including a mark against Longford. Always maturing. 

In a 2017 interview with the Irish Independent, Munnelly gave an insight into the mentality that has sustained his remarkable career. 

 ”I hear players saying will we go to the gym or for a pool session. The advancements in sports science have brought the game on but my advice to young players is to go to the field for 50 or 100 kicks of a football more often than you do the extra gym or pool session.”

ross-munnelly-scores-a-penalty Donall Farmer / INPHO Donall Farmer / INPHO / INPHO

Become a master of your craft. Ross Munnelly is one of the great survivors of a game that has undergone seismic change. A testament to brain rather than brawn. Evident still last weekend in MW Hire O’Moore Park as he came on in the second half to score on his 113 league appearance. 

“He got in on Sunday and I was watching,” recalls McLoughlin.

“There is a load of lads, huffing and puffing, running everywhere and they don’t get a kick at goal. He was in for two minutes and had it over the bar. Get in the right position and pop it over. That’s Ross.” 

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