Appreciating the moment
By Kieran Shannon
Just because you haven’t seen that back of his from the terraces this summer doesn’t mean you’ve seen the back of him.
All along he’s continued to lead, prepare, plan. Even as he lay on the flat of that back on a table in the bowels of Semple Stadium that April afternoon and Dr Con Murphy and the Tipperary team medic told him that he only had a 1% chance of hurling again in 2012, Donal Óg Cusack never countenanced the possibility that his inter-county career could be over. His age — 36 the day before Paddy Day’s next year — was immaterial. Whatever perceived baggage he carried was irrelevant too from the moment Jimmy Barry-Murphy made him captain. Even this setback, his Achilles tendon coiling up like a broken elastic band, was no deterrent. He would play for Cork again. He will play for Cork again — if Jimmy wants him to.
“I can tell you something now, that thought [of never again playing for Cork] never occurred to me,” he says with that familiar eyeball earnestness. “In my mind that was a non-negotiable. When people actually said it to me, that you know, it could have been my last game for Cork, I was actually bemused by it because it was so far away from my thinking.
“The biggest threat is not getting my place back. I know with the way that Anthony [Nash] is playing, the goalkeepers we have, that that is a possibility. But as for presenting myself fit and ready for Cork next year, there was never a question that I wouldn’t.”
He won’t lie to you: that was a testing day, it was a testing time. A couple of weeks later he returned to Thurles with the Cork team for the league final, taking up the whole back of the bus so he could lay flat right across it to help the recovery process. That afternoon the entire Cork team was flattened by that familiar black-and-amber steamroller. When they got back to a monsoon-struck Cork, a still-chastened Seán Óg Ó hAilpín volunteered to give Cusack a spin home. Within minutes they had a caller whom Seán Óg put on speakerphone. It was his brother Setanta, calling on his way to some hospital in Australia. He’d just done his cruciate playing his first game with his new club.
They actually all broke into laughter at the black comedy of it all: Donal Óg horizontal in the back seat, out for the year; Seán Óg upon his return from the inter-county wilderness about to spend a couple of months on the bench and in the cooler; Setanta’s season over before it had even started; the rain lashing against his big brother’s car windscreen as torrential as Kilkenny had been in Thurles. “God,” giggled Seán Óg, “things have to get better than this!”
And so they have. Seán Óg is back in the starting lineup, Cork are back in an All-Ireland semi-final and their captain is now back jogging, having done everything in his power to make the recovery as good and as quick as possible.
The key was acceptance. Pretty much straight away after the injury had happened, he accepted what had happened.
The one moment he suspended the inevitable was when that ball broke just after his Achilles broke. He could hear a noise, a snap, and could feel something, like someone had kicked him or hit him with a hurley into the heel, but all that was overrode by what he saw which was that loose ball still bobbling around the Cork square with a blue-and-gold shirt looking to pounce.
“It was like I had this conversation with myself for a couple of seconds,” he says. “‘I know something serious is just after happening but first I have to do this’.” Once he ushered the ball to safety and he himself was ushered off the field, reality hit. Jimmy Barry-Murphy came into him at half-time and while Cusack appreciated the gesture he made it clear sympathy wasn’t going to serve him or Cork at that moment. “Jimmy, you know the drill. Drive on. I’m no use to you right now”.
Within minutes Cusack had been on the phone to Dr Eanna Falvey in the Sports Injury Clinic in Santry. A surgeon had been lined up to operate on him first thing the next morning.
Tom Barry drove him up to Dublin, booked him into the Croke Park Hotel and arranged everything else that needed to be arranged, from acquiring some toothpaste and a toothbrush to an iPhone charger and an iPod. Cusack himself went to work; his employers are a multi-national pharmaceutical company and an associate in New York was unlikely to care or hear about events from Thurles, so he duly notified whom it concerned that he’d be non-contactable for a short while.
He didn’t sleep a wink that night, between all that correspondence and also processing in his own mind what had just happened to him. But process it, he did, and accept it, he did. Injury has been compared to a sort of bereavement in which the subject experiences moments of anger, denial, depression. Cusack fast-tracked them all that night, right to the point of acceptance.
“I did in my head that night. I just knew I had to. I sat there with my shorts on and socks on and the leg bandaged and said to myself, ‘I have to accept this thing’. And you know what, all the years of being a goalkeeper was good for me. All the experiences, good or bad, they steel you, they teach you. Like, any young man going into a stadium with 50,000 people and to hear some of them give you dog’s abuse, nobody wants it but you need to accept it goes with the territory of doing what you want to do.”
He’s heard it all through the years. For the short puck-outs, for his prominence during the strikes, for his sexuality. He’s heard it all and then dismissed it all, as noise, that’s all.
Towards the end of his outstanding book Come What May he recounts another day in Thurles playing Tipp, in the first round of the 2009 Munster championship. A Tipperary ‘supporter’ on the terraces had got himself the use of a megaphone and as Cusack ran out to take a free, the ignoramus duly taunted Cusack’s sexuality for all of Semple Stadium to hear, but Cusack in his mind just acknowledged there had been some semblance of interference before duly blocking it out. It didn’t matter. For him it was irrelevant more than it was an irritant. All that counted were two things: the awareness that he’s at his happiest when he’s hurling, and nothing will stop him doing what he thinks is best for Cork hurling.
Sometimes it’s meant patiently sitting things out through gritted teeth. The strikes involved a lot of that. And so did this injury. It was his first time being injured, in fact his first time since he was a newborn baby staying overnight in a hospital, and being the patient involved a high degree of patience and humility.
Two days after the operation a few friends brought him back to his parents’ home in Cloyne where he was camped in his old bedroom for a fortnight. He barely left that room, barely even left its bed. It was impressed upon him that the more still he stayed in those first couple of weeks, the better and quicker his recovery would be. For a man with a restless nature, it was challenging, and he still exhales a joyful breath at the memory of finally leaving the house one night to go for a quiet walk to the graveyard in Cloyne.
He had a lot of visitors to Cloyne over those first few weeks, including one Jimmy Barry-Murphy. The pair of them had a number of long, meaningful conversations over the previous few months. Cusack was a guest at Barry-Murphy’s house when Barry-Murphy was mulling over whether to go for the Cork job. One day last winter when Cusack was in Belgium at work his manager phoned to offer him the Cork captaincy. For Cusack, who would walk past Christy Ring’s statue in Cloyne every day, it was a childhood dream. Now Barry-Murphy had called down to the village to remind Cusack that he was still captain of this team and still pivotal to the cause. Was he still interested in serving the team? Cusack was only more than happy to oblige.
What role does he now serve? He’s a leader, a coach, a confidante and in a way still a player too. He’s kept working away in the gym and on his rehab all the way through, with Deccie O’Sullivan having gone beyond the call of duty to assist him. Early on they identified there was an upside to this injury as it allowed Cusack to focus on improving his stretching and flexibility in a way he couldn’t when he was playing game after game.
As a coach he’s been doing a good bit of work with the group, especially the backs, dovetailing neatly with Ger Cunningham. He does quite a bit of video analysis. And always he’s there to lend an ear or offer a word of advice for a team-mate.
He’s careful not to over-impose his ideas on team-mates. He stresses this is a team with a different identity and template to the Cork team that reached four consecutive All-Ireland finals in the middle of the last decade; what worked then isn’t suitable for now.
In his brilliant new weekly column on the gaa.ie website, he has expressed his disapproval of mentors who seem to willingly or unwittingly create an overdependence on them instead of freeing the athlete to make decisions for themselves. He in particular recoils at the memory of one former inter-county goalkeeper being shepherded throughout big games by another former goalkeeper by his post and side. Yet there is the odd thing here and there he can help team-mates with, maybe save them having to learn the hard way like he did once upon a time.
It took him years to find a way to be at peace with himself and his game the day of a big game.
Last weekend the Cork panel had a camp in Dundrum House, a regular sanctuary for them through the years, especially on their way to a showdown in Thurles. Cusack and Barry-Murphy were having a stroll and a chat outside when Cusack pointed to a tree. On the eve of a Munster final 12 years earlier they had had a team meeting by it.
That sunny Sunday morning Cusack’s head had been whirling like a washing machine. Just as Victor Valdes of Barcelona considered goalkeeping to be “a special kind of suffering” before Pep Guardiola reminded him it was just a game to be enjoyed, Cusack back then was more concerned with not messing up rather than playing well.
“I remember having a conversation with myself that day. ‘Yeah, I’m fit, I’m hurling well, but feck it, I should be trying to do more in this game and I’m not’. I was still in survival mode as a goalkeeper. I remember reading David Seaman and him saying that you need to be selfish as a goalkeeper, just do your job, just look after your own corner, and while there’s a certain merit in that, you’re missing out on so much else.
“You’re not expressing yourself. I remember that Munster final day clearly, realising, ‘I need to get myself into a happier frequency here’.”
How did he do that day? “I survived,” says Cusack and Cork won, but it wasn’t as thrilling as it should have been. It was dawning on him such days were to be enjoyed, or at least embraced, rather than to be just endured.
Five years later in another Munster final against Tipp he was in a totally different place. Moments before the ball was thrown in down in a packed and sun-basked Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Cusack got down on his knees, closed his eyes and opened his palms to the skies, like Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez. It wasn’t so much a prayer to God as a gesture of thanks to be simply alive, an act of openness and acceptance, come what may.
“I just wanted to embrace, to be at one, with the whole thing, the whole moment. I remember a friend in Cloyne, Dinny O’Shea, saying to me years ago, ‘You’re happiest as a person when you’re playing hurling’. So that day, I wasn’t in any way going to let the crowd intimidate me or any negative thought plague me. I was going to savour the whole thing, even my vulnerabilities.
“I feel strongly about that. I’ve been watching Michael Johnson on the BBC during the Olympics and he’s spoken very well about even at his height he’d have loads of negative thoughts just before a big race; the key was to have positive thoughts to replace them. But for me the big thing was that he acknowledged he had negative thoughts. He could have said ‘Nah, that’d be a sign of weakness’ but he acknowledged his vulnerable side, he embraced them even. You’re far better off knowing those negative thoughts are coming, and then having your positive thoughts to counter them.”
In recent years to access that peace of mind, to find that happier frequency, he’ll often visualise and even meditate, to yoga, the morning of games. To express yourself, to enjoy the occasion, you need that certain level of relaxation, that certain sense of freedom, even — particularly — if you’re a goalkeeper.
“You take David De Gea. It was written all over him that this man was not comfortable playing at that club. Then [Alex] Ferguson came out and said he was going to play for Manchester United for 10 years. I was fascinated by that. That was great management.”
Cusack finds Barry-Murphy’s management inspired as well. A little over a year ago Cork were hammered by Galway in a qualifier in Limerick just a week before Galway themselves would be hammered by Waterford. It was a humiliating day for Cork, encapsulated in Joe Canning’s playful behind-the-back pass that had flashes of Nicky English’s infamous smile against Clare at the same venue about it.
“On one hand as a hurling man you had to admire the expression of a man’s ability,” says Cusack, “but on the other you didn’t like that to happen to any player, and for it to happen to John Gardiner in particular.”
Now thanks to JBM’s soft touch, Cork have another shot at Galway and more importantly a shot at getting back into an All-Ireland final. If they were to reach one, it might have been earlier than the public or even JBM himself might have envisaged but not Cusack.
“What’s our goal this weekend? It’s to win, simple as that. That’s why Cork are going up there.
“I was at the Leinster final and saw just how good Galway are. But that’s the challenge for Cork. Why else have we been doing all this training? For us it’s about winning now. If you say every year it’s about next year then you could make that excuse every year.
“There are loads of things in this world but one thing we don’t have is loads of time. There’s no guarantee that Cork will be back in an All-Ireland semi-final over the next few years.”
At that he gets up from the lobby of the Rochestown Park Hotel where we’ve been chatting. On the way out he passes a quote of the day printed on a stand. “Appreciate what you have, before time teaches you to appreciate what you had.”
Cusack appreciates what he and Cork now have.
Cork might similarly appreciate what they have in him.Home