Richard Stakelum: ‘It’s real spit-on-the-hands stuff. Not for faint hearts’

Richard Stakelum: ‘It’s real spit-on-the-hands stuff. Not for faint hearts’
Richie Stakelum, former Tipperary hurler, at Kilmacud Crokes hurling training wall. ‘There’s a deep-seated fear that this crowd across the border have Tipp’s number,’ cautions Stakelum. Picture: Moya Nolan

Richard Stakelum spent the Tipperary-Wexford semi-final next to his brother, Pat.

All well and good, until Tipp began chipping away at Wexford’s lead, with time running out. Tension mounted.

“He goes to every match under the sun,” says Richard, “But with three minutes to go and Tipp coming back, he got up and said to me, ‘I can’t take this, I have to go’.”

“‘You’re joking me?’ I said.

“‘I can’t take it,’ he said.

“‘You won’t need a ticket for the final, so,’ I said. ‘How are you going to stick the All-Ireland if you couldn’t stick today?’”

The confidence was well-founded. Stakelum has been living in Dublin since 1981. He keeps an eye on what’s happening back in Borrisoleigh, but that’s not the same as being at home. Do exiles revert to (county) type on the days of big games, though?

They certainly find themselves going back to their roots on the days of big games, I know that. You’re as wound up as you would be when you were living at home.

“Certainly, the semi-final just gone by was one of the most emotional of emotional roller-coasters. The last time I felt like that about a game was back in 2010, when Tipperary stopped Kilkenny’s drive for five in that year’s All-Ireland final.

“There was a small crowd, really, of Tipperary people at this year’s semi-final. My understanding is that only around 15,000 tickets were sold in Tipperary, while Wexford, who have outstanding supporters anyway, sold 35,000 tickets.

“But when Tipperary had their backs to the wall and started coming back . . . it was guttural, what was coming from the Tipp support, in terms of emotion. I would always say — genuinely — that there’s nobody like Cork people to shout at matches, but I never experienced anything like the Tipp-Wexford game.

“I’m not excluding myself, by the way. I got hugely emotional when they came back, as shown with my exchange with the brother. Certainly, on the big days, I think you revert to what you were as a young fella, maybe.”

Some matches become touchstones, and some don’t. During the week, Stakelum popped up on the RTÉ documentary ‘The Game,’ about the 1987 Munster final replay that ended Tipp’s famine. That game became a touchstone. How about this year’s semi-final?

“If you looked at Tipperary at the beginning of the year, the way they performed in the early rounds of the Munster championship in particular, I didn’t see that performance coming. The two games against Limerick and Laois were more like what we’d seen in the earlier part of the year, so I was concerned, certainly, going into the Wexford game.

But in big games you need your big players to step up and produce, and you’d have to say, against Wexford, the Mahers, in particular, really stood up. The bigger the gauntlet thrown down, the better they performed. Noel McGrath the same.

“I’d give Tipperary a better chance against Kilkenny than against Limerick, by the way. I don’t know if Tipp would have been able for Limerick’s athleticism and speed, but Kilkenny are different. Neighbour against neighbour, more man on man — it’s no place for faint hearts; it’s real spit-on-the-hands stuff and go at it.

“In that context, I’d give Tipperary a good chance, because there are players in key areas who won’t shirk that. I’d have been far more fearful if Tipp played Limerick.”

Stakelum brings a clear eye to Kilkenny. He was in Anthony Daly’s backroom when the Clare native managed Dublin, seeing the stripey men up close and personal. Then again, he points out that there are no huge secrets with Kilkenny.

“It’s easy to evaluate them, because what you see is what you get. Brian Cody talks about the spirit and the work ethic, and it’s drilled into them. Players have roles and they carry out those roles.

“For the Limerick-Kilkenny game, I got a ticket up in the Davin, and, at first, I wasn’t sure of how good it was, because I was behind the goal; but for the game in question, it was absolutely ideal, because I got to see how Cody set up his team.

From the word go . . . I think it was Tom Morrissey got the ball around the left-half-back spot early on and the Kilkenny players turned him back towards his own goal, almost like a rugby game.

“Have they changed? They have. Seven or eight years ago, they didn’t care how they put the ball up the field, because they had players everywhere who could win the ball, no matter how it came to them. Now, they’ve modernised a bit: they’re saying, ‘hold on, we’ll work it through the lines a bit, hold possession’.

“But they also have an iconic player in TJ Reid. He might not have scored from play the last day, but he was immense. Central to everything.

“That’s the way they play; they’re completely selfless. That’s the hallmark of a Kilkenny team, along with the savage work ethic. When you see TJ Reid getting a ‘man of the match’ award without scoring from play, that proves it, because that’s certainly not the norm.”

Yet other teams can’t match that work ethic. How can Kilkenny get their players to outwork opponents?

“Yes, it’s the six million dollar question. One thing: I believe, deep in the Kilkenny psyche, that they believe they’re better than everybody else. This has worked for them for the last generation and a half, say, and the players Brian Cody will pick will be players who can execute that.

“Other counties may simply not be able to find players who are willing to do that, or who are able to do that. On the other hand, Brian Cody has a very clear template for what players coming onto his team must be able and willing to do.

“If there are Kilkenny players who don’t fit that template, then they don’t last, and it’s no more complicated than that. Those players who come onto the panel either sign up to what’s required or they don’t, and if they don’t, they either don’t last or they’re not invited into the panel in the first place.”

Well, Stakelum mentioned the Kilkenny psyche. What about the Tipperary psyche? In that documentary, Stakelum referred to that barren period of the 1970s, when Tipp couldn’t get past the first round of the Munster championship most years.

I don’t think young people — or young players — could grasp that time, when Tipp couldn’t win a match. And the longer it went on, the worse it got.

“The Tipp psyche is different, as well. Tipp don’t put titles back-to-back, unless you go back to 1964-5; there may be a more cavalier approach. Looking at the players, someone like John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer is an example. He’ll get scores that will amaze the crowd, but he may not be a classical Kilkenny player, say — and all the better for that. I think the Tipp psyche got a huge boost from the Wexford win, because there would have been worries about their legs, and the tactical challenges, and the win helped Tipperary supporters find their voice.

“Now, genuine Tipperary supporters won’t be thumping their chests on Sunday, saying it’s won, because there’s a deep-seated fear that this crowd across the border have Tipp’s number. I think there’ll be a level of confidence and swagger among the Tipp crowd coming up, but you won’t have to scratch too deep to find people saying, ‘I’m not that sure, but I hope we’ll do it’.”

Because counties can fall into a spiral like Tipp’s in the 1970s, it’s not surprising Stakelum favours the modern round-robin system.

“The debate goes over and back, but while I wasn’t in Parnell Park the night Dublin beat Galway this year, I’m still close to a lot of the lads who are involved. Anthony (Daly) was at the game and said it was incredible — but he pointed out that in our time, we never really had a night like that in Parnell Park.

We had great nights at other venues, but he said it was the best night ever in Parnell Park, and other people from the club who were there said the same to me.

“If you didn’t have the round robin, you wouldn’t have a night like that. Eventually, it was a disappointing year for Dublin, getting caught in Portlaoise, but sin scéal eile. But the night in Wexford Park, Kilkenny-Wexford and nobody knowing what the results meant, those are great nights for everybody. I know people talk about the impact on club fixtures, but take Dublin — there’s a fixture list and that doesn’t change. There’s no deviation. We played our 11th league game last week and we have two rounds of the championship played. The next round is September 7, and we know when the quarter, semi, and finals are to be played.”

By the way, is chez Stakelum in Dublin going to be inundated this weekend with arrivals from Borrisoleigh?

“I’m after calls from two Stakelums already this morning, preparing the way,” he says. “The family might joke with me, saying, ‘Are you fully back with us now, or are you still away?’

“But, in fairness, after the semi-final, Pat said to them, ‘I can assure you, folks, he’s fully back.”

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