Ahead of the new season kick off, Cork City’s Graham Cummins talks about scoring against the Old Firm, dirty stuff in the English lower leagues, and how his hometown club has changed for the better since his celebrated late, great goal for the Rebels in 2011.
It was on a memorable night eight years ago that Graham Cummins wrote himself into Cork City folklore by scoring the winning goal against Shelbourne, in the fourth minute of injury-time at Tolka Park, to return the club to the League of Ireland top flight as First Division champions.
Four professional clubs and three UK leagues later, Cummins is heading into the second year of his second spell at City and, while he had a good season last year, scoring 14 league goals, he admits he’s probably still best loved for that sensational last-gasp headed winner in 2011.
“Despite scoring against the likes of Celtic and Rangers, it’s still my most important one,” he says. “It was so important for the club.”
Over the following years, a reborn Cork City would go on to greater heights but they did so without Cummins who moved to Preston North End in League One shortly after grabbing that crucial goal. And he admits that, initially, he found the step up a daunting one.
“We were part-time in Cork back in 2011, training two nights a week and playing at the weekend and we weren’t even in the top tier in Ireland,” he points out.
“So I got a massive land when I arrived at Preston. I didn’t realise that I wasn’t in good shape. In Cork I used to come home after training and eat chocolate bars. When I went to Preston, we ate three meals a day and I put on loads of weight and got stronger.
Mentally there was a huge challenge too. Preston were training from 10am to 5pm which was unheard of, even in the UK at the time. The mental challenge of that transition was immense.
After two seasons and 34 league games with Preston, Cummins fell out of favour at Deepdale but a move to League Two side Rochdale — where fellow Cork man Brian Barry Murphy was a hugely encouraging presence on the coaching staff — gave him a new lease of life.
“Brian Bar is just the nicest guy in football, isn’t he?” says Cummins. “He did so much for my confidence, which was crucial at that point in my career.
"I really couldn’t say enough about the guy. I really enjoyed my time at Rochdale and I kind of got back on my feet there.”
His fifth season in England involved a move to Exeter, again in League Two, where he would go on to score seven league goals in 34 appearances during the 2014/15 season.
Cummins was on the up again, all the while learning the hard way how to deal with rough treatment in the unforgiving climate of the lower leagues in England.
“English football in League One, League Two can be very ruthless,” he observes. “There was a match against Tranmere for example, where I was doing well, running behind the centre-backs and getting in.
"The centre-half who was in his mid-30s was kicking me as much as he could but he hadn’t really made contact.
“Next thing, the ball is down the other end of the pitch and out of nowhere he full-force punched me into the stomach.
"I remember lying on the floor and I couldn’t breathe. Could you imagine an Alan Bennett or a Dublin centre-half doing that to a player in the LOI? No chance. So I learned to protect myself.”
Never afraid of a fresh challenge, Cummins would find a more congenial playing environment with St Johnstone in the Scottish Premier Division.
While, inevitably, scoring goals against both Celtic and Rangers were standout moments, Cummins remembers the entire two-and-a-half seasons that he spent there with nothing but fondness.
“St Johnstone was a small enough club, with a small enough budget but they have a lovely stadium. Tommy Wright had come in as manager and cultivated a great dressing room.
"Lads would fight for each other. I felt there was much more of a unity amongst the players than in my experiences in England where I felt that some players were just out for themselves.”
In terms of comparing the leagues, Cummins found Scottish football to be more technical and tactical; by contrast, League One was “quicker and more physical”. The pronounced divide within Scottish football itself was also striking.
“In Scotland there are two packs,” he says. “You’ve got the top clubs like Celtic, Rangers, Hibs, Hearts, and Aberdeen, and then there was the rest of us. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment but the Rangers goal was special.
"It was at Ibrox and I was on the bench. But when the manager decided to bring me on, he couldn’t find me as I was in the dressing room using the toilet.
"So I had to sprint back to the halfway line and onto the pitch and then, within a few minutes, was off celebrating having scored.
"It was surreal. We went on to win the game and my family were over watching which was amazing really.”
Cummins’ return to Turner’s Cross last year brought another fresh challenge for the striker.
Any attempt to replace Seanie Maguire, who had played such a huge part in the club’s first double in 2017, was always going to be difficult but Cummins was happy to give it a good go, earning a healthy return of 18 goals in all competitions, even if, in contrast to the historic success of the previous year, the season ended in disappointment for the club as they finished runners-in to Dundalk in both league and cup.
“I think last year went well enough overall but I sort of blew up at the end,” he concedes. “Maybe I just ran out of steam a little. I enjoyed being back though and I’m really looking forward to the season ahead.
There are so many good young players at Cork City at the moment. People don’t realise these players are so good that they could easily go places in the UK and elsewhere if they wanted to.
Cummins also speaks glowingly about how the club as a whole has improved since his first spell at the Cross.
He talks of better nutrition, a great backroom staff, proper organisation on the training ground and a thoroughly professional attention to detail.
“The preparation and information that we are receiving for games now at Cork City is better than it was at most of those clubs I played for in the UK,” he says.
“Maybe some of that is down to the manager (John Caulfield), I don’t know, but either way it’s great to see that the club have progressed so much.”
An interesting season lies ahead for Cummins and City, with the club set to get their new league campaign under way against St Pat’s in Inchicore tomorrow night.
The challenge for the 31-year-old is to go one step further than last year, to help win the title and so join that special pantheon of league-winning Cork City strikers — the likes of Morley, Caulfield, Doyle, O’Flynn, and Maguire.
And who knows, if Graham Cummins does hit the ground running, he might even outdo that late great winner of 2011.