Quite often, the topic of many conversations leaving football matches is about the dubious decision that the referee made, the black card and how “no way was it a black card”, the point that was waved wide, the guy that pulled out of the 50/50 ball or the calls that were made on the line. All are valid talking points and have every reason to grind people’s gears as there is no doubt that they frustrate me too. The most frustrating thing for me, though, is leaving games weekend after weekend at all levels including inter-county level and watching frees being kicked wide from relatively easy positions. Why does this annoy me so much? The answer is simple. These frees are being taken from the hands. As an organisation, as managers and as coaches we have totally neglected the art that is free-taking from the ground. Coaches nowadays simply do not encourage it and because the rules allow it now, the easiest option for the kicker is from the hands.
I have always been a free-taker and my preferred choice was always striking from the ground. Yes, there were many frees that I took from my hands but only about 10% of my total and this was because of the conditions or elements that I was facing. As a coach now, this is what I try to encourage with my players because on every team that is successful, there are top quality free-takers. Dean Rock is the best modern-day example that I can use. He is exceptional at striking from the ground. Bryan Sheehan is another prime example. For me though because I played with him for many years, Oisín McConville was the best dead-ball specialist that I ever saw. He had it all but what made him stand alone was that he never missed a free under the most extreme pressure. He was coolness personified in those situations because he trusted his routine and mastered it.
Think about this: how many inter-county players take scoreable frees from the ground now? You can count the number on one hand yet striking from the ground proves to be more successful. What is the reason for this? It’s simple. You are striking a ball from a stationary position so you are only depending on a clean run-up and strike on the area of the ball that you focus on with a good follow-through. From your hands, as you are preparing to strike the ball you are moving your whole body, legs, waist, shoulders, arms and head in the hope that you make a clean connection. More can go wrong this way. You also don’t have a clear focus on the area of the ball that you want to connect with like you would if the ball was placed on the ground. I would much prefer the reliable intention of a clean strike than the hope of one.
For any free-taker, the most important thing that you must have is a routine; a routine that you are comfortable with and that you trust. Think of Jonny Wilkinson and how his routine served him so well throughout his career. What is involved in a routine for a free-taker? Everything, from placing the O’Neills football on the ground the exact same way time after time. A tip here is to ensure the logo on the ball is always the correct way. The way that you place it always as it is in different areas of the ball on both sides. What direction do you want the valve on the ball to face? Your steps back, then to the side. The area you want to strike and a few good deep breaths to focus your mind. Clear your head of all negativity and concentrate on that clean strike and follow through. If there are any negative thoughts, go and start your routine again. If the strike is crisp and clean, then the chances are that you will score a point.
I grew up in an era watching unbelievable free-takers such as Ross Carr, Anthony Tohill, Brian Stafford, Maurice Fitzgerald and Colin Corkery. These guys perfected the skill because it’s how they practised. It’s a lost art of our game that I would love to see more of. It’s a skill that can be revived but only if the coaches encourage it.