Saturday 18 November 2017

'What we are trying to do is remain level-headed'

With Cork expectations soaring again, goalkeeper Anthony Nash expects an intense contest today

Cork goalkeeper Anthony Nash pictured at the launch of Littlewoods Ireland’s sponsorship of the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship. Photo: Sportsfile
Cork goalkeeper Anthony Nash pictured at the launch of Littlewoods Ireland’s sponsorship of the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship. Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

Ten years on, Anthony Nash is reliving his senior championship debut, when he stood in for the suspended Dónal Óg Cusack in the Munster semi-final against Waterford. The arrangement was temporary. Once Cusack's suspension expired Nash would make way and return to the sidelines. He did not expect to be returning there for as long as he did. At the time Cusack had turned 30 and Nash was eight years younger. But goalkeepers can go longer than most. Nash endured life in the reserves for five more years.

Still, it gave have him something to cling on to in times of doubt and the desire to relive it never quenched. Waterford won a thrilling match by three points in which Nash conceded five goals. "It was a huge experience for me, because the pace of the game was something I had never experienced before. That Waterford forward line, Jesus it was awesome. It was a fantastic game. Shane Murphy, the corner-back, hit the crossbar in the final minute (with a chance) to draw the game. It was an experience, it was definitely an experience.

Anthony Nash of Cork. Photo: Sportsfile
Anthony Nash of Cork. Photo: Sportsfile

"When you are going in, making your debut, you are hoping to make a couple of saves and a clean sheet, and things like that. It didn't go that way. It is a strange story; that was in 2007 and it took me until 2012 to play again. When you think about it, it is a weird thing. But it is an experience I wouldn't take back. It has helped me even now, because it made me realise that I needed to go and improve on a lot of things. It was a good game to watch, but not for a goalie to partake in."

When he got his chance again in 2012 against Tipperary in the Munster Championship, after Cusack suffered injury, it launched his career as the undisputed number one. "The biggest thing for a goalkeeper is the experiences you learn from. I didn't really know what I was getting myself into back then, I was young, I was 22 or 23, something like that. It was such a fast-paced game that I hadn't experienced previous to that. Even going into 2012 and (playing) Tipperary, even though the (Waterford) game was five years previous, the benefit of that game was there.

"Did it go the way that I wanted it to go? Of course not. I would have loved to keep a clean sheet but it is something I cherish because I always wanted to play for Cork. At the moment, I am lucky enough to be the number one but things can change on any day. The one thing I always say is that you never, ever take that jersey for granted after the experience I had, that's the one thing I took from being a sub."

In 2007, Cork were chasing their third Munster title in a row but that year their fortunes began to wane; by the time they won Munster again in 2014, Nash would be in goal and Cusack a year retired. Nash played for the county under 21s, intermediates, and turned out in a few National League matches, but senior championship required a huge transition.

"It was completely different to anything I have ever experienced before," he admits. "The pace of it was unreal. It was like going into a Formula 1 race, it was so quick like. That is the one memory I have of it."

There were times, during the years that followed, when he might have thrown his hat at it. He could have been forgiven had he walked away frustrated by the lack of opportunity. Cusack served from 1999 and set a championship appearances record. Before that Ger Cunningham had been Cork's goalkeeper from 1980, serving almost 20 years. Cork has a tradition of accomplished goalkeeping, often enjoying long tenures, and you could be seriously good and still not make it. You could spend all that time waiting in vain.

"You had Ger (Cunningham) there for years before Dónal óg and then myself, Martin Coleman and Dónal óg were the three goalkeepers. What kept me going? I suppose first of all I am very lucky in that I have a very strong family and friends. Were there times that I questioned it? Of course. Absolutely. For most of the time I was third choice. Like Martin was a fantastic goalkeeper and a very professional guy as well. I learned an awful lot from the two lads. The professionalism of the training. How you held yourself on and off the field."

Other things kept his spirits up. Like the journeys to training with the O'Connors and Cathal Naughton when they travelled from Newtownshandrum and picked him up in Mallow. They formed close friendships which will outlive hurling careers. "I always say when I talk to young fellas about sport and they ask what is the best thing about sport, and they think it is winning, and I say, actually it's not - obviously we'd all like to win, but I have made so many friends around the county that I would never have met (otherwise). I can text Ben O'Connor there now for a bit of crack. That (friendship) would have kept me going.

"Cork had some great characters around. Obviously Sully (Diarmuid O'Sullivan) who would be a selector now. Brian Murphy who I was very close to. Ronan Curran another one. You'd be learning off them. So why was I there? Because I was involved in a very professional set-up. I felt my hurling was improving. Was it difficult at times? Absolutely. Did I ever think I was never going to get a breakthrough? Continuously. You would of course. I had offers to go to America different summers that a lot of my friends took up but . . ."

Once he nailed a position there seemed to be nothing he could not achieve. He looked a player in a hurry and quickly earned national renown. All-Stars in his first two full seasons. An All-Ireland final appearance in his second year as a regular, a Munster medal in his third. Captaincy under Jimmy Barry-Murphy. The furore over his 20-metre frees which led to historic rule change. Individual awards, while appreciated, don't justify the enormous time devoted to playing for Cork. He wants to win more with the county and their recent defeat of Tipperary has raised fresh hope of better days ahead after a deeply unsatisfying season in 2016.

Nash knows that they often attract an unsympathetic press because of their skittish nature. "I think a lot of it (criticism) is unfair as well," he says. "Like we got to the All-Ireland final in 2013, we won Munster in '14 and got to the league final in '15. If it was any other county they'd be saying it was a successful campaign. Like fair enough, 2016 didn't work out the way we wanted it to. But while we would, like any team, hope to go further any year it wasn't as bad as people said. Yeah, there were a couple of mixed performances.

"The thing about GAA is that it is a very fickle business. One day you are deemed to be brilliant, then the next day you are the worst in the world. I suppose a lot of it was fair, we didn't perform as well as we can perform. Like we don't have to hear it from other people. We know. Every time you lose a game you understand you've done something wrong. The year itself did not go well for us. One thing we did do was we sat down, with the management team, and looked at all that and tried to just learn where it went wrong. And while there were a lot of negatives there were a few positives as well that we tried to push on with."

Cork continued to experience bumpy form in the recent National League. They slumped against Dublin in Páirc Uí Rinn and performed poorly against Limerick in the quarter-final when expectations were rising. "Dublin outworked us, simple as that, on the night. We all put up our hands and said that," Nash explains. "Limerick probably the same. But for a lot of those games as well there was a lot of positives that we took note of that other people wouldn't have seen."

Like what, he's asked? "I still think that in parts of those games we hurled very well. A lot of our lads had had six or seven games on the trot between Fitzgibbon, league games, challenge matches, club games, so fellas had a very heavy schedule. But you have to understand too that Dublin and Limerick are two fantastic hurling teams. And when they work very hard you have to match if not exceed their intensity to be anywhere near them. Hurling has got fierce competitive. If you are not at the intensity of the other teams you are not going to match them."

Why did Cork not bring that intensity?

"You give me the answer and I will pay you for it."

He is asked if he has the answer?

"I don't. Like it's not all down to work-rate either. Other teams do different things against you. We are not the only team that has inconsistent performances but when we do it tends to be fairly well nailed on to. But within the panel we are looking at one thing at the moment, and that is getting ourselves right for Waterford. I know we have 36 lads training in there and I know there is no lack of want there. I know that and I can put my hand on my heart (and say) every single one of those 36 lads could go out in championship and give it 100 per cent. Sometimes it just doesn't come off."

Having defeated the All-Ireland champions in a classic hurling match, showcasing five newcomers, the pressure grows on Cork to maintain that level of performance. Nash, their oldest player at 32, knows that beating Tipp is of no help today. "Like what we are trying to do now is remain level-headed. We played Tipperary the last day, gave a solid performance, now that day is done. Going out against Waterford we know it is going to be an absolutely ferocious game. What we have got to do is get ourselves right, get our intensity levels right on the day and hopefully match it with our hurling.

"Hurling is a very difficult game. It can change in any single moment and it may not be work-related. It may just be the day itself. All I can say to you is that every time a Cork hurler goes out there are doing their best, I can guarantee you that."

He tells of a match in this year's league where during a puck-around outside the ground a member of the public approached Christopher Joyce and shook his hand. "Christopher thought he was going to say, 'Best of luck' and he goes, 'Will you ever do me one favour, will you ask Nash to puck the ball long?' But they mean well. Being from Cork I suppose it is a very traditional county in every sport. Hurling is massive part of the Cork social life as well as everything else. People are entitled to their opinions, they pay an awful lot to go see the games. A lot does I suppose get through to fellas. All I'd say is I don't read newspapers, I don't listen to sports radio shows. I try to keep myself away from it as much as possible.

"But I like it, I like the pressure."

Nash delights in the high-pressure days like today and the high-wire act of playing in goal. "I love it. Again I suppose it's the pressure. If you make a mistake it's in the back of the net. You try and do the simple things well. Am I going to make mistakes before the end of my career? One hundred per cent. I know I will. I hope if I do that it will be minimal. And I am going to hit a puck-out to the wrong fella. And that's the way the game goes."

He mentions goalkeepers being, almost of necessity, a bit "tapped" and is asked if he sees himself this way. "Yeah, I have a different perspective, I think my goalkeeping coach Donal O'Mahony will tell you when I am going into training, I am a very, very cranky person. Outside of the field, I would be very light-humoured and try to keep it as positive as I can. But when it comes to training, I do like to train well and play matches well. It is a completely different focus.

"A goalkeeper is hoping that a sliotar hits off him, you know what I mean. That is crazy enough as it is, when you think about it, standing in front of that. Do you have to be tapped to be a goalkeeper? Maybe that was a bit of an over-statement on my behalf but you have to have a different focus,

"Out the field, you are constantly moving about but inside in goals, you are thinking a little bit more. You have to have a different focus. I come out of games mentally drained rather than physically drained. Just because I am concentrating. My body is fine, the lads are coming off the field with lumps and bumps on their legs and arms, and I am just mentally drained. I have learnt from the best. And I try to pass that on.

"Patrick Collins is our under 21 goalkeeper and he is in the panel with us at the moment, outstanding goalkeeper as well. The level of professionalism with the lads is excellent and I just hope to continue that with him."

But a goalkeeper, too, is as good as the backs in front of him. He speaks highly of his much-maligned backmen. Against Tipperary, while their attacking play dismantled Tipp, Cork's defence had its finest hour for a few years.

"Our defence was very good," he states. "They are great guys. You know what, the full-back line is a horrible place to play, it is a horrible place to play. The talent in hurling at the moment is frightening, there are certain forwards out there, that Tipperary forward line is exceptional and the goal showed how good they are, the passing and the finish. Our guys were alert and ready for 70 minutes and they showed it. If you switch off for any time at all, they will punish you. And I was delighted for the lads. Delighted. I thought they were fantastic but it is nothing more than I expected because I watched those lads in training, coming up to the game, and there were lads who didn't make the full-back line in the match, who are pushing just as hard."

A question pops up on the openness of the current championship and how a few teams will fancy their chances of winning it. His reaction is instructive. "No, no, we are not looking at that. We are looking at Waterford and that's it. We don't look beyond that."

Any thoughts beyond Waterford are forbidden?

"You know what, it is not even by the management, it is by ourselves. There is no point in me worrying about another team that we might never face. We are just going to train hard to face Waterford to the best of our ability, we can't control what other teams do. Right, Tipp are gone from Munster but they are not gone from the All-Ireland race.

"What we did after the final whistle, it is elation. At the final whistle, I was probably one of the more animated players on the pitch, because you have it built up inside you, it is an emotion. Some people would talk about fellas celebrating after games, doing this and that after games. You are after playing more than 70 minutes of championship hurling or football, you are on a high after that. We went into the dressing room, enjoyed it. The dressing room after a game that you win is fantastic. And then you park it. Good performance, that was it. Nothing more. It has no value now and all we are going to try and do is get ready for Waterford."

Ten years on from his debut, the oldest in a young team, Nash is at the top of his game, a brave, commanding presence, with brilliant reflexes and a strong puck-out range. What didn't break him made him stronger.

"We have a very united panel at the moment and that's it. It doesn't matter what age you are, we are all friends. And that's the best thing about it, there is a good united panel. Obviously people will write about these young fellas and whatever else, but they just came in and they hurled. You don't worry about anyone in the team. If I am worrying about someone else, I am not worrying about myself. But I was delighted for them, it was a very proud day for a lot of their families."

Living in his native Kanturk and teaching in Mitchelstown CBS, he travels to training with Lorcán McLoughlin ("the North Cork lads travel together, we have our own Whatsapp group"). "It is great to have a friend to go down the road with, we share a lot of interests anyway. We drive through Mallow and pick up Cormac Murphy and Darragh Fitzgibbon, two great personalities, good crack, we have good crack in the car and you arrive into training and you are in good auld form.

"That is the one thing I will miss when my career is over, being involved in dressing rooms and being involved with lads, that is why so many lads go on to be masseurs and selecting and management because of that, they miss the dressing room, they miss the crack in the car. I was the young fella going up in the car before; now, I am the grandfather. But the only thing is that I am a goalkeeper so I can keep going."

He has a few lost years to catch up on. Waterford will be doing well to put five last him today.

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