Wednesday 25 April 2018

'I could have scored 20 points for Millstreet and no one would care' -Cork star Mark Ellis

Cork's Mark Ellis. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Cork's Mark Ellis. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Brian Cody, Cyril Farrell and Davy Fitzgerald at an event to publicise the Hurling for Cancer Research match, which takes place at St Conleth’s Park in Newbridge next Tuesday (6.30) when a team of hurlers will size up against Ireland’s top jockeys. Photo: Morgan Treacy/INPHO
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

He lived in Wicklow, where his father is from, until he was six and then moved to Millstreet, not exactly hurling territory either.

In between there was a year spent in Clare, his mother's home county, where an association with the team of the late 1990s was cemented as a young man.

From such a background Mark Ellis admits he has had to work that bit harder to catch the eye in Rebel hurling circles.

But as centre-back in two Munster Championship-winning teams over the last four years, Ellis, a hurling pioneer from that part of north-west Cork, has certainly left his mark.

"Traditionally, Millstreet would be a huge football area (they had four on the 1973 All-Ireland-winning football team) and the club would have that tradition," he said.

"I suppose people would have looked at 'Mark Ellis, Millstreet' and said, ­'Jesus, what hurling is back there?'"

But Cork's divisional system gave him an opportunity to hitch on to Duhallow minor and U-21 teams that had William Egan, Lorcan McLoughlin and Aidan Walsh as contemporaries.

Underage

"In Millstreet we wouldn't have had much success underage. I wouldn't have played teams from different places and be exposed to that but when you got to minor level you were playing with the division in the county championships.

"We got to minor and U-21 finals the same year and then we got to four U-21 finals in a row. At that level, we were exposed to games at the top level so it really took off from there. Up to then, I wouldn't have played underage for Cork or to any high level," he reflected.

Even then there remained some convincing to do. He was on the panel in 2013 but made no inroads to the team as they lost an All-Ireland final to Clare after a replay. But by the following year he had established himself.

"Maybe the fact where I was ­coming from I wasn't exposed to the high level of club hurling in Cork that people would associate with Cork centre-backs," he reflected.

"Maybe it would have been a bit of a risk to play me at the time and I would have missed a lot of the league through injury. I hadn't played a whole pile. I would have been confident of going in but, you know, it would have been a big risk to play me."

He had briefly featured on Denis Walsh's squad in 2011 but hip problems prevented further progress and when Jimmy Barry Murphy came in there was no place for him initially.

But his college form for Carlow IT, where Kilkenny's Michael Dempsey was involved, was too good to ignore.

"When JBM picked his new panel I wasn't on it so I was off the radar because I wasn't playing with the college," he said.

"With club I could have scored 20 points for Millstreet but nobody would have really cared. It's an irrelevance in the grander scheme of Cork hurling.

"But I went to Carlow for my phase six (engineering) and they wouldn't have been seen as a big hurling college but we got to the Division 1 final with Richie Doyle.

"We'd a good few Kilkenny hurlers, some from ­Wexford, a good few Offaly hurlers. We beat UCC by six points so we had a good run.

"Michael Dempsey, I'm not sure if he made a few phone calls wondering why this fella wasn't ­involved in Cork. I think that was said at the time. But it put me back on the radar for Cork and after that Jimmy brought me in."

His development with Cork has stirred hurling interest at home. "Millstreet is a good town. A lot of things have happened in the Green Glens (it hosted the 1993 Eurovision Song Contest).

"I'm the first hurler to come out but we've a young fella, Conor O'Callaghan, from the local club who plays for an amalgamation Keale Gaels (Millstreet and Dromtarriffe) and plays for the Cork minors. Hurling has taken off in Millstreet and the club really want it."

Ellis feels a ­stronger squad is the main impetus behind this year's progress through Munster.

"Everything we do in training, our A v B games, are hugely competitive, way more competitive than before. If you were a stranger coming to training look out at the pitch on any given night you could pick one or two of the best fellas and they mightn't even be on the match-day panel.

"Fellas are going really well that haven't been seen yet. The subs aren't being forced. We're bringing on subs because they're making a huge difference. Fellas are coming on because they can bring something different and everyone knows that."

He's happy that Cork have dispensed with the sweeper system, which he was the focal point of last year for a brief spell in the championship.

"It probably is a bit negative and Cork hurlers were used to playing off-the-cuff and with pace coming off the shoulder and expressing ­themselves.

"When you're playing a standardised sweeper and a fella sitting there, it probably is as negative and going against the grain of what Cork hurling traditionally would be about."

Irish Independent

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