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Why Was Wexford Goalkeeper Fanning Talking To A Man In The Stand?

Why Was Wexford Goalkeeper Fanning Talking To A Man In The Stand?

Years ago, when Davy Fitzgerald first appeared on the sidelines for Limerick Institute of Technology, Seoirse Bulfin was patrolling alongside him. The former Limerick underage goalkeeper would follow Fitzgerald to Waterford, Clare and now Wexford, where he continues to influence tactical strategy.

Two former goalkeepers who are heavily interested in all aspects of that quintessential art. Last weekend their fingerprints were all over Wexford's success and their puck-out approach.

The Leinster Final puck-out success rates finished in Kilkenny's favour, who won 17 out of 27 on their own puck-outs versus 17 of 34 for Wexford. Yet crucially, context is key.

Kilkenny use puck-outs as a re-start. Wexford use them as a scoring opportunity.

Consider the first half. A long ball on top of the Kilkenny half-back line with Wexford crowding them out for Lee Chin to score, a similar score for O'Connor just before half-time and a short puck-out to the wing which was immediately sent long into the vacated space in front of O'Connor for him to spin and score. It proved fruitful.

In his autobiography, 'At All Costs', it was clear that Davy Fitzgerald placed huge importance on this aspect of the game. Prior to the 2016 Allianz League semi-final, the then Clare manager outlined the thought that went into their approach for that tie.

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Kilkenny the next day was an entirely different matter. And we did something that nobody did against them. We went after them in the air. Actually, that's over-simplistic, because we did a lot of things differently that day in Thurles. One was to shove our two wing-backs up to our wing-forwards on puck-outs so that we'd have extra bodies in the landing zone.

I remember talking about it with Paul beforehand, and our view was that Kilkenny wouldn't really have encountered this tactic before. We weren't entirely sure it would work, of course, but ended up looking at one another in the dressing room and saying almost in unison, 'Let's just do it!' It meant we would crowd them out on our puck-outs.

Frequently on Sunday, it was noticeable that Mark Fanning glanced over his shoulder before hitting a puck-out. What was he looking at?

Wexford puck-outs

Writing in his Irish Examiner column, former Waterford manager Derek McGrath had the answer.

Early on in the game, I noticed Mark Fanning conversing with someone behind his goal at the Davin Stand end. It was intriguing to watch this member of Davy’s backroom team perched right in the front row five yards from Fanning’s goals clearly instructing Fanning re the puckout policy.

Obviously wired to Seoirse Bulfin, Keith Rossiter, and JJ Doyle, with the lead direction coming from Davy himself, the early instruction to go long clearly paid dividends but while clearly planned was open to improvisation.

I monitored this individual’s progress at half-time as he somehow made his way to right behind the goal at the Hill and the guidance duly continued.

A quick exploration of match footage does indeed identify someone positioning himself behind Fanning's goal for each half.

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An individual behind Fanning's goal for the first half.  

wexford puck-outs

No longer there for the second half. 

Nobody was behind the Kilkenny goal for the first half. 

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He was there for the second half. 

He was poorly positioned to see the pitch but ideally positioned to communicate with the Wexford goalkeeper. 

It's merely the latest escalation in the goalkeeping revolution.

Goalkeeper Ryan Elliott progressed through the ranks of Cuchullains Dunloy until he broke into the Antrim senior side two years ago. As he continued to develop, so too did the importance of puck-outs to the extent it currently dominants his thinking: "Massively. The days of hit it long are gone. It's the bulk of what we do now. Think about a game, you might have three or four saves to make but you could have 30 puck-outs. That takes priority in training."

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wexford puck outs

From net-minding to play-making with a series of systems and structures dedicated to making it successful: "It's like a quarterback."

"Everyone's trying to get an edge," he acknowledges, with pre-ordained moves and set plays now the norm.

Within that, outfield players have just as much a role as the goalkeeper does. Each delivery needs to be well-received.

"It's as much about what they're doing out there as what you do."

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For Galway goalkeeper James Skehill, that transition came during his playing career. The Cappataggle club man tells Balls.ie that the progression and innovation around puck-outs has increased ten-fold since his debut in 2007.

"The best puck-outs used to be the longest ones. That's where the focus was. Today, the primary objective of the goalkeeper is to retain possession. There are non-negotiables like ball handling and saving shots but puck-outs are just massive now."

Wexford's technique is as much about receivers as it is the goalkeeper. Skehill knows that well, having played under Davy Fitzgerald during his third level playing days.

It's the guys out the field with the goalkeeper. Eveyone on one wavelength thanks to pre-rehearsal. The guys out the field are prompted as well. I'd Fitzy in College, back in the Fitzgibbon in 2007, and we'd a guy on the sideline who had three items. He'd a water bottle, a hurl or a cap.

When he held one in his hand, that signalled where the ball was landing. So if he held a water bottle it was going to 10, if he held the cap it was going to 12.

I'd look over and so would the forwards but it would be seamless. You wouldn't notice us doing it. Everyone knew where the landing zone was as the puck-out was taken. They've brought it to another level now but it all kicked off in LIT.

wexford puck outs

The professionalism increasingly infiltrating Gaelic games has heightened the average players' intelligence and understanding. Yet supporters are not privy to such developments. This can often result in a significant gap between perception and reality.

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"As a goalkeeper, you are adjacent to the crowd behind you. If you strike a short ball, you'll often hear a roar 'strike it long!' 'Let it in!' They can't understand it. Even if we puck long and the ball comes back twice as quick, they'll still want you to keep going long.

"Players have evolved now. We're in-house looking out. We're privy to stats, video analysis, retention figures and those tangibles. It's gone to another level."

As a result, the nuanced and often unnoticed in-game tactical battles rage like never before. Men in the stand delivering instruction to the goalkeeper is an advancement that will quickly be engulfed by the opponent's reaction.

It means more innovation from the likes of Fitzgerald, and more demands for the likes of Skehill.

Wexford traditionally pull a forward out to create a third midfielder or sweeper, they'll play in those areas with a numerical advantage. I'd imagine they're in the top few counties in the country in terms of converting from puck-outs.

The thought going into this stuff... I remember we played Kilkenny last year in the Leinster final in Croke Park. Johnny Glynn was on the wing. Cillian Buckley was centre-back but he started to move and Walter Walsh was shooting out.

So Johnny was one of my strongest targets but they had numbers there to counter it. They enticed you to go the far side where Kilkenny are stronger. Teams do everything now to orchestate a chance or react to one. I have a long puck-out and teams often pack out the forward third so they have a heap of numbers around it to get on those breaks.

More practice, more precision, and for number ones across the country, more pressure.

"That's just how it has gone for all of us goalkeepers. It's tricky business now."

SEE ALSO: Limerick's Unsung Gem Chasing History And Gaelic Football's Influence

 

Maurice Brosnan

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