A forward’s job on any team is simple, isn’t it? Score. Not quite. I wish it was that simple. Were it so, I would probably still be playing. Early in my career, I was taught a valuable lesson by Cathal O’Rourke. He recognised a trend developing in my career and he felt the need to sit me down to discuss it. The trend was not necessarily a bad thing but the conversation made me realise how easy I was to mark. It was simple – I had an eye for goal and, nine out of 10 times, I had goal on my mind when I gained possession. I felt the need to take my man on time after time. I’m sure this infuriated my team-mates. Cathal made me realise the essential art of kicking points, the value of creating movement and the overall importance of making changes to my game. The type of changes that had the potential to take my game to the next level. A vital change he encouraged me to do was to think more about my game and not just to expect things to happen. As part of this thought process, I looked more at my direct opponent’s game, identifying their weaknesses in particular and recognising areas where I could hurt them. This required serious movement and work-rate on my behalf. This also meant mixing my game up like laying the ball off, creating opportunities for my team-mates, shooting for points when the time was right, dragging my man to the sideline to create space, and realising that the goals would eventually come if I started to do all of the above.
The type of movement that I speak about is smart movement. Not just running for the sake of it. Not running in straight lines either. It meant jinking and turning four, five, six or even seven times to ultimately get away from my man and to create time for myself on the ball. This type of movement is so important in an inside forward’s game, particularly in the modern game. Having been at many of Armagh’s games this year, one of the highlights of their campaign for me personally has been watching my former team-mate Ciaran McKeever plying his trade as a full forward. I never thought that I would see him in there at inter-county level having built up his reputation as a teak-tough defender down through the years, but I can assure you all that Ciaran can teach more seasoned forwards a lesson or two on the art of smart creative movement. It really is a joy to watch and to make life easier for all around him, when he goes the ball sticks. There is no doubt that he has learned a lot through experience and also through playing as a defender so knowing the type of movement that creates headaches for defenders is now being inflicted on them by one of their own. Ciaran thinks about how he wants to perform and this leads to the type of movement and effort that he generates in a match. Colm Cooper and Peter Canavan have and had exceptional movement. Both top quality footballers, both top quality thinkers.A forward’s job, though, is to score for their team and, as mentioned above, that is where the simplicity ends. To get the scores that are going to provide you with that edge over your opponent. Is it standing in your named position and expecting ball to rain in on top of you? Certainly not. It’s about outsmarting your opponent. A defender in the full-back line runs most of the time when the forward decides to make a move so ultimately the inside forward is the decision maker. Yes, he is totally dependent on the service provided but if a player is only prepared to play a stationary role, then the service will rightly be limited. When he has possession, he decides what he does with the ball. The thought process rests with him. The defender has to react to this. There are limitless actions that can add so much value to a forward’s game. A forward that thinks smarter always seems to be the player that is three or four steps ahead of everyone else. A forward that thinks smarter is generally the type of player that can slide a ball underneath the keeper like the Gooch did in this month’s All-Ireland club final. The message is clear – think smarter, become better.