From poacher to ‘keeper - Conaty revelling in the transition
The role of the goalkeeper in hurling has evolved and in the modern game, it’s not simply about shot-stopping and randomly pucking the ball out.
It’s now far more forensic and in many cases, the cúl báire is the most crucial player on the team as they’re the source for most attacks, the one who often produces the pass that unlocks the opposing defence, or creates an opening for his team mates to exploit.
Westmeath senior hurling goalkeeper, Noel Conaty was once a competent forward but has reverted to goalie’s position and it’s a transition that has proven very successful. There’s no secret to success, no magic formula and it’s about diligent application in training and a lot of repetitive stuff.
“You have to work hard on puck-outs; it’s a key area of the game and you just do them repeatedly at each training session. It’s about building confidence and developing that side of your game, which is now so crucial,” he remarked. “What you work on in training, you try and bring that to games.”
Conaty and his colleagues, Conor Lynch and Cormac Ryan get great support from team manager, Joe Fortune and the backroom team. Audacity is not frowned upon and they’re encouraged to play in an unstructured manner, even if there is a serious game plan at all times.
“On the management side, they’re very open to us trying new things, taking more risks. High risks equal big rewards,” he remarked.
And it’s even more detailed than that: you need to be conscious of your own strengths and at the same time be aware of what the opposition is trying to achieve.
“You have to put a lot of work into seeing how teams set up. It’s vital that you play to your own strengths. We don’t have a Gearóid Hegarty (Limerick’s towering wing forward), for example, so we have to work on different approaches and try different things all the time with our puck-outs. You’re looking for the player in space all the time, but then you’re always getting teams closing down that space, so the challenge is to find a way around that.”
The evolution has been remarkable and Conaty has witnessed it from both an outfield player and a goalkeeper’s perspective. The decision to move him between the sticks was something of a masterstroke and it has certainly paid off in recent years.
“The game has completely changed and the goalkeeper’s role is a major element of that. You’re more like a sweeper now; the game is all possession-based. It’s crucial to be able to pick out that pass all the time, whether it’s in midfield or a longer ball to the forwards in the opposition half,” he opined.
Fans can be fickle and a more expansive attacking style isn’t always appreciated, or even understood.
“The crowd can be impatient and don’t always appreciate the process. They call on you to drive the ball inside, but if you do ‘lump’ it ball downfield, there’s less chance of one of your own players winning it. So most of the time you’re trying to retain possession and work it,” he explained.
“The top goalkeepers in division 1A have around an 84% success rate with their passing, that’s the target. You’re all the time working to get to that level.”
Life in the top flight has been a tough experience for the Lake County, but Conaty feels it’s a vital learning experience that will stand them in good stead. And he’s encouraged by the number of new players emerging on to the scene.
“There’s less time to think in division 1A; if you hesitate you’re in trouble. Any error you make is punished most likely with a score; it’s played at a different pace,” he observed.
Learning from game to game will be vital if Westmeath are to survive in the top flight, which is the ultimate target: a relegation play-off against the bottom team in division 1B (Laois or Antrim the likely candidates). Then they can use their experience to build for the championship in the summer.
“In our first few games in division 1A, it was a case of did we perform as well as we could have; did we do as well against Wexford in certain areas as we did against Clare, or did we learn from how the game went in Ennis. From the point of view that we missed a lot of chances against Clare, we’d be happy that we improved that aspect of our game against Wexford,” he noted.
“Now we are keen to take something from the Cork game and build again towards Limerick and Galway.”
Westmeath will play reigning All-Ireland champions Limerick in Mullingar on March 12, followed by another home game against Galway a week later. These are occasions to embrace more than fear, another opportunity to develop aspects of your game that will lead you to a better place.