Groundbreaking Rebel's exit marks end of an era
Published 01/02/2013 | 05:00
In his autobiography 'Come What May', Donal Og Cusack told a story that reflected his obsessive nature about training and hurling.
He liked the feeling of training on Christmas Day, he liked the idea of working out and getting an edge on rivals whom he sensed were working off the excesses of the turkey on a sofa – much like a young Davy Fitzgerald regularly belting balls off a wall in Clare on a route that he knew a rival would be taking to work.
One Christmas Day, Cusack took off on a bicycle from Cloyne into Cork city and back, pushing himself further and harder than he had planned to do.
As he got back to Cloyne "the lights went out," bringing him down outside the house of his his clubmate, county colleague and friend Diarmuid O'Sullivan.
On future Christmas Days, he reserved his energy for the ball alley instead.
But that was Cusack, always seeking to gain an edge. In 2006 he researched ways to improve his tracking of a white ball and found Nike maxsight red and amber tinted contact lenses served that purpose. He was one of the first hurling goalkeepers to procure gloves that helped grip in wet conditions. Always innovating, always seeking to improve.
He may not have been the first 'keeper to deliver a puck-out short, but he was the first to make it a strategy and reap benefits.
It was daring and unconventional, but served Cork well on the way to four successive All-Ireland finals between 2003 and 2006, a time when it looked like they and not Kilkenny would dominate the decade.
Cusack has arguably been the most influential GAA player of his generation for reasons that go beyond the white lines of the hurling field.
Some may disagree with that and point to any number of Kilkenny hurlers and Kerry footballers who have far more medals and honours.
But for the manner in which he drove the player welfare agenda from that moment he engaged in a discussion on Cork's 96FM in August 2002 and berated the Cork County Board for their poor treatment of players at the time – as much a declaration of war as there could possibly be – he has championed the cause relentlessly and influenced change in how players are dealt with within the GAA.
None of his Rebel team-mates would dispute that without the principled and forceful positions taken by their goalkeeper during the three Cork strikes not nearly as much would have been achieved.
His revelation in his autobiography that he was gay was another landmark for Irish sport and society. In the manly world of hurling, Cusack was at ease with his sexuality.
As news began to filter through that he had been left off the Cork squad for the forthcoming hurling league, he was on board a flight to New York, where he is leading a GPA work group of former players in the building trade back to Breezy Point, the predominantly Irish community in Queens, so badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy.
Without him, the Gaelic Players Association might not nearly have been as successful in pursuit of its goals.
He takes his duties as GPA chairman very seriously and the suspicion with which he may have been greeted in the position by some of his fellow inter-county players just a few years ago, even during the second and third Cork strikes, has now grown into respect.
The question as to whether the time is right to let him go now is debatable. He's nearly 36 and coming back off a very serious Achilles heel injury sustained in last year's league semi-final that required surgery.
His replacement, Anthony Nash, is the current All Star goalkeeper and deserves pole position as the season gets under way. But Cusack, 14 seasons as Cork's No 1, was team captain last year and was showing no signs of losing the form that made him a standout figure in an era of truly great goalkeepers prior to his injury.
His series of saves at the end of the drawn All-Ireland quarter-final against Waterford in 2007 are among the most memorable in his bulging catalogue.
Against that background, his omission is quite a dramatic turn of events. What has changed so much that he is not now considered one of the top two goalkeepers in the county?
There had been suggestions that when the current squad was drawn up in late October that he was vulnerable and that it had been made clear to him that Nash would be No 1 and that he wasn't even guaranteed to be No 2 ahead of Darren McCarthy.
With Sean Og O hAilpin retiring and John Gardiner and Niall McCarthy deemed surplus to requirements, the change has accelerated going into Jimmy Barry-Murphy's second year in charge.
Cusack could, of course, have announced a retirement at any stage over the last few months, sensing the writing was on the wall, but, true to form, he stood his ground.
Barry-Murphy was adamant last week that there were no underlying issues in the squad over training or the departure of Eoin Cadogan and Damien Cahalane to football.
Given how he likes to keep progressing and making himself better, Cusack would not like the idea of being considered a member of the 'old guard', but the 2003-06 team has now well and truly been dismantled. His departure really makes it an end of an era.