Don’t get me wrong, I’m by no means an expert on breaking ball but I have had years of experience of learning to play off a player like Ronan Clarke that many of the same principles apply. Ronan was one of the most exceptional and influential full-forwards of his generation, but unfortunately a player that was hampered by injuries from such a young age. Clarkey and myself had built up such a rapport and understanding of each other’s games due to endless hours of practice on the training pitch. I knew how he thought and he knew how I thought. When I mention the principles above, I am talking about getting several things right. Good communication is a major factor in knowing and understanding the direction that the ball may break. By playing off Ronan, I could make a call to him mid-flight and he would often drop the ball into my path with the deftest of touches.
Timing is also a key factor. How often do we see players beyond the area of the expected breaking ball because they have simply gone too soon? Timing for breaking ball really does come down to seconds. This also depends on how fast you want to be approaching the play and the distance that you need to be coming in from. We learnt to rotate around each other to get our timing just right. It’s extremely difficult to defend against. The biggest ingredient for me, though, to gaining breaking ball is having the desire to go into the mix and get it. Sometimes you get hurt and put on your arse because of the volume of players in that area but that is what you must go through to win the dirty ball. We all know of the players that tend to try and cheat the system by playing on the periphery and expecting easy ball but success comes at a cost and it certainly requires players to consistently put their bodies on the line.
We have been blessed with fine breaking ball winners over the last 15 years or so; guys who played major roles in the success of their teams and guys that were never afraid of mixing things up from time to time. They had all the above attributes and more but what really set them apart was an almost manic desire in all their training sessions so that they could perfect the art. Paul Galvin was one of these players. A player that had bite, a player that energised his team-mates by his actions and a player that never shirked responsibility. Brian Dooher was also an exceptional breaking ball winner. He brought an energy into the Tyrone master-plan that required serious stamina, tracking back but also getting forward and creating after going through the mix.
Call me biased but I would have to mention my old Armagh colleague Marty O’Rourke. He really developed into this role for us as a great source to get in around Paul McGrane, Phillip Loughran and John McEntee and hunt for the scraps. He was a player that thrived in situations like this and having played in many a championship match with him, I can assure you that most of the scores that myself, Clarkey, Oisín McConville or Diarmaid Marsden got came off the back of O’Rourke’s ability to get in and get nasty to win the dirty ball. He was also a player that loved to be hated. This is my way of paying Marty a compliment, believe it or not. So often he could get under the skin of our opponents and by doing this he was also distracting them. He could play the game this way without a problem to him.
When you look at the guys I’ve listed, you automatically think of serious breaking ball winners for their teams. When you think of the sides that achieved success it’s no coincidence that they featured and featured prominently. Teams are full of players that have their own unique stamp on matters. These players realised their key skills and they honed them. I would want these guys in my team all day long. They communicated effectively to their team-mates, they got their timing spot on and they had a serious hunger to get their hands on the ball. It’s no coincidence that they all became serial winners.