His attitude as much as his skill-set made Shields one of the great Cork football defenders

His attitude as much as his skill-set made Shields one of the great Cork football defenders
Michael Shields races clear of Declan O'Sullivan. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

IN THE dressing-room before the 2006 Munster final in Killarney one Cork footballer went over to Michael Shields, who was making his championship debut.

Best of luck, don’t be intimidated down here, was the message.

The reply? “F*** that, I know I’m better than these *****.”

Cork's Micheal Shields on the attack against Kerry during the Munster SFC final in Killarney. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Cork's Micheal Shields on the attack against Kerry during the Munster SFC final in Killarney. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

It was of course exactly the response that got to the essence of Michael Shields. He was unafraid, confident, full of attitude and full of football.

It’s hard to think of any player over the last 20 years who belonged more playing senior football for Cork, who you could pick out as a minor (I’m sure anyone who watched him play for the Barrs underage could probably give a much younger timeframe on it) and say with absolute certainty – he’s made to play Cork senior.

Shields played down in Killarney that day as if he’d been playing for Cork for years and he’s basically been playing the same game over and over in the decade since just in different ways — doing the right thing in possession, bossing his one-v-one battle, looking to influence the game positively, being physically and technically efficient, just generally being better than his opponent like he knew he was back then.

Michael Shields after defeat by Kerry in the 2003 minor final. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Michael Shields after defeat by Kerry in the 2003 minor final. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

There may have been more striking footballers in that time and it’s hard to make a highlights reel out of simple sustained defensive excellence but you couldn’t really think about Cork 2006-2012 especially without picturing Shields driving from defence, out in front to win a ball and then just moving the ball onto the next guy, job done.

Shields came onto the scene as an attacking half-back — we recall his willingness to break forward and take responsibility for the U21s from centre-back in the last few minutes of the final with Laois in 2007 especially. He had a particular way of running the ball with that distinctive solo that gave the impression there was little point trying to force a turnover; if there are defenders who give off a nervous vibe on the ball, Shields wasn’t one.

Yet an awful amount of his time at senior became a firefighting role, filling in the full-back line when gaps appeared. He got the Colm Cooper job in different spells and never looked overrun. When Bernard Brogan got in for an early goal and a few points in that 2010 semi-final with Dublin it was Shields who went toe-to-toe with a Dublin man who was more or less unmarkable at the time.

Our main memory from his performance in the final that year is Benny Coulter’s growing realisation that he just couldn’t create the space to influence the game. Shields could do the full-length blocks, he could get a hand in to disrupt ball, he could grapple for 50-50 ball with any forward, but mostly he was clever positionally to fill spaces or shadow forwards and force them into areas where scoring wasn’t possible.

Michael Shields and Brendan Coulter tussle for the ball. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Michael Shields and Brendan Coulter tussle for the ball. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

I remember him on Brian Hurley a few years ago in Bandon giving a masterclass in just shutting down a forward by denying him room to shoot.

He was a competitive animal more than anything as a defender. He did an interview years ago where he admitted an enjoyment in the challenge of marking a marquee forward, the rush of coming out with a ball against the opposition’s main man, that edge of always playing with the danger of getting caught in one moment.

Countless Cork forwards have referenced him as the one to avoid marking in training.

But it was more than just about one position or one player on the team.

Shields was Cork in the same way that say John Terry was Chelsea or Paul O’Connell was Munster, through all the battles with Kerry and the trophies from 2008 to 2011 and being a huge part of that idea of Cork creating that mentality of preparing properly and doing things right and winning.

I can’t imagine Shields ever doing something where he wasn’t going to be doing it as well as he could and doing it better than anyone else (it’s possibly a factor into why Australia wasn’t for him, that he’d always be a little behind the top level over there with the years of catch-up).

When the Cork footballers went boxing in Rylane under Conor Counihan it was Shields who took it more seriously than everybody else and who nobody really wanted to get in the ring with for punishment.

One former teammate mentions that whenever the team played soccer a group it was Shields who stood above everyone as the proper ball player.

There’s a sense of always wanting to set the standards and his level of preparation for individual opponents and games was never lacking.

When he came back from several months in Australian Rules, Shields carried a football around with him to get used to the feeling of the gaelic football again, just to get the time away and the different ball out of his system.

Michael Shields after winning with Ireland in 2013. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE
Michael Shields after winning with Ireland in 2013. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

Shields was unlikely to stick around for long when he couldn’t perform at a certain level and there’s been a sense this past year or two that he wasn’t quite able to do that consistently for various reasons.

And still, in that second half comeback against Tipp last summer it was Shields who drove forward with ball in the second half and who gave off that feeling of control and defiance more than anybody else.

When Conor Sweeney flicked that late goal it was Shields who took the ball from the kick-out and took responsibility with a kickpass down the wing to get the movement going for Luke Connolly’s goal.

He gave a really great interview on the radio afterwards, full of spikiness and unwillingness to understand any sense of inferiority.

It’s a pity actually that Cork football wasn’t able to give his leadership quite the stage it probably deserved this last while, his particular kind of thinking always more suited to a team actively pursuing championships than trying to play catch up on a different elite.

As the gang from 2010 moves on it’s that kind of mentality Cork will miss most now, that feeling that Shields could inspire in others and in the supporters even that as long as he was around everything would be ok. One former teammate recalls meeting him on the street a few days before a big match at one stage and just absorbing this massive personality.

You can imagine, no matter what any group was trying to achieve that it’d be better to have Michael Shields on its side as its heart and spirit.

Cork football doesn’t have that anymore and it won’t feel right for an age.

Michael Shields bein tackled by Ballincollig forward Patrick Kelly. Picture: Des Barry
Michael Shields bein tackled by Ballincollig forward Patrick Kelly. Picture: Des Barry

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