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exclusive 'A good keeper will be worth weight in gold in this Championship'


Stephen Cluxton is one of the best goalkeepers in the business

Stephen Cluxton is one of the best goalkeepers in the business

Stephen Cluxton is one of the best goalkeepers in the business

Weather conditions for this championship mean kick-outs are vital not to mention penalty shoot-outs

These are tough and dark times. Our frontline staff continue to be heroic and many have lost loved ones in recent months through Covid-19 or other health reasons.

For many people across the country all that is being asked of them is to stay at home and abide by the health guidelines. While we can whinge, moan and get frustrated it is not that hard in the bigger scheme of things when considering the challenges for many out there.

Last weekend it was certainly not difficult to abide by the ‘stay at home’ requests. Championship 2020 was back and with more live TV games than ever on show, our inter-county stars showed just how to give the GAA nation a lift.

The weather and conditions were so bad. I am sure there were many that were plenty of punters glad to put the fire on and put the feet up while watching in the comfort of their own homes!

Did we expect it would be different? Of course we did and there is no doubt the empty stadiums create a vacuum that dampens the atmosphere and setting.

But do you know what? Huge credit has to go to all the teams, it was compelling stuff. Donegal and Tyrone was championship football at its best. Weather conditions meant that the quality of game became irrelevant.

The winning team was simply going to be the team that controlled possession of ball better and make the least amount of mistakes or ball-handling errors.

Tyrone ‘died with their boots on’ while Donegal’s physicality and ability to overload the long kick-outs proved a big contributor to the result particularly in the first half.

We all know the weather conditions are unlikely to be favourable in the weeks ahead. Already we have seen the pressure that weather conditions can put on goalkeepers who are charged with the responsibility of maintaining possession and setting up attacks.

Rest assured for teams to progress in this year’s championship they will need a top class goalkeeper and good tactical plan to win long kick-outs.

The increased risk of attempting a 30-metre short kick-out in a strong wind or on a poor surface is massive. One simple misplaced strike off a wet boot or a handling error and the ball could be in the back of net. No second chances, no back door! Add in the fact that they may have to save penalties in the coming weeks and it all adds significant pressure on the shoulders of goalkeepers.

Of the 46 kick-outs in Ballybofey last weekend, 26 went long out to the middle of park with Donegal winning 60 per cent. Remember, when these teams met last year Donegal went long on 16 of their kick-outs winning 15 of them. An incredible return.

Donegal have proven to be masters at dominating the middle sector when they play Tyrone, even if you argue it is Tyrone’s biggest weakness.

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If goalkeepers have to kick more ball long in the weeks ahead, they must be able to kick the ball long. Apologies for stating the bloody obvious but in dealing with the wind factor, a goalkeeper must have a good trajectory on his kick to give his midfielders a chance. A floating ball hanging in the wind is a nightmare for the defending midfielder.

We are blessed with some top class keepers around the country – Cluxton, Morgan, Beggan and Patton to name just a few. The rule that the ball is kicked out from the 20-metre line now also means that good kicking keepers possess the ability to land a wind-assisted kick out deep into the opposition half.

It may be simple and direct but with a high press up the field, we have already seen this type of kick-out open up goal opportunities.

It may be a biased traditional view as a former midfielder but the increasing level of errors on short kick-outs will introduce a different dynamic to some games in the coming weeks.

As we also saw in the Monaghan-Cavan game, conditions will influence overall tactical approaches and raw intense battle for 50/50 possession could become a factor in some games.

Much of the post-game discussion in Ulster this week has focused the future of Mickey Harte. Harte’s record of accomplishment speaks for itself and there would have been many within his county back in 2008 that would have said the job is his as long as he wants it.

Harte is the longest serving football manager since Seán Boylan in Meath. Boylan was a special manager for the Royal County over three decades but he was also just a wonderful human being and a great Gael that would support anyone in need, even us oul Dubs!

I spent 10 years playing against Boylan’s Meath teams losing four championship games and managing to turn over Meath over just twice in 2002 and 2005.

After 2005, Meath had gone four years without provincial success. This was unknown territory and Meath supporters were getting anxious. Eamon Barry was openly challenging Boylan for his position at county conventions.

Many were calling for a change and the pressure was been put on Boylan despite his outstanding record.

Boylan stood down in 2005 and I remember it vividly as a joyous occasion! As Dubs, we were quietly celebrating as we thought it was a crazy decision to let him go.

We had suffered years of hurt at his expense, as we knew damn well that any Meath team under Boylan would not lie down in the heat battle. Ultimately what followed was years of instability in the Royal County and in Dublin that suited us just fine.

Harte is probably coming under the similar scrutiny that Boylan was 2005 albeit he delivered a provincial title three years ago in 2017 and brought his team to an All-Ireland final in 2018.

Tyrone, no doubt, have quality young players to compete for future success and it is ultimately up to the powerbrokers in Tyrone to decide who is the best to lead them forward.

From the outside looking in it can certainly look like a change of direction might energise the Tyrone group.

However, the grass may not always be greener on the other side and the doubters need to ensure they have a viable alternative.

PS: It was very sad to hear the news of Graham Geraghty illness last week. Graham as we all know was a serious competitor and is one the most talented footballers to have graced our game.

I have great memories of titanic battles as opponents and also some great times as team-mates for Leinster and Ireland. It was great to hear the positive news that Graham is progressing well. Hopefully he will make a speedy recovery and my thoughts are with him and his family at this time.

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