THERE is something fascinating about the free taker in Gaelic games, or even a rugby place kicker.
In a team game, they are men apart. The winning or losing of close matches invariably comes down to their technique and to how well they can execute it under pressure.
They are as alone as the golfer on the 18th fairway or a snooker playing lining up a frame ball.
If there is physical courage and moral courage then a free taker has to be a moral lion. Every free, long or short, is potentially the winning or losing of a match. A miss could be crucial, but if you do miss — and everybody does — you need to have the strength of character not to let it affect your next attempt.
Watching an accomplished free taker do their thing is a privilege. They are masters of a craft, perfectionists toiling in a discipline where perfection is always beyond reach.
London have been fortunate to have Martin Finn hitting frees these past few seasons. The Corkman’s contribution to Ring and Rackard success has been so great that many feared his true worth would only be appreciated once he was gone.
Well, he’s not gone yet, but injury has sidelined him for the pivotal part of this year. So London have been doubly fortunate to have a freetaker — and hurler — of the calibre of 23-year-old Gerard Hennelly to step up.
Hennelly knows how to take a free. He hit 1-40 for London in the League, 0-31 from placed balls. The two main signs of somebody who knows what they are doing in this regard is a) they make it look easy and b) everybody, including themselves, is shocked when they miss.
Few of us really appreciate how much hard work is required to make this skill appear simple.
Free takers are often labelled obsessive — but that is a loose word. It indicates a lack of stability. And stability — both physically and mentally — is a requisite to success.
Perfectionism is probably closer to the mark yet that doesn’t illustrate the pursuit of what John Updike called “the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill” just for its own sake. Nor does it speak of the joy inherent in that pursuit; the inclination to pick up that ash and seldom leave it down.
“I mightn’t be the most physically imposing,” says Hennelly, “but I always have a hurl in my hand to be honest. It’s just something I like doing I suppose.”
He lives in a house with five other hurlers, in Rayners Lane out towards Eastcote, and it is the free taker who is dragging the other lads — Tommy Lally, a Gabriels clubmate plus two from Robert Emmetts and one from Granuaille — out to the park around the corner.
Then on weekends, Rusilip is only a short bus-ride away. Once there he could strike 150 frees, or more.
“There’s no pressure on you so have to be hitting over 43 or 44. I’d be taking them from the 65 and a few outside that. If you’re missing five or six you need to start again. Because you’d be leaving here and it’d be in your head all evening… it’d be wrecking your head.”
He missed one against Carlow in the Leinster SHC game that is still wrecking his head. About 35 metres out. Close to the line. Tricky, but one he would nail every night of the week in Ruislip, using his technique of picking a landmark halfway between posts — a tree, a lamppost, anything — to enhance accuracy. This time the ball went wide.
“I was after missing a shot from play. I was thinking, ‘Jesus, I have to score this’. It was on the left — I’m a left-sided freetaker…
“That’s the one thing that’s been playing in my mind since. I know it’s only one point but I needed to get it right, that was the big day and I didn’t get it right.
“The next one I scored, and the next couple after that but you can’t afford to miss any chances … I’ve been living in Rusilip since … Hopefully there’ll be no glitches the next day.”
Hennelly comes across as a driven individual when it comes to hurling. Like a lot of people who are driven, he is trying to make up for lost time.
Something of an underage prodigy in Galway, Hennelly hurled under-14 and under-16 for the county before spending three years on the minor panel. Yet after playing for two years, his final year at minor was written off after he tore a cruciate ligament.
“I suppose I kind of lost a bit of interest when I tore my cruciate at 18 … got disillusioned,” he says. “I went to America after that.”
Three summers were spent hurling in Boston. After the last one, he stayed on for the year.
“It was a great experience … made a lot of friends. Like here, they have a huge passion for hurling and are great guys for looking after you.
“Where I’m from in south Galway it’s all hurling. It can get on top of you at times, lads are a bit intense. But I started missing it, the hurling and the craic.”
So he returned home, only to end up “twiddling his thumbs”, another casualty of the never-ending recession. Then one day just over a year ago his dad was on the phone to a man in London who apparently had a lot work going in the capital.
“When he got off the phone he [dad] said it to me, and I said, ‘Ring him back and ask him has he work for me’. When he did, I went over the following morning, so I’d absolutely nothing organised.”
Brothers Pearse and Robert Emmetts were off the mark, trying to recruit the new man in town. With his background, though, there was one likely home from home.
“A lot of people from my parish and the parishes around me had played with Gabriels so I threw my lot in with them. And we’re treated very well, they’re a good bunch of fellas.”
Hennelly enjoys life in north-west London, and reckons it could be home for the foreseeable future. He’s applied for a course in NUIG that begins in the autumn. If he gets it, he’ll most probably head back. Otherwise he’ll stay here, the place where his love for the game he’s grown up with has been reinvigorated.
“This is probably my first year of giving real commitment to hurling since I was 17 years of age. I’m really enjoying it. The hunger is there. I’m really driving on now and trying to make the most of it.
“I have enough years lost.”