Sunday 18 March 2018

Brendan Cummins: Babs told me to go wing-back, I told him that I was a goalie

In exclusive extracts from his upcoming book, Brendan Cummins outlines how the return of a Tipp legend as manager saw the team environment become increasingly dysfunctional

Brendan Cummins celebrates Tipperary's victory over Dublin in the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final
Brendan Cummins celebrates Tipperary's victory over Dublin in the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final

Brendan Cummins

The return of Babs was greeted with huge fanfare. John Leahy and Tom Barry were on his ticket and John was a folk hero in Tipperary, winning All-Ireland medals in 1989 and 1991 when Babs was previously in charge.

Tom was less high profile but with some pedigree nonetheless. He played with Thurles Sarsfields for over a decade until 1987 and also hurled with the Tipperary seniors in the early 1980s.

He was a former Sarsfields manager and selector. The 'dream team' captured the imagination of the Tipperary hurling public in an instant.

Supporters were talking about winning All-Irelands again.

Our 2006 League campaign began in low-key fashion with a draw against Limerick at the Gaelic Grounds. It was a decent result, considering that Limerick had more hurling under their belts than us and had won the pre-season Waterford Crystal Cup.

It was a game we could take a lot of positives from because we scored 1-1 in stoppage time and Shane McGrath, a bright young star from Ballinahinch, made his debut.

We played Kilkenny in our first home outing and lost by nine points. I did well and didn't concede a goal in a man of the match performance.

Babs was impressed and, when we travelled together to a Tipperary Supporters Club meeting in Clonmel, he spoke about my grandfather and how I was the best Tipperary goalkeeper since Tony Reddin, who retired in 1957.

He had a way of making you feel good. Our first victory of the season was achieved against Antrim in Cushendall, a fortnight after the Kilkenny defeat.

I was even made captain for that game. The first problems surfaced after the Galway game, when Babs took us to task in the media.

We lost by eight points in a tie that should have provided us with an opportunity to atone for the All-Ireland quarter-final defeat in 2005.

It was a terrible performance, and there was an element of truth in what Babs said afterwards: 'We have serious thinking to do.

'We will do it but we are not getting the response from the players.

'We cannot get that drive with them. Our fellows were dead only to wash them.'

In previous roles with the Laois and Offaly hurling teams, Babs had also run down his players in public. In 1998, he described the Offaly players as 'sheep in a heap' before an acrimonious split.

By the end of that season, with Michael Bond in charge, Offaly had become All-Ireland champions.

Our preparation hadn't helped: a large number of children were allowed into the dressing room before the game to mingle with the players.

I was particularly poor, letting in a couple of incredibly soft goals as Galway scored three.

For one of them, I came to meet a ball on the half-volley as it hopped in front of me but it skidded into the net.

With six minutes left, I came for a high ball but completely misjudged it and turned our full-back Philly Maher upside down as Richie Murray exploited the open goal.

As the League campaign progressed, the team environment became increasingly dysfunctional but we still managed to make it through to a semi-final with Kilkenny.

Our psychologist delivered the pre-match team talk. 'Come on, lads, let's go,' Babs said to John Leahy and Tom Barry. 'It's all yours now!'

There we were, ten minutes before the off, standing in the middle of a dressing room with a sports psychologist who it seemed to me had never delivered a team talk in her life.

She decided to put me standing in the middle of a circle, with the other lads gathered around me in a huddle.

'Close your eyes, boys, and visualise the first ten minutes of the match,' she said, thinking on her feet.

'Visualise going to the first ball, catching it, beating your opponent to the tackle, dispossessing your opponent.'

Ten minutes into the game, Kilkenny were 2-3 to 0-0 in front. We didn't score for 15 minutes.

I'd been chipped by Martin Comerford, five yards off my line.

There was another bizarre episode at a training camp in Clonea, Co Waterford.

It was agreed that we would meet in the foyer of the hotel for a morning run at 6.30, before returning for breakfast.

But when we gathered the next morning, there was no member of team management present to provide us with direction.

We took it upon ourselves to get the run done.

Over the course of that weekend, I trained the Tipperary hurling team for thirty-five minutes or so, with drills on the beach.

Babs asked me to do it, saying that it would make a nice change for the lads. It came to a head when we returned to training after the Kilkenny game.

I stayed at one end of the field working on goalkeeping drills, with the rest of the group at the other end.

I had asked permission from our trainer Brian Murray to do this, and he'd agreed.

During the Kilkenny match, I should have cleared one ball off my left in the second half but I swept around to strike it off my right-hand side, at ankle height.

Babs picked up on this and said that it was a big problem that I couldn't hit it off my left.

He also accused me of placing our kitman, John 'Hotpoint' Hayes, in an unfair position because Hotpoint was helping me out with goalkeeping drills after training.

My point was that there was no goalkeeping work during the session itself, but that wasn't a problem because I would stay behind and get it done later.

In my quest for improvement, I firmly believed that some extra work would get me back on the right road. I wanted to train harder and become better.

I pounded a punch-bag, the idea being that I would fatigue myself and see how my touch was then.

With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps I was wrong to train on my own and separate myself from the rest of the group. I could have handled my emotions better.

On a different occasion, Philly Maher was questioned about his weight, and was told that he was putting too much butter on his chips.

John Leahy corrected Babs on this, stating that Philly was putting too much butter on his spuds, not his chips.

In fact, our dietician had told Philly that he was underweight and needed to eat more.

Out of sheer frustration, Philly rang Babs later in the year to inform him that he was leaving.

Quoted in the press at the time, Babs said, 'Philip is getting married, building a house and he's under severe pressure.'

Philly had done so much for Tipperary hurling, and while I'm not suggesting for a minute that every player should bow out shoulder high with trumpets blaring, the suggestion that his domestic situation had anything to do with it wasn't right.

I found myself in another strange predicament when I was played at wing-back in some of our training sessions.

That particular arrangement came to a head one night when Babs walked across the middle of the pitch to sort out the starting positions for a game among ourselves.

'Brendan, go wing-back,' he ordered.

'Babs, I'm going in goal, I'm a goalie.' I didn't consider that to be an unreasonable request.

I can also recall the presence of TV cameras that night, to record footage of our session.

How would it have looked if viewers had seen a goalkeeper playing outfield, with John Leahy standing between the sticks?

In the 2006 Munster Championship, we beat Limerick and Waterford but lost to Cork in the final.

In the fallout, our captain Ger 'Redser' O'Grady reportedly delivered a less than complimentary phone message to team management.

On the Tuesday evening a few of the lads were socialising in Borrisoleigh. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time as Brian Murray was also the Borrisoleigh club trainer.

He was conducting a session at the local field when a young boy arrived with his hurley that he'd just had signed by the lads in the pub.

Word swept through the field, and Brian wasn't best pleased.

We bore the brunt of his annoyance the next evening at Tipperary training, when he put us through the wringer with some extra running.

Ger's phone message was offside by a mile.

Management dealt with the issues pretty well, and when we trained on Thursday, Conor O'Mahony, Shane McGrath, John Carroll and Micheál Webster were absent.

Brian was training them separately in Templederry.

Three of them - Conor, Shane and John - returned the following week and apologised to the squad but Redser and Micheál were cut loose.

It was crazy living through that, and trying to win an All-Ireland at the same time.

We had played quite well in the Munster final and the season was still very much alive.

Our progress to a provincial decider opened up a route to Croke Park and an All-Ireland quarter-final against Waterford.

We travelled to Croke Park by coach and I recall one of our players, Darragh Egan, sitting on the floor.

There was no seat available for him because Babs had invited a number of elderly people to travel with us.

They had been staying at the same hotel as us and needed a lift to the match. There were a couple of lovely old ladies sitting down the back beside us.

One of them asked me if I wanted to have a read through the newspaper. I politely declined as I was trying to get my head right for the game.

We stopped at the Cusack Stand side of Croke Park to let them off and the Waterford team bus was nearby.

I could see some of their players laughing as the elderly folk disembarked. Babs didn't see anything wrong with this.

He was very open with people and, in his day, that's how it worked.

You looked after everybody and you were nice to them.

But there was a huge contrast with Liam Sheedy's time in later years when nobody outside the inner circle dared even look at the team bus, never mind travel on it.

Waterford knocked us out on a day when Dan Shanahan scored 1-5 for the winners.

Babs's son was with us and decided to take part in my pre-match warm-up. Here he was, trying to fulfil what I can only assume was his childhood dream of scoring a goal at Croke Park.

Our sub goalkeeper Damian Young looked on from the fringes in sheer disbelief.

During the game, I was particularly happy with a save from Ken McGrath, tipped over the bar from a penalty, but we were well beaten.

The second coming of Babs wasn't working out.

I didn't know it then, but things were about to get worse.

Much worse.

Brendan Cummins’ autobiography ‘Standing My Ground’, published by Transworld Ireland, will be released next Thursday. The book will be launched by Liam Sheedy at the Dome in Semple Stadium on Thursday, October 15. On October 22, the 2010 All-Ireland winning captain, Eoin Kelly, will launch the book at the Palace Bar in Dublin (8pm). Brendan will be appearing at Easons, Clonmel, on Saturday, October 17, and at Easons in Thurles on Saturday, October 24, for signing sessions.

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