IF you’re interested in American football you probably felt sorry for Blair Walsh last Sunday.
Walsh, the Minnesota Vikings’ kicker, had a chance to win the NFC wild-card game against the Seattle Seahawks with 30 seconds on the clock. The Vikings trailed by one point when Walsh went for a field goal from 27 yards.
He’d already nailed kicks from 22, 43, and 47 yards, he led the NFL in field goals this season, hitting 87% of his kicks, but that counted for nothing as the ball sailed wide.
Walsh isn’t the only man to see his chance at immortality sail past the posts. Another NFL kicker, Scott Norwood, saw his effort to win the 1991 Super Bowl go “wide right”, in the words of the commentator. Years later Norwood would tell a reporter he dreaded the weeks leading to the Super Bowl every year, as his miss would invariably be revisited.
But you don’t have to go that far afield to learn what happens when you miss that late chance.
In the 2002 All-Ireland semi-final, Dublin’s Ray Cosgrove stood at the Hill 16 end of Croke Park, ready to level matters with Armagh. His close-in free hit the post, dropped to an Armagh jersey, and Dublin were out.
“It’s something I’ll always be reminded of,” says Cosgrove now. “But at this stage it’s water off a duck’s back.
In the narrative people remember from that game, inevitable victory for Armagh, they forget Cosgrove won man of the match that day. He’d kicked six points and was clearly in blazing form. Getting him to take the free was common sense, and even in the wreckage afterwards there was solace.
“I could take a balanced view because the game went well for me up to then. I won the free, but the one thing is that I brought negative thoughts into my head before taking it.
“I remember a player running by me saying, ‘you can’t miss this’. It wasn’t a case of ‘you gotta kick this’, but when I heard that, my decision was to curl it inside the right post rather than kick it the way I’d been doing all day.
“If it had been in the first minute I’d have put my head down and drove it into the Hill, but my mindset changed.
“I wasn’t positive, I started thinking, ‘If I miss this I don’t want it going 10ft wide, I’ll be careful and coax it inside the right post.’ Unfortunately, it was a fraction off.”
Focus at such a crucial moment is something Dessie Dolan recognises. The Westmeath icon recalls the 2003 Leinster championship, when he had the chance, in injury time, to knock over the 20m free that would have given his county a first championship win over neighbours Meath.
Dolan, who’d already hit 1-7, saw the ball slide wide of the posts.
“Looking back, you’d learn a hell of a lot from something like that — things that you’d do differently,” he says.
“There were a lot of verbals going on at the time, for instance. A few of the Meath lads were in my ear and the referee was struggling to get lads back the full 14 yards, so they were invading your space, if you like.
“If I’d had a bit more experience, I’d have taken a bit more time to get my head around the situation, but I didn’t remove myself from it. I just kept ploughing away.
“I wasn’t anxious, but what left me down that time was that I had no routine, really. That was a time Jonny Wilkinson was the man with the planned, meticulous kicking routine, for instance, and only afterwards I realised that my approach was basically however I felt, I just kicked — whatever felt good, really.
“But you really need a planned, slow, strategic routine — you need to take yourself out of the moment, to make sure you were breathing properly, all of that.”
Both men soon encountered the backlash. The day after the Dublin-Armagh game, some of the Dubs hit for Ballymore Eustace. As they strolled into a pub the six o’clock news was broadcasting Cosgrove’s miss in living colour.
“The barman was saying, ‘That poor lad must be having nightmares’, just as I walked in the door,” says Cosgrove.
“The next six months, if I went outside the door I heard about it. Introduced to people as the man who missed the point against Armagh. I’d have been trying to flip it around — ‘You didn’t mention the six points I got’, and they’d be saying ‘ah, sorry’.
“You’re going to be re-minded of it. Like Paul Cahillane, who missed the free for Portlaoise against Ballyboden last year — he’ll be reminded of that for a while.
“But it makes you stronger, definitely. That might sound strange, but you do want to prove the doubters wrong, to come back even stronger. How you react to something like that is the real test. Now, it’d be handy to be paid whatever the American footballer is paid, to take the abuse!
“In a funny way, I got more recognition from missing the score than finishing that season as joint top scorer with Oisin McConville. But that’s the way it is. That’s human nature.”
Dolan wasn’t long getting a reaction himself.
“Feedback? The first thing I did was I headed over to America, to the brother, to get away from everything. But sure the first day I stepped onto the field over there, fellas were shouting, ‘Come on Meath!’
“It stuck with me, and with important kicks, people would try to get it back into your head.
“But I learned. Routine helped me — the value of visualisation, of breathing, all of that. From missing that kick I learned so much from that situation — taking a step back, reviewing what I did wrong, that improved me as a free-taker.
“It wasn’t nice. It wasn’t easy. That baggage stuck with me for a while, but the routine was what helped me through it.”
Context helped. Westmeath had never beaten Meath up to that point, for instance. Cosgrove felt Dublin had possibly overachieved that season: “A couple of weeks down the track, when the dust settled, you began to realise just how close you were to getting to an All-Ireland final. That’s when the penny really dropped.
“It had been seven years since Dublin had been in a final — but as a unit, I don’t think we were even looking at getting to a final. We’d probably exceeded our expectations in winning Leinster, whereas Armagh had been on the road for a few years. They were experienced, while the likes of Alan Brogan, Barry Cahill, they were all new to the scene for us.
“There wasn’t a weight of expectation, but you still looked back and thought, ‘Jaysus, you could have gotten Dublin to an All-Ireland final.”
Dolan ended up doing a commercial for Lucozade. He took the chance to interrogate one of the other participants.
“Ronan O’Gara was there, and I was asking him about kicking. And he was strong on visualisation, and that helped. By adding all that together it helped my game.
“So did experience. Recognising your distance, and what was too far out. You’re looking for 100% accuracy, and by taking on board a miss like that, it helps you improve.”
(O’Gara had had a similar experience, of course: Missing the penalty against Northampton in the 2000 Heineken Cup final had led to abuse in a Cork pub toilet and a re-examination of his kicking technique, experiences the Gaelic footballers could empathise with.)
It could have been worse for Cosgrove and Dolan, or maybe better. Kindergarten classes in Minnesota have been in touch with Blair Walsh, for instance, trying to keep his spirits up. One letter read: “For Blair Walsh. Keep on trying. Puppys are cute.”
Keep on trying. Every place-kicker lives by that rule.
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