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Anthony Nash: The constant mental battle that comes with being a hurling goalkeeper

The42 columnist Anthony Nash on the reality of being number one.

Image: James Crombie/INPHO

IN MY FIRST column, I wrote about the king and queen of modern hurling. Centre-back and centre-forward, two key positions that teams have to get right. Now it is time to focus on the most important position on the field.

Without a hint of self-interest, let’s look at goalkeepers. In typical fashion, only the centre of attention when something goes wrong.

What was really impressive about some of the recent mistakes we all saw is how players responded to them. You can tell yourself over and over again to focus on the next ball when things go south, but when the crowd is exploding and all you want is the ground to swallow you up, enacting that is another story. They kept calm and got back on track. Serious resilience. 

It might not even be your fault. I’ve been in goals where I hit a puck-out to a corner-back. He played it up his wing, they hit it inside to a corner-forward and he hit a wide. Then the call comes from the crowd: ‘Will you let it in, Nash?!’

ian-galvin-and-barry-nash Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Years ago, my uncle Mike rang me wanting to borrow a goalkeeper hurley for his son, Barry. It turns out he was due to play in goals for a Limerick Primary schools game.

“Get him out,” I responded instinctively.

 What?

“Do not let him play in goals!”

Barry was a talented hurler even as a kid. You had an idea early on that he would be decent. And I knew how it could go. I had spent years as a sub. Two years of it at minor. I went into the U21s and was originally back-up to Martin Coleman. In the end, it was one year of playing out of five in various squads.

That is an occupational hazard. A good hurler will have some element of versatility. They might compete for two or three positions. Players like Barry or Kyle Hayes could do a job in all 14. As a goalie, there is just one spot. If you are second best, you do not play.

Ger Collins is a superb goalkeeper and he is Cork’s number two, behind his brother Patrick. That means he is second best for his club Ballinhassig as well. There was one stage in Cork when Brian Hurley was the minor goalkeeper, Fergal O’Mahony was the U21 and Ger Cunningham was with the seniors. All three hail from the Barrs. Can you imagine that level of competition for one spot in a club?

I ended up in goals by accident. Underage coaches across the country will know all about the struggle to find a volunteer to stand between the posts. As a 12-year-old, I gave our club’s U16s a dig-out when they were stuck.

That initial fear is unrivalled. Being number one means a career spent terrified of a small mistake. Always one tiny error from a disaster. A ball hits your fourth finger, one puck-out skews away, one millisecond mistimed and suddenly for all the world, you cost your team a chance to win an All-Ireland.

darren-gleeson-surrounded-by-smoke Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Thankfully, that day the group looked out for me. At the edge of the small square, they plonked two local lads, who also played rugby for Kanturk. The boys barely moved, just minding the house all day. Permanent protection. There were times during my Cork career I was yearning for them to return!

A goalkeeper is on an island. Constantly wrestling with the weight of impractical expectations. An expectation to be beyond perfect. Opposition cracks the puck-out plan? Only one fall guy for that. A team might make ten obvious slips, but amidst the sea of wides, missed tackles and lapses in concentration, a goalkeeper error will be the number one flaw highlighted.

This isn’t a defence of goalkeepers. That is the job at the end of the day. You have to be ready for this reality. Once a selector looked me in the eye before a game and said, ‘you are under pressure today.’ I nearly felt like bursting out laughing. In this position, you are under pressure every single day. Pressure is the main component of the job.

It is way more mental than it is physical. On the bus after a match, everyone else is discussing aches and pains. Various belts and bruises. Dan Kearney or Luke Meade might have clocked 12km running. Meanwhile, I’m beside them and barely able to speak. Exhausted beyond belief. Head wrecked, emotionally drained. A mind racing for so long that it inevitably crashed.

Dónal Óg took a team meeting for us once and asked a question about preparation for a big game. Cian McCarthy spoke first about watching Cork legends, the team of his father’s generation and how that got him going. I explained it was on my mind all week. Thinking it over. Trying to visualise a positive outcome, inevitably mapping worst-case scenarios.

donal-og-cusack Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Then it was Conor O’Sullivan’s turn. “I don’t think about it much until the morning of the game.” It was inconceivable. I thought he was insane. Now in hindsight, I realise he was spot on. Don’t build a game bigger than it already is. You’ll be shattered before you take to the field. Being in goals is 70 minutes of pure concentration. There is no need to make that harder on yourself in the build-up.

How else can you help your team? I used to be vocal to try to keep our players switched on. Our wing-back makes a gut-busting run up the corner, he is sucking air, maybe he has mentally switched off for a second. Out I’d come out with a bottle of water. “Great stuff. Keep going. Next ball.”

95% of the time it might make no difference, but that 5% could be crucial. 

You need to understand I lived in my head for much of my career. One thing went wrong and you’d go chasing. Like a golfer who starts with a bogey and can’t let it go. Drop a soft goal and suddenly it is time to make up for it. Gary Keegan was able to teach me that forcing it like that is the wrong thing to do. It has to be about the next ball.

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Previously a goal would go in and inspired by Peter Schmeichel, I’d run out lambasting defenders. Heart on your sleeve. Furious at the world. Then you learn how to react to it.

In 2017 John McGrath scored a screamer. My first reaction then was “Where is the ball?” I’d a sliotar in my hands a second later. It was on the opposition’s 45-metre line within two. Conor Lehane had it over the bar while the Tipp crowd were still celebrating. A three-point goal was now only two.

ronan-maher-and-conor-lehane Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Those little moments are important. A year later, Cork beat Clare in the Munster championship. Early in the game, Robbie O’Flynn was injured and there was a prolonged break in play. The opposition stood around while we huddled up. I remember jogging back into goal thinking, “That was a good moment, a chance to address a few things and re-focus.”

That is not to say the other parts of goalkeeping aren’t important. Dónal Óg was a technical genius. In training, it was rarely just shot-stopping. He would do touches, handling, different strikes. It made perfect sense. How many shots will a keeper face in a game? Three or four at a push. How many puck-outs? At least 30.

But even with the physical stuff there was a mental edge. In 2008, I nearly lost a testicle after a belt of a sliotar in club training with Kanturk. I was on morphine for the day. Pain I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It was inches from rupturing. Initially in hospital, the doctor was struggling to understand what a sliotar was.

‘Like a cricket ball,’ I half-heartedly suggested. His face immediately dropped. I knew straight away that I was very lucky. And I went back in goals straight away without a second thought.

If I’m ever asked for advice for a young goalkeeper, I always say what my father said to me. You have to enjoy it. Otherwise, you’ll start off stressed and find it hard to improve. In clubs, make sure a young goalkeeper wants to try it. Do not force someone. I know it isn’t easy, no one wants to play in goals. But it is much more likely to succeed if you can find someone who is at least open to it.

And for the goalkeeper themselves, do your best to ignore the terrace talk. Mistakes will happen. It is all about the next ball. 

Listen to the analysis of Anthony Nash on The42 GAA Weekly, with Fintan O’Toole and Maurice Brosnan, by becoming a member.

Nashad

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