IN the hurling book Last Man Standing, Donal Óg Cusack described the surreal atmosphere early in Cork’s 2004 qualifier against Tipperary, when Cusack hit a couple of short puckouts to corner-back Wayne Sherlock.
It stirred the Cork crowd into a craze against their own goalkeeper.
“I knew they were going off their game over it,” recalled Cusack in the book. “I could have started to play politics and hit the ball long, but I didn’t care what the crowd were thinking. We were doing what we thought was best for the team.”
His own supporters had been on Cusack’s case when he first began experimenting with short puckouts, the previous year. They were horrified and bewildered during the 2003 All-Ireland final, against Kilkenny, when Cusack pucked the ball just 20 metres, to Cork full-back, Diarmuid O’Sullivan.
And yet, if they only knew what else Cusack and Cork had up their sleeves, they would have been apoplectic.
Before that game, Cusack had practised giving the ball to O’Sullivan, who would pass it back to the goalkeeper, who had moved laterally out the field, with the intention of setting up an attack.
Cork didn’t follow through with the tactic, but, 16 years on, that play has become common in hurling.
The Cork hurling public saw that firsthand in 2016, with Cusack’s successor, Anthony Nash. When Cork played Dublin in a qualifier in Páirc Uí Rinn, Nash pucked the ball to Damien Cahalane on six occasions, before advancing to take the return pass from the full-back, and then trying to launch it over the Dublin defensive cover.
In their two qualifier matches that summer, against Dublin and Wexford, Nash made 21 combined plays, which was more combined plays than were made by 11 of the 22 players Cork in those games.
Some of those possessions were from back-passes to Nash from his defenders. That 2016 season was the first time that involvement of the goalkeeper in open play became so prominent, but the hurling public still couldn’t get their heads around it.
Many still can’t get their heads around short puckouts. Clare defender Patrick O’Connor was hammered in the replayed league final, against Waterford, in May 2016, when he received a short puckout from ’keeper, Pa Kelly before then playing the ball diagonally, across the pitch. O’Connor got picked off by Patrick Curran, who set up Jake Dillon for a goal.
Clare supporters were exasperated, but the play was designed to suck the Waterford defence in on that flank, before switching to create sufficient space on the other side of the field for a long delivery or shot. O’Connor scored a brilliant point from the same move in the second-half of the same match.
Those short-ball tactics are swift and clinical, because teams often don’t want the ball to be contested in the air or on the ground. It doesn’t engage the crowd as much, except when its ultra-radical.
In the Dublin-Galway final round robin game in Leinster, in June, Dublin goalkeeper, Alan Nolan, scored a sensational point in the second-half.
Under pressure from two Galway players, 50 metres from his own goal, defender, Seán Moran, played the ball backwards to Nolan, who had advanced forward into a huge, vacated tract of space. Nolan was inside his own 45-metre line, but, knowing the tight Parnell pitch so well, and with the wind at his back, Nolan computed the percentages: it was worth a go. And he nailed it.
The score was massive, because the extreme nature of such an equalising point, in such a tight and important match, rallied a passionate home crowd into a frenzy.
Nolan’s point was just the second scored by a goalkeeper from open play in championship history. Waterford’s Stephen O’Keeffe broke through that threshold in June 2018, with a brilliant point against Limerick in the Gaelic Grounds.
It was radical, but the construction of the score also made complete sense. With 13 players condensed in a small radius inside the 20-metre line, close to the Waterford goal, defender, Philip Mahony, played a diagonal ball across to O’Keeffe.
The goalkeeper had moved 15 metres to the right of the goal to make himself available for the pass and, as soon as he received the ball, O’Keeffe took off into open country.
With all the players sucked over to the opposite flank, O’Keeffe soloed unimpeded as far as his own 65-metre line, before Cian Lynch began closing in. O’Keeffe was well within scoring range by then, and he slotted the score.
With forwards playing so deep now, the environment has been created for the goalkeeper to become even more of a quarter-back.
The spectacle has changed because the game has changed. A hurler was always programmed to drive the ball in just one direction: towards the other goal. Yet, now, every player must have 360-degree awareness. And passing the ball back to the goalkeeper is a very modern and common practice.
The goalkeeper’s remit has changed so much that they can become an extra attacker when they have the ball, as Nolan proved in June.
The goalkeeper’s role continues to evolve. The ‘sweeper-keeper’ has never been more prominent in football than it is now. Stephen Cluxton may have changed the face of football with his kicking game. But nobody can deny how far Cusack’s legacy has spread across both codes.