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Peter Canavan: Today's elite forwards show just how much the game has changed

Chart topper: Mayo forward Cillian O’Connor became the all-time Championship top scorer last week
Chart topper: Mayo forward Cillian O’Connor became the all-time Championship top scorer last week
Diarmuid Connolly

By Peter Canavan

As with anything in sport, the cream always rises to the top and great forwards are no different. Football has changed drastically but the top teams still have prolific players lighting it up in attack. No matter who you are, if teams want to win big games and collect silverware, you cannot function without the marquee forward.

Kerry would not have won without Mikey Sheehy, Dublin likewise without Jimmy Keaveney while Jim Gavin's Dubs wouldn't be the same without Dean Rock or Mayo minus all-time championship top scorer Cillian O'Connor.

Blanket defences and sweepers have forced attackers to think outside the box to stay relevant in games and their role is scarcely recognisable from when I played the game. Their remit is much more than just kicking scores.

There was a time when a corner-back was the stopper, his job was to spoil a forward and get rid of the ball as soon as he got it. But now, the best corner-backs like Philly McMahon and Keith Higgins are scoring threats.

Oppositions will be aware of letting those players roam forward because they will do serious damage and deficiencies when it comes to work-rate and tackling means that many forwards are not getting picked these days.

You have to be able to work and tackle like a corner-back. How many games have you seen Cillian throwing his weight about and stopping the opposition? If he gets a chance to nail a defender, he doesn't miss the opportunity.

One of the best Dublin tacklers is their star forward Paul Mannion. There's numerous examples of him being the last defender or chasing someone back on his own '21 and making the perfect tackle.

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In my time it was called a 'forward's tackle' - it was lazy and usually a free - but that has been totally transformed.

Creating space was always the trait of a good forward but forwards are now working in confined spaces and the idea of teamwork and runs off the ball have never been more important for an inside forward. With the way some teams are set up, you need other players making runs and taking defenders out of the game.

If you have one marquee forward in there and no one else is making runs then he can be easily closed down. Other players need to draw defenders away to create space and get them on the ball. The better forwards now are better thinkers and better movers off the ball.

Another facet of the top forwards now - the likes of Cathal McShane, Jamie Brennan and Con O'Callaghan - is that they get their shot away incredibly quickly. Numerous times defenders will either try to block them or they won't even think that they are shaping to shoot.

Brennan kicks the ball early, he hits it high up. The ball doesn't come to his foot, his foot comes to the ball and it gives less chance for a defender to block him down. When you look back at Cathal McShane's points against Roscommon, the ball was in his hands and then it was gone.

Without looking at the goals against Kerry, O'Connor turned and kicked over. It was spatial awareness, he knew he was at the edge of the 'D', he knew where the goals were. He knew how far out he was, he just instinctively knew.

Knowing the time you have on the ball is often the difference between the good footballer and the exceptional footballer. How many times did you see Colm 'Gooch' Cooper being blocked down despite having two or three lads around him? Rarely, if ever.

People often wonder how players from yesteryear would have coped in the current set-up but if you have quality, you will perform and adapt.

My old team-mate Owen Mulligan could play inside, he was a score getter and could beat teams on his own but he could also come outside and be a provider, he was a play-maker and he could score from distance.

Stephen O'Neill was the exact same. He wasn't just a finisher and quality players will shine no matter where they are and no matter what systems are being played.

If you're good enough, it doesn't matter what you come up against. There's always room for the skilful player despite football's changes.

  • Everyone has their view on Diarmuid Connolly's Dublin return with a mixed reaction. Some are saying Jim Gavin is being disrespectful to the players that have worked hard and been loyal without game time.

Others say leaving a player like Connolly off when he could make the difference in their five-in-a-row bid is lunacy but the rights and wrongs will only be determined whether or not Dublin win the All-Ireland.

If Dublin lift Sam Maguire - whether he plays Connolly or not - he made the right decision. If they don't then Gavin was wrong and people will lambast him. Managers live or die by the big decisions that they make, that's the way it is.

Mickey Harte made a huge call starting me in the 2003 All-Ireland final before bringing me off and back on again but because we prevailed, it was viewed as a masterstroke.

If we'd lost, Mickey would have been slated. It was the same in 2008 when he brought back Stephen O'Neill. For many that would have been the sole reason had we lost, and it'll be the same with Dublin and Connolly as the winners write the script.

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