Of the octet remaining in this year’s All-Ireland championship, there are still clear favourites and underdogs.
Nothing strange there. Even if seven of this year’s Division 1 remain with a promoted Kildare, there are strong reasons why Dublin and Mayo are so fancied on Saturday. Down are the only team left in the competition that have conceded two goals in a game this summer — last month’s Ulster final against Donegal.
Laois’s record is a little better. They, like Kerry, have coughed up three goals in five games but don’t boast the same firepower or class as their southern brethren.
Three goals in five games is not a poor record by usual standards but then we have entered an era when the concession of one in two is the requisite.
Statistics compiled by the Irish Examiner shows that across their 30 SFC games played, the eight All-Ireland quarter-finalists have conceded just 15 goals.
While they have only played two games each, Cork’s Alan Quirke and Mayo’s David Clarke have yet to pick the ball from their net.
Considering Cork “let in” two goals across their nine league games and Mayo five for the same number, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that they are so miserly now.
However, it’s Donegal’s Paul Durcan and Kildare goalkeeper Shane Connolly who boast the most clean sheets, with three each. Connolly has played one more game while the one time Durcan was beaten since May was from the penalty spot.
The news is out — stopping a team from netting is just if not as important as doing it.
Former Mayo and All-Ireland winning club goalkeeper John Healy, a Ballina club-mate of Clarke’s recognises just how important clean sheets have become.
“A goal has become a huge thing because of the way the blanket defence has come in and taken over. It has never been more important to score one or concede one.
“Getting a goal, and it might only be one, is often the winning and losing of games. Points are hard enough to come by as it is and goals are just huge. That’s why they have specialised goalkeeping coaches now. More time is being spent on them because it’s that important to the team’s welfare.
“In the past, they would have trained with the rest of the team but managers now see the value in concentrating on goalkeepers.”
Miserly rearguards have, of course, played their part in ensuring their last line of defence hasn’t been breached.
A team might recover from the one goal conceded in a game but two? As Down have shown, chances are slim.
“If you’re not conceding goals it adds to your confidence,” says Healy. “You go into games with your confidence soaring whereas in previous games you’d be that bit more nervous.
“There’s now a bigger chance of losing a game conceding a goal. It’s very rare that you see a team concede two goals and still win a game. A clean sheet is a vital statistic.”
Regarding ranking, Healy may be a little biased in putting Clarke, who only reclaimed his spot from Rob Hennelly this year, up there with Cluxton.
But that’s the way he sees it — and he likes how Durcan has performed for Donegal over the last couple of seasons under Jim McGuinness’ tutelage.
“The eight left are all quality goalkeepers. In my opinion, Cluxton and Clarke are the two best goalkeepers in the country and Durcan’s not far behind. The save Durcan made in the last minute against Tyrone was something else. Compared to 20 years ago, the standard has risen considerably.”
The quality of the restart, of course, is just as essential to a goalkeeper as Kerry showed when they targeted Cluxton’s kick-outs in 2009.
“Cluxton is the best deadball kicker in the country. He takes two or three steps back and it’s not a long drive. He places the kick-out and that’s vitally important especially with the amount of bunching that is done in midfield these days.”
But a goalkeeper being beaten? It’s almost a no-no. “Concede a goal and you’re reeling,” insists Healy. “They’re that rare now they’re precious.”
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