Ellis making his mark for Cork
By John Harrington
Cork centre-back Mark Ellis didn’t spend his childhood dreaming about playing for the Rebels like most of his team-mates probably did.
For a start, he was born in Wicklow and lived the first six years of his life near the village of Kilmacanogue just outside Bray.
His mother was from Clare and eager to move closer to home so his father got a job with Molex Shannon and for a while it looked like if Ellis was going to be a hurler it would be in the colours of Tulla and Clare.
But then his father was transferred to Molex’s factory in Millstreet, Cork, and young Mark’s destiny took another twist.
Even then hurling for Cork wouldn’t have seemed like all that an attainable goal because no-one from Millstreet had ever done it before and the game wasn’t all that strong in the town.
But Ellis had a gift, and he set himself the task of seeing just how good he could get.
“As a young fella I only played hurling because I just loved playing the game,” Ellis told GAA.ie.
“I wasn't really thinking about playing for Cork.
“Obviously you'd love to play for Cork but that wasn't the be all and end all. It wasn't a thing I thought of too much, it was just about playing. I just stuck with it.
“When I was given a chance then, it was just being aware that you got to make the most of it. In a place like Cork, there's so many players out there, it's such a big county that if you don't take your chances when they come around, that'll be it.
“I was just happy to get the call and make the most of it when I get the chance.”
It would have been next to impossible for him to be noticed hurling for Millstreet because they were operating some way off Broadway, so his big break came with the Duhallow divisional underage teams.
“It would have been, without a doubt, yeah,” says Ellis. “Because as you know Cork is so big that unless you win your Division underage you're not actually out there and being seen.
“I wouldn't have been on any radar with underage teams because we weren't winning Duhallow championships so we weren't even playing any team from the city.
“So really it was when we were minor playing with Duhallow and we got to a minor final and the U-21 final in the same year.
“Myself, Lorcan McLoughlin, William Egan, and Aidan Walsh were all on those teams and we got to four U-21 Finals in a row.
“That was really the launch-pad then for players of my era getting on the radar and getting noticed for bigger things.”
Ellis has excelled at the centre of the Cork defence this year. He has everything you need to be a top-class centre-back – size, speed, skill, and the ability to read to game.
Now 26, there’s also a greater maturity and ruthlessness to his play too than there was in the past, even if he modestly prefers to spread the praise around for Cork’s defensive solidity this year.
“I think it's a collective thing,” says Ellis. “Obviously we've Colm Spillane after coming into the team, playing very well. Mark Coleman half-back, everyone knows how good he is and how well he's playing.
“Obviously a few new faces are performing very well but again I just think it's a real collective thing. I think we're defending from the front a lot better. They're always under pressure, it's 50-50 and that gives us a better chance.
“We're defending from the front throughout the whole field and it's really had an impact on the amount of scores we're conceding at the back.
“That’s something we're encouraged to do. That's not something that comes in the game by chance. Pat Ryan is training the team, he's a pure hurling man.
“Whether you're number two or 15, once you're attacking the ball with belief, you're going to get it. That's something that's encouraged every day at training.
“You're encouraged to make mistakes, you're not going to win any championships so you've got to take chances or take risks, whether you're corner back, full back or full forward.”
It’s been a serious improvement from a Cork defence that was criticised quite heavily in 2015 and 2016 for being something of a soft touch.
That experience of being lashed rather than praised means Ellis and his fellow Cork defenders aren’t inclined to get too carried away with themselves now that they’re flavour of the month.
“Absolutely, that's it,” he says. “Every fella understands just how fickle it is and how small the margins are.
“We've won three games, we've won a Munster Championship, but the bounce of a ball could have decided any of those three games.
“It's not as if we walked away with the game. Galway so far this year have won every game and won them with style, but I wouldn't say we've won games with style.
“We've a long way to go and a lot of improving to do and I think we're capable of it.
“Certainly the last day I don't think we performed that well. We performed well enough but it certainly wasn't our best game. And certainly, as I said before, it's just about driving it on for the next day.”
The memory of their 2014 All-Ireland Semi-Final defeat to Tipperary will help focus their minds for the task at hand.
Three years ago they also came into the game on the crest of a wave after winning the Munster title only to drown unceremoniously in Croke Park, and Ellis is determined they won’t make the same mistakes this time around.
“2014 was such a big win, it was, at the time it was huge,” he says. “But when we look back on 2014 now as a player I only think about the game in Croke Park when we lost to Tipperary.
“We have a lot of young players in the panel who have never even lost a championship game for Cork and we've a lot of players who have been there, done that, and we're all fully aware that when you're looking back over the year it's what happens from now on that will matter. It's all about what's next, not what we've done.
“The celebrations this time around were more muted than before because fellas were fully aware that it's about the All-Ireland. With all due respect to the Munster Championship, the championship really starts now.”