Tuesday 20 February 2018

Keeping up appearances

As Brendan Cummins equals Christy Ring's record, Damian Lawlor examines the Tipp man's driving force

Damian Lawlor

A BITTER cold night in the winter of 2009 was drawing to a close when Pamela Cummins walked into her living room and saw husband Brendan on the couch, watching TV with a black mycro helmet on. Nothing surprised her anymore; whether it was seeing him train on Christmas Day and New Year's Eve, or in front of the box getting used to a faceguard that would become mandatory the following spring.

When the GAA decided to make helmets compulsory, it threatened to cut short the careers of many seasoned hurlers, especially goalkeepers. Cummins remembers hearing the news and wondering how he would cope on a summer's Sunday in Páirc Uí Chaoimh with the sun in his eyes and a full-forward bearing down on him. His solution was simple: don't get bogged down with it -- get used to it. He adjusted to the new challenge, became fully accustomed to the headgear, and won his second All-Ireland medal last September.

And today the 36-year-old equals Christy Ring's long-standing record of 65 championship appearances.

And even amidst a wonderful recent vintage of net-minders like Damien Fitzhenry, Davy Fitzgerald and Donal óg Cusack, Cummins leaves behind a spectacular reel of highlights.

"He can go on for another two or three years because he looks after himself so well," says former Tipperary wing-back and 2001 All Star Eamonn Corcoran. "Outside of Tommy Dunne, he is the most professional player that Tipperary has ever had."

Ring took his senior bow at 19 and retired at 42, playing in the region of 1,300 games for club and county. His record number of inter-county championship appearances was achieved between 1940 and 1962. Of course, there was no back door in Ring's time but, to counterbalance that, when Cummins started out, aged 20, his early years weren't exactly hectic -- he only got two matches in 1995, for example, and just one in '98.

There can be no doubting the statistics. When Ring passed away, many people doubted if his appearance record would ever be equalled, never mind broken, but it has finally come to pass.

A few seasons back, Davy Fitzgerald was poised to do it until, stuck on 60 appearances, the Clare goalkeeper controversially lost his number one jersey and with it the chance to create history. Whenever people attempt to discuss the matter with Fitzgerald, he simply tunes out.

"I tell them not to go there," he says. "It would have been great, but to be totally honest I found all that talk a distraction. I remember when I was in the frame thinking 'this is nuts, you can't compare me to Christy Ring'. And you can't compete with that legendary status, even if Brendan is right up there.

"The record never bothered me and I'm sure it won't bother Brendan. He doesn't need my advice but all I'd say to him is forget about it. And I know he will. It means nothing unless your team is winning. All he'll be thinking about this evening is their next game. That's why he is where he is. He'll start working on Tipperary's next match tomorrow morning."

Cummins' appetite remains insatiable. With new management in charge for 2011, he resumed heavy cardio work two months before the rest of his team-mates in a bid to get a head start. Few other players have such dedication, but it's that keenness which has seen off the challenges of an incredible 11 sub goalkeepers during his tenure. This bunch includes quality net-minders like Fitzgibbon Cup winners and inter-county underage talents, Kevin 'Chalky' O'Brien and Damien Young. It also includes Toomevara's Justin Cottrell who holds numerous county senior medals.

Portroe's Darren Gleeson is his current understudy; a classy talent with razor-sharp reflexes and a monstrous puck-out. Outside of Cork, he would grace any other team in the land but with Tipperary, he could be a while waiting for regular action.

"I'd rate Darren Gleeson as good as any other inter-county 'keeper in the country," says Tipp's recently retired defender Declan Fanning. "I would actually feel that Brendan is after upping his game again since he came on board. Last year, a TV crew were in Semple Stadium filming us training and all they could talk afterwards were the saves Darren was pulling off. He got a few league games this season; it was the first time in ages Brendan wasn't starting and I'd say the man was down in the ball-alley every evening making sure he soon got back in."

Cottrell reckons Cummins has retained the number one shirt simply because he wanted it more than anybody else. "His goal has always been to be Tipperary number one. He has never wanted to say, backpack around Australia or something like that," the Toomevara man says. "He's had the drive to be in that jersey every February since he first pulled it on and that's what it takes to be on the cusp of what he is about to achieve. Brendan loves being Tipperary goalkeeper, that's what drives him. You nearly have to be selfish about it because if he didn't he would be gone long ago.

"He was an athlete in training and never shirked the work. We'd always slip away and do some extra work at the end of sessions. For my first year, I spent more time doing the shooting than in the nets partly because I was new to the scene and unsure of my role but that changed in year two when I realised I had to speak up and demand a share of the action. He has been challenged in recent times and has bounced back, which is fair going. You have to hand it to him."

Off the field he has been equally sound. Two days after winning last year's All-Ireland final he was back in work while most of the other players partied. A few years earlier, when the camp endured stormy times in the second tenure of Babs Keating, he helped keep everyone calm.

Some analysts maintained puck-outs were his only weakness while many within the county acknowledge that the Tipperary half-forward line's inability to gain primary possession was a massive hindrance once Declan Ryan retired in 2002.

Keating, however, put the blame firmly on Cummins and dropped him for most of the 2007 championship, drafting rookie Gerry Kennedy in. It was a bombshell to the hurling world which had witnessed Cummins stand between the posts for 48 consecutive championship games from 1995 until the first drawn game against Limerick in 2007.

At 4.30, before the first replay against the Shannonsiders, on a Saturday evening, he was taken aside and dropped because his puck-outs weren't to the management's liking. His head spun with the news and there must have been an instinct to retaliate by storming home but instead he togged out and warmed Kennedy up.

Had he played those six games the Killenaule man deputised in, Cummins would have long since smashed Ring's record. That episode has now been consigned to his past. At the time, he felt raw and disappointed and used a diary to articulate his thoughts. But he rarely talks about it in public now.

He trained with manic intensity over the following winter, seeking to reclaim his place under Liam Sheedy. And it came to pass. Sheedy said there would be a contest for the number one shirt and Cummins replied that he would do anything the new manager wanted. He was reinstated, won a fourth All Star in 2008 and has not missed a game since, following up with a second All-Ireland and fifth All Star last season. Point proven, you might say.

"The puck-out situation probably wasn't helped by the fact that we didn't have too many ball winners in the half-forward line for long periods of the last decade," says Fanning. "Donal óg Cusack is the best 'keeper around in that respect -- he starts attacks immediately with perceptive and short puck-outs. But for some reason Brendan was getting a slating for his strategy. The honest truth is that our ball winners were just not there. The team had to take responsibility for that too."

Now 64 games down and into new territory for any goalkeeper, Cummins hasn't been afraid to experiment along the way. Corcoran has noticed a significant shift in his puck-out policy through the past three seasons. "Brendan has changed things and that probably came from working with last year's coach Eamon O'Shea. Eamon was good to get his message across and last year's tactics worked a treat."

Cummins openly admits that working with O'Shea has enabled him to envisage shots he would never have seen in the past. Rather than lobbing the ball into a half-forward line that was continuously changing personnel-wise, he has started hitting channelled missiles into space for speedsters like Lar Corbett, Seamus Callanan and John O'Brien to run onto.

In the 2009 All-Ireland defeat, he employed such variation that Kilkenny found it hard to keep up. Cummins kept the sliotar out of opponents' hands on all but 10 occasions and one sublime ball was delivered straight to Noel McGrath who scored direct from the pass. He has never stopped learning, which has guaranteed his progression under Declan Ryan's management after being rested for much of the early-season programme. "I still can't believe the brilliant save he made in this year's championship against Cork's Paudie O'Sullivan didn't get the coverage it deserved -- it was up there with any other save in his career," Corcoran reckons. "It showed his reflexes were still intact but that's no surprise. When we did bleep tests he was always in the first one or two.

"The best tribute I can pay is that I hardly ever needed to look back when he was playing. You might be nervous with a high ball going into your square but with Cummins you never needed to look around. I don't think I ever saw him drop a ball. Darren Gleeson is hurling out of his skin over there (Thurles) and Brendan knows he's waiting so that's kept him on his toes. But he'd be driving himself on anyway."

Life in the middle lane just doesn't suit Cummins. After training he usually asks kit manager John 'Hotpoint' Hayes to extend the session with more balls being sprayed at him. On a rare night off last summer he watched Tipperary play a full-scale training match in Thurles. Or rather he didn't watch. Once half-time arrived he implored the subs and a few kids to pepper him with shots. Soon, he was scrambling around the goalmouth, begging for more sliotars to be fired at him. Even on a night off he needed to get something out of it.

Fanning laughs and says there was never such a thing as a night off for the guy who he reckons will slip away the moment his standards start to drop. "I admire him for that professionalism. I also admire him because when things weren't going well in the dressing room or the bar was lowered in training, he was the one that spoke; the one that set the tone."

The history books welcome him this afternoon, but those closest to him insist there will be no triumphalism and that only two deeds really catch his interest. One is keeping the 18th clean sheet of his career and helping Tipperary regain the Munster title. The next target is another All-Ireland medal.

He's still driven to shut out the cavalry after all these years. Ring would doff his hat to that.

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