Goalkeeper Robbie Hennelly is having a great year and his three points against Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final went a long way towards Mayo getting over the line. A repeat performance today might just land Sam. Graphic: Kinndi

Mayo hopes are in very safe hands with Hennelly on a high

John Melvin looks at the changing role of the goalkeepers in the modern game and believes Mayo’s Robbie Hennelly and Tyrone’s Niall Morgan will play leading roles in dictating the rules of engagement and the destiny of this year’s All-Ireland title.

The goalkeeper in Gaelic football was once a threatened species but thankfully all that has changed and the ‘keeper is now arguably the most vital part of the modern day team.

There was a time when both the ball and goalkeeper often ended up in the back of the net.

Those were the days when the last man back was offered little protection and was a legitimate target, particularly under the high ball, and it was not unusual to see the ball and man bundled into the back of the net as the charge of the light brigade took place when a high ball was pumped into the square.

Goalkeepers had to be fearless when they risked life and limb by going for the ball, the noise of the advancing herd no doubt ringing in their ears.

Those of a certain vintage will remember when the full-back normally kicked out the ball but the role of the goalkeeper has changed dramatically in the modern game and the various changes to the square ball rule brought a welcome relief for the netminder, who has now become one of the most important players on the pitch as Gaelic football evolves and strategists begin to see the role as being much more important than just that of a shot-stopper.

Gaelic football today is all about ball retention, something Dublin brought to a new level, and the man who played a key role in ensuring Dublin won a good percentage of their own kick-outs was Stephen Cluxton.

Cluxton has raised the profile of the goalkeeper to a new level. The Parnells club man played a central role not just as captain, but as their goalkeeper in bringing Dublin to six All-Ireland titles in a row.

It could be argued that they might well be on course to make it seven on the bounce had Cluxton not opted out of the panel this year. That is something we will never know, however, as he remains tight-lipped about his future with the Dublin team and has avoided media enquiries as to his sudden departure from the panel, although it has been widely circulated that the breach in Covid regulations by some members fo the Dublin team influenced his decision to leave.

Cluxton’s understudy, Evan Comerford, while a good ‘keeper in his own right, did not exude the kind of confidence Cluxton was able to bring to the game, particularly in terms of holding possession, and the Dublin goalkeeper was under serious pressure in the closing period of normal time in the All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo. That pressure led to the mistake which gave Mayo the lifebuoy that kept them afloat and brought them into extra time.

Mayo goalkeeper Robbie Hennelly, who has mixed memories of days out in Croke Park, kicked the score which ultimately kept Mayo in the 2021 championship and the confidence coming from that kick (albeit at the second attempt) will undoubtedly put a huge pep in the step of the Breaffy man when he returns to headquarters for Saturday's final.

Finding one of your own men from the kick-out doesn’t just depend on the goalkeeper's accuracy, but also relies on the movement of the outfield players. Dublin had brought this almost to a mathematical level with Cluxton’s ability to judge distance and angles a key feature in his kick-out strategy.

The other major asset Cluxton brought to the table was his ability to kick scores from distance, and that is something the Mayo goalkeeper has improved on this year in particular, his three points proving critical in getting Mayo over the winning line against Dublin. I expect a big performance from the Breaffy man again on Saturday.

His opposite number on Saturday is not your normal 'mind the house' type goalkeeper. Niall Morgan is a big man and commands a huge physical presence in goals, while he also likes to wander from home – and that can be a dangerous game if you have forwards that can apply pressure. I think that is an area Mayo will be targeting.

The Tyrone man has some belt of a ball as we witnessed in that clash with Kerry when he kicked a free from virtually the next parish, the distance being in the region of 70 yards.

I also have inkling that his name will come up on more than one occasion when James Horan sits down with his co-conspirators to plan the downfall of Tyrone.

His turnover rates were on the high side and Kerry hoovered up a lot of ball from his long kick-outs, which really didn’t work in the semi-final, but he made one huge interception to deny Kerry a certain goal on a day when I think just one goal from those four chances presented would have seen a different outcome to the game.

The bottom line on this one is that he kept a clean sheet and is likely to play pivotal role if Tyrone are to prevail.

My money will be on the Breaffy man to grow in confidence following that magnificent semi-final performance against Dublin. I believe he can and will deliver perhaps the best performance of his career on the day when it is needed most.