Lar Corbett scored goals. He scored them over and over again. He scored super goals and simple goals, he scored rockets and tap-ins, he scored goals by means of his skill and movement and he scored goals by means of his heft, horsing his marker out of it as the ball dropped on the edge of the square before applying the final touch.
He kicked in a couple of goals and he smashed home quite a few, many of them the fruit of a tactic beloved of Tipperary in the 2008-11 period, with Corbett looping around from his corner and racing across the face of the uprights to take a long delivery from the left and belt it home off his right.
He even authored a near-miss that was better than many of successes, an Exocet despatched with such force early in the second half of the 2014 drawn All-Ireland final that left Eoin Murphy clawing thin air and the Davin End woodwork shivering. Watching the incident again it comes as a disappointment to see that the rebound bounced only just outside the Kilkenny square.
The Thurles man having connected with such sinuous venom, memory had the ricochet coming to ground out on the 50’.
The Corbett edition of Laochra Gael on TG4 earlier this year was a reminder of what great goalscorers do. They hit 29 championship goals like he did, or 26 championship goals like Eddie Brennan did. Before that there was Nicky Rackard with his 60 championship goals, 44 of them from play; Christy Ring with 33, 26 of them from play; and Tony Doran with 40 goals, all from play, in 41 appearances (!).
In between Ring and Rackard at one end and Corbett and Brennan at the other was the snakepit of Cork raptors. John Fitzgibbon, Kevin Hennessy, Charlie McCarthy, JBM. Great goalscorers and scorers of great goals.
An article in the match programme for the 1972 All-Ireland final compared Cork’s scoring modus operandi to machine-gun fire, as opposed to the heavy artillery of Tipperary and the sniped points of Kilkenny. Fanciful or not, there was something in that. The men in red bagged six goals in the 1970 final, five in 1972, four in 1986 and five in 1990. In their five All-Ireland final appearances between 1999 and 2006 they managed three goals.
Whether the decline of ground hurling heralded the decline of Cork as serial goalscorers is an argument for another day, but Diarmuid O’Donovan, the administrator of the Cork County Board, remembers as a youngster in Glen Rovers being coached in the art of corner-forward play by Johnny Clifford, himself a noted exponent of the calling. “You’ll get two chances in a match to score a goal,” Clifford was fond of saying. “It’s up to you to use your skill to take them.”
How many corner-forwards have had two goalscoring chances in the one match this summer? We live in an age where Seamus Callanan can hit nine points from play in an All-Ireland final without feeling the need to work the umpire with the green flag, an era where JBM would not have scored that immortal goal against Galway in 1983 because John Fenton would have been too busy taking his point from the middle of the field, a land that is no country for small or blocky corner-forwards without a turn of foot who cannot win the ball and hold onto it.
Seanie Leary and Joe Deane and Seanie McGrath would be instantly disenfranchised. Shane O’Donnell hangs in there because he’s able to play with his back to goal and he explodes off the front-foot.
Just look at the map of the modern hurling field and the manner in which it conspires against goalscoring, says Eamon O’Shea. First off: wing-forwards deployed as auxiliary wing-backs and a centre-forward playing deep, meaning that three forwards are playing further away from goal than in the past. Then the supply to the full-forward line directed to the corners, meaning players are drifting away from goal when latching on to possession. Then, possibly, an opposition sweeper.
Attacking play is much more structured than before,” O’Shea adds. “Lines of running are not as random. You are now taught lines rather than encouraged to find your own. These days work-ethic is the big thing, meaning that goalscoring has become a secondary objective. Many of the goalscorers of bygone days would be luxury items today.
This year’s Leinster championship yielded 36 goals in 12 fixtures, or 19 goals in the eight fixtures not involving Offaly; the Munster championship 30 goals in 11 fixtures; the All-Ireland series, excluding the preliminary quarter-finals, eight goals in five matches (regulation-time only). It is not so much that goals are decreasing, rather that they’re decreasing as a proportion of the bottom line in view of the increase in points.
The eminent hurling statistician Leo McGough came up with some bracing figures recently. Back in 1995, the average championship match yielded an aggregate scoreline of 4-26. In 2005 it was 3-33. Last year it was 3-36. This year it’s been 3-42. That’s a 50% increase in the number of scores in the space of a quarter of a century. Off the scale. Off the wall.
The opening 10 minutes of the Limerick-Cork All-Ireland semi-final saw 10 points and six wides: 16 shots, plus a hook on Patrick Horgan as he was winding up. The first-half of the game saw 27 scores, 16 wides and a couple of efforts that dropped short.
As Donal O’Grady observed onthat night, this was the stuff of a Centre Court rally at Wimbledon. Or basketball; my turn to attack, now your turn, now my turn. Hurling as computer game. A point from the middle of the field used to be an achievement. Now it’s commonplace. Too commonplace.
Is this actually a good thing? Is there any putting the genie back in the bottle? To Paudie Butler, the former director of hurling, the game has become more about percentages than ever before.
Point-scoring is very high. People are taking the percentage option. What’s happened is that the score needed to win a match has got bigger. Once upon a time if you hit 0-20 you’d be happy. The sharpshooters are good.
Yet hurling “needs goals”. Butler is adamant about that. It also needs goalscorers, wherein lies the rub. “You still need to be very brave to get a goal. You have to want to take punishment.”
The rise of the sweeper is one reason for the decline in goals — and concomitantly, Butler suggests, the increase in points. (“A sweeper concedes points when you don’t want to concede goals.”)
The biggest factor, however, he deems to be the range of the sliotar.
Would first-time hurling be a way of turning the clock back and opening up defences? In theory it would, Butler believes, if only enough people would take the bull by the horns and risk being gored. Go back to the 2013 National League final, when Kieran Bergin pulled overhead on the sliotar — and sent it straight across the field to his opposite number Kieran Joyce, who promptly put it over the Tipperary bar. Eeeek. Giving away possession: the ultimate contemporary sin.
“We need somebody who’d take the hit for the one miss. Somebody who will be punished and will do it again. We need more people doing it again. Otherwise we dry up. A random pull takes place, it doesn’t work and the poor man who hit it is left cringing. We curtail the people who’d pull naturally.
But to play a proper first-time game you need everyone in position. The problem is, nobody is in position any more. With Offaly they were in position, which is why Offaly’s first-time game worked. The players were where they should be. Now they’re all gone inside.
Here’s a good quote from DJ Carey. “The only bad ball to a forward is the one that doesn’t come.” Why doesn’t that ball come? A common cause, according to Martin Fogarty, the current National Hurling Development Manager, is a constricted palette.
“Be proficient in all the skills. You never see a golfer with three clubs. Every skill you have is like a club in the bag. There’s a time to know when to use it or not. Quick striking opens up the game and doesn’t give a defender time to get with the forward. When the chance comes you have to be able to strike the sliotar on the ground. Like Brian Corcoran opening his bag against Waterford with the drop shot that time.
“You’re being dominated in the air? Pull overhead and move the ball on. It’s an extra bullet in the chamber. Okay, a guy strikes it on the ground and it goes to the opposition and he gets given out to. I’d make the case that if players rise it, they can get dispossessed anyway, so why not pull first time? But until a couple of coaches decide otherwise, the situation is going to remain the same.”
What else can be done?
Martin Fogarty deplores the “worrying fad” of short hurleys that don’t reach the ground.
A chap who’s six foot with a 34-inch or 33-inch stick. That detracts from striking on the ground. You are going to miss a lot of hooks and blocks.
Paudie Butler suggests modifying the sliotar. “The ball travels too far. That’s for sure. I hope they deal with it. Cut it down by 15 to 20% in distance. That would bring back centrefield play significantly. You may have to go for a goal then. I don’t know if points from 100 metres are of any value to the game. Golf has suffered the same way from power drivers.”
Eamon O’Shea, being an economist and thus intrigued by the way in which incentives can change behaviour — Nudge Theory and all of that — reckons that increasing the value of a goal to four points “might be worth trialling”. Barring that, he adds, try picking creative players and encouraging unstructured lines of attack.
Creative players like Lar Corbett, a free spirit if ever there was one. When will we see the next Lar?
Sorry, wrong question. The real question is, will hurling’s evolution allow us to see another Lar?