Donal Og Cusack interview, May 2008

May 28, 2008

THE PEACEFUL WARRIOR

Close season, what close season?
Donal Óg Cusack spent last winter negotiating for the GPA and rallying Cork footballers and hurlers to the barricades in their stand-off with the county board.
He tells Michael Moynihan why he’s happy to be back between posts

As a solid rock is not shaken by the wind, so the wise are not shaken by blame and praise.

— The Buddha

INJURIES. The state of the game. United-Chelsea in the Champions League final. A new jersey style, the latest gossip on players moving jobs, or moving counties. That’s your bog-standard warming-up chat with an intercounty player.

A conversation with Donal Óg Cusack — GPA chairman, lightning rod for the Cork hurlers strike — comes with a preface. The Cork goalkeeper knows how he’s regarded. “I don’t think there’s anything I could say on a lot of topics but some people will say I’m pushing a GPA agenda. Having said that, I haven’t let that get in my way because I’m in the GPA, and I have a responsibility to players, and I have to appreciate that hat when I wear it. So I have to be conscious of it.”

The Cork players’ strike ended on a Friday. Cusack and some of the other players were in Old Trafford on Saturday and were back training with Cork on the Sunday.

“That Sunday fellas were happy to get back out there. The one thing is there’s a core of lads there who know how to deal with it, and who know that when you come back you have to refocus.

“Right now I just want to be playing hurling, and to put that other stuff away. That’s history now, it’s gone, and we have enough to be worrying about. My focus is on Cloyne in the club championship and the Tipp game for Cork. I’ve enough to think about playing in goal, particularly with two other goalkeepers on the panel who are well able for intercounty hurling.

“Will I do anything for John Gardiner to help him as captain? Absolutely. I’m delighted to do it, and in a lot of ways I’d do more for him as captain than I would for myself, and I’ve done the same for other captains.”

Everything that begins also ends. Make peace with that and all will be well.

-The Buddha

They started as star minors, Cusack and Joe Deane, Sean Óg Ó hAilpin, Timmy McCarthy, but that was 1995, a long time ago. Now the finishing tape is in sight, and they know it.

“Elite sport is ruthless, but among us there’s a very strong bond,” says Cusack. “I can speak best for myself, and those guys are my brothers. Absolutely. We’ve spent a lot of our adult lives together, training and playing for Cork. There’s a loyalty to each other that will go on a long time after we finish.

“Within the group I’d say there is an acknowledgement that the end is coming. I’d find it hard to see all our guys back again, and when I say that, people know the players I mean.”

Cusack spent much of last winter with one of the senior players, persuading him to give it another season. He succeeded, but it made the endgame even more of a reality.

“Does that have an effect? Of course. You wouldn’t be normal if you didn’t have feelings, and you realise, ‘yeah, this thing is going to be wrapped up; it’s going to finish’. The important thing for us, though, is to stick to what we believe in while we’re here.”

Hanging up the jersey is a separation, though, not a divorce. During the strike, one of the most striking messages Cusack got was from Pat Mulcahy.

“It was a powerful email. He’s still part of it, so are other players. They’ve backed you in the past, and you’re still in it together.”

And the new players? How do they fit in with the well-established stars?

“One thing people know about us as a group of players is that we have structures, and part of that involves identifying young players as leaders – Tom Kenny, John Gardiner.

“People talk about carrying the flame. Before every game, before we go out on the field, John Gardiner tells us it’s a privilege to wear the jersey, and I believe that, and appreciate it. That’s what we’re doing now, and we’re privileged to do it. We respect what happened in the past but we’re leaving our print on it now.

“Now, the lads coming after us will leave their mark on it, and that might fly in the face of everything we’ve done, but that’s their privilege when they come in. They might have their way of doing things on the field and off that would be totally different, but we’re happy we’ve brought in positive changes. I don’t think our greatest critics would deny that.”

Good people walk on regardless
of what happens to them.

— The Buddha

One of Cusack’s positive changes is an interest in the mental side of preparation. Not Vince Lombardi cliches or Lance Armstrong platitudes either, a little deeper than that.

“I’m interested in Buddhism. I’m not a Buddhist or anything, but I’m interested in seeing what I can take out of it for myself. That’s not just for hurling, but because hurling is such a big part of my life it obviously applies there.

“I like the Peaceful Warrior books by Dan Millman, I’d say I got more out of those than anything else I read. Phil Jackson’s Sacred Hoops I enjoyed, and I gave John Allen a copy when he was manager.”

Allen, a voracious reader, recommended books for his players, and Cusack worked his way through the reading list diligently.

“Zen is something I’d be interested in, though some of the books on the subject are hard going – you might only get one-tenth of it, I’d be the first to admit that. But that interests me, and I’d try to apply it as much as I could.”

Other lessons are available to those willing to learn. For Cusack nothing is better than Sunday morning training with Cork, and after the session the team meal together, and then the goalkeeper likes to pick up the newspapers and go home to bed for an hour. One Sunday, Cusack was flicking through the sports section of one of the papers in a service station when a Jonny Wilkinson interview struck a chord.

“Wilkinson would be a hero of mine – and of a lot of fellas – because of the way he applies himself so honestly and diligently to his sport.

“In this interview he said he’d spent a lot of his career worrying about the past, and worrying about the future, when it’s the bit in between that’s important, and that’s an important lesson to learn, something that you’d try to apply to yourself. Execution — fellas know the right thing to do in a situation, but executing it is the difficult thing.

“Does that always work? No. Does it help? Yes. Living in the present, and enjoying your journey, is hugely important. A lot of players find it hard to be self-analytical while they’re playing. When I was a youngster with Cloyne, Dinny O’Shea, who’s involved with the club said to me, ‘one thing you’re good at is analysing your performances, and you should keep it up’.

“That stuck with me, and the best trainers I’ve met since, the Seanie McGraths and Ger Cunninghams, have always said to keep analysing, to keep evolving.”

It’s not all eastern mysticism. The brass tacks mean paying attention to the bread and butter of preparation.

“Obviously you don’t throw things out for the sake of it, particularly if you’ve developed them for the right reasons. But for instance, I’d have known last year that Cork’s puck-out strategy needed to evolve. With Cork the goalkeepers’ training is very good, very structured, but (trainer) Jerry Wallace pointed out last year that we weren’t doing any long striking. And he was right. Now we do long striking every night. That might sound a tiny thing, but it can be a big help. All the little things help.

“Maybe it’ s just me, but if I learn a new weights technique, or learn to do a new stretch with Declan O’Sullivan, but that gives me more of a buzz than a fella handing me a load of money, for instance.”

There are other dividends. Years of standing in front of crowded terraces have shown Cusack the significance of each game for the supporters.

“When you play you’re carrying more than your own hopes and aims. I’ve known that for a long time. The lads in work have been very good to me over the years, for instance, and I feel I’m representing them as well. A lot of other people have been very good to me. Though a lot of GAA players say they don’t have a professional set-up, in the last few years I’ve had people around me and it’s as near professional as makes no difference. Take Dr Con (Murphy), you couldn’t get better medical back-up than him. When I play I feel I’m carrying their work as with me as well.

“In terms of supporters, there’s a crew of lads who go to all the league games, everything, from Mulligan’s Bar in Cork. They understand hurling, they’ve backed the team — not blindly, they’ll debate things with you — and I respect them. They’re serious followers. They’re the kind of people you play for, because if we win they’re as happy as us, and if we lose they’re down.”

By awareness, by restraint and control, the wise may make for himself an island which no flood can overwhelm.

— The Buddha

Cork face Tipperary on June 8. Quite apart from ancestral imperatives, Tipperary will bring a young, hungry side to face the old lions. Cusack is aware of the significance of the game. And of the significance of the Tipperary manager’s comments.

“It’s a huge fixture. Liam Sheedy is trying to put as much pressure on us as he can since the start of the year. We’d have seen that from the outset, that he’s referring to Cork’s record in Cork against Tipperary.

“We know what he’s trying to do; we knew from the first time we saw him refer to it. We’ll treat that accordingly.

“We carry Cork’s record on our shoulders. But what we’ll focus on is our last competitive meeting with Tipperary, when they beat us in Thurles last summer. We’ll be focusing on that, and taking what Liam is trying to weigh us down with, and trying to turn it into a positive thing.”

Not your bog-standard chat with a GAA player, then. And all the better for that.

 

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