The John ‘Tweek’ Griffin interview: 'Every young Irish person deserves the opportunity to play hurling'

First time John ‘Tweek’ Griffin travelled to hurl for Kerry, he couldn’t believe it when players headed for the pub the night before. But over a fiercely committed 15-year career, he saw improvements, a new ambition, the melting away of some old divisions, and even a little glory. He drove much of that progress himself, making a few enemies along the way. But when he retired last year, to modest fanfare, he knew he had given the jersey all he could.

“This is the story of ‘Gooch’ and ‘Tweek’, two 33-year-old Kerrymen whose inter-county careers overlapped for 13 years. They retired within six weeks of each other… The departure of ‘Gooch’ transcended GAA and indeed sport… It’s different for Griffin, affectionately known as ‘Tweek’, who hurled for Kerry between 2003 and last year. His retirement, announced in an email from Kerry PRO, John O’Leary, last Friday, drew little media reaction.”

- Martin Breheny, Irish Independent, May 24, 2017

Eight months have passed. Colm Cooper is a columnist and pundit, his life story a bestselling book. He won a county final and had a testimonial that got the country talking. He remains centre stage.

John Griffin is teaching in Watergrasshill in Cork. He has made a first foray into business. He drew a county final, broke a thumb and missed the replay. A winning Kerry captain, a midfield general, he is respected and admired in the Kingdom’s hurling strongholds. But the nation has not sought his opinion.

A pity. Because John Griffin doesn’t want to tell you about what he missed out on or what he is owed.

Rather, he wants you to know how much he did get out of hurling, once he got past the frustrations.

It was plain in his retirement statement last May, in the plea to hurlers who can resist the lure of the green and gold.

“I would like to say to any young player, if you are good enough for Kerry, make yourself available, work hard, be ambitious and enjoy what it has to offer.”

In his enthusiasm for the game and pride in what he gave and was given, you can tell how much it meant; that beautiful half hour in Parnell Park when everything came together and made sense.

Though you can sense the ache in him too. And appreciate just how much he’d have relished centre stage.

A very final curtain

The Gooch thing wouldn’t have dawned on him only for the article.

“There were a good few messages coming through that morning. ‘Did you see the paper?’ I hadn’t a clue.

“Obviously, I did give everything for 15 years. I wasn’t floating in and out. I tried to get as much out of myself as I could.

“Am I going to get any more out of it, promotional stuff, books, I’m not. It’s just the lie of the land. That’s life. It’s not something I’m going to think about or worry about.

“I will say, I made a lot of friends with lads from other counties, the lower levels, and the effort some of them put in is as much as any of the high-profile players. And it’s probably very final when those fellas retire.

“But good luck to Gooch, one of the greatest footballers of all time. He had the transition into The Sunday Game and other things. He works hard anyway with the bank.

“But I think I was very lucky to be a Kerry hurler. The last couple of years were great.

“Playing in Division 1, that was enough for me.”

More than a clubman

To calculate how much one wild April afternoon in Parnell Park meant, you’d have to go right back to the start.

Although there is a clue even before the coffee is poured and the tape turned on.

“Whereabouts in Tipp are you from?”

“Nenagh direction… Templederry.”

“Ah yeah, the Kenyons. Gearóid Ryan….”

This is a man plugged into hurling’s mainframe.

There’s another clue in the state of his left thumb. The cast just off, the pins not long in. A Bennett fracture.

Of course he came back on, catching whatever way. It hurt more to be helpless for the replay, Lixnaw losing by three points to Ballyduff.

John Griffin first cycled to the hurling field in Lixnaw three weeks after his twin brother Thomas made a debut and a few years after older brother Gerald had beaten a path.

“A huge thing, that first time.” They were eight. John was already Tweek, since first class. For no known reason.

And that’s what we ought to call him. Since there are colleagues, teammates, friends who might read this and have no clue who ‘John’ is.

Tweek was beguiled by hurling and football, but hurling first.

He and Thomas played in Croke Park in 1996, aged 12. The mini games between the All-Ireland semi-finals, Limerick against Antrim, Wexford and Galway.

“Michael Coleman, George O’Connor, all those. Yourself and your brother running out at Croke Park, it was nice.”

Parish leagues, Féile, underage, the gable wall of the house. Hashtag hurling loves us.

“We had a fantastic principal in the school, John McAuliffe, who only retired last year. The likes of Paul Galvin, Eamonn Fitzmaurice, many more went through his hands. A driving force.”

Tweek won three Kerry U21 titles and has three senior medals. The Kerry senior championship is a tough school, but not, he promises, the crucible of hatchetry it can be portrayed as.

“It’s painted that way sometimes. There might have been certain incidents down through the years and people always loved telling the stories. And there have been some great characters involved in Kerry hurling.

“The thing about it is the rivalry. Eight clubs. And when you’re constantly playing each other all the time, familiarity… I suppose it leads to a little... edge in games sometimes.

“But that rivalry keeps clubs going and keeps the GAA driving on.

“Hurling means so much to so many people in north Kerry. People don’t realise.”

The club is enough for a lot of them, but Tweek was ambitious and ready to work hard.

“I often said it in Kerry dressing rooms, and some of the boys in the club wouldn’t be too happy about it, that the Kerry jersey meant as much to me as the club jersey.”

Green and bold

“The majority of the panel, loose men from the bogs and forests of North Kerry, stalked down the main street in Malahide laughing with excitement. The sea air got the better of some. The ‘disco music’ in Gibney’s overpowered others. Limbs well loosened, a few went in for a look. A few more followed. They weren’t looking for long. A pint was ordered, followed by another. By 8.30pm throats were loose too, and limbs were loose like Elvis. Having had the experience of travelling and preparing and playing with the minor footballers a year earlier, this was an eye-opener for me. Drinking wouldn’t have been contemplated… I left wondering how much we’d be beaten by the following day.”

- In My Own Words, Paul Galvin

Jimmy Cooney’s watch and Offaly’s Croke Park sit-in saved them the following day. The All-Ireland U21B final with Kildare wasn’t played. But Kerry hurling duty opened eyes as streetwise as Galvin’s.

“I have to say, those were low points for me too,” sighs Tweek.

“My first ever senior hurling game with Kerry, we went to play Longford and we stayed in Offaly. And we were hardly in the hotel when three or four lads were down to the bar and ready to go for the night.

“The away trips, London, Dublin. Night before a game, lads went out. And nobody batted an eyelid. I was shocked. I never went out the night before.

“On the morning of a match then you might get a fry.

“But it would be unthinkable now. Lads are foam rolling, can’t get enough water the night before a game, eating well.”

Half-hearted preparation wasn’t the only penance. Division 3 hurling. Christy Ring beatings. The struggles to get a manager. “Players have had to train on their own. I took training a few times. That’s tough going.”

He’d like to think he was one of those keeping it going, when nothing was happening for them. Cajoling. Advising. Pulling together a team holiday. Though influence didn’t always win friends.

“There are people I fell out with. That did hurt me a little. I might have been seen as a spokesperson for the group but I was disappointed when a lot of the blame was directed towards me when other players were much more vocal and unhappy with certain things.”

But he was hurt most by those happy to go with the flow.

“The thing that really annoyed me was the lack of ambition of some lads who were happy doing as little as they could and not wanting to play at the highest level.

“I’m so glad to see that things have become a lot more professional.

“There’s a nutritionist involved, physical trainers. In fairness, Kerry GAA have been great, whatever we’ve needed.

“It’s there in the Kerry hurling fraternity that the footballers are getting everything. But you have to earn that respect as well. If you see a team putting in a serious effort, working hard, I think you’ll get that respect back and you’ll get looked after.

“I think that’s what happened the last few years. And lads have started to get that respect.”

Meyler

John Meyler was in charge for Kerry’s seismic modern result, the Munster Championship shock of Waterford in 1993. And he was back in 2010, to raise a bar that had sagged.

Tweek saw close up that ability to get at the best in people,

“He was my lecturer first, in CIT. Lectured me in management. One of the first projects he gave us was: ‘Coaching, is it an art or a science?’

“He gave me a great break in 2006, playing me in the Fitzgibbon Cup team which had John Gardiner and Michael Fennelly. It didn’t matter where I was from, he told me I was good enough and deserved to be there. The year after I captained CIT in the Fitzgibbon.”

Tweek would love to see more Kerry students use the Fitz to take a gulp of the rarified air at the top level.

“To be exposed to those environments in training and games. You’re trying to breed more of a professional, ambitious fella that’s going to be really serious about his hurling.

“There are some really serious guys in Kerry now. But there might only be a handful. You want all of them to be like that.”

Getting across the line

Meyler’s guidance helped break their Christy Ring Cup duck in 2011. And layers of seriousness were added until Eamonn Kelly arrived in 2014.

“None of us had heard of him. But he created something special over two years. We were never as tight. Team bonding weekends, full accountability, leadership groups, a psychologist.

“Before, you’d have fellas pulling from the group. Issues between lads. That rivalry between clubs. But a spirit built.

“The first year, we win Division 2, but lose the play-off. And lose to Kildare in the Christy Ring final.

“I was dropped for it. Tough to take but I still believe the best team went out on the field that day. But we went back to old habits of playing as individuals.

“And then 2015 was special. The night we met in the Devon Inn Hotel, Eamonn was close to walking away over a few things and everything was thrown on the table that night. We knew what we had been doing wasn’t good enough. And things changed.”

He was captain when they overwhelmed Derry by 11 points in the Christy Ring final. Lifted the cup in the Hogan Stand. Ticked all kinds of boxes.

And yet that wasn’t the highlight. Because a bigger stage called.

Having won Division 2 again, they faced Antrim, bottom of Division 1, in Parnell Park. Another play-off after three near-misses.

Up for grabs trips to places like Ennis, or the chance to bring Limerick and Wexford to Tralee. To break the glass he’d always pressed his nose against.

“We were nine points down at half-time after playing against a gale. Then came out in the second half and it was probably one of the best halves of hurling we’ve been involved in.

“John Egan, who gave great service for years, came on and got the winner that day. I was so delighted for him.

“Two years of work had built up to this and we’d finally got over the line.

“You knew we were going to Division 1.”

A taste of it

He could get used to this.

“Tom O’Connor from Kelliher’s garage rang a few weeks after we won the Christy Ring, wanting to sponsor me a car.

“I travelled to London with Kerry GAA on a fundraising trip. I remember sitting in the bar in Cork Airport having a pint with Mick Galwey, the Bomber Liston, Pat Spillane.

“I remember sitting across the road from St. Paul’s Cathedral talking to Pat about Kerry hurling. We travelled to Orlando in November and I was only home when I got a phonecall to see would I go on the All-Star trip to Austin, Texas.”

He notes, incidentally, that John Fogarty, of this parish, appeared to enjoy that trip as much as anybody. But Tweek enjoyed it more than most.

“There I am in a bar in Texas surrounded by some of the best players ever to play the game. An exhibition game on the Sunday and I’m picking up the Bonner Maher.

“Did I deserve it? Yes I did. I don’t know how that sounds but for the effort I put in, year after year, for the number of balls I struck and continue to strike off the gable of my house at home, for all that effort I deserved it.

“I worked hard enough for it and I will make no apologies for that.”

End of the road

He knocked one good year out of it. Wins over Offaly and Laois in the league. Within four points of Limerick. Division 1 status preserved with another trouncing of Laois at a buoyant Austin Stack Park.

Tweek hit three points on the historic day Kerry beat Carlow in their first Leinster Championship outing.

You wouldn’t notice the miles clocking up, on days like those, at least until the injuries piled up in 2017.

“I used sit in the car straight after school. Even though there were other Kerry lads based in Cork I would still travel on my own to be down for an hour before training just to make sure I was loosened out and ready to go at seven.

“I just remember one Sunday evening before I went back to Cork and Mom said to me ‘You’ve had your time’. She could see I was finding it a little hard. I needed someone to tell me that and she was right. I didn’t want to be seen to be hanging in there either.

“It had been in my head but I remember it was clear to me that was it.

“I had grown tired too of saying ‘no’ to wedding, stags and other family events. It goes with the territory but I’m 33 now.”

His exit didn’t go entirely unnoticed on the main stage. “It was a little overwhelming some of the messages I got. Tomás Ó Sé, Anthony Cunningham, Liam Sheedy and others I had crossed paths with.

“For me, being a Kerry hurler, it really meant a lot.”

Don’t leave it to chance

Way these things normally roll, the answers shorten around 20 minutes in, you glance at the watch and promise just one or two more.

But an hour with Tweek and we’re only turning onto roads to travel.

How so many of those four-in-a-row minor footballers were “brilliant hurlers” at 14 or 15.

Hopes that senior hurlers can be hothoused in places like Killarney, or from the Tralee Parnells club he helped reform when a GAA development officer.

There’s football. He captained Kerry Vocational Schools to an All-Ireland final, ran out in Croke Park with Finuge.

And structures. He likes the second tier group format, but cautions it will be years yet before dreams of a Munster return is reality.

“Everyone else is improving too. And there’s no shortcut.

It’s all interlinked; development squads, clubs, schools, the work at minor and U21.”

He’s impressed with Kerry manager Fintan O’Connor and hopeful for hyped young clubmate Shane Conway.

And he’ll help this year with the Cork-based seniors and the U14 Development Squad.

Already giving back for what he got out of it.

“I played with some great hurlers, much better than me, played in all the divisions, made friends in nearly every county in Ireland through hurling and played a game for so long that I loved so much.

“How lucky was I to be a Kerry hurler?”

Not that he agrees such privilege should be left to chance, or vagaries of geography.

“Every young person in Ireland deserves the opportunity to play the game of hurling no matter where they are from.

“The GAA must do more to ensure this happens.”

Win Killarney spa break with Balance Expo

The Balance Expo, at the INEC in Killarney next Sunday, January 14, is John ‘Tweek’ Griffin’s first business venture.

A collaboration with three-time Gaelic football All-Ireland winner Donnchadh Walsh and former county hurling teammate James Flaherty, the trio aimed to create Ireland’s first event to incorporate health, fitness, nutrition and sports.

Juggling long commutes to training with a busy work life gave Griffin his own balance issues, but he insists this Expo is for everyone, not only athletes. “We’re so busy in our lives, whether you’re an elite sportsperson or a business person or a parent at home, we’re all trying to find balance. But it’s nearly impossible at times to achieve it.

“The whole aim of this is to help people find balance in their lives.”

Derek McGrath, Kieran Donaghy and Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh will talk. There’s cookery author and entrepreneur Roz Purcell, athlete and food writer Derval O’Rourke, fitness experts Siobhan O’Hagan, Joe O’Connor and Shane Finn, as well as performance psychologist Gerry Hussey, and RTÉ presenter and writer Mary Kennedy. There will be panel discussions and a host of exhibitors from the sport, fitness, health and nutrition industries.

“We also hope it will be a fun family day, where people can stroll around and see the exhibitors as well as listen to the speakers. There will be lots of kids’ activities. And we’ll have yoga sessions, and a virtual sports simulator,” says Griffin, who recently availed of the GPA’s leadership programme.

“I was on it with the likes of likes of Brendan Maher and Damien Cahalane and it was really enjoyable to learn from like-minded people and develop communication and leadership skills.

“Myself and the two lads work well together. Donnchadh is extremely organised while James is business-orientated. I’m not, but I like to listen to people and enjoy developing people.”

The Balance Expo is looking for a Brand Ambassador for 2018, someone with a passion for supporting the ideals of fitness and general wellbeing. Share your story at the Balance Expo and win a Spa Break in Killarney.


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