NIALL GARTLAND: Did free-taking come completely natural to you or is it something you had to practice a lot when you were growing up?
RONAN CAROLAN: I used to really enjoy free-taking as a child, I had brothers and friends all around me and we had to play wee games out in the front garden. People speak of mindfulness and a free-taker that really loves what he or she does will actually be at peace while they are practising frees. I used to actually enjoy doing it on my own and over the years I learnt that having someone with you can slightly distract you because you’re more conscious of missing. I always thoroughly enjoyed it whether it was before a game or before or after training. I liked the solitude, it cleared your head and you could try different things. It’s like being a golfer – you need to get into the zone or into the groove and I certainly had a love of it.
NG: So it was meditative for you in training, but in actual matches were you able to blot out the crowd and opponents?
RC: I had a particular routine and again that’s where practice helps. It’s like any new skill, if you put in the hours it becomes the norm. By focusing on the routine you automatically block other things out. Some opponents who are now great friends of mine made great efforts to distract me – I used to use it as a trigger to slow down, it was almost a positive. You just took your time and made sure that they weren’t successful, by reminding yourself to focus on the process.
NG: Fintan Cahill said to me half-jokingly that he won the frees and you scored them. Was your free-taking a big part of Cavan’s tactical plan because they could be certain that you’d score if you got the opportunity?
RC: We’re clubmates and are very close but Fintan wouldn’t be slow in telling that story, that the reason why I was successful was because he did the hard graft. On a more serious level, it was another weapon that the team had. My job was not only to score the frees but to get into the opposition team’s mind that if I do get a free within the ’50’, that they were going to get punished. It gave the likes of Fintan a little more room because there was a fear factor in the opposition.
NG: Did you always take them off the ground even after the rule came in during the nineties that players could take them out of the hands?
RC: I still kicked it off the ground as it’s the best way of doing it. There are fewer variables. I’d be a big fan of kids practising off the ground when I’ve done a bit of coaching in my own club. There was a rule in Cavan where it was two points for a free off the ground where it’s taken in a particular area and unfortunately that’s gone now. Statistically I’d say free-taking off the ground, particularly under pressure, is more successful as takes the variables away, you’re standing back from the ball.
NG: You’re spoken about the psychological aspect of free-taking but did you have any particular technique?
RC: It was just important focus on something. I’d position the ball in a particular way with the valve facing upwards and the O’Neill’s facing towards me. You could slightly change with regards to the steps, but if it was a routine free I’d take five back and two to the side. Depending on how successful I was at a particular time I might change it, but it was again something to focus on and to a degree it was irrelevant whether it was training or a club or county game. I also tried to get familiar with the ground and where I was playing – if there were particular landmarks around the pitch. It was all to assist the kicking process but also block out any interference.
NG: Are there any particular frees of significance that you remember?
RC: To be honest I’d remember the ones I missed more than the ones I scored. Human nature is such that you will miss some. I remember the Ulster final in 1997. Our manger Martin McHugh, who was a free-taker as well, had a quiet discussion with me the following week that there was a free in the middle of the second half that I missed that I shouldn’t have. I’d been nailing my frees up until that point. I got distracted, didn’t go through the process and actually thought in my mind ‘imagine if I missed this one’ because it was the easiest one I had all day. I was after scoring two from a significant distance and everyone would’ve assumed ‘it’s a point.’ I didn’t go through the process in what was a huge game. It triggered a revival for Derry, that’s one that stands with me but I tried to learn from it.
NG: It’s a good thing that you won considering it still plays on your mind a bit.
RC: That’s what drives you on. Martin had a word with me and I doubt anyone else could even have remembered it, he knew I’d be in a bit of pain over it and he was capable of bringing it up with me quietly. I was going well and my free-taking was fine but I pulled a simple one from not fully concentrating and those are often the ones you miss.
NG: Your name is always associated with your free-taking. Do you take that as a compliment or does it bother you that other aspects of your game aren’t really mentioned?
RC: I see both perspectives but it does rankle a bit. Still, I love my free-taking and watching other free-takers no matter what the sport is. I love the psychology of it, and I’ve no issue with people talking about it but you still have to contribute in other ways as well. I remember early on in my career, there was a rule change where basically anyone was allowed to take the free. The lads said, ‘that’s it, you’re under pressure now, Ronan.’ In our next big game we were playing Dublin in Croke Park, and Michael Faulkner, who was a very prominent stalwart at full-forward, won a free from around 35 metres out. He turned round to give me the ball and I said ‘Michael, you’ve been slagging me off all week, go and take it yourself’ and he said ‘g’wan and stop messing and just take it.’ I tried the same thing with Fintan a few times as well. I remember in one game we were well ahead of Westmeath, and Fintan got fouled for a tap-over free. He wasn’t able to walk and he rolled the ball back to me, and I said ‘away you go yourself’ as he’d been giving me plenty of grief. He came out with a few expletives and proceeded to hit a 21-metre free about 21 metres wide. The final whistle went one minute later and our manager at the time said ‘I’ll talk to you later’ and proceeded to give Cahill a chewing.
NG: I imagine you feel an affinity with other free-takers as well?
RC: I definitely have a fascination with it. You see other teams and it’s just as important as ever. All the top teams have fantastic free-takers and you see other teams striving to improve who still don’t have a serious free-taker. Obviously that player may not be there, but there’s no doubt that it’s a serious weapon for a team to have a free-taker who’ll punish consistently with an 80 or 90 percent success rate. I really enjoy watching those lads, and it’s a huge asset to the likes of Dublin, Kerry and Mayo.