Cahair O’Kane: Doherty and McCluskey lighting a different path for the besmirched corner-back

Huge similarities between top-quality operators Ceilum Doherty and Conor McCluskey that have done as much for their respective sides as any to hurt opposition defences - a far cry from the traditional role of a number four

Down's Ceilum Doherty keeps possession while under pressure from Luke Loughlin of Westmeath
Picture: Louis McNally
Ceilum Doherty has been Down's best player on their run to promotion from Division Three. Picture: Louis McNally

ONCE upon a time, the only insult greater than being put in goals was to be played at corner-back.

The good man-manager would have turned a compliment out of it. Tigerish. Gritty. Hard.

But your instruction was a window into the true thinking. Mark your man. Get rid of it. No fancy stuff.

Who would ever have thought the number four jersey would change so much that opposition managers are now altering their line-ups because they’re so worried about a lowly corner-back?

When Derry and Monaghan were facing off in Omagh last year, the pre-match conversation revolved around who would pick up Conor McManus and Jack McCarron.

Chrissy McKaigue was a cert for one of them, it just wasn’t clear which.

Would Rory Gallagher entrust the young Eoin McEvoy, or would he draft Padraig McGrogan into the full-back line again as he had the year previous?

That was the day it all changed.

Conor McCluskey went in and picked up Conor McManus. Nobody saw it coming. Physically, it seemed like a mismatch Monaghan could prey on.

The opposite happened.

The Magherafelt man did so much harm when he was in possession, including scoring his side’s goal, that when the sides met again a month later, neither McManus nor McCarron were in the Monaghan team.

Think about that.

The greatest forward the county has ever produced in McManus.

One of its most naturally gifted stars in McCarron.

And they couldn’t afford to play either of them.

Monaghan went for younger legs. If you’re being crude, you’d say at the expense of greater quality. But they got a draw that night in Celtic Park and were unlucky not to win.

For the rest of the summer, Vinny Corey went with either McManus or McCarron from the start, but never both.

They would still never have reached an All-Ireland semi-final without the pair of them. McManus’ influence off the bench against Armagh and his performance against Dublin were particularly notable, while McCarron hit nine points against Clare in the group stage.

But you won’t see the two of them in the same starting line-up again.

It would different if there was only one Conor McCluskey about.

Since that evening in Omagh, they’ve popped up everywhere.

Ceilum Doherty has been Down’s best player on their run to promotion in Division Three.

Six minutes in against Clare on Sunday, Ryan Johnston collects the ball along the stand side. Clare already have 13 behind the ball, just about to be joined by the ambling Cormac Murphy as he retreats too.

Doherty isn’t even in the frame of the TV camera for the first few seconds of his clubmate’s possession.

He appears, creeps inside the 45, spots a gap and explodes into it. Johnston, well used to the run at club level, feeds a perfectly weighted handpass into the run. Doherty’s first shot on his right foot is blocked. The second, on his left, has enough to cross the line despite Clare’s best efforts to keep it out.

When they played Sligo a few weeks ago, he scored 1-2 as well.

The Kilcoo man got their goal against Antrim and has been consistently their best operator throughout the league.

A cross-country runner at St Malachy’s High School, he made the school’s team for the county competition in first year.

Everyone else turned up with backgrounds in running, armed with the proper spikes. Doherty wore his football boots.

He finished second.

A cousin of the five Branagan brothers and the three Johnstons, the athleticism didn’t fall off a tree.

“On a Sunday everyone went to theirs and by the time you were coming off you were absolutely exhausted. It was either dark or there was a fall-out… that was usually what ended the games,” he said in an interview with Neil Loughran of this parish two years ago.

“Me and Eugene [Branagan] would be the same age… In school, we would nearly always have ended up captains of the two teams - we were never allowed to be on the same team - and it would just be an absolute beating match. One wanted to win as much as the other.”

He and McCluskey are similar in many ways.

Both are absolutely obsessive about their fitness and lifestyle, as they have to be.

They are at a natural disadvantage when it comes to size.

Whatever other attributes they have, they don’t get to the levels they’re at without going over and above with their training.

Hours after they beat Clare on Sunday, Doherty was in the Slieve Donard doing a session on his own.

In terms of aerobic capacity, few would match him. But he’s also worked hard on the power in his upper body.

McCluskey was struggling with a series of soft tissue injuries up until Covid hit.

His work with Peter Hughes during that period sorted all that out.

Derry's Conor McCluskey celebrates his goal against Dublin
Plucky Clucky: Derry's Conor McCluskey roars away from the net after scoring a goal against Dublin during the National Football League match played at Celtic Park. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin (Margaret McLaughlin Photography )

When Mickey Harte and Gavin Devlin came in this year, they challenged McCluskey and his fellow defenders to add more scoring threat to their game.

“It’s about time we chipped in. Horse [Devlin] has challenged me to increase my scoring rate and I was able to rise to that challenge,” he said after netting against Monaghan.

“Mickey and Horse encourage us to express ourselves. We are 15 footballers and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a defender or attacker — you have to be able to play ball.”

Ulster football cannot claim birth rights on the idea. After all, Tom O’Sullivan has been getting up to kick points almost every time he’s pulled on a Kerry jersey in recent years.

Think back to even a great like Marc Ó Sé, who could play ball. His entire championship tally was 0-13 in 88 games.

Tom O’Sullivan is on 1-26 from 30 championship appearances.

Philly McMahon’s famous 2015 All-Ireland final display where he tortured Colm Cooper by making him defend led to a huge change of emphasis around what defenders could actually do.

Teams seldom need three man-markers because nobody except Dublin plays with three inside forwards.

So the role has changed.

Mini McCluskeys are popping up everywhere now.

After a couple of years on the fringe of the Armagh panel, Peter McGrane has come into the side this year and ploughed the same furrow. A nephew of 2022 All-Ireland winner Paul, he has been a revelation, netting against Tyrone in the McKenna Cup and then both Cavan and Cork in their last two league games.

Donegal have been dipping their toe in as well with Peadar Mogan.

Capable of playing anywhere, he’s a supreme footballer whose reintroduction this year is one of the quietest plusses Jim McGuinness has enjoyed so far.

He kicked five points from play against Kildare, operating out of a McCluskey-esque role.

It’s all making opposition managers think again. These whippets with boundless energy and pace cannot be allowed to scorch the heart of your defence. They’re doing too much harm.

None of it is any use if they can’t finish the chances they’re creating.

Defenders have become so accustomed to the ball being squared across goal and palmed in that the least likely player to be picked up in a goalscoring opportunity is the ball-carrier himself.

That theory would have paid dividends for years. Corner-backs in on goal? Shoot away. They’d be lucky to blaze a shot ten feet over the bar.

Not now.

Derry Brendan Rogers and Conor Glass with Peadar Mogan of Donegal during the Ulster Senior Football Championship Final at Clones on Sunday 29th May 2022. Picture Margaret McLaughlin.
Experiment: Donegal have begun experimenting with Peadar Mogan in a similar role. He kicked 0-5 from play against Kildare.

We are likely to see the next step in this evolution this weekend.

Westmeath will be once bitten, twice shy of Ceilum Doherty.

Armagh will be acutely of Peadar Mogan.

Donegal cannot let Peter McGrane sally up the field and score another goal.

Dublin will have plans to keep Conor McCluskey from repeating his major against them in Celtic Park.

Number four, one of the most dangerous attackers on the pitch.

Evolution, eh?