You are viewing the content for Saturday 11 February 2006

The last line of defence

Graham Clarke

The goalkeepers will be key to tomorrow's club semi-final, says Diarmuid O'Flynn.

GOALKEEPERS are different.

And even those in the profession admit their hurling members are amongst the most different of them all.

For those needing proof, let us direct you towards Christy O'Connor's book, Last Man Standing which provides a fantastic look into the psyche of those crazy individuals who risk life and limb every time they line out in service of club and county.

In a golden era for hurling keepers, all the big names are in there; Cork's Donal Óg Cusack featured on the cover; current All-Star Davy Fitz of Clare inside along with Damien Fitzhenry (Wexford), Brendan Cummins (Tipperary), Timmy Houlihan and Joe Quaid (Limerick); and then there's Graham Clarke.

Graham Clarke, of Down, and more pertinently this weekend, as they face Newtownshandrum in the All-Ireland club semi-final, of Ballygalget.

I watched Graham Clarke last week going through his training routine in his home pitch. He was mesmerising. At first, two guys powered a hundred balls, machine-gun rapidity, high, low, left, right, centre, bouncers, straight shots; without pause. Graham blocked, parried, dived, bounced back instantly to his feet, always dancing, always on the balls of his feet, focused, fearless. Reckless even.

Between times, he'd go behind the net, where he had one of those SAQ (Speed, Agility, Quickness) ladders on the ground; Michael Flatley would have been impressed, as he quick-stepped his way across the rungs.

Back in Newtown, his opposite number Paul Morrissey also has a routine. Paul takes part in the team warm-up, before heading off with Willie O'Mahony for his own shot-stopping practice.

Then he rejoins the team for a lengthy spell practicing puck-outs featuring "signals, signs, runs and dummy runs, so that everyone knows what's supposed to happen."

The irony for Graham Clarke is that tomorrow, all his shot-stopping training could be for nought. A bit like Cork, Newtown are not a renowned goal-scoring team. Graham disagrees: "They like to take their points, but Jerry O'Connor and these boys have shown in the Munster championship that they can take goals as well. I could be busy, and I'm training to be ready."

Part of that training regime now involves a few routines perfected by former Cork goalkeeper Ger Cunningham, and passed on by Donal Óg Cusack.

"I was down to see Christy O'Connor in July, he pointed me towards Donal for a few sessions. I learned a wild lot off him, though I was with him for a few hours.

"He's very professional. He showed me hurling is about more than just shot-stopping and showed me a few different drills to improve leg-speed.

"Definitely he's improved my hurling career. I was with Timmy Houlihan on New Year's Eve and learned a few new drills from him as well."

And what does he make of the more famous names in the goalkeeping band of brothers?

"They're legends, but having spoken to the likes of Davy Fitzgerald, Donal Óg, Damien Fitzhenry, Brendan Cummins last year, I'd like to think I'm doing as good at training as those boys are. I'm happy enough with my game over the years, I don't think I've left too many teams down."

That ambition, that attitude, is shared by his Ballygalget team-mates. It's not all they share, however. One third of his team-mates share a surname. "My brother Liam is captain and corner-back, while my youngest brother Eoin is right half-forward. I have two cousins, Gabriel and Stephen, so there are five Clarkes on the team, with club and county. I have another brother, Declan, who would be playing as well (played senior at age 16) but he has MS. He's looking forward to seeing Ben and Jerry, Pat Mulcahy and the rest of the Newtown lads."

And there it is again, the respect. "It's exciting to be up against these boys. If you're going to play hurling, you might as well play the best."

And then comes the self-respect. "We won the Ulster championship on merit. We were confident of winning the Ulster championship, there's no reason we shouldn't be confident here."

Whatever happens tomorrow, Paul Morrissey hopes it won't come down to error - of the goalkeeping variety.

"You want to win the game, but you don't want it be from a bad mistake by the keeper. You'd hate for that to happen to yourself, so you'd hate for it to happen to him too.

"Both of us have the same pressure, both of us have to think the same way, you'd hate to see him making a mistake during the match, you know exactly how he feels. If I leave in a soft goal in the last five minutes, even if I've made 10 great saves before that, I can't enjoy myself afterwards."

Opposite corners, but kindred spirits. Watch for them, tomorrow; after the match, perhaps even before, they will make it their business to meet, shake hands, wish each other luck.

The odds say that Graham Clarke will need that luck more than Paul Morrissey. Well, odds have been defied before.

"We know how good they are, how dedicated," says Morrissey.

"Believe me, we're not taking them for granted."