Goalkicking: The Art and Desire Lost In the Modern Game

In the dying seconds of the 1977 Grand Final, Collingwood’s Ross ‘Twiggy’ Dunne prepared to kick, requiring a goal to level the scores. Despite being only twenty metres out, he chose the kick usually reserved for the long distance roost: the technically difficult and notoriously inaccurate torpedo punt.

Belying his team’s Colliwobbles moniker, which had again been justified with the surrender of a 27 point three quarter time lead, Dunne showed no signs of a weak stomach and casually slotted the goal.

Beautifully executed, the kick launched the ball straight over the goal umpire’s head and into the upper tiers of the Ponsford Stand. Two policemen squatting on the boundary looked up as if it was on its way to the moon.

Dunne’s choice of kick, especially for such an important goal, would today be deemed an act of laconic stupidity.

It’s easy to be amused watching players of the distant past taking shots at goal.

As a child I was given a book entitled How to Play Football. On its cover is a photo of a footballer wearing a thick woollen jumper and high lace up boots in the act of executing what is probably a drop kick. I’ve since been informed it is a young Ted Whitten.

Both legs are in the air and with his hefty fuselage and outstretched arms Whitten resembles an Airbus A380 attempting takeoff.

In the professional era the kick demanded by coaches is the easier and supposedly more accurate drop punt.

According to the official AFL book on Skills of Australian Football, “kicking skills have improved immensely over the years as players have more time to practise and perfect hitting targets”.

And more recently Mick Malthouse remarked: “Has our goal-kicking improved over 20, 30, 40 years? Of course it has. Go and have a look at some footage”.

I did; of Peter ‘Percy’ Jones. Supposedly resting in the forward line the gangly Carlton ruckman would, with an uncertain approach, execute shots at goal that started as drop punts but morphed into ugly flat punts. He kicked 284 goals with an unbelievable accuracy of 72% –  the 5th highest of all time

The problem is, goal-kicking hasn’t improved. The modern professional footballer uses the drop punt exclusively, plays on carpet-smooth surfaces, and has a fifty metre line to gauge distance from goal but these things haven’t helped his rate of conversion.

For a number of years former Essendon champion full forward Matthew Lloyd – who had to rectify his own goal kicking problems throughout his career – has verbalised his frustration at the high number of easy goals that are missed, and the apparent lack of concern shown by players and coaches.

Both Lloyd and Adelaide great Mark Ricciuto have highlighted the fact that development of goal kicking skills is not a focus of clubs, many of which are coached by ex defenders. Some have admitted their reluctance to indulge in lengthy goal practice sessions out of fear of causing leg injuries and others unbelievably mentioned the inconvenience of having to retrieve balls.

The set-shot is a conundrum for the modern player – a runner who does weights. He covers distances unprecedented in the history of the game and can kick with aplomb to a leading teammate forty metres upfield but put him in front of the goal posts and he goes to water.

Today you can tell a player is going to miss a set-shot. The nervousness, the reticence, and downright disbelief in his own ability to complete the task are written all over his face. He may be thirty metres out on a slight angle but still hopes to give it off. The furtive eyes are still working as he walks towards the large stationary target; 6.4 metres wide and as high as gravity will allow.

Often he’s lucky to get it inside the point post.

And it’s not just the poor unfocused preparation; it’s also the kick itself. He’s used to kicking the ball ‘up’, over zones or walls of opposing players, to unmarked teammates. He is not required to pass to teammates with a flatter more powerful trajectory – a skill, by the way, that is integral to Hawthorn’s recent dominance – that is the superior method for goal-kicking.

Goalkicking in all its manifestations is a more difficult task than general kicking, even for those with the greater skills.

This is because of the mental aspect: the pressure especially for defenders and midfielders who, in the modern running game, find themselves in front of goal.

Forced to take the shot, their timidity forces them into fundamental errors. They either lean back and kick the ball upwards which makes he ball lose momentum and accuracy, or they try to steer the ball with a soft foot which usually results in the ball slewing off the side of the boot.

Technically there is not a lot of difference between accurate kicking in general play and shooting for goal: running straight at the target, head over the ball and kicking through the ball.

It’s strange that while most aspects of human endeavour have become more specialised, football has become less so. Players are constantly on the move, fulfilling a variety of roles. During a match a team can have up to ten different players taking shots.

Out of breath from their marathon stints and with minds preoccupied with their coaches’ strategies and systems they’re not in the best place to execute the delicate art of kicking for goal. Most don’t see themselves as goal-kickers and – to the real annoyance of fans – often appear unfazed after missing shots.

The new game has seen the death of the greatest specialist: the power full forward. The goal-kicking gurus who were born – or trained themselves – to belong in the Shangri-La of the Inside Fifty.

Having the ball delivered to them exquisitely by champion centremen and on-ballers, they would begin their eccentric procedures, in their own good time – almost impossible now with the imposition of time limits. Whether it was throwing grass in the air, descending into a meditative state, or simply aiming above the goal umpire’s head, it would bring a quietness and a calmness to proceedings – a welcome state in today’s skittery style.

Whether they used the torpedo, the flat punt, or the drop punt, the result was always the same. They would drill goals.

I don’t know, perhaps goal-kicking can’t be taught; you either have the hunger and skill or you don’t.

In the case of the great full forwards and freakish goal sneaks there may be an element of truth to this, however you’ll probably find that many of these sharpshooters with an “uncanny goal sense” are largely a product of a childhood dominated by endless and solitary goal-kicking practice.

For me, that space in front of goals was a sacred place.

Whenever I found myself in possession of the ball within goal-kicking distance – and I did not consider 50 metres out of range – hand balling or kicking to a player “in  a better position” (but who lacked the requisite skill and desire) was not an option.  Whatever the angle, whatever the pressure and with either foot my sole desire was to puncture that space between the goalposts – lacquered as it was with an invisible veneer to keep out the unskilled and non believers.

I’m dying for the day, when a player lining up for a goal to win the grand final spurns the orders of his coach and sends a torp to the moon.`

First published on The Roar:- 

Game has changed but goal conversion remains same

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