Feature on GAA’s targetmen – The bear in the square

Like double denim, the big man on the edge of the square seemed to have had its day, but something is changing in football and the target man returning. Shaun Casey writes…

HOW often do you hear ‘kick it in’ at a football game? It’s probably the most used phrase in GAA circles, or at least it was for a number of years. The game seems to be changing now, and managers and players are beginning to take the advice coming from the stands.

There’s an excitement, a thrill and a certain amount of stress that comes with a long ball towards the edge of the square. The big target man full-forward seemed to have vanished as the long kicking game reverted to a safety first, side-to-side hand-passing style, but he’s making a comeback.

Let’s just take a look at the Ulster teams for example, the supposed inventors of defensive football. Andrew Murnin may not be built in the mould of an Eoin ‘Bomber’ Liston, but Armagh use him to great effect and his presence at full-forward allows their kicking game to flourish.

Would Fermanagh have got promoted without Sean Quigley? No is the straight answer. He nabbed two late goals against Down and Antrim in the early rounds of the league that propelled the Erne men to the top of the Division Three table. And Quigley didn’t even have to leave the small square.

Brian Kennedy and Conn Kilpatrick have taken turns swapping in and out of full-forward all year for Tyrone, Pat Havern is a physical threat at number 14 with Down, you have the twin tower effect of Ruairi McCann – the Aghagallon version – and Pat Shivers in Antrim and Paddy Lynch of Cavan is perhaps the best of the lot in this province.

So, the bear in the square is most certainly on the way back. Larry Reilly carried that tag for a number of years when he lined out in the blue and white of Cavan, and the 1997 Ulster Championship winner says the game has changed so much since he played.

Reilly hung up the boots at the end of the 2010 season, just when defensive football was taking control of the game, having been a star for the Breffni Blues after breaking into the team in 1996. He believes the “out and out inside forward” doesn’t exist anymore and doesn’t know how he’d fare out if he was playing these days.

“I suppose the modern game now is so different from when I was playing,” said the Kilbride clubman. “Lads would often ask the question of how you would do if you were playing in today’s game; I actually don’t know because there’s no such a thing nearly now as an out and out inside forward.

“They’re in and out, they’re over and back but the fitness and physique of these guys nowadays is absolutely crazy, it’s off the charts. They can run up and down all day long and the power and the strength of them is unbelievable.

“It’s an amateur sport but they’re all training like professionals, it’s an amateur sport with professional commitment, without a doubt. I suppose when lads get to around 29 or 30 years of age, the chance of giving that commitment just isn’t there anymore.”

On the other side of it, Eamon McGee was often the man detailed with derailing the impact of the opposition’s star forward and with that, he picked up the big man. McGee, along with his brother Neil, were Donegal’s main man-markers during Jim McGuinness’ reign.

In that now famed 2012 season, the Gaoth Dobhair man, who has lined out at full-forward for his club in later years, picked up the likes of Sean Cavanagh and Kieran Donaghy as the Tir Chonaill men captured the Sam Maguire

“I don’t know who was the toughest, but maybe the most memorable,” recalled McGee of his duels with Cavanagh and Donaghy. “I remember marking Cavanagh for a few games and Donaghy so it’s probably between them two.

“The Cavanagh one was very intense because of the way that whole Tyrone rivalry was at the time, but Donaghy, I marked him on a few big days in Croke Park, so it was just good memories to have.

“The target man full forward definitely does exist (in the modern game), you’ll see it come into the game more and more now. It hadn’t existed for a few years there because there was no need for it and teams changed their style of play, so the big full-forward wasn’t really required anymore.

“But that long ball in, even that big, aimless high ball in, there’s air in it, teams have definitely struggled to deal with that so there’s going to be a place for the big man on the edge of the square now again.

“I think the way the game has gone now, there’s definitely a place for them. And with that, you’ll see more kicking too and teams letting the ball go into the forward line.”

While there may not be any more “out and out inside forwards”, Reilly believes that the target man full-forward is still a key member of any team. The two players the former Cavan sharpshooter picks out as examples, are two of the best in the business.

“The inside forward doesn’t really exist anymore in the modern game, but sometimes you definitely do need it. Look at the likes of David Clifford there for Kerry, where does he spend more of his time? He never moves out of the full-forward line.

“That is great, but then the difference with that is that he has the lads that will do the work around him which definitely helps. He’s a brilliant footballer himself with a good team, so it’s easy for him to be as good as he is with the players that he has around him.

“Whereas you have the likes of Sean Quigley in Fermanagh and he’s just digging deep the whole time and for a long time he was maybe a lone figure up there (in the forward line).

“It’s important to have workers in the team and players that are going to work their socks off and they mightn’t get the glory, but you need them too.”

McGee believes that there’s still a place in the modern game for that big target man and that the forward mark has helped the game evolve. Now, more teams are willing to kick the ball forward compared to how it was a few years ago.

“In fairness, I know we give out about the forward mark and it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but the mark has helped progress that.

“I think we were probably heading back towards that style of play again anyway, but the mark has probably sped up that evolution to a more kicking game.

“But with the forward mark now in the game and we’ve seen in the last two or maybe three years, teams have struggled with the high ball in towards the square, it causes mayhem.

“These days there’s so much shouting from the stand ‘get it in,’ people actually are putting it in now so it’s definitely there.

“With the mark, you’re going to have to maybe take two players to watch it and that frees someone else up then.

“The big full-forward was extinct, but they’re starting to come back into the game again.”

While we’ll probably never return to the out and out man-on-man game of years gone by, there’s a comfort in knowing that the bear in the square is always an option that will never go out of fashion.

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