Listening to Brendan Cummins, it strikes you that much of his mentality could pass for that of an old high-wire artist called Karl Wallinda.
“Being on the tightrope,” the guy once said before falling to his death at 73, “is living. Everything else is just waiting.”
For Cummins a goalline on championship day for Tipperary was much the same. You could have elevated it a thousand feet in the sky and it would make little difference. “I know I’ll never feel as alive,” he’s said, “as standing between the goals with that thin line between being hero or villain.”
Nowlan Park, July 2013, had been such an experience. The last such experience. Tipperary had been knocked out of the championship and that knocked Cummins to his knees. After 19 years up on that wire, his inter-county career was over. Dead. But at least he hadn’t been a villain. While the tears trickled at the realisation that not even his county career was immortal, there was a certain consolation, even pride he hadn’t been mortified.
“It was a tough one now [that loss]. Because I knew that was it. From the start of that year I’d resolved privately that it was going to be the last. I think that was important. When you decide that this is going to be it, it takes your level of concentration up an extra notch. Because people remember your last year more than your first year. So you’re right on that edge all the time. It heightens everything. That it would be a terror to bail out with a soft one going under your legs.”
That’s actually how it started out for him. His championship debut, 1995, down in Cork, against Waterford: a harmless enough effort from Ger Harris somehow trickled past. But Tipp won that day, by five goals. Only anoraks and Cummins can now recall that howler. But everyone would remember if he’d made one in Nowlan Park, just as there’s a certain breed or vintage of Tipp fan that recalls the soft one Ken Hogan let in against Galway in ’93 more than all his saves in Thurles and Croker down through all the summers that helped enrich Cummins’ youth.
“It’s such a fickle thing. You play in so many games, you’re bound to leave in a soft one somewhere down the line. But you’d be hoping that it wouldn’t be in the last six months of your career. Yet you don’t know. You roll the dice every time you throw on the gear. But that’s what I liked most about it. I found my concentration levels were high enough if the preparation was right.”
After Nowlan Park though, he knew he didn’t have time any more to give to such preparation. It was finally time to give some more to Pam and the kids and the work and the club. But what do you do when you come down from the wire? Was Wallinda right that everything else in life’s just hanging about?
The Tuesday after Nowlan Park, Cummins got a glimpse by going back down to ground level. His son Paul had training with Ballybacon-Grange’s U6s. There must have been a hundred kids, girls and boys, down in the club field, something that had previously only been a rumour in Cummins’ mind from being in the bubble of a county player.
He was tentative at first, walking around, arms folded, shuffling the grass with his feet like an awkward teenager: the last thing he wanted was to appear like the county man looking to take over the whole thing. But after a while he was collecting a few cones, bending down and speaking warmly to some of the kids. At the end of the night one of the other mentors shouted:“You’ll be down again, will ya?”. So he was. Helping out any way he could. Ways he could never have imagined.
A few nights in he was taking the kids for this drill. Five behind the cone, going for the ball and jab lifting it. Right, lads: Go! “Next thing I look around and the five of them are foostering around digging the ground with their hurleys. ‘Lads, what’s going on?!’ ‘Oh Jimmy found a worm, we’re all looking for worms.’”
So before they can move on to anything else, probably the best goalkeeper to ever play hurling is down on his knees, looking to help his son and his friends find more worms.
He’s been giving a dig out in a lot of places since. The past two seasons he’s been a goalkeeping coach to the Laois and Kerry hurlers, both of whom begin their championship campaigns this weekend. On Tuesday nights he first takes the U8s before turning around to train the club’s adult hurling team, the intermediate hurlers. He’s still playing for them — which is why he insists on not being a selector — and is back playing football for Ardfinnan.
That’s not to mention his TV work with RTE, the poc fada he won again last August, the Dublin marathon he ran last October and the extra work he’s taken on in the day job as a financial planning consultant with his long-time employers AIB. His diary is constantly full. But that’s because it took a lot of planning to fill a certain void.
He made a point of playing out the field with the club last year, the first time he’d done so since he was a teenager and his father John could play between the posts.
“That was a conscious decision. I didn’t want to keep playing well in there [in goals], that it would get inside your head: ‘I should still be playing with Tipp.’”
It would help. It would help the club too: only for it they’d probably have been demoted to junior. They were a point down to neighbours and rivals Cahir in a relegation play-off when Cummins stood over a last-minute long-range free facing into the sun. “I could hardly see where the goals were. It was a Hail Mary effort. All I heard was people roaring and I knew then it was on its way.” In the replay he’d score an astonishing 19 points, five from play.
He’s back in goal now. He jokes it’s because his 39-year-old body can no longer take all the belts and bruises playing out the field, but it’s really because the mind can now take a return to standing between those posts. Last year it would have been too much.
Even coaching the Laois and Kerry lads he had to watch out for white-line fever. “That’s something I’m mindful of when I’m working with the goalies: not to turn them into me. I have to try to get the best out of what they have, not try to get them to do what I could do. That’s why I make a point of not standing on the goalline with the lads.
“A huge learning point for me was the Ronan O’Gara documentary. He said he went kicking balls with [Johnny] Sexton and then he realised ‘Wait, I’m not the kicker anymore.’ Last year, there was one night I stood in the goals with [Kerry goalkeeper] Tadhg [Flynn] and I’d the hair standing on the back of my neck again. It was like I was training with Tipp. Then about 20 minutes in, I checked myself. ‘What are you doing? Stop. That’s over. Step back.’”
Last September there were more moments where he found himself having to rein himself back in.
It had been a tolerable summer watching Tipp’s championship from a remove. He was at all of them, bar the qualifier against Galway. “We were on holidays in Lanzarote. I’d booked it on the assumption Tipp would make the Munster final. Pam said it to me, ‘We’re still bloody planning holidays around the matches!’” He got some puzzled looks in the bar that day, just as he would back home attending games in the flesh. For the most part it was all good banter — more than once he’d quip to supporters “You can’t be blaming the goalie today anyhow, lads!” — but the day of the All-Ireland final, finding supporters double-checking him as he walked by, his mind turning to what the team would now be at, was surreal.
“At half-time, I was down on the pitchside doing some interview with Hector about the Poc Fada when Tipp came out for the start of the second half. And I could see Darren [Gleeson] going off ahead of me and I could picture myself running towards the goal. A part of me wanted to bolt for it there and then.
“All year I had been fine. In many ways I was very lucky. I was doing radio and then TV for The Sunday Game so wasn’t getting really emotionally connected to the games. But on All-Ireland final day it hit me all in one go. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or what to do. When Bubbles [O’Dwyer] hit the free at the finish I thought my heart was going to come out through my chest. ‘Please let them win, please let them win.’ Then when the Hawkeye showed it was a wide, I was deflated, probably because I felt Tipp had lost their best chance at that stage.”
Of course it was time to go. He didn’t want to outstay his welcome and to be truthful he’d already exhausted Pam’s selflessness. For all he now still has on, he can proudly say it’s a case of family first, work second and sport third. This time two years ago you could basically put family sixth. Hurling, hurling, hurling, hurling and hurling was ahead of it.
“It’s impossible to play at an elite level for more than three or four years if you’ve kids. The older you get and the more pairs of eyes there are looking up at you going ‘Daddy’, the more you realise the sacrifices the people around you have made to help you play.
“Like, a few months after Sarah was born she was very colicky. Every Tuesday and Thursday night while I was on my way into training I had my mother-in-law driving against me to give Pam a hand and put Paul to bed.
“Now, Bubbles Dwyer doesn’t appreciate that. And he doesn’t have to. I wouldn’t have noticed that when I was 24. I had no interest in how Declan Ryan and Nicky English were juggling having an inter-county career with a family. My thinking was ‘They better play well the next day because I want to win something.’ That’s the nature of it. When you cross the white line no one cares about what else you have on in your life. They just care about you performing on that day.”
He made a point of keeping a distance from teammates last season. “All year I saw nobody.”
“Because they’re in a bubble. They have no time to talk to me, simple as that. They’re training five nights a week. If I could give that kind of time I’d still be in there. But if I ring one of them during the day, it’s work. If it’s in the evening, they’re getting a nap or a bite to eat. If I ring at night they’ve gone to bed.”
He called Eoin Kelly the Friday before the start of this year’s league, checking in to see how he was dealing with the withdrawal symptoms. Eoin was flying, not least for the number of older players that had similarly checked in on him. Cummins met a good few of the rest of them at Cian O’Neill’s wedding last December. Over the years they’ll sporadically meet up and that forever bond will still be there – “You mightn’t say a lot but you’ll light up like Christmas trees, that you can just have that look in each other’s eyes that say ‘we achieved something special together.’” But for now the current group are locked in on what’s possible now. They’re in that bubble. For Cummins it and that highwire of a goalline are the best places on earth to be.
“The attitude in the dressing room is a can-do attitude. You spend most of your life walking around with others saying ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that.’ So when you get into the drug of can-do, it’s very hard to walk away from. You control a ball in training and a guy taps you on the back. ‘God, that was unreal.’ You make a mistake. ‘Don’t worry about it. Next ball.’
“That’s what I miss. That positivity around the place.”
He makes a point of not being on the pitch on matchday, drawing the attention of photographers away from the most important constituency of the lot; the players. But he’s seen a lot himself.
It’s all with the view of enjoying the present and learning for the future rather than trying to rekindle those feelings of the past. While he doesn’t like being described as a student of the game, that’s nearly what he is: that’s nearly what all this is: an education, an apprenticeship. And, he adds and stresses, a privilege. Both in his work as a commentator analysing games and teams (“I’ve been lucky in that here hasn’t been a drop in my adrenaline level; if you sit in front of a television camera talking about a sport that almost everyone in the country loves, you’re under pressure, the adrenaline is running”). And especially as a goalkeeping coach to Laois and Kerry. He sees the Kerry lads every couple of weeks, the Laois lads once a week. “The professionalism that are in these counties would blow you away. A Bubbles O’Dwyer isn’t going to walk into the Laois dressing room but to see the likes of Cheddar [Plunkett] and Eamonn Kelly go about creating one and getting the max out of these players is a privilege.”
This weekend he has a lot on. He’ll be keeping a keen eye out on the Tipperary U21 footballers, having played senior for the county in the code for eight years. Earlier in the day Kerry start their Christy Ring Cup campaign with a home game against Down, anxious to build on their promotion to Division 1B. Tomorrow Laois start their Leinster round-robin series up in Antrim. He’d hope and expect both to emerge from the group, and then progress even further.
And then on Tuesday, it’ll be back to Ballybacon with the intermediates and the U8s. Looking for worms again, maybe, but knowing that as far as it might be from the tightrope, it isn’t just waiting around either.
It’s impossible to play at an elite level for more than three or four years if you’ve kids