Who better to assess a goalie than a fellow-goalie, one who’s been there, done the business and knows the job intimately? During an illustrious career between the timbers for Tipperary John O’Donoghue pocketed three All Ireland senior hurling medals so when he describes Brendan Cummins as the best he’s seen you tend to take note.
Simply the best go the words of the song and for the Arravale Rovers’ man that’s Brendan Cummins. To back up the claim John O’Donoghue hangs on one word – longevity. Since he sprung on the scene in the mid-nineties Brendan Cummins has been an ever-present number one for Tipperary, outstripping even the great Christy Ring for the record number of championship appearances. In O’Donoghue’s kitchen hangs a framed action photo from the 1962 Cork championship. In it the Tipp man, wearing the skull and crossbones of UCC, is in a cluster of players batting the ball away with Ring in close attendance. No doubt it’s a treasured memento from a career that harvested All Ireland senior medals in 1964, 1965 and 1971. His views carry the authority of personal experience.
Players come and go but only the greats survive and John O’Donoghue is keen to point out how Brendan Cummins has out-stayed so many defenders. “I was thinking of how many backmen he’s played behind over the years. So many defenders have come and gone and yet Brendan remains”.
Reflecting on the present Tipp goalie John O’Donoghue describes him as one who has studied the art of goalkeeping and brought it to a new level. “ I think he’s the first goalie to develop this ability to spread himself, make himself big and reduce the space and angle for the forward – probably something he picked up from soccer. And that’s not as easy as it seems. Timing is everything; your timing must be perfect. He has to watch the play develop and read the movement of the forwards exactly right. If you move too early or too late you’re beaten”.
But in the business of net minding John O’Donoghue is keen to point out that Brendan Cummins is much more than just a superb shot-stopper. ‘He’s a great organiser of the defence. A goalie has a great view of what’s happening in front of him and Brendan is constantly shouting, organising the defence. In the modern game there’s a lot of movement and forwards drift away from their marker unnoticed. Brendan is great at watching for those drifters and shouting at the backs to pick them up. He’s also a great motivator of the players around him constantly talking to them”.
On a linked item he describes Brendan Cummins as having, like all great goalies, a third eye. John O’Donoghue explains: “Your eyes are on the ball but you can also see what’s happening to the side”. I suppose it’s a type of peripheral vision, an awareness of what’s happening around and where people are positioned.
John O’Donoghue plied his trade as goalie in a different era, the era of the third-man tackle when goalies were a legitimate target for inrushing forwards. It was also a simpler era where the only aim of a puck-out was maximum length, though he does point to a refinement he developed with ‘Babs’ Keating where they worked on a low-trajectory puck-out which the forward could catch more easily. ‘Babs’ was one of the first to do this at a time when there was little high fielding of the ‘sliotar’ – the overhead pull was a speciality.
All of which leads on to a discussion of Brendan Cummins’ puck-out, a much-discussed and at times criticised item. Here John O’Donoghue is keen to defend the goalie. “I think he has often been very unfairly criticised for his puck-out. He has a huge puck-out (poc-fada wins in the Cooley Mountains) but very often he’s only hitting eighty, maybe eighty-five percent, in order to reach a target. If there’s a player free thirty, maybe forty yards out then why not target him. If the play then breaks down and the ball is lost people tend to blame the goalie whereas it was probably the receiver who messed up”.
There are many other facets of Cummins’ game that also have the approval of John O’Donoghue. He points to his bravery, reckoning that he would have stood apart in any era, any generation. He feels he has a great head, a thinking goalie, and he admires his incredible fitness levels year after year. Attitude too is essential and John O’Donoghue points with admiration to Brendan Cummins’ reaction when he was dropped by ‘Babs’. “He could have walked away; after all he’d done it all and had nothing more to prove. But he didn’t. He was bigger than that. I remember talking to him at the time and all he was interested in was how he could get back”.
John O’Donoghue also points to developments in the goalie’s game. “There was a time when he was coming out along the end line and hitting these high clearances over his shoulder in order to avoid the block. He rarely does that now. Instead he’s coming out with the ball and finding a colleague. And he seldom gives away a ‘65’ because in the modern game that’s like handing the opposition a point”.
Goalies are a rare breed and confidence is an essential ingredient if one is to thrive at the trade. John O’Donoghue remembers the first time he saw Brendan Cummins play for Tipperary. “It was a challenge game in Ardfinnan sometime in the mid nineties and I remember a forward firing in a bullet at him. Instead of putting the hurley to the ball he just snapped it in the hand. He is supremely confident in his own ability and you need that”.
So in the pantheon of great goalies is he the best? What of Reddin? “I never saw Reddin play and in any case it’s very difficult to compare players from different eras. Of the goalies I’ve seen I would certainly rate him the best”. A predecessor of O’Donoghue’s in the Tipperary goal, John O’Grady (aka ‘Culbaire’ of ‘The Tipperary Star’) wrote about the Arravale man thus: ‘ .. a composed ‘keeper, measuring everything he did, never driven to sudden or uneasy strategy ..’ Well, his measured assessment of Brendan Cummins certainly gives the Ballybacon clubman an elevated position in the hierarchy of goalies.