Cumiskey strikes the right Tone as former Crossmaglen forward calls time on career of hits and high notes

The next generation of Crossmaglen players are looking ahead to another county semi-final this weekend but, for one of the club’s former stalwarts, the curtain has finally come down on a career that spanned four decades. Neil Loughran talks to ex-Rangers full-forward Gavin Cumiskey…

Having made his adult debut with Crossmaglen in 1991, Gavin Cumiskey played his last game for newly-formed north Belfast club Wolfe Tone's. Picture by Mal McCann
Having made his adult debut with Crossmaglen in 1991, Gavin Cumiskey played his last game for newly-formed north Belfast club Wolfe Tone's. Picture by Mal McCann Having made his adult debut with Crossmaglen in 1991, Gavin Cumiskey played his last game for newly-formed north Belfast club Wolfe Tone's. Picture by Mal McCann

THERE comes a point where you have to make a call. Gavin Cumiskey has probably been there on two or three occasions before, but this time it’s for real. No going back. No way.

Mobility had never been his strongest suit anyway, and playing out the final chapter of an adult career that spanned four decades on 4G pitches proved unforgiving on aging limbs.

“I was a week recovering after every game,” grimaces the 45-year-old, “both my Achilles are in bits...”

The synthetic surface at the Valley Leisure Centre was a far cry from his own field of dreams in Crossmaglen, but there is something telling about a man who won three All-Ireland titles with one of the most famous clubs in the land finishing out his playing days with the re-born Wolfe Tone’s in north Belfast.

Originally founded in 1935, the Tone’s fielded teams in Gaelic football, hurling and camogie for almost 40 years until, in the early ’70s, their ground on the Whitewell Road was sold off by the Catholic church to make way for the new M2 motorway.

The club eventually folded following a period of steady decline before being brought back to life two years ago. There was little fanfare or publicity, just a determination to get something going in an area where Gaelic Games had largely been forgotten.

That spirit of defiance struck a chord. Having played most of his life beneath the shadow of a British army base, how could it not? For Cumiskey, though, it ran even deeper still.

Crossmaglen could seldom be cast in the role of underdog, but the man who occupied the full-forward position as the mid-’90s revolution took hold was a bit different – and he knew it.

Standing just over six foot by the time he turned 12, you’d expect the familiar tale of making hay while the sun shone against smaller opponents. In his case, because of the way he played the game, that physical advantage was almost a hindrance rather than a help.

“I was a bit of a man-child, and it was frustrating because I couldn’t tackle anybody as an underage player. If I did, I put them on their back.

“I had that natural desire to drive on and compete but if I hit anybody they ended up six foot in the air. I wouldn’t necessarily say I was a dirty player – a bit awkward and a bit clumsy, yes.

“That made it look a hell of a lot worse.”

Among old team-mates, that reputation remains.

Upon viewing an image of Cumiskey’s last hurrah, an Antrim junior championship defeat to O’Donnell’s a fortnight ago, John McEntee’s response was typically succinct.

“Wonder who he nailed in that game.”

Oisin McConville went further.

“He was well known for his clothesline tackle which he took from his fondness for Hulk Hogan - a massive inspiration at one stage.

“What people maybe don’t know is that he didn’t just use the clothesline in matches but also in training. I think he even caught Francie [Bellew] with it one time, which tells you how brave he was.”

Both, though, are equally quick to laud Cumiskey’s role in Crossmaglen’s ascension.

Of the U10 side that first came through under the watchful eye of club legend Tim Gregory, eight would start the 1997 All-Ireland final win over Mayo’s Knockmore, with a further seven on the bench.

Hard edge and stomach for the fight are a given, but learning to play to each other’s strengths was at the very core of that group’s development into serial county and provincial champions.

“Gavin was probably the most effective number 14 Cross ever had in terms of winning ball and making others look great,” adds McEntee. McConville concurred: “I think his success was knowing his limitations and playing to his strengths.

“He often says he made myself and Jim with winning the ball and passing it off, and there is definitely an element of truth in that. He was arguably one of our most important players during those early years.”

A man ahead of his time, Cumiskey credits the crossover skills of Tim Gregory’s winter basketball camps with improving his reading of the game and ability to tailor his own talents for the greater good.

“I tried to protect my own around me, and the basketball helped that way,” says Cumiskey, who played with Newry Flyers in the Ulster Basketball League – sticking around long enough even to run out alongside eldest son Cillian.

“I tried to make the game easier for the good footballers, and took a fair amount of hits and battering myself over the years.

“I could probably see the movement of a game a couple of plays ahead, where the ball was coming from and where it was going to, so I could time my runs okay and get into position.

“My role was to win the ball, look up and see where Oisin, John, Tony [McEntee], Cathal Short were and give the ball to them. I was the link man I suppose.

“I played in three All-Ireland finals and kicked the ball once. I didn’t care.”

There were several turning points as that group evolved from boys into men too – among them the famous ‘Come on the Wangers’ quip from a laughing Benny Tierney, part of the 1995 ‘More than a Game’ documentary which featured Mullaghbawn’s defeat of Cross on the way to becoming Ulster champions.

“I think Benny regrets it to this day,” says Cumiskey, “we used that as motivation for the next year . We weren’t letting that happen again.”

A decade-long wait to bring the Gerry Fagan Cup back to Oliver Plunkett Park was emphatically ended in 1996, with revenge served up on Tierney and Mullaghbawn along the way.

However, another key moment had arrived months earlier - with loftier ambitions first appearing on the horizon that St Patrick’s Day; Crossmaglen’s destination already decided, if one man’s words were to be believed.

“After the ’95 championship, Joe Kernan gave the young lads their head,” recalls Cumiskey.

“On the St Patrick’s Day we were invited to a gold watch tournament down in Ballincollig. We had a great weekend’s craic, won the tournament, and on that same day Laune Rangers were playing Eire Og in the All-Ireland club final.

“The Ballincollog chairman congratulated the boys and before he asked Joe up for a few words, he said ‘best of luck, and sure you’ll be back next year to defend your title’.

“Joe said ‘I’m sorry folks but we won’t’, and he pointed at the screen showing the match – ‘that’s where we’re going to be next year’. That’s the belief he had in us.

“We were still only a crowd of young lads after winning our first senior tournament, running around showing off these big fancy gold watches. We didn’t know where things were headed, but he did.”

A matter of months after ending their county title famine, Cross had kicked down the door in Ulster, finally getting over the line against Bellaghy after two hot and heavy contests. It would be the first of 11 between then and now as the guts of two decades of dominance stretched out before them.

That first All-Ireland, though, there could be nothing to rival it. Knockmore went in as raging hot favourites having dismantled Leinster champions Eire Og in the semi-final, yet this was Crossmaglen’s time – just as Joe had told them 12 months earlier.

“It was real Roy of the Rovers stuff.

“What happened in ’97 was the culmination of something that started in 1988/89 in many respects. We won the old Community Games in Mosney, and so many from that team came right the way through.

“The whole way from U12 to U21, we probably lost three or four games. That group knew nothing other than how to win.”

And for Cumiskey, the mental preparation on days like those was every bit as important as the physical. Before each game he would take himself off into the showers, his team-mates knowing to leave him at it, no matter what noises would seep through.

“He’s responsible for more broken doors and holes in changing room walls than any other individual,” says McConville.

“Ah well that’s not exactly true,” laughs Cumiskey, “but I would’ve got myself psyched up, big time.

“I would’ve paced around in there, talking myself up. I didn’t like talking to other people. In those moments I went into myself and focused on what I had to do, because I knew I wasn’t like Oisin.

“I knew if I wasn’t totally on my game I could be completely stinking. Oisin could have a quiet game and still walk out with 1-4. In my head I had to be on it from the minute the ball was thrown in.”

That pre-match ritual paid off in spades at Croke Park as Cumiskey worked himself into the ground, leaving Knockmore full-back Cathal Naughton beaten and bedraggled by the time the long whistle sounded.

The Mayo men didn’t know what had hit them.

“Everybody thought it was going to be a cakewalk in the final, but they didn’t reckon for us. We had no fear.

“I’ll always remember the parish priest at the time, he said Mass for us before the game, and had given us guidance to go out and play hard but fair - to ‘trim the lawn’, in his words.

“When the game was over we were back in the changing room, I was sitting talking to Colm O’Rourke, who was coaching us at the time. Orla Bannon was in the corner talking to Oisin, there were a few other journalists floating about the place too when the priest burst through the door.

“‘Well done boys’, he roared, ‘you didn’t trim the lawn, you f**king ploughed it!’”

More magic memories were accumulated as the Andy Merrigan Cup came back up the road in ’99 and 2000 as well, before Cumiskey called time after helping Cross complete the Armagh 10 in-a-row in 2005.

Work took him down to Ballincollig in Cork where he played on for another couple of years, later turning out for Cross juniors as the end edged every closer. By 2012 the gig was all but up, his focus instead switching to coaching and the court with Newry Flyers.

But after relocating to Belfast, Cumiskey was talked into trying out with Antrim masters in 2019. Despite barely touching leather in years, any initial concerns over fitness and form soon went out the window.

“I got the bug for it again very, very quickly.

“Then around the same time I was out for a walk and I bumped into an old friend, Enda McAtamney, and he told me about Wolfe Tone’s. Because I’m living around the area, he wanted me to help out with a bit of coaching – I told him that was no bother, but said I’d bring my boots and maybe even try my hand with the team.

“This was around the start of the first lockdown… around that same time East Belfast had started, there was a huge buzz about it, and here was Wolfe Tone’s, a club that existed 50 years ago but had been forced to close down during the Troubles.

“It really appealed to me to try and help bring that back to life; to try and create an opportunity for the area.”

From the win-at-all-costs pressure cooker of Crossmaglen, this was an entirely different kind of challenge, with engagement and encouragement the order of the day rather than the relentless lust for silverware that defined so much of his playing days.

“The club’s a mixture of locals and blow-ins, which it has to be, but there’s some damn good footballers. I gave everything I could this year... I knew I wouldn’t be carrying on beyond it.

“I’m 46 on my next birthday, there’s four or five fellas weren’t even born when I made my senior debut in 1991, so there probably comes a point where you say ‘you need to wise up to yourself’.

“But Wolfe Tone’s are on the first step of a journey – none of the lads had played senior championship anywhere else, only three had played adult football, so that’s where they are. We won a couple of games in South Antrim, which was brilliant. We played eight league games, won three, lost five, lost all our championship games, but that doesn’t matter.

“As far as I was concerned, success wasn’t about winning and losing games, success was fielding in every game you had to play. We didn’t miss one game this year because we couldn’t field, and I loved every minute of every game.

“I was as excited going to some of the games as I was going to senior championship matches with Cross back in the day. That’s the God’s honest truth. It’s not because of what we were going to do or whether we were going to win, but when you have that buzz, you have that buzz.

“I always loved to play, always loved being about the changing room, the notion of being out on the field. No matter what I did, I just could never shake that off.”