Brian Stafford: 'Kicking a free was second nature because I had put in the work'

Brian Stafford discovered a game on YouTube recently he'd forgotten he'd played in; Meath's one-point Leinster semi-final defeat to Dublin in 1993.
Brian Stafford: 'Kicking a free was second nature because I had put in the work'

Brian Stafford discovered a game on YouTube recently he'd forgotten he'd played in; Meath's one-point Leinster semi-final defeat to Dublin in 1993.

Jack Sheedy hit the winner for the Dubs that day though it wasn't being reminded of defeat that bugged Stafford, one of the greatest free-takers the game has produced.

"I didn't realise that we were only beaten by a point — and that I missed a 35-yard free," said Stafford.

"On my good side. Do you know what, it ate me. It ate me for about two weeks after. I couldn't get it out of my head. And that's as a 56-year-old now I'm talking about, not as a 24-year-old or whatever I was at the time."

Free-taking was Stafford's craft and he honed it to perfection during Meath's glory years, kicking them to All-Irelands in 1987 and 1988 at Cork's expense.

It's why when you ask him now what player he'd choose for Meath in a notional transfer market, he picks two — both free-takers.

"The two lads that stand out for me at the moment are David Clifford and Sean O'Shea," said Stafford, the 1987 Footballer of the Year.

"I think Sean O'Shea is a phenomenal footballer. I think Clifford will get all the headlines, and rightly so because he's going to be something else, but I think there's something about Sean O'Shea as well. His free-taking ability is phenomenal. The distance he's getting, the ease and the accuracy, long may it continue for him."

Stafford's work as a sales rep meant he could duck and dive while playing for Meath and grab a few spare hours to practise frees throughout the week.

He knew the shop owner next to Páirc Tailteann who had the keys for the ground and he'd regularly drop in unannounced with a bag of balls.

"If I got a spare half an hour, could be three o'clock in the afternoon, 5 o'clock, I'd be in there," said Stafford. "I'd practise every evening, in Kilmainhamwood (his club) as well."

Stafford rang Ollie Campbell for kicking advice one day and the Irish out-half gave him a useful training drill.

"He gave me a little nugget of information about percentages from different angles and different distances out," explained Stafford.

"So I'd have six balls and I'd put the bag down at 35 yards, straight out from the goal. If you go right or left at an angle your 35 yards turns into 40 yards or whatever.

"A number that stuck in my head was that Ollie said, 'If you can get 80% scored from within that area, that's a high percentage'. I always tried to better that."

Stafford was informed on the latest edition of the We Are Meath podcast that he finished up with an average of six points per game. He hadn't known the figure but wasn't surprised.

"Even though I was quiet, I knew I was good enough to kick them," said Stafford, who booted 0-7 in the '87 final win over Cork, 0-8 including the equaliser in the '88 drawn final and inspired them in the replay.

In pressure situations, in some of the bigger games like in '87 and '88, kicking a free to me was second nature because I had put in the work and I knew I was good at them. When I look back at some of the old games I see how fluid I was and how easy I made it on myself from 35, 40 yards.

"To me, getting one of them was the same as, say, Mickey Lyons' block in '87, if he didn't get that block in we probably wouldn't have won the All-Ireland, Rourkey's goals, PJ Gillic running back 50 yards to tap a ball out of somebody's hands. That was their jobs. My job was when the ball was down on the ground 40 yards out, Bang! Had to go over the bar."

These days, most frees are kicked from the hand. Dean Rock and O'Shea remain accurate from the deck but it's a dying art. So is kicking the ball over the bar from play, as far as Stafford can make out.

"Lads don't seem to be able to kick the ball over themselves," said the three-time All-Star, who formed a thrilling full-forward line triumvirate with Bernard Flynn and Colm O'Rourke.

"Bernie could kick the ball over the bar, Mattie McCabe could kick it over, Jinksy Beggy we'll reserve judgement! Ah but he did, he kicked some spectacular points. All of those lads if they got into space and got a chance they could kick it over the bar. Nowadays they're looking for the shooter, they're looking for the perfect angle. Lads 30 yards out are afraid to take a pot at goal."

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