GOLDEN BOOT free-takers are worth their weight in, well, gold. Just ask Kerry boss Jack O’Connor, who was left to lament the absence of Bryan Sheehan in Páirc Uí Chaoimh last Sunday.
For all the historic jokes about Kildare forwards and barn doors, the Lilywhites appear to have no such deadball dilemmas on the cusp of their first foray into Championship 2012.
They have Eoghan O’Flaherty covering one flank and Mikey Conway the other. When it comes to booming over ‘45’, O’Flaherty has no problem making the distance. As for a handy back-up plan ... ever heard of Johnny Doyle?
“Luckily, we haven’t been missing a whole lot this year,” O’Flaherty reflects. “It’s early days yet – there are bigger days to come – but certainly it’s a big help to the team when we are kicking over the frees that we have been kicking. The percentages are higher, as you say. I’ve been taking frees all my life, so it’s something I’m comfortable with.”
O’Flaherty has received a deadball lesson from Ronan O’Gara in the past but, as you discuss the free-taking art with Kildare’s half-forward schemer, it becomes apparent that he’s no Jonny Wilkinson either. He doesn’t spend every waking hour obsessing over the mechanics of kicking placed balls between two vertical uprights.
He just trusts his long-established technique, keeps practising, and hopes the points will follow.
They came at frequent intervals during Kildare’s eventful escape from Division Two last spring – he tallied 0-27 (15 frees, four ‘45s’ and eight from play).
He has taken on even greater free-taking responsibility this season, assuming the entire right-footed deadball burden – bar penalties – from Doyle. At the same time, Conway has solved their ‘citeog’ conundrum from the right wing: he finished with an identical National League haul of 0-27 (14 frees).
So far, so promising. Now for the acid test of summer, starting with Sunday’s Leinster SFC quarter-final against rank outsiders Offaly in Portlaoise.
In the run-up to Kildare’s |last championship outing – that ill-fated All-Ireland quarter-final |against Donegal – manager Kieran McGeeney enlisted the expertise of Irish rugby legend O’Gara for a goalkicking session with O’Flaherty and Doyle at Carton House.
O’Flaherty absorbed what he could from the veteran out-half but, as he stresses: “I’m not one of those obsessives.
“Even you mentioned there about meeting Ronan O’Gara and Jonny Sexton – I asked them a few questions and things like that.
“You can over-complicate it as well. I’ve been using a similar enough technique since I was 15, kicking the ball off the ground, so I haven’t changed it.
“It’s something I’ve been doing since I was eight or nine, hitting frees for every team I’ve played on, so I don’t think about it too much. Just practise.”
Mind you, he has modified his preferred manner of execution this season.
“I used to always kick them from the ground before this year, but I’ve swapped it up a bit now. Longer ones and ‘45s’ off the ground, obviously, and then in closer I’m taking them out of the hand for the moment,” he explains.
“Last year I was more the ‘45s’ and that distance. It’s probably easier when you’re taking them all – you’re comfortable in close and out far as well.
“I’m happier at the moment, mixing and matching; depending on how I feel on the day, on wind and certain things, I’m happy to have the two options.”
It’s four years since O’Flaherty announced his presence on the national stage by scoring 0-5 (four from play) in the 2008 All-Ireland U21 final. Kerry eventually won by seven points but not before their skipper, Killian Young, had endured a torrid time chasing Kildare’s elusive centre-forward.
Based on that form, it was hard to believe he had never played minor for the county. But Glenn Ryan, then U21 boss, liked what he saw and McGeeney quickly promoted him to the senior squad too. His influence has grown with every passing summer since.
“I’m only 23, but I played the last two seasons of championship, nearly every game,” he reflects.
“You are trying to improve yourself individually and collectively. I’m not trying to take a leadership role this year or anything like that – those lads are still in the team and they’re natural (leaders).
“But with the free-taking, your responsibility has gone up a small bit anyway, so you have to step up to the plate.”
This Sunday he will share an O’Moore Park pitch with several familiar faces – the Carbury clubman attended school across the Offaly border in nearby St Mary’s of Edenderry.
O’Flaherty was in Croke Park two months ago to witness his alma mater claim a maiden All-Ireland senior colleges title, while two old school-mates, corner-back Seán Pender and midfielder Richie Dalton, have been selected for Offaly this weekend.
He will also, of course, share a dressing-room with older brother Morgan (28). “We actually live together as well, in Naas,” Eoghan reveals.
“We are more friends (than brothers), we are just so used to being around each other. Definitely on the field, probably more so playing at club level, we don’t have to talk to each other – we can nearly read what each other is going to do.”
Brothers in arms, then?
“If it came down to between me and him getting in the team, I’d pick myself!” he signs off with a laugh.