David Clifford and Seán O'Shea ensure Kerry are doubly insured in clutch moments

As he stood over his late free kick in Croke Park on Saturday, David Clifford trusted the rituals, routine, and mindset which have always governed his freetaking process, writes Christy O'Connor.

David Clifford and Seán O'Shea ensure Kerry are doubly insured in clutch moments

As he stood over his late free kick in Croke Park on Saturday, David Clifford trusted the rituals, routine, and mindset which have always governed his freetaking process.

Ball in his hands, feet parallel to the sideline, Clifford’s knees slightly bobble for four seconds as he half-squats to stabilise his stance, before taking one deep breath to fill his lungs, pen his shoulders back, and straighten his body.

As Clifford gets set to address the kick, he takes one tiny step to his left with his right foot before moving off in a mini-arc and making contact on the fifth step.

Milliseconds after the ball leaves his left boot, Clifford’s kicking foot is a couple of inches above his head.

That process largely governs Clifford’s kicking style for points in open play too but the elongated and exaggerated follow-through is a more measured means of controlling technique and ensuring the correct curl and accuracy in the strike.

The ball had just hit the ground, off the back netting, when Dean Rock shook Clifford’s hand to acknowledge, not just the score, but the clinical manner of execution with the last kick of the match.

Rock knows how cold the ice is in Clifford’s veins but he would have readily appreciated Clifford’s strict adherence to the principles of the process.

Rock’s freetaking style out of his hands is broadly similar to Clifford’s, albeit his kicking foot doesn’t finish on the same elevated point after contact, but Rock’s kicking style off the ground is a glorious study of routine; stand directly over the ball, take five steps back at a 45-degree angle, then two steps to the left, followed by a half step before moving slightly backward to settle his feet position.

As he stands over the ball, Rock always takes three breaths and shuts off from everything around him, hearing nothing apart from his own breathing.

After a quick look at the post, Rock then sees nothing but the point of contact with the football.

“Once a free is awarded and the whistle is blown, you shift your mindset into a completely individual perspective,” he said about his routine back in 2017.

“It is just a shift that I find quite natural now. It just takes a few breaths to set yourself, to go through your kicking routine, your process. The rest will look after itself.”

The rest normally does, because Rock’s conversion rate from placed balls went to another level in last year’s championship, nailing 32 of 36 attempts (89%).

Apart from two wides in the drawn final, the only other two placed balls Rock missed was a difficult free close to the sideline against Mayo, and a 49-metre free against Roscommon.

Rock is already in the pantheon of great Dublin freetakers.

During Dublin’s unbeaten championship run over the last five years, Rock is the team’s highest scorer, with 9-192.

Of that total, 0-152 have come from placed balls.

Rock has now become Dublin’s most prolific free-taker of all time, his averages per championship game already putting him ahead of Jimmy Keaveney, Charlie Redmond, and his father Barney.

“Dean Rock is an incredible free-taker,” says Oisin McConville. “He is the standard now.”

Clifford took the pressure in his stride on Saturday but Kerry are equally as fortunate to have another brilliant free-taker in Seán O’Shea, who was gone off on a late red card on Saturday.

In fact, O’Shea’s conversion rate over the last two years has been broadly similar to Rock’s, with both players scoring exactly 0-61 from placed balls in 13 championship games.

O’Shea is still in the formative years of his career but he has already shown his potential to join the lineage of great Kerry freetakers stretching from Mick O’Connell to Mikey Sheehy, right through to Maurice Fitzgerald, Dara Ó Cinnéide, Colm Cooper, and Bryan Sheehan.

“Similar to Maurice Fitzgerald and Bryan Sheehan, Seán O’Shea’s kicks are aesthetically beautiful to look at, especially with the arc they take,” says Ó Cinnéide.

“He is an exceptional kicker but, as a former free-taker, the highlight of last year’s drawn final was watching this young guy shutting out all the external stuff and just getting on with the job. He has great mental strength but a lot of it is just pure process stuff.”

The process always has to be king. In 2002, McConville worked with Dave Alred, the renowned kicking coach who made his name from coaching Jonny Wilkinson.

Alred recorded, studied, and analysed McConville’s technique and his chief findings informed McConville how he had no discernible routine. Alred told McConville to find a routine, and to stick to it.

“It was very basic but it was the best advice I ever got,” says McConville.

“Dave didn’t give me anything else. I continued to strike the ball exactly the same but I replicated my routine thousands of times in training and on my own in Crossmaglen.

"When the crunch frees came in big games, I had the presence of mind and the trust in myself from my routine.

I always felt it took the nerves and the variables out of the kick. I went from about 70% to close to 90% in the space of a year.

Alred’s innovative thinking has led much of the sub-science which has developed around place kicking.

Alred has always believed that you can’t separate the mental from the technical side but the mental side has always been critical.

“You need to be mentally strong but routine gives you the tools to help with that process,” says McConville.

“Teams are more aware of the importance of having a good free-taker now than ever before but not every team has a Dean Rock.

"He has set the bar the highest but how many other teams would have challenged Dublin more in recent years if they had a more clinical free-taker?”

As they begin their manic pursuit again this season, at least Kerry are safe in the knowledge of having two clutch freetakers in Clifford and O’Shea as they attempt to hunt Dublin down.

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