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Raiders of the lost art of free-taking

Sport

OFF THE FLOOR Mayo’s Cillian O’Connor is pictured taking a ‘45 during the All-Ireland SFC clash with Cork at the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick in 2017. Pic: Sportsfile

Feature
Colin Sheridan

BILL Buckner died last week. A man you may never had heard of, but somebody you could definitely empathise with. In 1986, already a veteran of Major League Baseball, he became the most famous man in American sports for all the wrong reasons. Playing shortstop for his beloved Boston Red Sox in a potentially deciding Game 6 of a world series, he assumed the position on the field he did for every other game of his twenty-year career, and he waited.
He crouched and readied himself as the New York Mets outfielder Mookie Wilson stood at bat, game tied, bottom of the tenth. We’ve all been there — a game of rounders some July evening that won’t end until darkness deems it impossible to see that battered tennis ball. Unlike us, though, this was not some random summer lark-in-the-park for Buckner. This was the World Series and the chance to end a 68-year famine and break the most storied curse in American sports. No doubt about it, he was the right guy, standing in the right place, thinking the right things. When Wilson hit a poor ground ball toward Buckner, all he had to do was execute a skill so basic it barely required thought: bend down, collect baseball in glove, throw it to his pitcher Bob Stanley, striking the Mets runners out. It would not have won the Red Sox its series- but it crucially would have given the much-needed momentum to do so. Buckner did bend down, did plant his glove to collect the baseball, and did, undoubtedly, feel a devastating chill as the ball not so much went under, but in a moment of Wim Kieft sorcery, inexplicably around his glove. The Mets runners romped home. Game won. It only took a split second, but if a Meme and a Gif hooked up and had a kid, Bill Buckner became it.
The ridicule that followed belittled a career worthy of a happy, peaceful retirement in Nantucket. Instead, that nanosecond of entropy came to define him, and the hopelessness of the Red Sox cause.
Time passed, and Boston came to forgive Buckner, but only after the Red Sox ended broke the curse one October night in 2004. Truthfully, it was Buckner that needed to forgive – a public, a media and a team that allowed him to bear the stigma of failure for an entire city and organisation, when he was nothing but a cog in a big wheel. The crucial sporting lesson remains, as the batter swung his bat that night, Buckner was the right man in the right place.
What happened was outside of his control. When David Gough blew his whistle three minutes into injury time for a foul on Matthew Ruane, Roscommon hearts must’ve sunk.
Not as deep as Kevin McLoughlin’s, though. When Diarmuid O’Connor summonsed him over to hit that free, he looked about as comfortable as Melania Trump at one of her husband’s press conferences. He did not want to be there. McLoughlin’s body language betrayed the probability that this circumstance was something that he never once countenanced that entire, saturated evening. And even if he did, it was too late.
So, though it was he who swung the boot and ultimately missed, the fault lay elsewhere, for unlike Buckner and the bobbly baseball, this is something we should have expected to happen.

MANAGERS will tell you after such events that matches are not won and lost on such moments as missed frees. Similarly, goalkeeping errors and cornerback slips. Matches are won and lost on seventy-plus minutes of graft — one shirked tackle by a distracted corner forward has the butterfly effect of conceding a killer score the opposite end, often twenty plus phases later. That’s what they’ll tell you. Because in part it’s true and it serves as a great teaching tool. But also, because it distracts from the fact it’s sometimes quite the opposite. Tight matches are often lost because coaches ignore a fundamental of any great coach: control the controllable. Having a place-kicker on the field — who is praying for a chance to do his thing — is lesson #1 of how to win close football matches. Not doing so, is negligent.
Look at Dublin, who play maybe one tight game a year. You seriously think there would’ve been confusion which Sky Blue was going to hit a similar free, despite it being an eventuality that might never befall them?
Mayo play more close games than anybody. So fast and loose are we with the form guide, that the same butterfly effect afflicts us as everybody else, but when clutch plays are needed, we are far more reliant on unplanned moments of brilliance – think Cillian’s equaliser versus Dublin in 2016, ditto Paddy Durcan v Kerry a year later – than we are the rudimentary prerequisites. We have missed crucial frees in finals, but at least in those cases, it was the right man taking the kick. Not having an alternative to Evan Regan last Saturday night was foolhardy, and not having a place-kicker – from the ground – displays an arrogance that conditions and circumstance don’t affect this Mayo team. Kicking a free from the ground mitigates against many external factors – there is fewer moving parts so less room for error.
A ball struck from the ground has a truer flight, so is less affected by wind.
Hell, even from a spectator viewpoint, it’s more dramatic. Sadly, it’s a skill in decline.
Place-kicking is something the GAA has chosen to pretty much abandon. It is as if they had one piece of high-art to save from the fire, and they chose high-fielding. A slap in the face to many of its past and present practitioners, and a trick missed when the games needs innovative ways to reward dying skills. There is an art to kicking a free from the turf. There is the preamble, the planted foot, the first contact, the head position, the timing and the follow through. The untrained eye may never realise the precision and skill required to kick a free kick front-on, to fade it, to draw it, all depending on wind, nap of the grass, mood and preference. For TV commentators it can be broken down into two categories: that fella should hit from that side, and the other fella from the other. There is no nuance to this analysis.
It is truly a shame. People will always remember Maurice Fitz’ as one of the great kickers. I doubt you will ever read an obituary that begins “He was one of the great hand-passers of the game…”
Coaches, too, seem to be following the rule-makers lead and concentrating their minds elsewhere. Athleticism often valued over bespoke skill. And while that serves a broader purpose, it won’t dig you out of a hole in a qualifier in Newry on a damp June evening.
Wait and see.

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