Hard work the key to Shaun Patton's excellence
By John Harrington
You know a sportsperson is seriously gifted when they make an extremely difficult skill look easy.
It never is, of course. It takes a whole lot of effort to make something difficult look effortless.
Take Donegal goalkeeper, Shaun Patton, for example.
The distance and accuracy he can send his goal-kicks with what seems like a modest amount of effort might convince you from the comfort of your own sofa that maybe you could ping an O’Neill’s ball a similar distance if you just tweaked your technique a tad.
Of course, were you to attempt to generate the power necessary to send a ball 60 yards you’d most likely end up lying on your back or popping a quad muscle.
Which is why it’s reassuring to hear from the man himself that it takes a lot more than natural ability to perfect the art of goal-kicking to the extent he has.
“It’s not something you’re born with,” says Patton. “I grew up with a football beside me the whole time, no different to a lot of people, but you train and train and all you want to do is improve.
“That kick can go very wrong sometimes and it can work out sometimes – it’s just about working as hard as you can to improve.
“I worked on my kicking the whole way through my life, it was always something I wanted to be good at and luckily when I was younger at the soccer, there was a goalkeeping coach who came in and really emphasised kicking techniques. That improved me massively.”
The impact Patton has made at the highest level of Gaelic Football is all the more impressive considering he had played little of it until Declan Bonner called him up to the panel in late 2017.
At that stage the Letterkenny man was still very much focused on pursuing a career in professional football having played for Derry City, Finn Harps, and Sligo Rovers.
He hadn’t pulled on a club jersey for St. Eunan’s for three years and had only ever played two senior club games anyway when he got the offer from Bonner to switch codes and try his hand at inter-county football, but after overcoming the initial surprise he soon saw the merits in making the leap.
"It definitely took a bit of time,” says Patton. “It took a lot of talking with the family and the girlfriend and trying to figure out...it was such a shock when he called me, I wondered did he have the right fella at the time.
“I was thinking, 'Right, this is an opportunity for me' and at the time I was with Sligo and I did love it and maybe I never really thought too much on...I was always fond of playing Gaelic but I never thought on it and when the opportunity presented itself I sat down and looked at all aspects and, to be honest with you, I visited one training session and from then on my mind was made up.”
Patton has been a huge cog in Donegal’s evolution into a more attacking team under Declan Bonner.
The accuracy of his restarts consistently gets the team on the front foot and is the platform upon which they build a large percentage of their scoring plays.
Occasionally a goal-kick won’t hit its target, but it’s testament to Patton’s mental strength as well as physical talent that he never seems flustered by those rare failures.
“It’s part and parcel of the game,” he says. “Things might not always go your way, it’s one of those things.
“If everything was perfect all the time it’d be an easy game. If you dwell on it it’s going to affect your team even more so you just have to reassess it after the game, but during the game you have to get on with it.
“If your head is down and your kick-outs to one after the other, bad after bad, it’s going to affect the team.”
Patton has earned a lot of deserved praise in recent weeks, but he knows only too well than when it comes to goalkeeping a pat on the back is only the proverbial six inches from a kick in the backside.
And there were a few of the latter directed at him when his late mistake allowed Dublin to score a goal that clinched a one point victory when the teams met in the Allianz League last February.
“It was extremely disappointing looking at it,” admits Patton. “It cost us the game. These things happen. Obviously, it's not nice and it's not easy to get over.
“That's part and parcel of the position. You make one mistake and you're dubbed as losing your team the game.
“That's the enjoyable part of the role - there's so much pressure. You just have to embrace it. If you didn't make mistakes, you wouldn't learn and it would be such an easy game.”
Patton does some visualisation to help him with the mental challenge of being a goalkeeper at the highest level.
But, for him, the most effective pressure-valve is the appreciation that he does something he really enjoys, even if the stakes are high.
“The main thing I like to think on is how privileged I am to get out there and put on the jersey for Donegal,” he says.
“There’s thousands of people would love to pull on the jersey but I’m lucky enough to get the chance to represent the county so you try to go out there and enjoy it.
“I love going out and playing football. This year really made you realise how much a part of your life it is, whenever it was taken away so suddenly.
“I didn’t know what to do, so to be able to go back out and play nearly gave you a kick up the arse for the hunger of the game and being able to go back at it.
“Once you see how it can be taken away and you get the chance to get out there, you just have to take that opportunity and enjoy yourself.”