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Donal Óg and Sully - Fired up for a Munster final but their bond will never be broken

John Gardiner soldiered for years with Cork alongside the duo that will face off in Sunday’s Munster final.

Cork's Diarmuid O'Sullivan and Donal Óg Cusack.
Cork's Diarmuid O'Sullivan and Donal Óg Cusack.
Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

AFTER PLAYING FOR Cork in Semple Stadium, there was a post-match ritual that a group of us used to have.

We’d leave the dressing-rooms, walk up through the town in Thurles and before you cross the bridge going up towards the Anner hotel, we’d pop into a small pub near there for a few drinks.

Donal Óg and Sully were two of the players that would lead the way and there was always a good group of Cloyne guys inside there waiting for us. It was a nice tradition after a match and we kept it going.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the two of them do it again on Sunday evening. It’s nothing new for them to be in a Munster hurling final but to be on opposite sides as Cork take on Clare is a different experience.

Win, lose or draw though, I’d reckon they might still meet there for a bottle of beer after. Whatever happens in this game, they’ve a connection that isn’t going to be broken.

I could see the bond between the two of them the moment I started playing for Cork. I was 16 when Cork won the All-Ireland in ‘99. Going to all those games, I was watching these young lads who had come through in their first year and were making an impact all through the summer.

Diarmuid O'Sullivan and Donal Og Cusack celebrate 4/7/1999 Celebration time after the 1999 Munster hurling final with Cork. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

We didn’t realise the journey that the core of that Cork team was going to take over the next decade or so. But from the very start, Donal Óg and Sully had a very strong link. They were from the same club Cloyne, played in the same school together in Midleton and had won a county together with Imokilly. How often do any goalkeeper and full-back have that level of familiarity?

That fed through from the beginning with Cork. They were new kids taking over big positions in goal and full-back. They helped establish each other, the way they stood under the crossbar for the national anthem showed that they were a team before a ball was even thrown in. They brought a local spirit to inter-county hurling because they were friends before anything else.

That meant they looked after each other in the last line of defence. The moment that captured that for me was the 2000 Munster final, ever before I started playing with them. Paul Shelly was the Tipp full-forward, a big, physical, tough man. Tipp got a penalty that day after he’d got past Sully and Donal Óg was there and jumped up on his back to stop him. They did whatever it took to protect the goal.

Paul Shelly and Diarmuid O'Sullivan 2/7/2000 Paul Shelly and Diarmuid O'Sullivan faced off in Thurles in 2000 Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

The famous game where we lost one of them was in 2008 against Galway when Donal Óg was sent-off. Joe Canning was causing us a lot of problems the same night. But I remember at half-time that night everyone rallied around and it was as if we had to as a team turn this around and help them out. The atmosphere on the pitch after that match made it one of the most special experiences I ever had as a Cork hurler.

Donal Og Cusack celebrates at the final whistle Donal Óg Cusack celebrates at the final whistle of the Cork-Galway match in Semple Stadium in 2008. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

They’re totally different characters. Sully was always a big presence in the dressing room. Physically you’d always look to him on big days. He’d come out with the ball, put in a big hit and feed off the roar of the crowd. That was his sort of motivation.

Everybody thought he was just a big unit wearing the number three jersey but he was also one of the most skilful hurlers on the field. When I first came onto the panel in 2002, if Sully won a ball and I was in the half-back line, it was just a case of getting out of his way as he came driving out and knocking down forwards and belting the ball long.

But then when Donal O’Grady came in and the game became all about possession, he showed a different side. He still came bursting out for the ball but his distribution with short passes to find his half-back line was very good. It took a lot for a fella to adapt his game like that but Sully took to it quickly as it was for the betterment of the team. That summed him up for me. The man for the big day and the man that Cork needed.

When I look back on the team we had, he wasn’t the first one I’d have picked out and predicted to make a go at management. But he got involved with Cork underage sides and then has made the step up to the seniors. I see him now on the sideline as a man with massive experience, he has the motivational tools for players and he brings that passion that’s required.

Diarmuid O'Sullivan Diarmuid O'Sullivan has seen Cork defeat Tipperary and Waterford this summer. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Donal Óg was always more analytical, preparation was a huge thing with him. His biggest motivation was to be tactically set up right. He did his research on forwards, what side they hit from and what situations they were dangerous in. He took preparation to another level and would have had a quiet word with defenders before matches. He’d get a kick out of seeing defenders winning individual battles on the back of the work put in before games. I’d have always seen him going into management.

The two of them won everything together as players with Cork. I know they desperately wanted to add a county senior title with Cloyne to that list. There was a period there when Cloyne were one of the top senior hurling clubs with Cork, they were regularly in semi-finals and finals but it just didn’t happen for them.

We beat them one year in the final with Na Piarsaigh in 2004. It was a huge win for us and a great year after Cork had won the All-Ireland. But it wasn’t a subject they liked me talking about, it was an obvious disappointment.

I always saw where they were come from considering the journey they’d made together bringing their club up. They beat Delaneys, who’d be a neighbour club of ours, in 1998 to win the intermediate after a replay. Success at senior was the dream then but I always thought it summed the two of them up that they’ve kept at it for so many years. Even now with Cloyne playing premier intermediate, they’re togging out this year.

Donal Og Cusack and Diarmuid O'Sullivan 1/7/1999 Diarmuid O'Sullivan and Donal Óg Cusack at the Christy Ring monument in Cloyne in 1999. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

They have a special affinity for Cloyne, it’s unwavering. Regardless of what happens with Cork or Clare, they won’t let it go. There’s a lot of hurling people in Cloyne that are very close. Going up to Semple Stadium and see two of their own against each other on the sideline will be a difficult one on Sunday.

It’s a challenging situation for Donal Óg facing Cork in a Munster final but he’s too focused a man not to detach himself from that. He’ll have his research done on all the Cork players. I’d say he’s enjoying the role with Clare too.

He loves the skilful side of hurling and Clare have a lot of those guys who do off the cuff stuff and aren’t robotic in their play. When I see Tony Kelly bounce the ball off the ground or Podge Collins throw the ball over a guy’s head, I think that Donal Óg must enjoy coaching those players.

Donal Og Cusack with Donal Moloney and Gerry O'Connor Donal Óg Cusack with Clare joint bosses Donal Moloney and Gerry O'Connor Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

I wouldn’t be in touch as regularly with them as we used to. That’s natural after finishing up with an inter-county team where ye have been living in each other’s pockets for so long. But there’d still be a few texts here and there, invariably hurling is at the centre of it.

I was onto Sully congratulating him after the Cork wins. I’d be chatting to Donal Óg to see how he’s getting on with Clare. They’re two good friends of mine and I know they’ll park their emotions for this game, concentrating on what they have to do.

Donal Og Cusack celebrates with team mate Diarmuid O'Sullivan Cusack and O'Sullivan celebrate the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final win over Clare. Source: INPHO

There’s a competitive edge in them and that’ll fire them up. After all, don’t all best friends enjoy trying to get one up on each other in sport? They’ve both had enough great days in Thurles. I know they’d both love another big win there on Sunday.

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About the author:

John Gardiner

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