Of the 81 goals Cummins has conceded only 1 could be considered a goalkeeper error
Christy O'Connor on why Tipp's No 1 has earned the right to be called the greatest of them all
Published 08/07/2011 | 05:00
When TG4 recently selected the 25 best saves seen on TV, Brendan Cummins featured more than any other goalkeeper with three stops. Spread across four decades, the shortlist was almost impossible to compile.
Four of the best saves ever seen -- Ger Cunningham's stop from Niall Gilligan in the 1998 Munster semi-final, a Davy Fitzgerald reaction against Cork in the 2005 league, a cat-like Fitzgerald leap from a Joe Deane effort in the championship two months later, plus Colm Callanan's save from Rory Jacob in the 2010 Leinster championship -- didn't even make the cut.
In that context, if you were to apply more stringent criteria to any similar shortlist, at least six other Cummins stops would rank ahead of two of his saves which featured on that TG4 list. Yet Cummins' excellence has been such a continuum over the last decade that his saves have just bled into each other and all most people can make out is the rich colours of his brilliance.
When hurling people think of epic Cummins saves, his performance against Kilkenny in the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final is always the most vivid in the mind's eye. Yet, his monumental display against Kilkenny in the '06 league in Thurles was vastly more impressive and technically far superior. Who also remembers the bravery of his outstanding display in the '01 league final for Tipperary against Clare, when he was the game's most influential player?
The last decade was the golden age of hurling goalkeepers: Davy Fitzgerald, Damien Fitzhenry, Donal Og Cusack and James McGarry are four of the game's greatest. Before them, brilliant goalkeepers adorned the game: Tommy Daly, Paddy Scanlon, Seanie Duggan, Tony Reddan, Ollie Walsh, Noel Skehan, Damien Martin, Seamus Durack, Ger Cunningham, Tommy Quaid.
Yet at this stage, Cummins has surely earned the right to be considered the greatest of them all.
Some historians, connoisseurs and romantics might regard that as heresy but how could they? Cummins is not the natural stylist or stickman that defined most of the top 'keepers. But in terms of shot-stopping, handling, bravery, physicality, striking and pin-point accuracy, Fitzhenry is the only other goalkeeper who had that rich amalgam of talent.
The changes in the rules from when the opposition could charge the 'keeper have given the modern 'keepers a distinct advantage. The lack of old TV footage also denies any true comparison between generations. Yet, apart from Fitzgerald and Fitzhenry, no one else in history has made as many point-blank, reaction and bullet saves as Cummins.
The best way to judge a 'keeper though, is often not by the saves made but by the number of errors that span a career. In his 64 championship appearances, Cummins has conceded 81 goals, an average of just over one per game. However, if you forensically examine those 81 goals, there are only eight which Cummins would feel he could have done better for. And only one of those -- on his debut against Waterford in '95 when he let a feeble shot pass through his legs -- could be described as a goalkeeping error. That is serious consistency.
It wasn't the first stress-test of his temperament. When Cummins played in the '93 Munster minor final against Cork, he allowed a long-range, hanging effort to drop out of his hand into the net early in the game. His response highlighted his mental resolve as much as his class: he never put a foot wrong for the remainder of the game.
How he has reacted to adversity has emphatically defined Cummins as a goalkeeper. After winning consecutive All Stars in 2000 and '01, he wasn't even nominated in '02. He trained for over an hour the night of the awards ceremony before going into a fitness frenzy that winter. He trained Christmas Day, St Stephen's Day and New Year's Day. He came back stronger than ever and won his third All Star in '03.
When he was harshly dropped from the team in '07, he won his fourth All Star in '08 and was in pole position to win another in '09 until PJ Ryan's outstanding display in the All-Ireland final. Cummins secured that fifth award last year.
There were times when he soared above everyone else but that never altered his approach or stopped him always believing he could be better.
"Even pre-2007, when I got the heave-ho, I always felt that this thing could only last six months or 12 months," he said in May 2010. "It lasts as long as your form lasts, that's the reality of this game.
"You're never at the top of the tree. That's the pitfall a lot of fellas fall for. They think, 'I'm the best'. You never are. This game is so dynamic that you always have something to learn. I definitely wasn't the most natural goalkeeper. It was just non-stop practice."
At the outset of last season, Henry Shefflin's goal from a penalty in the 2009 All-Ireland final was Cummins' starting point. If you closely analyse Shefflin's penalty, the ball ricochets off Cummins' hurley before hitting the net, about a foot beneath the crossbar. Cummins' attempt at the save could loosely be described as a 'draw-swat', where he instinctively draws his stick and tries to swat the ball away in one movement.
A sliotar that goes across a 'keeper's body at that pace requires a split second to alter hand position and turn the bás of the hurley to meet the sliotar head-on. Cummins' technique is designed to try and beat the speed with one sweep and he got the edge of his hurley to Shefflin's strike. A millisecond earlier and he'd have saved it.
When Tipperary went back training in January 2010, one of the first discussions Cummins had with former coach Eamonn O'Shea was on that penalty and how they could potentially set up for future penalties and 20-metre frees. Every single technicality was broken down and discussed in minute detail: the angle of Cummins' hurley; his feet adjustment; whether he'd moved too early. They debated it for weeks. For a management team craving that edge to try and win an All-Ireland, Cummins' obsessive quest for perfection was the ideal starting point.
Within the Tipp set-up, Cummins has long been regarded as the benchmark for excellence. The standard. One Tipperary player says that Cummins' "grasp of the mental game is unsurpassed for a GAA player" and that his attention to detail "would be on a similar level to that of someone like Paul O'Connell".
His mentality has continually grown along with his aura and class. In the long span of his career, puck-outs are the single biggest adjustment that goalkeepers have had to make. Puck-outs were transformed from a simple means of restarting the play to a key strategic weapon and the previous management, particularly O'Shea, got Cummins thinking on a whole new level with regard to striking. Around 70pc of the work Cummins does now is based on puck-outs and precision striking to moving targets, which is a key component of Tipp's style: in the 2009 All-Ireland final, Kilkenny won just 10 of Tipp's puck-outs, primarily because of Cummins' pin-point accuracy. He showcased his power last September when he became the first goalkeeper to score a point in an All-Ireland final.
Cummins is 36 now but age hasn't dimmed his brilliance and the gold has clearly been visible in his performances over the last four seasons: an unreal reaction stop just before Eoin Kelly's goal in the '08 All-Ireland semi-final; a point-blank save from Kelly later in the same game; a diving block from Shefflin in the '09 league final; stopping a venomous dipping free from Colin Ryan in the '09 Munster semi-final; his stop from Paudie O'Sullivan in this year's Munster championship against Cork.
In '09, Cummins surpassed John Doyle as Tipp's longest-serving player but he will make real history on Sunday when he equals Christy Ring's record of 65 championship appearances. For those who denounce modern statistics because of qualifiers, the pressure has never been greater and Cummins would already be on 70 appearances if he hadn't been benched in '07. He's still at the top of his game and if he keeps going, how many appearances could he clock up?
Sunday will merely cement Cummins' greatness. But his greatness is still being written.