When we think of Gaelic football goalkeepers, Dublin’s Stephen Cluxton is often the first that comes to mind, having revolutionised the game and the role of the traditional net-minder.
However, there may be a new man in town about to change the footballing landscape once again – Laois’s Graham Brody. The tearaway goalkeeper is ripping up the manual yet again in what could lead to another Cluxton-like revolution in the sport.
The evolution of Cluxton
Cluxton made his debut in 2001 at a time when goalkeepers fulfilled the traditional duties of shot stopping, commanding the square and kicking the ball out, usually as long as possible towards two static midfielders. Some went to the extent of wearing rugby boots to get some extra yardage on their downfield kicks.
In his early days with Dublin, he relied on the towering Ciarán Whelan in the midfield to get on the end of his long kick-outs to secure possession.
The first stage of Cluxton’s evolution came with the emergence of Shane Ryan to Dublin’s midfield alongside Whelan around 2005. Ryan was shorter than the traditional midfielder, but far more mobile with Cluxton switching up his kick-outs to pick out the Naomh Mearnóg man who ran into pockets of space along the wings, stretching the clump of players in the middle of the field.
“He would go from side to side and if Cluxton saw him in space he would pick him out … If he went long it was my responsibility,” explained Whelan when speaking on the Hard Shoulder podcast.
That was where the concept of “possession-based restarts” was born for Dublin. Cluxton took this tactic to new levels when Pat Gilroy took charge in 2009.
The emergence of athletic forward talents such as Alan Brogan, Diarmiud Connolly and Paul Flynn came at the perfect time for Cluxton with all capable of gathering a bullet kick-out by Cluxton at speed on the chest before launching an attack.
As the opposition reacted, Cluxton did too, often willing to chip a ball out to a wing-back or even a corner back to secure possession for his side from the tee.
“Whether it was ten yards, 15 yards; it was primary possession,” commented Whelan.
Cluxton’s impact on the game was devastating and went along way to creating the Dublin monster that we now know all too well. The school teacher was relentless in his desire to revolutionise the game and added a further string to his bow when he took up free-taking duty, culminating in scoring the winning point from a dead-ball in the 2011 All-Ireland final against Kerry.
89 appearances, 13 Leinster titles, five All-Irelands, five National Leagues and five All-Stars tells the story of one of the greatest innovators the GAA has ever seen.
The effects of Cluxton’s revolution was felt nationwide, changing the way the game was thought about and spoken about from inter-county level to club level.
“Kick-out strategies” and “possession restarts” became the new norm as what once may have seemed like madness became part of everyday training.
The emergence of Brody
As the Premier League season finished up a couple of weeks ago, many reflected on the impact of Manchester City’s Brazilan goalkeeper Ederson, who’s ball playing skills saw him act almost as an out-field player for the champions.
In true Pep Guradiola style, City departed from the traditional perceptions that are associated with the position, encouraging the Brazilian to get involved in the play and string passes together with the midfielders. Remarkably, his 85.4% pass success rate is higher than the likes of Paul Pogba (85.1%), Kevin de Bruyne (84%) and Cesc Fabregas (83.2%) as he made an unprecedented contribution to a title win from between the sticks.
While the context is different, Laois’s Brody is doing something similar as he has become an integral part of how the O’Moore men launch their attacks while also fulfilling his Cluxton-like duties around the goal-line.
Such was the extent to which Cluxton almost perfected the role of the goalkeeper, several of his contemporaries such as Mayo’s David Clarke, Donegal’s Paul Durcan and Tyrone’s Nail Morgan attempted to emulate the pioneer with few seeing that more could be added.
In Laois, however, Brody is taking the role of the goalkeeper to what may be considered as a new extreme with frequent engagement in the attack and ventures into the opposition’s half.
The Portlaoise man played an instrumental role in his side’s extra-time victory against Wexford in the first round of the Leinster championship and again caused problems for Westmeath as Laois secured their second win of the provincial campaign.
Brody ventured past his own 45 metre line on seven occasions in the first half and assisted three points as Laois ran out 10-point winners against the Lake County.
Creating an overlap
Inter-county teams in recent years have expended a lot of time and energy responding to the short kick-out, making it increasingly difficult to run the ball out through the hand after securing possession from the ‘keeper.
Kerry employed what Dessie Dolan described on the Sunday Game as “a full court press” against Dublin in the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final and even managed to rattle the ever-assured Cluxton.
Brody’s engagement in play is allowing Laois to create an overlap in the back-line, forcing opposition forwards into the decision as to whether they should go meet him as he carries the ball out or leave him in possession.
Such is Brody’s composure on the ball, he is effectively an extra back in possession but crucially providing an overlap from a source that is often not mapped by the opposition as full-back Mark Timmons drops back deeper to mind the sticks.
In the aftermath of Laois’ win over Westmeath, manager John Sugrue heaped praise on the goalkeeper, praising his innovation.
“I think Graham, to a certain degree, has done that himself,” said the Kerryman to Balls.ie.
“Graham is a very inventful guy and he’s got an open mind to what ways he can positively influence how the team plays.”
“We work with him on that front, encourage him and see if it fits into our gameplan. If it does, great, but if it doesn’t, we’ll have to curtail it. So far, he’s been very influential for us.”
Speaking on the Sunday Game in the aftermath of the Wexford game, Ciarán Whelan complimented Brody on his performance but also urged caution in relation to his bursts up the field.
“You have to admire it, it was six or seven times he did this. The admiration I’d have for him is he chooses the right time to do it,” said the former Dublin midfielder.
“It is a risk, a huge risk and he maybe struggles to get back. He maybe needs to get back a bit quicker,” added Whelan.
“It’s probably not advisable. It does create a chaotic situation – on both sides. It’s good fun until something bad happens.”
While Whelan’s concerns about the fitness levels required to perform such actions may be valid, and Brody may not be the finished product, the innovation itself may be the blueprint for other goalkeepers to follow.
Monaghan goalkeeper Rory Beggan too has been receiving plaudits for his active role in his side’s gameplan, also managing to get on the scoresheet from play for his club Scotstown last year.
When Australia were forced to play an outfield player in goals in the International Rules Series on several occasions, we saw flashes of how there are other untapped facets to the goalkeeping position to be explored.
While Cluxton and Ederson also had their critics when they broke with the mold, the boundaries that Brody is pushing could lead us to redefine again what we consider the role of the goalkeeper to be.
Senior columnist for GAA Wrap.