Saturday 16 December 2017

Keeper of the flame

Since his debut in ’95, Cummins has seen off nine sub-keepers to remain Premier’s No 1

Five-time All Star Brendan Cummins
will play in his 67th championship
match for Tipperary on Sunday
Five-time All Star Brendan Cummins will play in his 67th championship match for Tipperary on Sunday
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Brendan Cummins loves to recall a story from the 2000 All-Ireland quarter-final that Tipperary lost to Galway at Croke Park about an injury he sustained and the potential consequences it could have had.

As the medical team worked to repair him, one of the cameras at Croke Park that day focused in on the Tipperary reserve goalkeeper sitting in the dug-out.

An 18-year-old, still eligible to play minor, was chewing his nails hard with a look of anxiety creasing his face at the prospect of a sudden entrance into inter-county hurling for the first time.

Cummins recovered and Eoin Kelly was spared a plunge into the deep end -- yes, the same Eoin Kelly who will captain Tipperary on Sunday as they lay their All-Ireland title on the line against Kilkenny.

It's a little known fact that Kelly was the standby goalkeeper to Cummins that day. Nicky English had to be creative with his numbers and wanted to accommodate the prospective star, so the regular No 2 goalkeeper, Damien Young, was sacrificed.

Luckily for Kelly, who would come on outfield later in the game, his stint as reserve goalkeeper was only a passing phase; he was always destined for greater things as a forward.

Others were not so lucky. Just as it has been for aspiring goalkeepers in Wexford, Clare and Cork over the last decade and a half, it has been a lost cause in Tipperary and the attrition rate for those who sought to be king over Cummins.

Since making his debut in the 1995 Munster championship against Limerick, Cummins has seen off the challenge of 10 different reserve goalkeepers (including Kelly and the current incumbent Darren Gleeson).

Technically, Gerry Kennedy can claim that he managed to displace Cummins during that six-game spell in 2007 when Babs Keating made quite a dramatic change on the evening of the first Munster semi-final replay against Limerick that year because of an apparent issue over puck-outs.

However, by the following year, Cummins was back as No 1 choice under the stewardship of Liam Sheedy.

It is a remarkable feat of consistency from Cummins, who passed Christy Ring's record for the most SHC appearances against Dublin when lining out in his 66th championship game.

For most of the 17 seasons now since 1995, he has retained the hunger, the skill and the nerve to remain Tipperary's first-choice goalkeeper. In his slipstream, however, there are tales of what might have been for others.

Jody Grace was first to suffer when he broke a finger prior to the 1995 championship, allowing Cummins to parachute in ahead of him. Cummins had been understudy to Grace a year earlier, but on the back of their 1995 All-Ireland U-21 triumph, he became the chosen one. The next two understudies emigrated as it dawned on them that their future was bleak as long as Cummins stayed injury-free.

Kevin O'Sullivan had felt he was edging closer throughout the 1997 Munster championship, but when he failed to make the team for a league semi-final against Galway (the league as played parallel to the championship that year), it convinced him to pack up and go.

He headed to America that year, but returned and established himself as one of the foremost junior soccer goalkeepers in the country, representing Ireland and playing in three FAI Cup junior finals.

Justin Cottrell deputised for the 1997 All-Ireland final, but by the beginning of 1998, Fergal Horgan was promoted in front of him. And by the end of '98, Horgan too had seen the writing on the wall.

"I left for England. If I felt I was going to have a chance, I would have stayed around. Kevin O'Sullivan was in the same position a year earlier," said Horgan, now a local referee who has made the Munster inter-county panel.

"By that stage you could see no way past Brendan -- unless he was going to get injured, and you didn't want that. If it was an outfield position, I could have stayed and fought for that, but instead I went to London."

By then, Tipperary were producing very promising goalkeepers who were filtering through successful Fitzgibbon Cup teams with Waterford. First came Kevin O'Brien, then Damien Young, but neither managed to put pressure on Cummins.

"You would get league games and you would benefit from working with a player of his quality and for a year or so you were happy with that. But you knew, you just knew, that you were never going to displace him," said Young.

For Cottrell, who spent three and a half seasons in reserve, what embodied him most was the want in him to be Tipperary goalkeeper.

"It was his jersey and I think he would have done anything to stay in it. Initially, you would be happy to get the call and you would get plenty out of being there, but at some stage you would realise to yourself: 'I'm a player here too'," he said.

"You did the same work and it would get frustrating not to get a chance to play -- but you had to respect what a magnificent goalkeeper he was then and is even more so now," said Cottrell, now based in western Australia.

"You might feel you were getting close, but then Brendan would have one of those games and you realise it's just not going to happen. Perhaps that's why there has been such a turnover."

Cummins' dedication to goalkeeping is such that when helmets became mandatory for 2010, he spent the nights on the couch watching television during the previous winter wearing one just to familiarise himself with its presence.

If anything, his latter years have witnessed an improvement in his play -- especially with puck-outs, which are delivered with crisp precision to areas of the field he once wouldn't have dared to target.

"I have added a bit more to my game thanks in no small part to Eamon O'Shea, who really opened up my mind as to what can be done. I know people say that you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but Eamon managed to do that, especially around the puck-out side of my game," Cummins said.

"I said before that I could never have seen myself taking short puck-outs of 20/30 yards. Before that, it was the long puck-outs and distribution was a huge question mark over me. But thanks to Eamon and Tommy, Michael and Declan now, we have worked on that. You always have to believe that you can be better."

Right now, Darren Gleeson is the man in his slipstream and for close observers of Tipperary hurling, Cummins is being pushed harder than he ever has before.

"I also think the fact that I can see the finishing line coming closer and closer to my own career, maybe that has been the biggest driving force," said Cummins.

"Darren has been unbelievable, even above in training he's flying and that is the way that we want it. Certainly it has been a help to see a goalie playing down the other end so well, because it does spur you on in training and some nights he is below blocking golf balls and you are saying to yourself: 'I better do something here.'

"Every position is fought for and I know that if you are lucky enough to get a jersey the day of an All-Ireland final, you will have earned it and it is just not that 'he has played for Tipp so many times, so just throw him in'."

Many have lived to tell that particular tale in Tipp.

Irish Independent

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