Nerves may have held him back from being a Tipperary great, but few players are remembered more fondly than the hilarious Clonoulty-Rossmore man, Joe Hayes. As he recalls the great battles with Cork ahead of Sunday’s clash, it’s obvious few players enjoyed their hurling more either, writes John Fogarty.
September 10, 2001. The night of Tipperary’s All-Ireland final win over Galway. Joe Hayes arrives into the lobby of the then Burlington Hotel to the same applause that had greeted the players a couple of hours earlier. A firm fan favourite going back to his playing days, the rapturous greeting is no surprise but delight soon turns to curiosity about what Hayes, with that roguish look, is carrying under his arm. From a plastic bag, soil spills out onto the floor before he slaps it up onto the reception desk, hands over a €5 note to the night porter, and announces, “That’s for Deccie!” to the cheers of everyone in the vicinity.
The Deccie he is referring to is Declan Ryan, his friend and Clonoulty-Rossmore clubmate who earlier in the day claimed his third All-Ireland medal, each of them having been achieved in different decades. Hayes knows what most people have been guessing: The game is to be the last in the blue and gold for 31-year-old Ryan. So, Hayes, in inimitable fashion, has decided to commemorate the passing of a great career.
“When the match was over, I ended up on the pitch and I saw this square sod of turf,” he explains. “I looked around at first to see if there were any of the Croke Park hobnobs about and then picked it up. I must have had a bag with me because I put the sod into it. Some guard or somebody said it wasn’t theft because it wasn’t attached to anything or something. Anyway, I kept it and said to myself I was going to give it to Declan. I knew he was retiring after the game and we being clubmates and everything it would be a nice memento for him. He ended up sowing it into his lawn at home and he put up a little goalpost at two ends and his boys Jack and Tom got a great kick out of it.
“I remember I put it in over the (hotel) desk and they weren’t too pleased. I gave it to the night porter to deliver it to the room and I’d say Declan didn’t know what hit him when he saw it. He probably thought he had one too many when he saw the sod of turf in his room but I told the story to him the following day.”
If you know Joe Hayes, you know it’s typical of the devilment the two-time All-Ireland winner gets up to. If you’ve watched Up For The Final when Tipperary have had cause to travel to Croke Park in September, you know the story is par for the course with Hayes. On Pat Fox’s Laochra Gael programme last month, Hayes couldn’t help but jibe his old colleague about his goal in the 1991 Munster final replay win over Cork — “I think it was actually I gave him the ball myself in, if you don’t mind me saying so. He didn’t have a lot to do, only tap it in but he did that anyway. We don’t like to give him too much praise either. He gets carried away with himself, you know.”
Hayes just loves a laugh. He jokingly opens the conversation with a mention of Prince Charles’ trip to Kilkenny last week. “I heard he asked Brian Cody to see the Liam MacCarthy Cup but Brian had to tell him it was up the road in Tipperary.”
Mention the giant mural of him on the wall of the Porter House pub in Tipperary Town and his eyes light up before delivering almost deadpan: “A great friend, Eamonn Ryan, owns it. That he would honour me and bypass Nicky English and Alan Quinlan in their own hometown, I feel very privileged. I do believe people do genuflect when they pass it now but there’s no need for it. I’m humble enough.”
A joker he might be but as a player Hayes is no court jester. He still feels sore about how Ryan was vilified despite having beaten Cork in consecutive years and claiming back-to-back Munster titles. “I really feel the people of Tipperary didn’t treat him with much respect. The phone calls that went into Tipp FM, they were scandalous and outrageous and he got very badly treated and, well, for me it was a poor reflection on a number of people in Tipperary.
“Declan Ryan is still Declan Ryan and probably contributed to this Tipperary revival now more than anybody else because Declan did the donkey work. Dare we mention donkeys with a Cork game on the horizon, I suppose, but Declan found out who his friends were. Tipp have moved on now and Declan has as well.”
The recent criticism of Tipperary in the wake of the heavy Division 1 final defeat to Galway also upset him. “I read John Mullane and Ger Loughnane coming out and saying Tipperary believe their own hype but we didn’t write any of it. Ger Loughnane wasn’t very complimentary to Tipperary but I’d just like to remind Ger Loughnane that Tipperary have won two All-Irelands in the past six years. We could argue we were hard done by in 2009 and unfortunate in 2014 but our record against Kilkenny isn’t too bad at all. There’s not much wrong with this present Tipperary team and I think some of the commentators criticised them too harshly after the league final but that’s typical for Tipperary over the years.”
However, Hayes is and remains a hoot. He may not have seen as much game-time as he would have liked during his Tipperary career but he was a part of the Babs Keating revolution. In that epochal summer 30 years ago, he started the drawn Munster final against Cork having been an also-ran in the semi-final draw with Clare. “The first day against Clare, I don’t think I got the jersey. I might have got something but it was a different colour. That was a draw and, in fairness to Babs, he said, ‘If anyone wants to play the next day they need to show in training’ and my form came right and I started. I got on fine and we had the match won with 10 or 15 minutes to go. It was exciting to realise we were going to play Cork in a Munster final because I had been at the ’84 final and it was something else.”
Hayes broke his thumb first day out in Thurles and did not make a playing contribution on his county’s unforgettable famine-breaking day in Killarney. “My great friend Jim Cashman, well, he didn’t do it deliberately but it was broken. It’s something I regret because Killarney was one of the great days. Things had gone well for me but I knew something was up at half-time when I couldn’t tie my laces. That was the start of a great rivalry.”
Tipperary captain Richard Stakelum’s acceptance speech captured the significance of the day but Hayes claims the players, something like Con Houlihan’s captivating line about missing the 1990 World Cup hullabaloo because he was in Italy at the tournament, didn’t realise what they had achieved in bridging the gap to 1971. “We were all too young and foolish to appreciate it. It’s when you go to matches today and watch the supporters and see what hurling means to them. We only togged out and went out to play the match. It was great but you really don’t know what it means to people until you retire from the game. It was said afterwards that when we lost to Galway in the semi-final that we over-celebrated but Galway were a very good team and Munster took a lot out of us.”
Hayes was a starter the following year when Tipperary beat Cork for a second time in the provincial final but on this occasion in the Gaelic Grounds. “I had a great friend, Jimmy Morrissey, who came to that match with another friend of mine John Goold. We were very excited after beating Cork in that game but there was a patrol car waiting outside the grounds and this man recognised me. I said, ‘Any chance of a lift?’ And he asked me where we wanted to go. I said Durty Nelly’s (in Bunratty) and he put the three of us in the car and off we went. He then said, ‘Lads, what time would you like to be collected at?’ I said, ‘Well, if you’re not too busy, maybe 8.30’. He duly collected us at 8.30. If it was today, there would be appearances above in front of the public accounts committee! Anyway, we didn’t do any harm to anybody.”
Hayes had claimed a league title earlier in the year but it was to end in disappointment as Galway and Noel Lane haunted them again. “It was a funny match. Galway completely closed us down and it was a windy day. Johnny Leahy scored what I thought was a great goal but it was disallowed. Another (Gerry) Kirwan man from Offaly, a relation of the referee now (Diarmuid), I don’t know how he could have disallowed it. I think that decision changed the game.”
Hayes moved to centre-forward in 1989 and held his own there until the semi-final win over Galway when he was substituted before he came on in the final as Antrim were disposed of with ease. He returned to midfield the following season only for an unlikely star, Mark Foley, to lead Cork to an unlikely Munster title. “Cork pulled a fast one on us when they came to Thurles and they took our crown and went on to win the All-Ireland in typical Cork fashion. Anyone thinking this Sunday is going to be easy for Tipp just need to look back to 1990 and see how we struggled and Cork won it from nowhere.”
Revenge was Tipperary’s the following year but only after a replay and a second-half comeback from nine points down in the 44th minute. Hayes made a telling contribution but only after coming on as an early second-half substitute. “I don’t think I should have been dropped. I hurled well down in Cork — I know that for a fact. It was the first game I didn’t start in three or four years but, lucky enough, I was on early and my friend Jimmy (Morrissey) brought this flag to the match with the words ‘Bring On Joe’ on it. He put it up at the Killinan End. A Cork fella shouted at him to take it down and he took it down. The Cork fella asked ‘Who’s this Joe?’ and Jimmy said, ‘He’s a friend of mine’. The final whistle went and the Cork fella turned to Jimmy and said, (putting on a Cork accent) ‘By God, Joe wasn’t so bad at all’. I got more satisfaction out of that match than any other match because I did feel I was hard done by. While I didn’t play much else in the year — I only played five minutes against Galway — my best was good enough against Cork.
“The memory everyone has of it is the man in the wheelchair being wheeled around the middle of the field (after Fox’s goal). Could you imagine it today? All the people in the green jackets in Croke Park would go delirious. (Dermot) ‘The Mutt’ Crowe in Tipperary Town was doing the stewarding in Thurles that day and instead of keeping the people off the field he was cutting the wire behind the goal to let them in! It’s maintained he had a set of pliers!”
Hayes went on to win another National League medal in 1994 but injury ruled him out of the championship and his Tipperary career petered out. Known for low, quick deliveries, he admits part of the reason for that reputation was the jitters. “I would have been very nervous and maybe didn’t have that belief in myself. When the ball came to me, I wanted to get rid of it quickly and often I pulled on it. I did an awful lot of ground hurling maybe more out of fear because I didn’t want to make a mistake. The easiest way of avoiding that was striking it on the ground, but then, for me, the best way was to get the ball as soon as possible into the forward line.”
As a player, Hayes was quoted as saying Babs Keating was something of a father figure to him. At the same time, he knew he tested his manager’s patience with his devil-may-care attitude. “You know what, life is so short and for me you have a bit of fun and you can’t take things too seriously. If I had the years back, maybe I would have trained that small bit harder and go to bed that small bit earlier but when you’re young, you’re young. With the pressures of the match, you had to let yourself go a bit. There were some excellent characters on that Tipperary team. People might think I was always up for the craic but they were able as well. We just got on well together. We’re still very friendly.
“Babs was great and Donie Nealon and Theo English, they all had a vision. They were legends of the ’60s. Donie Nealon was the greatest man to give a pep speech before going out onto the pitch. He’s a tremendous human being. They used to call me aside now and again but I wouldn’t hold it against them now. It was all done in good faith.”
Three years after that second league medal, Hayes was working the oracle for Monaghan hurling having been stationed as a garda there as part of tighter border controls in the wake of the mad cow disease outbreak. “I knew nothing about it or the prevention of it. All I was doing was helping Monaghan to win their first hurling All-Ireland. I remember the first question I was asked by a journalist was from a fella from Northern Sound. He said, ‘What’s your ambition for the year?’ I said, ‘I’d like to get out of whatever division we’re in!’ I hadn’t a clue what position we were in.”
Nicky English and John Leahy travelled to assist with training. The late Joe McDonagh, GAA president at the time, helped out when Hayes organised a fundraising golf classic. As he tried to emulate the “look the part, be the part” philosophy espoused by Keating in Tipperary, Hayes linked up with a local pub as sponsor. “I was the type of manager that didn’t respect the players too much. If they were drinking pints of Guinness in Terry’s I didn’t mind too much but if they were drinking them elsewhere I did! We promoted Terry (Gleeson) as good as we could but he promoted us better and he bought us jumpers, ties, and everything. I tried to copy what Babs did but in a smaller way. We had outfits and they were smashing and I got on great with the people of Monaghan. I regarded it as part of my job too because part of being a guard is to get on with people.”
Monaghan crushed Meath in the final, Hayes himself scoring three points. Alas, his outspokenness cost him the manager’s position soon after the Hogan Stand summit was reached.
“It was a great story in the sense that we won it, but hurling wasn’t seen in a good light by the Monaghan County Board and they didn’t do anything to help me. I had to do virtually everything on my own and since I left they have won no silverware. It’s 20 years now since then and I got as much of a kick out of winning that as I did winning any match I hurled. I’d say I’m the only manager in Ireland to have ever won an All-Ireland and be sacked immediately afterwards. That is a fact. I told the truth.”
After 24 years with An Garda Síochána, Hayes retired on medical grounds and emigrated to Portugal for seven years during the 2000s where he spent his time working in bars.
“I enjoyed it and made a lot of friends there. I’d be lying on the beach every day and when people said, ‘Joe, what do you do?’ I’d say, ‘I won the Lotto!’ I kind of got fed up with that life.”
Although he’s home regularly to see his 91-year-old mother and take in Tipperary games, he’s now settling into London where he works for a civil engineering company, Lorclon, owned by Tipperary natives Kevin Leahy and Michael O’Meara. Hayes holds a qualification in the field from college and feels renewed. “This is a complete new diversion in my life, now getting up at six o’clock every morning at 54 years of age and not coming home until seven.
“I’m playing catch-up at the moment but thank God my health is great and everything is going well for me. Usually, people work until they’re 60 but I’m doing it the other way around. The way I see it, I didn’t start working for the first time in my life until last January. I always wanted to go to London and thank God I got the opportunity.”
Will he return home anytime soon? “If I’m lucky enough to meet a nice, rich English lady, who knows?” he laughs.
A small bout of illness struck him down earlier this week but he hopes to be in Mackeys pub in Thurles Sunday lunchtime and meet up with old comrades, old acquaintances like Cork super-fan Cyril ‘The Bird’ Kavanagh. and old rivals such as Teddy McCarthy. “I do remind Teddy I gave him a hard time in Thurles in ’91.”
His GP and confidante Dr Con Murphy is also on the must-meet list. “Con has always been good to me. I’ve such admiration for him.
“He’s someone I can sit down [with] and tell him how I feel, my ups and downs, and how my life is progressing. He’s someone who truly listens and gives advice and he’s everything that Cork is. You know, Cork has given me a lot.”
The joy, the laughs, Hayes has given back plenty too.
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