Clutch players are those who appear to consistently do the spectacular at that critical time in a game that turns the result in their favour. 

The expectations that follow them are immense and are often times misplaced.

I am reminded of Michael Jordan of the dominant Chicago Bulls team in the 1990s.

The expectation was that MJ would save them on request. If the game was in the melting pot, just get the ball to that iconic 23 vest and he would take care of business. The fact he missed that critical shot on 26 occasions doesn’t seem to matter.

Clutch players are special because of their ability to do the spectacular time and time again.

They stand apart from those players who do it once and can never repeat the feat.

We all probably have one moment of insane brilliance in us, when the shot of your childhood dreams comes off at a critical moment and the shock on everyone else’s face is bettered only by the look of disbelief on your own.

But surely a one-hit wonder is better than a no-hit wonder.

Domhnall O’Donovan, the corner-back for Clare, scored one of the most outrageous points in hurling history in the 2013 All-Ireland final to deny Cork a win and force a replay.

Clare duly went on to win in another spell-binding final. He had never scored for Clare before that wondrous strike, nor since. He may pass the legends test, but fails the clutch test.

The position a player plays may have a lot to do with the likelihood of them becoming a clutch player. Admittedly, the further up the field you play, the closer you are to the opposition’s goals and in the vicinity of the plays that make the headlines.

This is not to suggest that defenders who consistently make game-winning tackles and interceptions are not clutch players, they are, it’s just we appear not to celebrate them near as much as their team-mates up the other end of the field.

Our idols growing up tend to be the goalscorers. So it is not surprising that as kids that is what we aspire to emulate when playing, and so the swarming around the football to get a touch is inevitable.

Unfortunately sooner, rather than later, we are put in playing positions that suit us, or more likely, the coach, and just like that the mould is set for how you’ll play, imagine, and develop your game going forward.

Things may change for you after this stage, but it is very difficult to change how someone, especially a coach, sees a player’s potential to play in any other position than the one they felt best suited you.

Structures and systems of play further hamper a player’s development and creativity. A point that is further magnified if the player is a defender. Most creativity in sports is afforded to those farthest away from their own goal.

That is not to dismiss the importance of understanding tactical set-ups and patterns of play to athlete development, but to simply ask as coaches, do we commit our players to their playing positions too young?

The last couple of weekends in the All-Ireland hurling semi-finals have been a treat to watch. Joe Canning’s wonder strike against Tipperary was indeed an outrageous score.

But unlike Clare’s Domhnall O’Donovan, Joe is seen as a clutch player because that was not the first time he’s done something so spectacular. It won’t be the last time either.

Waterford’s Austin Gleeson is another clutch player, exemplified by the crazy goal he scored last weekend against Cork to end the Rebels’ unexpected run at the semi-final stage. It would be fascinating to know how long both men have been playing in the forwards. Do we find our best playing position or does our best playing position find us?

Looking ahead to the
All-Ireland football semi-finals over the next couple of weeks, all four teams will be looking for their clutch players to step up.

It is for this reason that Kerry and Dublin are the likely teams to contest the final in September. Both teams have more clutch players further up the pitch than Mayo and Tyrone, their respective semi-final opponents.

If clutch players trick us into thinking that they always do what they do, a team with several clutch players will trick us into thinking the result was inevitable. If James O’Donoghue doesn’t hit full stride next Sunday against Mayo, then Paul Geaney probably will. If both star forwards are off colour, Kieran Donaghy will no doubt step up. Spare a thought for Mayo if all three manage to play nerveless football.

Of course Mayo have their clutch players too. Cillian O’Connor, Lee Keegan, and Keith Higgins have earned the title. The concern is that two of the three of them play their football a long way from the opposition’s goalmouth.

Can veteran Andy Moran be there at the end of time with a critical score, as he so often does at earlier stages of games? Can Aidan O’Shea perform against one of the top teams at the knockout stages of the competition? These are two key characteristics of a clutch player.

Being able to pull something special out of the bag as the game appears to be edging away from you and time is almost up against one of the big guns.

Apart from the younger players who will line out over the next couple of weeks, most of the rest of them already have their clutch status assigned to them, or not, as the case may be. It takes time to be seen as a pressure player. It also takes big occasions to be able to prove how capable you really are.

This year may be beyond Mayo because of the circuitous route they have taken to this year’s semi-final. It may also be the making of them.

With so much more football played than anyone else this summer, the questions will be asked about whether they have the fitness to cope with the intensity required and the obvious step up in class in the semi-final? For me, it is a resounding yes. Fitness has never been an issue for this Mayo team. Especially with Barry Solan coordinating operations from London and Conor Finn executing programmes on the ground.

The more difficult question to answer is whether in the nervy situations they faced against Cork in the qualifiers or Roscommon in their first quarter-final game, did any other forward begin the process of qualifying for clutch status? The jury is still out on that one.

Mayo’s adventure this summer has been less about them figuring it out, and more about others not. The proof of whether the additional time under tension has positively impacted on their ability to stay calm when the magnitude of the occasion reaches a peak will be tested against Kerry.

Will it come down to Cillian O’Connor once more to take Mayo to the brink?

Clutch players like Lee Keegan and Keith Higgins; even Colm Boyle, Donal Vaughan, Patrick Durcan and Chris Barrett all deserve the title, but tellingly, none of them play ball inside the opposition 45.

Either another forward steps up or a clutch back moves up to wash the taste of inevitability away from this weekend’s result.


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