Kilkenny is as tribal a rivalry as it comes for John Leahy but his outlook on hurling now is more holistic, writes John Fogarty.
Fifteen championship seasons with Tipperary and John Leahy faced Kilkenny once. Slim pickings when you consider tomorrow will be the ninth time for Brendan Maher, Pádraic Maher and Noel McGrath, just one less for Seamus Callanan.
Leahy isn’t envious — wasn’t Brian Cody never afforded the opportunity to experience the rivalry as a player? — and oh how the 1991 All-Ireland final lives long in his memory. Not for the game, which was largely forgettable, but the occasion and all that was at stake.
Mullinahone being 10 kilometres away from Callan and the counties’ border half that, Kilkenny was the only true derby for Leahy. Some of his family were in Callan and he worked from Kilkenny city in United Beverages at the time (he still does for part of the week in his position as a drugs education officer with the HSE).
“We grew up hearing about Tipp-Kilkenny in the ’60s and every supporter wanted Tipp and Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final. There is something special about that and Cork in the Munster final.
“The people in Mullinahone at the time, it was only when I retired that I realised how much it would have meant to them. When I was playing, Lance Vaughan, one of the local parishioners, called me over one day: ‘John, John, come here, come here, I want to say something to you.
"Now I want you to take this the right way. I am delighted you’re playing against Kilkenny but what I’m more delighted about is I never thought I’d see the day when Mullinahone’s name would be in the (match) programme for Tipperary senior hurling’.
“I see that pride now among parents when their son hits the ball or somebody from the parish. People think we in Mullinahone were spoilt for years with representation through me to Brian O’Meara to the Kellys and the Currans but it wasn’t always that way. We got the bragging rights in ’91, thankfully, and I know a lot of Mullinahone people went out in Callan the week after.”
It was a final Leahy admits “never came alive”, Michael Cleary finding the net with a mishit free that deflected off Liam Walsh’s hurley into the net giving Tipperary “a comfort”, as Leahy calls it, to see out the victory.
“You look at (Pat) Fox that day, I think there was a stat that he held the ball for 15 seconds, had five scores and was on the ball six times. I’m sure Kilkenny learned a lot from ’91 because they went on to win in ’92 and ’93 whereas we were a bit more seasoned.
His long association with Kilkenny would have given him insight into what makes its people tick but his knowledge of them is more acute thanks to his stints managing Carrickshock, Danesfort, Windgap and currently junior B club Carrigeen. How do they differ from his own Tipperary folk?
“In Tipperary, we’re really into our hurling but not really embedded in our club hurling. We’re Tipperary hurling supporters first. In Kilkenny, they’re club hurling supporters and Kilkenny hurling supporters. They may not have the same interest in the All-Ireland hurling championship when Kilkenny aren’t involved. I do believe Tipperary would have the same interest.
“I don’t know if many Kilkenny people go to club matches in Tipperary but I know a lot of Tipperary people that would go to club matches in Kilkenny. That’s the difference. In Kilkenny, you have Kieran’s, the CBS and their nurseries. Most young fellas walking down the street have a hurley.
“What amazes me, and it’s a credit to Kilkenny and Cody, is that they don’t get carried away with it. They don’t show it off in public. You look at young lads and not many of them are wearing the Kilkenny gear. They’d be on the minor and other underage panels but they’re not standing out because they’re wearing the same as everyone else. Whereas in Tipperary we do wear our colours a lot more, those who are on the county panels. Hurling is important in Kilkenny but it’s just as important for their hurlers not to get carried away.
“That’s something I think the Tipp public, we have battled with since the 60s. We have had exceptional teams. The 1989 and ‘91 teams were great, the 2001 team was good, they were knocking on the door a couple of years after 2010 but didn’t win again until 2016 and it’s another three years on now. There was talk in 2017 about two-in-a-row and that does rub off on players.
“We have this inner belief in Tipp and I know I had it and I’m sure it’s the same in Kilkenny and Cork that when you put it on you believe you’re going to win the All-Ireland no matter how good or bad you’re going. There’s an expectation with that and I don’t think Tipp have been able to handle that.”
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Leahy has seen first-hand how the unmitigated focus on hurling has benefitted Kilkenny. “We don’t hurl as much with our clubs as they do in Kilkenny. When you hear about Cody’s training sessions there’s a lot of games being played.
“The club players in Kilkenny are being coached by good hurlers. A lot of the Kilkenny team, their grandfathers and fathers or relations have won All-Irelands. Richie Power Sr would be embedded in the Carrickshock club — we’ve kinda gone away from our clubs. The natural talent in Kilkenny is not being lost
because it is being nurtured whereas if you don’t come from a traditional club in Tipp you can get lost.”
He has little time for development squads, which he feels raise the stakes too high for adolescents. “Every young lad needs hope whether it’s sport or life, but that hope of playing for Tipperary can be squashed at the age of 13, 14, 15 if you’re not making those development squads. And I have seen young lads dropped off them and they go into the depths of depression. They’re turning then against the GAA at that age and their self-esteem is not great. They’re being brought in too early.
“It now seems more important to be part of a development squad than your club. You play for your club and you want to win for your club and if you do well there should be a trial for county but when you’re in a development squad and you’re in there for so long and then you’re dropped you have been left beside your club and you’re going back there thinking you weren’t really that good.”
Leahy’s profession has taught him to watch out for the vulnerable. Taking over humble Carrigeen appealed to him because they are the essence of the GAA. But he knows there are frailties at the other end of the spectrum. He wonders just how enjoyable hurling is for the elite players.
He marvels, for instance, at Seamus Kennedy’s mental strength, how he had managed to cope with not being named in a Tipperary championship team this summer yet starting twice. But where is the fun, he asks?
“When I retired, hurling was my life and I wasn’t a player. It’s not that you’re not wanted but you’re not in demand anymore. I say to present day hurlers to hurl as long as they can because the day will come when you can’t so keep that option open whether you’re making a team or not, whether you get on with management or not.
“Anybody playing county has a gift, I believe. You get a couple of years and a lot of it is down to luck. Sunday is all about winning but you have to enjoy it too. A maximum of 40 players between the counties will play and what they will be doing other lads would die for. And what about the lads outside of the 26, the 14 or 15 others, who will get to tog out? If I was number 37 I don’t know if I’d bother going on Sunday.”
But he knows it’s no picnic either. He thinks of how John McGrath would have felt after being sent off against
Wexford. How he would be now had Tipperary not fought back to win. “I’m glad social media wasn’t around in 1997 when I missed that (goal) chance against Clare. I probably would have ignored it but there would have been a lot of it. In overcoming that I said to myself that at least I was there to miss it! That kind of gave me peace.
“Go back to ‘88 (final) and I had two or three wides and had a goal disallowed. I changed my hurley the week before and the hurley felt differently in my hand. Somebody on Sunday might make a difference in a good or a bad way and we might not know the background to it.
“Back in the day, where were games discussed? In the pub. The shit was probably cut out of us but it was left there. Now, it’s out there in the world being discussed in two minutes. No sooner will the game be finished on Sunday and journalists will have done reports about it.
“I used to love waking up on the Monday and looking forward to what was written in the national newspapers and then you’d wait for The Nationalist and The Tipperary Star on the Thursday to see what they wrote. Now, it’s instant and I don’t know if we can stop it because I think it’s gone too far. The game is scrutinised to death now.
“I had a lot of good and bad things written and said about me during the years. I imagine players are hearing some rubbish about themselves that they don’t need to hear and that’s bound to feed into their psyche. They’re more exposed to that expectation now. There are a lot of people who don’t want to see you getting on.
“I didn’t have a social media account and didn’t have to put up things every so often because I was doing something or had to say something. When a reporter rang, I would have appreciated it because don’t tell me somebody doesn’t like their name in a paper. Now you throw up a tweet and hope 100 people like it. There’s an expectation to say and do the right thing. The amount of followers you have now is important, be it on Instagram or Snapchat or whatever. There’s a popularity element.”
Leahy has spoken to the Irish Examiner before about how training has become the new addiction and maintains it is misconstrued as being healthy. “If we don’t pull back, burnout is going to be huge. You have to be able to listen to your body. I believe injuries are a way of telling you that you are training too hard and you need to stop.
It’s why he wants to see the GAA give summer back to the clubs. Games with their clubs are as good as a break for the county hurlers. “Players can’t go back to their clubs, they have no downtime, they can’t go back to play with the lads they were chaps with.”
For the overwhelming majority of the GAA’s adult men’s playing population, it would be a step closer to finding a balance. Turning 50 next month, Leahy has taken up triathlon, one of many sports now that have fixed calendars, unlike the GAA.
“Game-time in the best months is being taken away from the ordinary player. League games are not the same.”
He heard Tipperary trained in Carton House last week and wonders if the players would have benefited more from being within their communities for one of those nights. “We’re not the Premier League. We are a unique sport to Ireland, we are a culture, we are clubs. I got very lucky with Tipperary in between but what I say to young lads is I started with my club and
finished with my club. Every player is the same. We need to keep that because Tipperary and Kilkenny are renting these players from their clubs basically, so it’s important to look after them.”