KIERAN SHANNON: Cork goalkeeper Anthony Casey shows why last man standing is also the bravest

He had no idea just how right he’d be.

When the Cork U21 footballers held their All-Ireland final press day, team goalkeeper Anthony Casey fielded a question from Red FM’s Lisa Lawlor about the benefits of being able to see so much of the field from the vantage point of between the posts.

“You can see everything all right,” agreed Casey, “but you can get blamed for everything too.”

Last Saturday evening in Ennis, after Padraig Hughes blew the final whistle, the attention of GAA writer and hurling goalkeeper coach Christy O’Connor was drawn not towards the huge Mayo crowd that took over the pitch but rather Casey.

O’Connor noticed how a small group of friends and family dashed towards the young Kiskeam man as he neared the sideline, but Casey waved them away. A backroom member held out his hand, which Casey acknowledged, before he disappeared down the tunnel, fighting back the tears.

Twelve years ago, O’Connor wrote one of the great Irish sports books, Last Man Standing.

The subject matter was the season and plight of 12 leading hurling goalkeepers, but as he’d point out in the conclusion of his book, the same range of trials and tribulations extended to their football equivalents.

“Outfield, where perfection is unasked for and often deemed unexpected, mistakes are passed over in silence or lost in the fluid instability of the match,” he’d write.

“But for a goalkeeper, reputation, pride, confidence and ultimately the ability to perform the most basic skills are exposed and open to be destroyed every single time a goalkeeper goes out on the field. At any level, but particularly inter-county level.”

One of the themes to emerge from O’Connor’s book was just how much of a brotherhood those hurling goalkeepers were. Dónal Óg Cusack recounted his thoughts when he saw his opposite number Stephen Brenner let an apparently harmless ball trickle past him for the first score of the unforgettable 2004 Munster final.

“For an instant, I felt for him. I know that Stephen was on the opposite side and we were at war, but there is a bond between keepers and I didn’t enjoy seeing it happening, Munster final or no Munster final.”

Football has a similar brethren. Last Saturday evening, Rob Hennelly, the goalkeeper to the Mayo seniors, graciously tweeted: “I think it has to be said that Anthony Casey is a fine keeper with a big future and today won’t define him or his career by any means.”

Eight years ago, Hennelly himself played in an underage All-Ireland final, a minor decider against Tyrone that turned on a soft goal conceded by an up-to-then outstanding Hennelly. But like he wishes for Casey, he would go on to have a big future and not let that day define him or his career.

Stephen Cluxton has botched up several kickouts at key moments in big games: 2005 against Tyrone, 2007 against Kerry.

Paul Durcan had the 2014 All-Ireland final, before coming back in 2015 to win an All Star nomination. The man who won that 2015 All Star, Brendan Kealy, spectacularly messed up a kickout himself just the other week in the league final.

Or take the county where Casey’s from, and the senior jersey he’ll now pursue. In 2007, Alan Quirke was the butt of multiple jokes after Kieran Donaghy kicked a ball into an empty Cork goal in the All-Ireland final. Quirke would keep a clean sheet in both the 2009 and 2010 finals as well as win four consecutive league finals in Croke Park.

Quirke’s successor, Ken O’Halloran, made probably the most pertinent point of all on Twitter last Saturday. “People must remember, Anthony Casey is one of the reasons Cork got so far this year.”

On the same thread as O’Halloran’s tweet, a Colin Davis, describing himself as “I Am The Truth”, declared, “There is no sympathy at that level. Cost Cork an All Ireland, you ****.”

Poor Colin. He just doesn’t get it, like a lot of people are losing sight of what sport’s supposed to be about, whatever the level.

Teddy Roosevelt had a better grasp. “It is not the critic who counts,” he’d eloquently observe. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena… who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

In that interview with Lawlor, Casey — who came across as a highly intelligent, likable young man, one any of us, even a Colin, would be proud to have as a son — recalled the thrill of winning in Tralee in the Munster final. That kind of feeling, living, is something a Colin — the risk-nothing, do-nothing, be-nothing kind — will never know.

Casey will have it tough for the next while. Ronan O’Gara has spoken about being mocked in a city centre pub for being “the langer” that cost Munster the 2000 Heineken Cup final. Three years later, John Gardiner would get similar grief on the street after an All-Ireland final loss to Kilkenny for likewise having a bad day with deadballs. There’s a lot of cold, timid souls around Leeside.

But there’s a lot of goodwill and support there too, especially among men who have been in the arena and proud to have had Casey alongside them there. Michael Hurley, a forward with those Cork U21s, has pointed out how Casey was always the first person on the training ground.

And as tough as the next while will be, Casey appears to be tougher. Last night, less than 48 hours after Ennis, he was back playing for CIT in the Cork county championship. According to reports, he pulled off two fantastic saves while keeping a clean sheet in a two-point win. Just as he picked those five balls out of the net, he picked himself back up. He didn’t hide. There’s no hiding place where he plays. No place for cold, timid souls.

He was back being the man in the arena, the last — bravest — man standing.


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