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Players will be put on the spot

Let the mind games commence as penalties poised to play more crucial role this season

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Meath goalkeeper Andrew Colgan saves a penalty from Paul Mannion of Dublin during the Leinster SFC final in June 2019 at Croke Park

Meath goalkeeper Andrew Colgan saves a penalty from Paul Mannion of Dublin during the Leinster SFC final in June 2019 at Croke Park

Meath goalkeeper Andrew Colgan saves a penalty from Paul Mannion of Dublin during the Leinster SFC final in June 2019 at Croke Park

It was nothing more than a quirk of fate that of the nine members of the Playing Rules of Gaelic Football committee who, in 2010, recommended the penalty be brought in from 14 metres to 11, two had missed penalties in All-Ireland finals.

Given the body of evidence with which the group were presented, the change met no resistance.

In the 2009 All-Ireland SFC, 14 penalties were awarded to teams, with just nine goals scored.

The previous year was worse: in 2008 referees blew for 16 penalties but they yielded nine goals and one point (28 points in total) for an average of just 1.75 points per kick.

The subsequent 2010 League was pock-marked with a deluge of penalties and equally, a spate of misses.

The figures suggested, quite persuasively, that teams had carried out a risk assessment on the concession of a penalty against the expected consequence.

And so the committee made their recommendation and dramatically changed the dynamic of the penalty in Gaelic football.

No-brainer

"It was a no-brainer," recalls Oisín McConville, one of the nine-man committee and along with Galway's Liam Sammon, also one of the two who had an All-Ireland final penalty saved.

"Teams were deciding the punishment for conceding a penalty was less than if they allowed a player through on goal."

There is no official source for statistics on the penalty conversion rate in Gaelic football since it was moved closer to goal, but at inter-county level, it is roughly 65 per cent.

For kickers, the shorter distance meant less requirement for power.

For goalkeepers, the primary consequence of the change was a reduction in reaction time.

Reading the ball flight, or the kicker's body language, is often no longer sufficient to execute a save.

"I've noticed," says McConville, "a lot of goalkeepers are guessing and diving before the kick. That didn't used to be the case with Gaelic football goalkeepers.

"I think they realise now that because it's 11 yards, the ball is travelling at such pace that if they don't move first, they won't get to it."

In hurling, the penalty has undergone a much more recent revamp.

And similarly, the numbers indicate that takers are growingly accustomed to the altered conditions.

In 2015, when one-on-one strikes were first brought into hurling, just over 40 per cent were scored through the league and championship.

That figure rose slowly, to just over 50 per cent in 2016 and '17, and then spiked sharply to just below 80 per cent last year.

"It's more placement than power now," explains Joe Canning.

"It's almost, 'will the goalie take a chance on going one way' and if he does, he has a good chance of saving it."

Prior to 2015, when three players were permitted on the line, the emphasis for the taker was on a clean, sweet strike preferably aimed between two would-be blockers.

Now, it's a less complicated task, although Canning feels the psychology of the dual is weighted towards goalkeepers.

"If he goes the other way, it looks like you've out-foxed him," he points out. "It's like a penalty in soccer, you could take a bad penalty and if the goalkeeper goes the wrong way, it looks like a good penalty.

"Whereas if you take a great penalty and he goes the right way and he saves it, it's a bad penalty."

There are trends.

Of the 240 kicks at World Cup penalty shootouts before the 2018 tournament in Russia, 170 were scored - a conversion rate of just over seven out of 10.

Of those, by far the most common style of penalty taken was a low ball flight, aimed to the opposite corner to the kicking foot of the taker (i.e. right-footed into bottom left corner).

That figure is multiplied in Gaelic football, where far fewer penalty kickers strike the ball with their instep or risk aiming high.

"That's the stock one," McConville points out.

"And goalkeepers will react to that. If they have to face five penalties in a shootout, you'd have to imagine two of them at least are going to go there."

The issue of goalkeepers coming off their line could, in the circumstances, become a prominent one this winter.

Given the smaller target (GAA goals measure 6.5m x 2.5m compared to soccer's 7.32m x 2.44m), illegally narrowing the angle can make a considerable difference to a 'keeper's chances of executing a save.

"If we're going down the road of penalties deciding who wins the All-Ireland," McConville argues, "and a goalkeeper is two or three yards off his line, it should be pulled up. But it won't."

"What referee is going to be brave enough to call it out when it matters?"

McConville suspects penalties are a feature of all inter-county training sessions just now.

"I don't know how much onus is being put on it by county managers. But it would be absolute madness not to work on it, given how important it could be."

The argument against the use of penalty shootouts in the GAA is largely a humanitarian one.

McConville once said of his penalty in the 2002 All-Ireland final - saved by Declan O'Keeffe - "had we lost, I would have emigrated."

But not only was he not alone in the ignominy of missing a penalty in an All-Ireland final, McConville wasn't even in the minority.

Historically, it has been far rarer for penalties to be scored in All-Ireland football finals than missed.

Miscued

Bill McCorry (1953), Sammon ('74), Paddy Moriarty ('77), Mikey Sheehy ('82), Jack O'Shea ('86), Charlie Redmond ('92 and '94), Trevor Giles ('99 and '01) and Paul Geaney (2019) have all either miscued or had their shot saved on football's biggest day.

Those penalties, some crucial to results, were woven into the tapestry of those matches, part of a wider narrative of the finals.

History and other sports show that a missed penalty in a shoot-out tends to live longer in the collective consciousness.

And that is one of the more horrific possibilities thrown up by the unique circumstances of this most unusual of GAA seasons.

Who will be the player who misses a decisive penalty in a shootout in an All-Ireland final?

"If you're coming towards the end of your career and you don't have a chance to rectify it or make amends, it will be tough," suggests McConville.

"They're the guys I'd be worried about. Some guys can shake it off.

"If you're young, OK it's not going to be nice, but there's always another day. Eventually, you just move on to the next thing and you leave it in the past.

"But for some players," McConville adds, "especially older ones, the mental scars are very, very real."


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