When I sat down to watch a game televised by Sky Sports last year, Peter Canavan was asked a fairly simple question by presenter Brian Carney: “Would you like to play gaelic football in the modern era”?
Canavan paused and said he didn’t think he would enjoy nor prosper in the modern game.
I’m fairly sure humility stopped him from answering in any other way, but if there was any truth in Canavan’s answer, then that tells you how difficult it is to be an effective forward in today’s game. Canavan was one of the great forwards of his or any generation. What chance does that give the rest of us?
There are few football attackers today that can still excel under the suffocating defensive systems most counties set up with nowadays but Conor McManus is one of them. He is, to my mind, the best forward in the game.
Another eight points on Sunday in Clones. And that was one of his quiet games. Routinely double-marked, surrounded by lots of bodies in a packed and usually well organised defence, the Monaghan scoresmith is able to come up with scores that count time after time. A lot of his work is as a lone attacker responsible for winning his own primary possession, holding and occupying defenders until his team-mates get out of defence and support him.
Watch how the ball sticks with him. It is a rare and precious attribute for a forward, to secure possession regardless of the pressure from opposition defenders. It takes huge physical strength and the technical know-how to use that strength to retain the ball under such duress. It should always be the case that once possession is secured, a forward dictates what happens next: Any top quality forward will kick scores with three or four yards of separation or space. What makes McManus special is that simply a yard will do.
He gave an exhibition of free-taking and forward play against Dublin in Croke Park last February in the League. Flawless free-taking and three clinkers from play under the sharpest of Dublin defending. However it is not how he operates on Jones’s Road that separate’s him from the pack, it’s how he performs at the provincial ground. In the Ulster final last year Neil McGee man marked him and the Donegal defender had the security of another nine of his team-mates for the majority of the game protecting the line. For 25 minutes he didn’t touch leather, then he kicked four points in 10 minutes. To provide context here, the game finished 0-11 to 0-10 to Monaghan. Scores were at an absolute premium. He nailed six of Monaghan’s 11 points.
The key to being a good forward is to have the patience to see out those lean spells during a game and still be able to operate with maximum efficiency and kick the crucial scores. Watch when a forward misses a good scoring opportunity these dats - he will get plenty of verbals from his opponents and he must deal with that.
Forwards who lack that burst or that physical presence can still be very effective but they need to get nearly everything else right, especially how inventive they are in making runs and finding space.
While great players always have an aura about them, great forwards take that to another level. When I played I had all the insecurities of a little boy going to big school, but I couldn’t let anyone see that — a bit like an extension of my personal life at that stage which was being ravaged by addiction.
I had to stick my chest out, paint a simple smile on and make everyone believe I possessed the same unwavering confidence as Cristiano Ronaldo - maybe minus the pecs. I even resorted to putting up my collar up for a few seasons, until one day Armagh manager Brian McAlinden said: “That’s the last year you’ll be wearing your collar up lad.” I replied: “I like wearing it up so I’ll continue to do it and it’s done me no harm”.
He then handed me a bag with the following season’s new jersey— sans the collar.
In the last two years, Bernard Brogan has matured and tailored his game to an impressive degree. He’s not the quickest but he makes really intelligent runs and the penny has dropped with him that it’s not all about Bernard. He is now much better at bringing others in to the game. He is efficient off right and left feet and in the last couple of seasons seems to take the right option more often than not, which is in stark contrast to the way he started out.
Ryan Giggs was the quickest winger in the Premier League for a decade. He was once told when his pace went, he was finished as a player, but he kept going til 40 by adapting his game and his positioning. Brogan, too, has mastered this art.
So why McManus above Brogan then? Football is a different game outside Croke Park, where there is plenty of room to manoeuvre, and more scrutiny on the legality of the close attention of the corner-back - and no uneven bounces to adjust to!
Conor McManus plays his football in Ulster where defensive systems were invented, nurtured, cultivated and matured in to a wild beast. I’m not saying it is unique to Ulster football but all nine counties play very defensively. To be able to rise above all that and become the best in the business is testament to his mental strength, the most important ingredient to be successful, regardless of the pursuit.
Operating in small pockets of space is one thing, but I like to judge footballers on how they react when they are behind and they need a score. Watch McManus deliver in such fraught circumstances. He always steps up.
I first saw him in an Ulster club championship game in 2006. He was 18-19 and he played wing back on me. That may have been the first and only time he played that position and believe me, he could play there too. I remember saying to him after the game to keep at it, that he had a great future ahead. How great I could not have predicted. There’ll be plenty more written about him before he finishes. But if he’s lots done, I’m certain Conor McManus feels he has a lot more to do yet.
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