What difference a year made at Anfield.

Twelve months after losing out in the 2018 Champions’ League decider, Jürgen Klopp’s infectious grin lit up a drab night in Madrid as they were crowned kings of Europe for a sixth time.

Like everyone in the world of soccer, he gets paid a small fortune but it’s impossible not be drawn towards the charismatic German.

In comparison to their high octane path to the final, Saturday night’s final was poor fare.

Despite being an Evertonian, I was totally enthralled by their 4-0 semi-final second leg win.  They were three goals down to European giants Barcelona but their mesmerising comeback is written in the annals of sport forever.

In last year’s final Mo Salah was forced off with a shoulder injury sustained in a controversial tangle with Sergio Ramos.

On Saturday night, he hammered home Liverpool’s early questionable penalty.

Their 3-1 defeat in 2018 will always be dubbed the ‘Loris Karius final’ after the German goalkeeper’s errors led to two of Real’s goals.  The other was a moment of brilliance from Gareth Bale’s overhead kick.

In the summer, Klopp broke the world transfer record for a goalkeeper by signing Brazilian Alisson from Roma.

It paid dividends.  In December his stoppage time save from Napoli’s Arkadiusz Milik kept Liverpool in the competition.

Then on Saturday night’s decider.  Spurs had almost two thirds of the possession and Liverpool needed their ‘keeper to be at his best.

None of his saves were out of the ordinary but when you recall the debacle of 2018, Alisson is the reason why Liverpool were parading the European Cup through the streets of Liverpool on Sunday afternoon.

Earlier in the day, Seán Kelly, Derry's hurling ‘keeper, proved his worth with two saves that kept his side’s Christy Ring Cup hopes alive.  The first from Andy O’Brien wasn’t unlike Alisson against Napoli.  It was instinctive.

Goalkeepers are no longer an afterthought.  They are game changers.

Managers not put a huge emphasis on the position.  At Derry hurlers’ press night, I watched part of their session beforehand.

Kelly was been put through his paces by former Dunloy and Antrim goalkeeper Shane Elliott.  It was very well structured and all game-related.  It also incorporated targets on each wing for directing puck-outs.

In Saturday’s opening game at Owenbeg, Oran Hartin made a terrific save to deny Cavan an early goal.  He is coached by former Derry ‘keeper Johnny Kelly, while Aidan McLaughlin is part of Paddy Campbell’s minor backroom team.

When Michael McShane became Slaughtneil’s hurling manager, Oisin O’Doherty was one of his first ports of call.

Having played outfield for both club and county, O’Doherty had any design of pulling on the number one jersey.

But he was convinced by McShane that he would play a pivotal role between the posts in the club’s challenge for Ulster honours.  They missed his repertoire of skill and composure last season when he opted out of the goalkeeping role.

While Alisson’s agility transformed Liverpool into European champions, in the GAA environment goalkeepers rarely get tested.  The showpiece saves are few and far between.

Mickey Moran, when he was Derry manager recruited outfield player Barry Gillis with the view to him being a ‘sweeper ‘keeper’.  A player who could play behind his defence, be confident in possession and well able to take the ball into contact.

In an interview with Gillis, now the Derry senior football goalkeeping coach, before the Tyrone championship game last month, he stressed the importance of kick-outs.

“Now teams are operating and aiming for nearly 90 percent retention and in today’s game,” he said.

“More often than not, you’ll end up with a shooting opportunity, if you can win the ball from your kick-out.”

A few years ago I was coaching our club U12 team and we went to Magherafelt one night for a game.  They had smallest lad on the pitch in goals.  But he was their conductor.

There was always a ball beside the post.  As soon as we scored or put the ball wide, a Magherafelt player would pull out to the wing and he would punt the ball into the pocket of space.  The receiver would alternate their runs after each score.  It was simple, but highly effective.

Steelstown, for many seasons, would line their players down the middle of the pitch before a kick-out.  As goalkeeper Marty Dunne started his run, players darted to the wings and he was able to pick out a run.

It is not as dramatic as the hang-time overhead catch we all love, but when rehearsed the systemic kick-outs are a joy to watch.

It is dictated by the outfield players.  Thomas Mallon’s kick-outs in the league final win over Leitrim were top drawer.  But from my vantage point in the upper deck of the Hogan, Michael McEvoy’s lateral runs were the key.  By my recollection, he only caught one kick-out but his decoy darts here, there and everywhere created pockets of space for ‘Postie’ to exploit.

When Slaughtneil won their first Ulster Club title in 2014, Paudie McGuigan and Patsy Bradley were stationed on each wing.  Against Omagh in the final, they plucked balls out of the air all evening.

Two years later on their decider against Kilcoo, the Emmet’s had 15 kick-outs and Antóin McMullan retained them all.  But the landscape had changed.  it was more systematic.

Into the team came the boundless energy of Padraig Cassidy, Keelan Feeney and especially Meehaul McGrath.  Their relentless running transformed Mickey Moran’s options.

It wasn’t until the diesel tank was empty in the All-Ireland semi-final against Nemo Rangers and the runs were no longer being made did their tactic begin to falter.

Almost every game attended now, both teams’ puck-outs and kick-outs are dissected to the nth degree.

I recall a pre-game debate being discussed in a restaurant with sauce bottles, salt and pepper cellars being used to explain a method of by-passing a team’s key midfielder.

Gone are the days when the number one jersey is thrown to anyone.

When Klopp decided to update his blueprint to reverse Liverpool’s 2018 epic fail against Real Madrid the goalkeeper position was his first area for study.

Other managers will continue to place importance on their last line of defence and first line of attack.

Pic: Mary K Burke

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