Derry captain Kieran McKeever introduces goalkeeper Eoin McCloskey to President McAleese before the 1998 Ulster final
From being the last line of defence, the number one is now the first avenue of attack as possession becomes the new metric of judgement. Michael McMullan spoke to Derry's last two Ulster senior winning goalkeepers Damien McCusker and Eoin McCloskey.
Commentator Ger Canning was tempting fate when Damien McCusker lined up a kick-out in the early stages of the 1993 All-Ireland final.
“Damien McCusker, yet to be beaten in the championship...hasn't conceded a goal,” Canning uttered, as McCusker stepped back behind the Canal End goals.
His sweet left-footed kick over midfield was mopped up my Ciaran O'Sullivan and seconds later, after Cork created an overlap, Joe Kavanagh hammered the ball to the net.
In fact, it was the first championship goal he conceded since Stephen McGinnity swatted Ray McCarron's high ball to the net in the 1992 clash with Monaghan in Castleblayney.
A hammering was on the cards. Derry were cruising, but the game turned on its head during a frantic finale. McGinnity hit a first goal, McCarron palmed a second before McGinnity stuck again.
Only for Declan Bateson's goal, Derry were gone, though it was Gerry Moen who forced a replay when the Oaks were caught napping on a free at the death. There was scarcely a word spoke on the Derry bus on the way home.
“There was plenty said in the changing room by Coleman. Everybody, and I had a bad game that day too, got a touch,” McCusker remembers.
An absence of rain left the 'Blayney pitch resembling a dustbowl and a balding goalmouth 'rock hard'. McCusker had been wearing rugby boots at the time to gain extra length on his kick-outs.
“It was the most uncomfortable hour and 10 minutes I ever put in. It would be like wearing steel studs on concrete. As you'd imagine, you weren't sure of your footing,” he said.
“I went back to the Puma King,” Damien now laughs.
When thinking back to more favourable days in the Derry jersey, McCusker mentions the 1992 semi-final with Down at Casement Park, a battle of the league and All-Ireland champions.
“There was a massive crowd, a lovely warm day and it was a cracking game,” he remembers of their three-point win.
“There was the (All-Ireland) semi-final with Dublin the following year. It was very similar, in the last several minutes my heart was pounding because it was just nip and tuck. The Hill...there was even plenty of noise from them even on quiet days, but those two games really stick out.”
Damien, his parents Peggy and Colm, pictured with his brother Fergal P and Sam
The final has always been referred to as an anti-climax. Despite Kavanagh's goal helping Cork to a five-point lead and with the warning lights flashing, it was something the Derry players had talked about.
“The odds are that you are going to concede than keep another clean sheet,” McCusker felt.
If Cork scored early, it was just about settling down, taking the next kick-out and easing themselves back into the game.
“You are better conceding in the first five than the last five, when you think of the Down match the following year,” he added, referring to Ciaran McCabe's late sucker punch.
When Don Davis' probing ball found John O'Driscoll in a rare yard of space to drill home Cork's goal in the second half, Derry found themselves in arrears. But it was the Oakleafers who stepped on the gas, held the Rebels scoreless and picked up the Sam Maguire.
McCusker had won MacRory Cup, Ulster minor and U21 medals with Derry. He joined the senior panel straight out of minors in 1984, but didn't break into the starting team ahead of John Mackle.
As the 1987 championship began, fellow Glen man Colin 'Bricker' McKenna held the number one jersey. After a semi-final draw with Cavan, McCusker was drafted in for the replay when McKenna's kick-out's were 'perceived' to be short.
After winning Ulster in his first season, McCusker – who played outfield for Glen – was handed a midfield jersey in 1989 by manager Tommy Diamond.
The following year Fr Sean Hegarty was at the helm and his assistant, Eamonn Coleman, told McCusker his place was between the posts. Damien didn't disagree.
Arguably Derry's greatest ever 'keeper was full of praise for the defence he played behind during Derry's glory years, highlighting the qualities of Kieran McKeever and Tony Scullion.
“McKeever was an unbelievably tight corner back, probably the best we ever had,” he said.
“Scullion used his head, was a great reader of the game and looked up the field. He would've been 10 yards in front of his man, whereas McKeever would've been touch-tight all the time.”
Sweepers and zonal defending were unheard of. It was man against man and McCusker was their eyes, bellowing to the players 'left' and 'right' to the direction of the forwards' runs. And they trusted him.
“It was a very good defence to be in behind and we had a very good understanding of what we wanted from each other,” he states.
Kieran McKeever was always handed the marking jobs and would always be up against the dangermen like Peter Canavan.
“If you kept Canavan scoreless it was a miracle, but if you kept him to a few points you were doing well,” adds McCusker of the personal battles at the time.
“If you were not up to the job, you might have got switched, but very often you got the 'curly finger' to the sideline and someone else went in. The game has changed, there are sweepers in there and there is not the same accountability.”
McCusker is a lover of all sports. He played rugby for Rainey's second team, played in goals for Ballyclare Comrades for four seasons and even wore the maroon of rivals Slaughtneil in the South Derry basketball league.
In his retirement, he threw his lot in with underage teams in Glen. While not directly coaching him, McCusker is a steadying presence for current senior goalkeeper Callum Mullan-Young, standing behind him during games.
McCusker is well-placed to look at how the role of the goalkeeper has developed.
“It has evolved totally,” he begins
As a fifth year at school, McCusker played on the MacRory team, but full-back Eamon Burke had 'five or ten' yards more length in his kick and he took the kick-outs.
“Mine just went beyond the 50 (yard line) and it wasn't enough,” McCusker adds.
Tactics hadn't infiltrated the number one jersey yet. The emphasis was on length. Short kick-outs were frowned upon.
“If you hit it to the corner back and he had to beat a man or move it on, it was seen as putting your defence in trouble,” Damien adds.
“Now, the ability of players out the pitch is mostly greater. They are more comfortable on the ball, which is where the short kick-out has developed.”
During the 1970s, Frankie Kearney brought Derry City goalkeeper Eddie Mahon in to coach John Somers who in turn joined Eamonn Coleman's backroom team in the nineties. He would later coach Eoin McCloskey when he came on the scene.
“Myself and Don (Kelly) went away with John and did half or three quarters of an hour goalkeeping work,” McCusker remembers. “We might have worked a bit on kick-outs and the next thing we are told we're playing a game.”
Damien recalls '90 percent' of the work being based around goalkeeping and John points out how much of a perfectionist he was.
“If Damien didn't reach the level he wanted, he would not be happy in himself,” Somers remembers.
“I can also remember taking him and Don to Limavady on a Saturday, so we would be able to work in daylight. Damien didn't like the floodlights,” continued John, who would get young lads to kick balls in on the 'keepers. It was all about honing their judgement of the dropping ball.
Now, according to McCusker, it is totally different. Kick-outs are the focal point.
“Not only do you need to spend most of your time on kicking, but a substantial amount of the team's time working the right kick-outs.”
“It's like soccer, there are set pieces. As Jim McGuinness talks about, it takes several weeks so there is a lot of work done on that.
“It has become the key element of the game. If you can't get your kick-out away, then you are in bother straight away. Then, you have to think about your 'emergency kick-out' if things aren't going right.”
In his playing days, McCusker, who confesses to not being 'the quickest' would always stand a few yards off his line to help him get a head start.
He remembers Adrian McGuckin always raising the question with the schools' teams on the merits of taking off the 'keeper and putting on an extra outfielder when chasing a game. McCusker likens it to how Australia used their 'keeper in the International Rules series.
“Now (in GAA), there are more sweeper 'keepers. You are seeing the likes of Beggan and Morgan playing like a sevens 'keeper,” he adds.
“Morgan adds that overlap, he is confident on the ball. Beggan, I am not sure if he is as confident on the ball but he can kick a score which is a big asset.”
There are few conversations of the 1997 Ulster final defeat to Cavan that don't mention Raymond Cunningham's 'point', which clearly went wide in a game Derry lost by a point.
For Damien McCusker, that final was a 'very sore one' and felt the All-Ireland was 'there for the taking' later in the summer, when Kerry beat Mayo for a first title in 11 years.
“Somebody could've marked Maurice Fitzgerald,” Eoin McCloskey added, also pointing to Derry's chances of winning Sam.
McCusker feels aggrieved that Pat McEneaney failed to see Larry Reilly's double bounce before another point and for not awarding Seamus Downey a late free, with virtually the last play.
“He had his arm up and let the play go on. How did he think it was more of an advantage to give Karl Diamond a chance from his hands (in play) than Enda or Anthony from a free,” he asks.
By February of the following year, McCusker stepped away from the panel. Working in Belfast, living in Ballymena and with a young family, something had to give. He did return in 1999 for a brief spell during a goalkeeper injury crisis.
The new kid on the block was Eoin McCloskey, who was noted as an outfield player and a noted freetaker who played at centre-forward for Derry U21s.
At the age of 15, his uncle Andy Murphy roped him into goals for the Dungiven minor team that would later win the Ulster title at St Paul's.
In the mid-1990s, an injury to Tony Tracey saw McCloskey volunteer to wear the number one jersey. He saved a penalty in a defeat to Lavey in the championship.
Eoin McCloskey (second from left) in the colours of Vancouver side Fraser Valley Gaels
Two broken wrists saw him spend much of the next season on the injured list, but when Gregory McGonigle was stretchered off in the 1996 county final defeat to Bellaghy, McCloskey took his place.
The following season, player manager Eugene Kelly was building a team that would later win the Ulster club title. McCloskey was earmarked as the man for the goalkeeper jersey. A colossal kick-out, athletic and a safe pair of hands.
“They were at me for weeks and weeks but when (Brian) McGilligan called at the house one evening, I sorta gave in,” McCloskey laughs, of Kelly sending the 'right foot soldier' to clinch the deal.
He looks on goalkeeping as a 'mixed bag'. While he felt not as involved in the action, the teams he played on were successful at that time.
“You felt you had a contribution to make. I wouldn't have been playing for Derry (seniors) outfield. To get the chance to play on some big occasions with Derry and Dungiven, it was a privilege to do that.”
Brian Mullins' interest in McCloskey was relayed via captain Kieran McKeever and after a meeting at Owenbeg, he was added to the panel, one of four 'keepers in the mix.
After a few league games and after Dungiven's All-Ireland exit to Corofin, McCloskey was selected for the league quarter-final against Mayo.
Clean sheets in his first eight games and club form transforming to the county scene had McCloskey back in Clones on Ulster final day. In a drab affair, Derry trailed Donegal going into the last minute.
“I remember going to take a kick-out,” says McCloskey who always kicked with a low trajectory into the breeze.
Opting for power, he slipped and it took Paul McFlynn to clamber on the break, before Anthony Tohill hammered the ball forward.
“I remember looking up and once the ball went over and Geoffrey had it, I said 'there's a goal on here' because I knew him and Brolly had a good understanding,” McCloskey remembers.
“Brolly peeled away and Geoffrey flicked it over to him nonchalantly and Brolly had the head to stick it away.”
One of the other memories was McCloskey standing on the crossbar seconds before the final whistle, following on from a bet with some of his college mates at the time.
“I thought that would come up...I was young and stupid then,” McCloskey laughs down the phone from his Newry home. After spells in Australia and Vancouver, where he helped found the Fraser Valley Gaels club, he is back on Irish soil.
“Donegal scored the last point of the game and I remember Jim Curran (referee) telling the umpires it was over,” remembers McCloskey.
“I couldn't hear the whistle down there (in the goals), stupidity took over and up I went. The next thing (Kieran) McKeever came down, like a bull, and was telling me 'get down to f**k'. I touched the ball and the game was over.”
It was the first of four seasons in goals for Derry. He picked up a league medal in 2000, but he missed the Clones replay with a suspension arising from the drawn game with Meath in Croke Park.
Like McCusker, he felt that officialdom were not favourable to Derry during this era, pointing to Henry Downey being harshly blown up for the perfect shoulder charge on Paddy McKeever in the 1999 semi-final.
In 2000, in McCloskey's opinion, goalkeeping began to change, with Damian Cassidy and Martin McElkennon joining Eamonn Coleman's management team. The 'positioning' of kick-out became a focus.
“In the Ulster final that year we were beat by a point but Damian told us we had won 16 of our 17 kick-outs. We were working on signals even though it was 20 years ago,” he points out.
With the 'man to man' nature of teams' shape, short kick-outs only became an option if a forward went down injured, freeing up a defender for a 'quick getaway'. It was about creating space on the flanks and beyond midfield.
Mainly after a score, when the ball would be kicked from the 20 metre line, McCloskey would give the sign for the outfield players to vacate a selected space. Sometimes it was a tip, or kicking the ball along the ground on his way out, even juggling the ball above his head. They all meant something different. The half backs would peel in.
“If you are kicking a ball 70 yards and unless boys have left the room, the opposition can get into that area too.
“Dermot Heaney and Anthony (Tohill) were very good at coming onto the ball into the space and a lot of the time they didn't have to contest it above their head.”
From a positional point of view, McCloskey would've encouraged Lockhart and McKeever to play in front of their men in the structure of Derry's defence.
“I was always there behind them, I was pretty fast and was one of the fastest sprinters in the Derry team and had good hands and I encouraged them to play in front,” he points out.
In 2001, Derry were knocked out by Tyrone on a day they conceded three goals. It was the first year of the qualifiers and they dusted themselves down. After an initial win over Antrim, they built up momentum and a quarter-final win over Tyrone booked a date with Galway in Croker.
An Enda Muldoon bullet to the net had Derry two points ahead by half-time and they pushed into a five-point lead. It looked like the deal was done.
“When you look at it now, boys started to get tired and boys got bangs,” McCloskey offers of their loss of momentum.
Then came the sucker punch.
“When he (Clancy) swung around to kick the ball, Johnny Niblock ran about five yards in front of the kick and I was unsighted.
“It was a hard shot and I remember the tip of my glove barely touching the ball and if I had another two inches, I could've done something.”
McCloskey stormed into the dressing room. The defeat hit him hard in the weeks that followed and it was his last game for Derry. A cruciate injury the following season saw him on the sidelines.
“You never get over a defeat like that. I knew we were going to beat Meath in the final. They always got stuck into Armagh and Tyrone, but Derry always stood up to Meath. It was sad, because Derry never really got as close again.”
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