Nash ready for the honour of being Cork's number one


MUNSTER SHC SEMI-FINAL CORK v TIPPERARYAfter seven years as understudy to the great Donal Óg Cusack, Anthony Nash gets the nod to face Tipperary in Cork tomorrow, writes MALACHY CLERKIN

THEY ARE the understudies who never get to utter a line, the backing singers with no microphones. They do the work without seeing the wage, play at being goalkeeper without ever getting to play as one. They are the sub-goalkeepers and tomorrow, one of them will have his day.

In Cork, goalkeeper on the county hurling team is a job that comes with only slightly less tenure than that of sub-Saharan despot.

Give or take the occasional Timmy Murphy or Finbarr O’Neill, Cork have essentially had four goalkeepers in 50 years. Paddy Barry did it for nine years, Martin Coleman for five, Ger Cunningham for 18 and Donal Óg Cusack for the last 13. Others have come and gone and come again (and gone again) through the decades – Cunningham alone saw off no fewer than 12 different sub-goalkeepers in his time in red and white hoops – but the chances to stake a claim have been slim and they have been rare.

Anthony Nash has one now. Martin Coleman (son of) didn’t take his in the league final, fluffing a couple of early balls for Kilkenny goals and spraying some careless puck-outs thereafter.

So Nash it is who gets the nod to face Tipp in the Páirc tomorrow. It won’t be his championship debut – that came in 2007 when Cusack was serving a one-match ban for the broiling bout of push-and-pull that came to be known as Semplegate.

Waterford put five goals past Nash that day in the relentless thrum of a stone-cold classic and Cusack took the jersey back for Dublin in the qualifiers a fortnight later. But this time the position comes with more than just 70 minutes attached.

Way back in early 2004, Cunningham sat down with journalist (and long-time intercounty sub-goalkeeper himself) Christy O’Connor to serve up an appraisal of Cusack’s coming season for O’Connor’s book Last Man Standing.

“It’s a big year for Donal Óg,” Cunningham said, “and he knows himself that he’s going to come under pressure. I know that the selectors are going to give people chances this year and maybe the test will really come if they give Martin Coleman, Paul Morrissey or Anthony Nash a chance.

“If that happens, how will he react in that situation? These things kind of go in cycles and if he gets over this period and gets established again, he’ll be fine.”

He got over the period and got established again, not that he was ever really in danger of seeing it go the other way. Cusack played the first four matches of that league, with Coleman coming in only for the last game in the first series after qualification for the upper level of the second series was done and dusted.

Morrissey got a go in the last game of the league, again when there was nothing at stake, the candle of a place in the final having long since been extinguished. Cusack held his place and has held it since.

Doesn’t it give a flavour of the purgatory in which sub-goalkeepers live all the same? Cunningham invoked the names of Coleman, Morrissey and Nash in the spring of 2004, since which time that trio has made a grand total of two championship appearances between them. Morrissey continued a fine club career with Newtownshandrum but has long left the county scene behind.

Coleman saw action in the 2008 qualifier against Galway after Cusack got sent off but never saw it again and is unlikely to now after not even making the substitutes’ bench for tomorrow. As for Nash, that one day in the sun in 2007 left him blistered and bereft until this weekend.

It’s a hard-knock life, no two ways about it. Ger ‘King’ Power was the wind beneath Cunningham’s wings for a few years on and off in the 1980s. A Midleton clubmate of John Fenton, he came on the panel in 1984 and enjoyed it well enough because Fenton was captain and Cork won the centenary All- Ireland. But as the years faded and Cunningham very conspicuously did not, Power drifted a little.

He was trying to get a delicatessen business off the ground in Cork city and found time a tightening noose. It didn’t take very much quick thinking for him to slip it and leave the panel. Although he came back for another go at the end of the decade, the future needed him for other things. Ask him if he’d have kept at it if he’d been first-choice and he answers, not unreasonably, that he doesn’t know.

Cunningham was death and taxes. Wondering what turns Power’s life would have taken without him in the way is pointless.

“The one thing about Anthony Nash (27) at this moment is that he has age on his side. There’s a good age difference between himself and Donal Óg whereas myself and Cunningham would have been more or less the same age. For me, it would have been a case of putting a lot of time in and never getting a chance of playing,” said Power.

“If an opportunity had ever come, I would have had to be ready. So it’s for that reason that I always tell people a sub-goalkeeper is the most dedicated player on the panel. It’s easy to be dedicated if you can see yourself getting a game at the end of it. It’s not so easy to get deeply involved in training sessions and to have a handle on everything that’s going on around a panel if you know in your heart and soul that it’s unlikely you’re going to see any action.

“The thing is, you can’t turn up to the sessions just to be the sub-goalie – you have to be there as if you are the man who’s going to start. You have to believe that number 16 is as important as number 1 because if it comes to pass that you have to go on the pitch, you’re the man and the team needs you to be the man. So you have to have all the dedication with, being honest about it, only a small chance of being involved. You’re talking about being really and truly dedicated now, really and truly.”

The years tumbled through themselves and Power spent a good four of them as Cunningham’s next of kin in the Cork panel.

He learned from every session and took what he got from the experience back to Midleton where he captained them to their one and only club All-Ireland in 1988.

He played a few league games and some Oireachtas Cup matches but never saw a minute of championship action in all his time on the panel. That was just the way of it. If he’d been behind a poor goalkeeper, he’d be sore about it. But Cunningham was probably the best in the country at the time so he isn’t.

Truth is, he enjoyed it.

“I used to go away up to Thurles and have two plates of sandwiches before the match,” he laughs. “I’d be in the dressing room and I could see the expression on the team’s faces before they’d go out and everyone would be committed to the cause. But I know that even if I’d had 40 plates of sandwiches, I would have the same job to do as what Cunningham was going to have to do.

“But I never played a championship game. The closest I came was in 1989 when Cunningham was knocked out against Waterford. He was concussed but the problem was we were after using the three subs and he had to stay on the pitch. We couldn’t bring him off so he stood in goals for the rest of it in a daze. That was the closest I ever came to playing in the championship. And I’ll tell you another thing – it was the closest I ever came to throwing up my two plates of sandwiches!”

Time and pre-match diets move on. Nash moves out of the half-light tomorrow, the jersey his for the rest of the year in all probability. There is a newness and a freshness about every line of Jimmy Barry Murphy’s team, the first that has faced the flag in 13 years with no member of the 1999 All- Ireland-winning side named in it.

Nash will be fine, reckons Power, just so long as he doesn’t spend the afternoon trying to fill Cusack’s boots. He will presumably have a pair of his own with him.

“Everybody knows what the goalkeeper who’s out injured has done in the game,” says Power. “Everybody knows what he has brought to the circle of GAA. Anthony Nash is going into goals as Anthony Nash. Nobody else. He’s not Donal Óg Cusack. He’ll go in and he’ll play to the standard that he’s able to play to. He’ll be Anthony Nash, his own man. That’s all you can expect out of him. You can’t expect him to be Cunningham and Cusack all rolled into one. And he shouldn’t try to be.”

Nash has spent seven years training with Cusack, doing the same drills, banging out the same runs, living the same life while waiting his turn. Part of it but apart. Thereabouts but not there. By now, he must feel 10 months pregnant. Time to deliver.

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