It’s 30 years since Babs Keating guided his county to the All-Ireland that broke an 18-year famine. The man who for many symbolises the good and the grandiose of Tipperary hurling is as absorbing and outspoken as ever.
Sunny Castleknock on Thursday afternoon. Babs is home alone, he smiles, but not for long. In the space of an hour, his son Michael, a friend John Divilly, the photographer Moya, as well as a boiler technician, have all come and gone. The interview hardly skips a beat as the 75-year-old continues to talk while tending to the interludes. The only rider for agreeing to the interview is a lift to Heuston Station afterwards. How could we say no?
John Fogarty: You told me on the phone you never felt pressure like 1989. Why exactly?
Babs Keating: I felt pressure because I had started the supporters’ club. When you take money from anybody — and this was 30 years ago, maybe it has become more free-flowing since — you needed to give them value for it. And we had done that but without an All-Ireland. We had our hard luck stories.
In ‘87, we had tried to do what previous teams had tried to do and didn’t succeed (win an All-Ireland after a Munster final replay). I always remember Mick O’Dwyer using it as an excuse (in 1976) when they were caught on All-Ireland day - ‘it was a bridge too far’. When I got the job in ‘86, (Tommy) Barrett was the county secretary and (Michael) Lowry the chairman.
Barrett said to me, ‘Now you’re manager but we haven’t a shilling to buy a hurling ball’ because the county was drained paying for All-Ireland final in Thurles in ‘84. The county went into debt of well over a million, which was huge money for any county in those days. If we didn’t come back in ‘87, God knows what would have happened to Tipperary.
JF: But there was the obvious drive to bridge the gap to 1971.
BK: I had (Donie) Nealon and (Theo) English with me and the one advantage we had was we had soldered together for so many years. When I came onto the team in ‘63, they were well established and had won three All-Irelands. I joined them to win two more. We were all singing off the same hymnsheet.
There were no contradictions between anything Nealon or English were saying. If they were training the team a night on their own there was no contradiction. If you take (Pat) Fox’s situation, he was written off and I happen to meet him on the street in Tipperary in the autumn of ‘86. I asked him how he was fixed. ‘Ah, my knee is bolloxed,’ he said, ‘I’m finished’.
I asked him if he ever got it looked at and he said he didn’t. I said, ‘Do you mind if I make an appointment with Bill Quinlan for you?’ Bill cycled to school with me and he was the orthopaedic man in Cappagh (hospital). I rang Bill, he said to bring him up and I sat with them as Bill went through everything with him.
He looked after him from then until the day he finished with Tipperary and he wouldn’t have played without Bill. On top of that, Fox never played anything else other than corner-back. The number 13 position, in my opinion, has always been the most difficult to fill on any team. Fox was a revelation when he came back. (Conal) Bonnar, Declan Ryan and (John) Leahy came off the minor team of ‘87. Declan was always the key player. Declan was the best player that played at centre-forward in 50 years for Tipperary in my opinion.
JF: You revived The Viking’s career too.
BK: He was dropped twice before we brought him back. It was the vision English, Nealon and myself had. I analysed the scores of 20 All-Ireland finals and 20 Munster finals. I came up with the figure that there was over 73% of scores got from the full-forward line. If that was the case you had the environment in there to come up with those scores.
I got fierce stick for playing English at corner-forward because he had always played at number 10 but I always believed he was going to be more of an asset inside. Bonnar was ideal to complement Fox and English. He was playing good with Cashel all through the early 80s. (Declan) Carr was another link that was missing with us. He made a difference.
JF: Munster went according to plan?
BK: It was an easy enough year in Munster. We beat Waterford in a ferocious, dirty final. Some of the Tipp team were light but they weren’t intimidated. (Theo) English always made the point that you didn’t win an All-Ireland with a cowardly player and we didn’t have cowardly players and that stood to us.
The intensity was nothing like it was against Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final. It was a nasty affair too and I prefer not to dwell on it too much because of Tony’s (Keady) passing. He was an exceptional player and a really nice guy. I had a link with Galway having trained them 40 years ago too. I thought Galway blamed us unfairly on Tony not playing.
Whatever meeting that decided Tony’s fate, Tommy Barrett was our representative and I didn’t have to discuss too much with him but I said to him whatever you do, vote for Keady’s reinstatement, which he did. I don’t ever remember Galway acknowledging that or thanking Tommy for that.
We felt we were unlucky in ‘87 and ‘88 and felt two referees were hard on us. There were a few incidents. In ‘89, John Denton was the referee. I hadn’t seen him for 30 years until this week. I was coming out of the betting office up near the GAA field in Rosslare and there he was. We had a great chat.
JF: Could you relax at all ahead of facing Antrim in the final?
BK: We couldn’t but we still held a concert with the Wolfe Tones and Joe Dolan the Monday night. Could we have done that if we were playing Kilkenny? We were sorry for Antrim but we had to do what we had to do.
We got magnificent scores and Nicky’s goal hitting that hopping ball was part of the amazing skill that he had. It was like the goal he kicked in the ‘87 game in Killarney. I remember Mikey Sheehy came across the field to us after it and said, ‘Babs, I can pick out Maradona, Best or any of them but they wouldn’t have done what Nicky did kicking that hurling ball past Ger Cunningham’s hurley’.
If he kicked it along the ground, Cunningham would have got to it. I brought him up the following night at training and I gave him 10 chances to do it again and he didn’t do it. Great players are able to do it at the right time. I guarantee you if I asked him to do the same with the hopping ball I’m not sure he would do it.
JF: I’ve heard it said a few times that it was a soft All-Ireland because of Antrim. Did it make it any different for you?
BK: No, it didn’t because we had worked so hard over the three previous years. You had old-time Tipperary supporters saying, ‘Ah, you only beat Antrim’ but Tipp beat Laois in the ‘49 final. I made that point. To be fair to hurling, it is more competitive now than it was 50 years ago. There was huge relief in ‘89. It was lifted after the semi-final when Antrim were there. Antrim were never going to beat us.
The shame was when the injuries came we didn’t have back up. We came to the Munster final in 1990 and it was a struggle because we had no subs in the back-line. There were no new faces coming. We were lucky enough to recycle the old faces in ‘91 but we were lucky to survive the final against Kilkenny because (Cormac) Bonnar was gone and Nicky was gone (both left the field injured).
Lucky only for (Michael) Cleary that we won. Then a few new faces came and I thought we were unlucky after the amazing league win we had over Galway in ‘94. We were fantastic and had planned everything for the Championship but after that final five of them went down. Leahy and Declan went with knee injuries, Nicky went, Fox went, Tommy Dunne went. We were decimated.
JF: Could you have stayed on longer?
BK: I didn’t get on with the county chairman at the time. Fr Tom Fogarty took over for a year or two and two of the worst All-Irelands ever won were ‘95 and ‘96. There were All-Irelands there for the taking and if your namesake didn’t take over I would have been there for another couple of years and I would have steadied the ship. I would go as far as ‘97 against Clare.
I still contend that if he (Len Gaynor) used Nicky for that final (Tipp would have beaten Clare). He was young enough (34), he was skilful enough and what they wanted was composure, particularly in the last quarter of an hour. If you look at Gaynor’s legacy, Gaynor managed teams for 40 years and never won a Munster final or an All-Ireland.
When I was playing corner-forward or full-forward and Gaynor wing-back, you’d say, ‘For fuck’s sake, Len, watch where you’re hitting the ball. His reply would be, ‘I had to get it — can’t you go and get it as well’. Whereas if you took Mick Roche, I always remember ‘71 (Munster final v Limerick) in Killarney.
We were desperate, eight points down at half-time and Roche and myself were like that (crosses fingers), inseparable. There was shouting and belting hurleys. Roche turns to me and says, ‘The first ball I get, you look out for me and I’ll put it in your pocket’. I can still remember him leading them and he waited and waited and he put it in there (points to his hip) and I stuck it in the net. The second one the same, the third one I was fouled for the 21. That was Roche. Do you think Gaynor would do that?
JF: And when you went back in 2005?
BK: It was a mistake. When county chairman Donie Shanahan interviewed me, 95% of the interview was about discipline. You have no idea the hardship John Leahy, Tom Barry and myself put up with. The culture of drink and bad temper. If we didn’t take the action (axing players from the panel), Sheedy wouldn’t have won an All-Ireland in 2010 I can promise you that.
Sheedy got credit for everything but then he got the three Mahers, Bonner, Noel McGrath, Mick Cahill. We didn’t get them but if we got six fellas like that we would have succeeded too.
JF: Tell me about the trilogy against Limerick in 2007.
BK: It was exciting but it was a struggle but if I was upset over anything it was playing seven weekends running. We fell apart with injury. Nobody but nobody gave us credit for it and we were blackguarded by two referees in my opinion. I counted 16 (wrong) decisions that Brian Gavin gave against us on the Saturday evening in Thurles including the final one where we were winning by a point and they got a 70.
It was a free first, the Limerick player threw his hurley to handpass the ball. There were two incidents. It was wide first and the ball was brought back into play. Right beside the linesman. I was invited to Frank Murphy’s retirement do, I was the only outsider from committees and officials and I take great pride in the fact that I was invited by Frank himself.
He covered every aspect of his life but he made references to the standards of those officiating our games that wasn’t up to what the players deserved for what they were putting in to get to this stage and the management too.
We saw what happened to Waterford last year (v Tipperary) — you wouldn’t see it in Junior B hurling in my time. If you take that fella John Keenan refereeing the Leinster final on Sunday. I can’t accept he gets to referee a Leinster final after his decision against the Dublin man (Shane Barrett) was overruled.
That decision should have been... suffice to say, ‘hold it.’ He sent off (Conor) Gleeson against Tipperary and I have no problem with the second yellow card but he gave the first one to him for nothing. If the John Keenans were immersed in the GAA life and Championship hurling that we’re all brought up on they’d be slow and reluctant to do that.
Frank Murphy put his finger on it. Anybody can make a mistake but the good guys will know at half-time and find a way of balancing the books and you’d accept that. I just fear for the standard that’s out there at the moment.
JF: The Tipperary team is big business now.
BK: He (Sheedy) has 40 in training as I understand it. He’s used about 23 fellas to date… how do you keep the other 17 happy when they should be at home with their clubs? The last man on the panel is costing as much as Pádraic Maher if not more. I know he has plenty of money at his disposal but money doesn’t win All-Ireland medals; it takes a bit more.
All the money the county board and the supporters club are spending, Theo English always said, ‘You can’t buy an All-Ireland medal, you have to work for it’. This idea of stopping the club championship for three months, I’m telling you it will hurt the GAA big time down the road. It will have its consequences. I’m concerned about that aspect of it.
I said recently I mightn’t see Tipperary win All-Irelands for some time unless there is a change. Now, I may have spoken too soon because I didn’t expect the players would come back and play as well as they are but they haven’t won an All-Ireland yet.
What I am saying is that if they don’t win the All-Ireland this year… he has only started Jake Morris from the U21 team last year. He had a chance to play three or four of them against Limerick. He should have had a look at (Ger) Browne or (Mark) Kehoe. South Tipperary is decimated, West Tipperary is decimated. Senior hurling is gone in both. The future doesn’t look good.
JF: You were refused All-Ireland final tickets from the Tipperary County Board in 2015 because of your criticism of the team. Is it still a raw subject?
BK: I tell you where I took great exception. Nobody in the history of Tipperary in terms of former players put in as much as I did on a voluntary basis. I never took a shilling from my club. I came up here in ‘77 and there was a committee set up here and I walked the streets of Dublin with the former president Jim Ryan, Tommy Barrett, Mick Frawley collecting money for Semple Stadium.
When I took over Tipperary, I started the supporters’ club and I travelled to New York and London and all over the country collecting money for Tipperary. We were in a recession at the time and I did everything in my power to get jobs and the lads looked after. I had contacts every place.
The arrangement I had with Billy Quinlan for injured players was he would be in Cappagh every Monday morning and the players would stay with me the night before. I would be with him with the player at 7.30 — Bill would start half an hour early. Never charged me a penny for a player — wouldn’t take the money. But you have to understand that when Bill wanted a ticket for a match you got one.
I got John Leahy a job. I got everyone fixed up. The present county secretary wouldn’t know anything about that because he wasn’t there. I got good money to help Tipperary hurling and all they wanted was a ticket for a match and who did they come to?
This is where I have the problem with the meanness that hit me. You can’t think of anyone else that put so much into Tipperary hurling after their playing career. I got my expenses only. Was I hurt? Of course, I’m hurt. I wouldn’t go to functions that certain members of the county board would go to.
JF: It hasn’t detracted from your love of Tipperary hurling?
BK: No, no, no. We have history and tradition that the other counties just can’t grasp. To be in a dressing room with big John and Mick Maher and Tony Wall, (Mick) Burns, English and Roche, Jimmy Doyle and (Seán) McLoughlin, probably the greatest general of them all. We travelled the world together and there was no such thing as Tipperary getting a bad name any place — we were welcomed every place. Those are the memories I have and they are great memories. I was obviously hurt over Timmy Floyd’s action but it’s over and done with now. I still go to see the matches with or without Timmy Floyd.
JF: You’ve called it as you saw it but you’ve also been called things for it. Does that upset you?
BK: I don’t mind what they say and I’ve listened to auld shite down the years. I’ve been accused of this, that and the other thing. At the end of the day, I was brought up in a house that was Tipperary hurling mad. My father brought us to every match. I played in my first minor All-Ireland and I got a loan of a pair of football boots and my father would have bought every football boot in Clonmel if he could have afforded it.
Now, we came from simple surroundings at home — it was work, it was school, it was the church and it was the GAA. I entered the Tipperary senior hurling team in the autumn of ‘63 when I was going on 19 and to think that I was going to be in the same dressing room as fellas I had seen playing when I was 12 and 13 and 14.
Nealon came to teach in my parish when I was 12 and here I was in the same dressing room as him. Here I was with the greatest of them all John Doyle, here I was with John Doyle. They taught you everything about life, not just about hurling.
They taught me everything about discipline and everything about sportsmanship. It was Cork and Tipp and it was bitter rivalry but friendship prevailed when the match was over. I was taught that we were in the business to make friends, not enemies and I was equally taught that when you put on that blue and gold jersey you honour that blue and gold jersey and you play as hard as the rules permitted when you’re on the field.
I’ve never went out of my way to make enemies. If somebody acted the bollox with me, I certainly didn’t let down the history or the knowledge I had of Tipperary and what the Tipperary jersey meant to me. I don’t care what opinions people have of me. I can sleep at night with what I have in there (clutches at his chest) and I don’t have any difficulty.