Sunday 24 September 2017

Anthony Nash latest 'keeper of the Rebel flame

Cork No 1 destined to follow in footsteps of the legendary Cunningham and Cusack with a long, distinguished career

Anthony Nash is following in the footsteps of Ger Cunningham and Donal Og Cusack
Anthony Nash is following in the footsteps of Ger Cunningham and Donal Og Cusack
Donal Og Cusack
Ger Cunningham
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

IF patience is a virtue, then Anthony Nash is one of the most righteous men in sport, having had to wait a long time to prove his excellence.

At the age of 28, he will be making only his 12th championship appearance on Saturday, two fewer than his Kanturk clubmate, Lorcan McLoughlin, who is five years younger.

That's what happens when, at the age of 20, you leave your CV in the Cork camp, only to discover that the position you are seeking is already filled by an ultra-talented, experienced campaigner who is built for longevity.

That's what happened to Nash eight years ago. Donal Og Cusack had been a permanent resident in the No 1 jersey for six years and, with history showing that top hurling goalkeepers can survive into their mid to late 30s, opportunities for Nash and other would-be contenders in Cork looked to be extremely limited.

Cusack had taken over as Cork's No 1 at the age of 22 in 1999, replacing Ger Cunningham, who had been in situ since 1981, having made his debut at the age of 19.

Cunningham and Cusack were lucky in that they got their break at an early age, arriving at just the right time in the generational cycle. Between them, they manned the Cork goal for 31 years, a period in which several challengers were seen off.

No doubt, some of them would have enjoyed productive inter-county careers if the chance had arisen, but they lost out under the 'wrong place wrong time' heading. Nash's timing wasn't exactly perfect either, since it was clear that there would be no early breakthrough as Cusack continued to be one of the best 'keepers in the country.

As Nash settled in for the long wait as a sub, he was joined by Martin Coleman, another fine goalkeeper, who was also facing the difficult task of unseating Cusack.

Apart from a few appearances along the way, both Nash and Coleman remained on the bench until their big chance arrived when Cusack ruptured his Achilles tendon in April 2012.

Nash became the chosen one for the championship, seizing his opportunity so powerfully that he ended the year as All Star goalkeeper. It raised the big question of whether he or Cusack would be first choice once the latter returned to full fitness this year.

The answer arrived in emphatic terms when Cusack was left off the panel early in the year. It was a massive vote of confidence in Nash by Jimmy Barry-Murphy, one which has been handsomely rewarded.

Nash goes into Saturday's All-Ireland final replay odds-on to win a second successive All Star award and 15/8 co-favourite with Patrick Horgan to win the Hurler of the Year award.

Of course, much could change on Saturday evening, but, on the basis of his performances so far, Nash looks primed for another good performance.

Whether it will be as part of a winning team remains to be seen, but there's no doubt that his dual role as shot-stopper, long and short-range (when goals are required) free-taker makes him one the most important cogs in the Leeside wheel.

ATTENTION

Nash's short-range free-taking has attracted attention on the basis that he almost reaches the 13-metre line before striking a penalty or 20-metre free, but he is within the rules as there is no restriction on how far ahead the ball can be tossed before the follow-up contact is made.

Most free-takers gain valuable metres, but Nash is now the most adept of all in squeezing an extra advantage from his lift.

He was close to the 13-metre line when making contact with a few strikes against Clare in the drawn game. Despite that, two of them were saved, which shows how brave and alert Clare goalkeeper Patrick Kelly and his defenders were.

Nash drove one 20-metre free to the net and, given the power and velocity he generates, it's certain that Davy Fitzgerald will have stressed the importance of defensive discipline close to goal.

Nash's overall excellence raises the question of how Cork have produced such a succession of outstanding goalkeepers over the years.

If – and it's more probable than possible – he remains as No 1 until his mid-30s, it will mean that Cork will (barring the occasional appearance by a sub) have had only three goalkeepers in almost 40 years, which is a truly remarkable record.

Cusack won the first of his three All-Ireland senior medals in his first season (1999), while Cunningham had to wait until his fourth season (1984) to collect the first of his three.

Nash is one victory away from joining the exclusive All-Ireland club in his second season. If Cork win, it's likely he will have played well, making a second successive All Star award a formality. Cunningham won three successive All Star awards in 1984-85-86 and another in 1990. Cusack won two awards in 1999 and 2006.

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