Whether you liked Donal Óg Cusack or not, his approach to goalkeeping revolutionised the game of hurling

Whether you liked Donal Óg Cusack or not, his approach to goalkeeping revolutionised the game of hurling
Cork goalkeeper Donal Óg Cusack was a divisive character but also one of the most influential hurlers of his generation. Picture: Pat Murphy/SPORTSFILE

ON THE RTÉ GAA podcast to discuss the goalkeeping pick on the hurling All-Star team from the Sunday Game era, Brendan Cummins (the winner of the number one jersey as it happened) outlined some of his thoughts on the modern hurling goalkeeper and how the position has changed.

Ok, the headline to the piece overemphasised the old goalkeepers-are-mad element and Cummins referenced his belief that stopping goals is still number one on the list of qualities but there were worthwhile points of note.

For starters, the explanation of the disconnect between him and the rest of the Tipp team that existed previously where the goalkeeper just pelted the ball as far as possible with no real communication or link with what the other fourteen players were trying to do (if anything in particular) was a remarkable reminder of how recently this was considered normal.

The idea of the goalkeeper as playmaker was mentioned and, as in Gaelic football, the concept of the goalie as a vital element of any successful team was focused on. One thing kept repeating for us.

If Cluxton has changed the game for Gaelic football goalies, wasn’t it Donal Óg Cusack who changed hurling?

Donal Óg Cusack during his last season for Cork before an injury in 2012. Picture: INPHO/Donall Farmer
Donal Óg Cusack during his last season for Cork before an injury in 2012. Picture: INPHO/Donall Farmer

It might sound strange, but Cusack’s contribution seems almost overlooked and if anything underrated now.

It’s not really exaggerating to suggest that Cusack’s manipulation of the puck-out as a use of possession turned things on its head from the one-v-one contest.

Teams responded with shifts of traditional lines to cut off spaces from restarts. Even Kilkenny did tactics.

Teams looked for ways to get players free in space to move the ball. The game evolved.

In some ways, the movement of hurling as a possession game started with Cusack pucking the ball out to his corner-back and half-backs.

There were games in that period 2004-2006, especially where Cusack just seemed to control the entire flow, where it suddenly became obvious that the guy who had his hands on the ball with basically a free puck to put the ball anywhere he wanted on the field might be important for possession and field position and how a team played the game.

Diarmuid O'Sullivan, Donal Óg Cusack, Shane O'Neill and Brian Murphy stand together in 2008. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE
Diarmuid O'Sullivan, Donal Óg Cusack, Shane O'Neill and Brian Murphy stand together in 2008. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

He could go very short to his full-back line, a tactic that initially drew the sort of unease that usually greets the sight of a goalkeeper in football coming out the field with the ball – it looked wrong to people even if it made perfect sense.

He could pick out that half-back line expertly and with a necessary disguise to give them that extra second.

Remember the 2010 ambush of Tipp in the Páirc, where Cusack found Gardiner and his long balls to Aisake caused havoc.

We watched back some of the 2006 Munster final v Tipp and there were some puck-outs where even as Cusack was hitting the ball it looked like he was going long and he clipped a forty-yard pass directly into John Gardiner’s paw past six or seven bodies (this was planned at half-time when Cusack reckoned Tipp had shortened the field).

We can make this sound easier than it is by the way — it’s only when you go to pitch level/directly behind the goal that you realise the angles and movement aren’t as obvious as they seem up high. 

We recall being on the sideline for a club game back in those days where the precision and pace of those passes Cusack lasered out were genuinely a different level.

Donal Óg Cusack in goal for Cloyne. Picture: Larry Cummins.
Donal Óg Cusack in goal for Cloyne. Picture: Larry Cummins.

He could land passes into Timmy or Niall McCarthy’s runs in the half-forward line — movements and patterns that’d been designed and worked on repeatedly in training situations so they became natural.

He could go long too, we recall that 2005 All-Ireland final where he hit Brian Corcoran, coming out from full-forward so that the half-forward line could play off the breaks.

It was perfect for that Cork side of course, packed with ballplayers to move the ball in tight spaces and then legs in the middle third to open those spaces up.

But it was the revolutionary aspect that was most impressive perhaps, the imagination to try something different and the stubbornness to stick with it as it became a part of what the team stood for and believed in.

It’s hard to see that Cork dominance happening without Cusack’s driven ideas.

It wasn’t just the puck-outs either. Cusack was absolutely meticulous in the detail of training for dealing with shots and high balls and bouncing balls and the reactions and concentration necessary for those moments in games that’d make a difference.

He tells a story of replacing sliotars for an Eoin Kelly penalty in a game with Tipp to slightly affect the speed of the strike (the lengths to steal an inch).

Cusack was immense against Waterford in 2006. Picture: SPORTSFILE
Cusack was immense against Waterford in 2006. Picture: SPORTSFILE

In Brian Corcoran’s book, he looks back on the All-Ireland semi-final with Waterford and two moments of game-changing quality that his keeper made look simple.

A loose ball landed in a wet goalmouth with bodies and hurls flying but Cusack snapped it up; Corcoran explained how training situations with the keepers lobbing balls on top of Cusack while flicking hurls and tossing six or seven other sliothars into the mix as a distraction had perfected that skill.

A long free dropping over the bar was tapped down and cleared for a one-point turnaround; again months of perfecting that in training had made it more second nature than a risk.

Diarmuid O'Sullivan, Donal Óg Cusack and Brian Corcoran saving a Tipp penalty in 2000. Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE
Diarmuid O'Sullivan, Donal Óg Cusack and Brian Corcoran saving a Tipp penalty in 2000. Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

There are reasons of course why Cusack doesn’t always get the credit.

The Cork hurlers weren’t much liked outside Cork anyways because of the notion that they were uppity about changing the game in some way with their preparation and tactics (doesn’t this happen every champion team though, weren’t Limerick hailed for months like everything they did was a supreme innovation?) and that their way somehow couldn’t be trusted, that hurling should remain a one-v-one combat game.

There was proper glee in their eventual fall in Kilkenny from 2006 onwards.

The Cork hurlers weren’t much liked in many parts of Cork either of course.

A recent home clearout of old files unearthed an entire folder dedicated to the strike period and it was jaw-dropping to read back just how odd and toxic things were for that time. 

Top of the bizarre scenarios that would be impossible to explain to anyone who didn’t live through this time: an entire new squad playing games for Cork while another trained away themselves.

A lot of those players got a pass afterwards but Cusack became a sort of Roy Keane character, either loved or hated, and those feelings haven’t gone away for an awful lot of people yet.

It’s why his appointment over a Cork underage hurling team last year became such a hot topic, why it was a brave important move and why it’s vital he will go on to bigger roles in Cork hurling in the next decade or so.

And why he’ll remain one of the important figures in hurling and Cork GAA history for some time to come.

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