It seems like ancient history now, but in September 2013 the Cork goalkeeper’s approach to close-in frees was a matter of national debate. In the All-Ireland final and replay against Clare Nash found the net with his ferocious drives: in the replay his free beat half of the population of the Banner County on its way to the net. Interestingly, Nash’s technique led to quite a lot of debate about player safety, and the rules of the game were subsequently changed. Instead of lifting the ball in as far as possible before striking, players must now make contact outside the 20-metre line. Health and safety gone mad! Maybe.
The Galway man’s striking was so pure and clean that it didn’t seem to matter if he was on the run, taking a sideline cut or standing over a free: the result was predictable. His quality close to goal was equally reliable. In one of his last big games, the All-Ireland final against Limerick in 2018, he stitched a 20-metre free into the top right corner; in one of his first big games, an All-Ireland qualifier against Cork ten years earlier, Canning drove the ball past new ‘keeper Martin Coleman, fresh onto the field as a sub, before he got his bearings.
In the All-Ireland hurling final of 2009 the game was finely balanced when Kilkenny won a penalty against Tipperary at the Hill 16 end. Kilkenny were two points down but the penalty was a chance to break the game open.
In that situation you want a player of whom you can say - as James O’Connor did last weekend - that the right man is standing over the ball.
In this case it was Henry Shefflin, who blasted the ball home past no less a ‘keeper than Brendan Cummins, to set Kilkenny on the road to victory. A goal was needed, and Shefflin provided it.
Another player with magic in his wrists, Flynn’s accuracy from play and frees with Ballygunner and Waterford made him a huge threat from almost anywhere on the field. The force he could put into a free meant even in training some teammates would be “shaking” on the line as he practiced penalties.
Yet it wasn’t just power that was the hallmark of Flynn’s signature free. In the Munster hurling final of 2004 he lined up a dead ball opportunity 40 metres from the Cork goal and put enough topspin on the ball to dip it under the bar for a stunning goal. His teammate Dan Shanahan warned the Cork defenders that Flynn would “go for it” before he even lifted the ball. They still couldn’t stop him.
The maestro brought a stunning level of precision to his close-in frees and penalties. When making the documentary ‘Christy Ring’ for Gael Linn the film-makers asked Ring to take 40 frees from what was then the 21-yard line. Paddy Tyers, who worked on the documentary said Ring hit the bar three times and the other 37 went a foot under the bar, exactly where he wanted them. When asked where he aimed, Ring explained casually that he aimed at the most nervous player on the line.
“I watched carefully in later games,” said director Louis Marcus, “And sure enough, a timorous head would bob sideways as Christy’s shot whistled past.”