Being Waterford’s last line of defence, Stephen O’Keeffe has a vested interest but he stresses the one-versus-one penalty is weighed in favour of the attacking player.
The conversion rate at inter-county level would suggest otherwise, However, Hurling 2020 chairman Liam Sheedy says the successes will increase in time and O’Keeffe knows from experience how successful the takers have been.
“I think there haven’t been a lot of penalties but I know for a fact we practice them in training and when the striker of the ball is confident eight out of 10 of those are going in.
“When you stick it right in the corner, there is no getting to them. It comes down to the penalty-takers on the big days holding their nerve a bit because as a goalkeeper you can’t read which side it is going to go. You can’t react quickly enough if you stick it into the corner. The advantage is firmly with the forward.
“You will always find one or two that will be able to block out that pressure. If they hit it cleanly - I remember we played Cork and Pat Horgan stepped up in the last minute and he just stuck in the bottom corner. There is no getting to those. It comes down to then, do you guess which side it goes. You have to weigh up the percentages - is he going to stick it in the corner or put it somewhere where I have a chance of reaching it?”
Since coming out to block Anthony Nash’s penalty with his thigh in the drawn 2014 Munster quarter-final replay, a save which prompted changes to the penalty rule on safety grounds, O’Keeffe has faced just two one-v-one penalties – Horgan’s and another in a club game, which was sent over the bar.
Part of the reason why penalties never mind penalty goals are on the wane is largely down to how teams have formatted themselves to bank up their defences.
“You’re left with a lot less one-on-one situations,” says O’Keeffe. “You feel less exposed. In fairness, that’s mainly down to the backs being absolutely touch-tight. They’ve been brilliant so far.”
Waterford may have one goal in six games to their name but they’ve conceded just four at the same time. The 24-year-old has noticed he has had to make less saves of late, which is consistent with the drop in the number of goals across Division 1A this season. “I think there’s an onus on forwards as well to take the point whenever it’s on. Scores seem to be a bit more of a premium these days.
“But I still think when you look at some of the score-lines, teams are racking up 20-plus points, which is still huge scoring. Teams are a lot more conscious of keeping out the goals.”
As for scoring more goals at the other end, O’Keeffe isn’t too perturbed having lost just one of their five Division 1A outings.
“Everyone’s ambition is obviously to open up the opposition defence as much as possible and raise a few green flags. But I suppose you have to play it as you see it as well.”
The fine form of U21 players like Shane Bennett, Patrick Curran and Austin Gleeson would indicate Derek McGrath’s fears about increased focus on such young shoulders haven’t been realised at least yet.
“In fairness, our younger lads are very good at blocking out the outside expectation. It can be a very dangerous thing listening to popular opinion. It can either be too negative or too positive.
It’s rarely on the money about what your abilities are. You just put the head down and take every game at a time.” ·
* Stephen O’Keeffe was speaking at the launch of the 17th annual KN Group All-Ireland GAA Golf Challenge. For more information, visit www.gaagolf.com
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