The Kieran Shannon Interview: A hurling bond that goes beyond borders

KIERAN SHANNON: The Kieran Shannon Interview: A hurling bond that goes beyond borders
‘I want to hurl as well as I can for the next few years. I want to just keep enjoying it,’ said former Tipp hurler Paddy Stapleton, seen here during the week at Coláiste Mhuire, Thurles, where he teaches. Picture: John D Kelly

When Paddy Stapleton’s family were confronted with a crisis last autumn, he found he could call on old teammates — and some old adversaries — for support. He speaks about an unseen dimension to the Kilkenny-Tipperary rivalry, the Sheedy factor, as well as how his late sister Amanda continues to inspire him.

In his terrific book, Standing My Ground, Brendan Cummins wrote about the special bond a team which wins an All-Ireland shares for life. Even though they may not have spoken to one another in years, they could call upon each other in a time of need.

To illustrate his point, he reached for a hypothetical example. “If I wanted €1000 in the morning, there’s a group of guys from 2001 and another group from nine years later who would say, ‘Where will I wire it to?’”

Just as he would for any of them.

The way he viewed it, they were like soldiers who had been to war together. They might not divulge to others what they’d seen and mightn’t even speak about certain things again among themselves but sharing that knowing look always lifted the soul. “If we have an opportunity to help anyone out, we will.”

Last autumn the abstract became as real as it can get. Paddy ‘Saint’ Stapleton, Cummins’ old roommate on training camps for big matches like this weekend’s, called. His sister, Amanda, had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, aged just 31.

Paddy and his family wanted to give her the best support and quality of life possible in the time she had left. They were looking at hosting a charity match featuring the band of brothers of 2010. Was there a chance Cummins could make it?

“I remember him ringing,” says Cummins, “and the humble way he put it. ‘No pressure if you can’t…’

Naturally, Cummins was only too willing to help. Tog out and play. Sell tickets. Drum up some publicity in the media. For any of his buddies, anything, but especially ‘Saint’. And of course, all of the class of 2010 were there, combining with some of the players Liam Sheedy had called in for his 2019 panel upon his return as Tipperary gaffer.

But what also struck Cummins about that charity match in the Stapletons’ home parish of Borrisoleigh wasn’t just the huge turnout of Tipp players or the 6,000 people who flooded into Bishop Quinlan Park that November night. It was the volume and identity of the opposing players.

When Paddy had sat down with his parents and brothers Shane, Tim and Paul and they began to float the idea of the match, he suggested the opposition be Kilkenny. His old friends, the enemy. At the end of it all, all those ferocious wars and battles had amounted to a magnificent dance. Sure who else would you want you want to share the dancefloor and battlefield with on a night like that?

“Sure, I loved playing against them,” explains Stapleton, a secondary school teacher by trade, over some tea for two in a Thurles shopping centre.

It was like going to sit an exam — you knew the questions that were coming up, as hard as they were. Like, I knew every ball was going to come in high. Against other teams, I’d have marked a lot of players that wanted to get away from you, look for a ball out to the side, to get into space.

"I’d say in four or five All-Irelands [all against Kilkenny], I got only a handful of low balls coming into the corner. That’s how different they were. They’d just lash it down.

“It felt like they trained that way; a lot of other teams, they train hitting the ball 10 yards away from each other, then they come to a match and they hit it long because they haven’t replicated the pressure of a game, and they’re not used to it (playing in the higher, longer ball). Kilkenny were strong in the air. They would fight with you for it (the high ball).”

Culturally too he’d felt that the Kilkenny lads were more like the Tipp boys than any of the other counties that surrounded them. In UL with the likes of Michael Fennelly and Pádraig Walsh, Stapleton found he could go out and train hard with them, then go out and party just as earnestly together, though they’d never mention the war, of course.

When a bit of a party was thrown for Jackie Tyrrell and Eoin Larkin upon their retirements, Stapleton was among those in attendance. And so, that’s why in Amanda’s time of help, he reached out across to that side of the divide.

Paul Murphy’s girlfriend was a sister of Amanda’s husband, so he was the first contact — could he rally up some of the old crew along with some of the new one?

Almost to a man, the answer was Yes. When he thinks back on all the work and gestures that went into supporting Amanda, he thinks of Eoin Murphy’s regular texts of support, Henry Shefflin suiting up to play even though he was sporting a huge knee bandage, DJ Carey stepping in for Brian Cody who was abroad and sent his apologies, just as easily as he does of old comrades like Micheál Webster at the other end of the county organising raffle tickets.

“I was so busy that night, I didn’t even get a proper chance to thank the Kilkenny lads, but I’m so grateful for the support. It was really humbling. Any of them I did get to talk to were so respectful. And the big thing I got from both teams was how great it was to have a chance to meet up.

"It’s a terrible thing with teams, that they probably haven’t seen each other as a group in years. But that night we had a tent and music and we all got to catch and meet up.”

One particularly special reacquaintance was Liam Sheedy, back in a Tipp dressing room, same as he ever was: full of good humour but also intent.

“Liam was well up for it. The game ended up a draw and unlike some charity games, it was a genuine draw. In the last 10 minutes there were a lot of current players on the field and you could see neither team wanted to give that edge away. Now they’re both in an All-Ireland final.”

Coincidence? Hardly, just as there was nothing accidental about Sheedy’s first stint when he took a team that hadn’t been in an All-Ireland or won a Munster since 2001 and transformed them into multiple Munster champions and All-Ireland finalists.

Stapleton, by his own admission, was never a blue-chipper destined to play for the county. Yet under Sheedy he was a regular; for Cummins, a rock.

“Liam’s unbelievably empowering,” says Stapleton. “He’d always make me feel a better hurler than I actually was. He’d always be talking to me about how I was attacking from the back; how he expected me to break out with the ball and be pushing forward. And he made you comfortable.”

He recalls a league game in Nowlan Park in the early spring of 2009. These days in the Cody-Sheedy narrative, it isn’t quite as evocative in the public memory as their league encounter 12 months later when the Tipp manager went nose-to-nose with his opposite number along the

sideline during a Tipp win in Thurles, but among the most important constituency of all — the Tipperary players — the game’s corresponding fixture the previous year carried greater weight. By half-time

Kilkenny had scorched Tipp for five goals. Sheedy’s predecessor wouldn’t have been long telling them how they resembled sheep in a heap. Sheedy took a different tact.

Sheedy was brilliant. I forget the exact words he used but he came in and it was almost like he was angry with himself. He more or less blamed himself. ‘Lads, that’s on me, not ye.’ To take the pressure off the players.

“One of the quotes of his that still rings in my head is ‘It’s what’s in this room. It’s what we have here. We don’t care what anyone else thinks. We know each other.’ That’s more than just creating a

us-against-the-world mentality. It’s creating a brotherhood, a trust. Like between players and backroom staff, there are 70 people in that setup and this year is the least I’ve ever heard coming out of the camp. There are no rumours. Liam makes sure everything stays inside.”

Back in his time in that dressing room, Stapleton was one of those people who could be trusted, in that vintage of unfussy and uncelebrated Tipp inside backs of that era: Curran, Cahill, then Barrett after them. Cummins, in particular, had a special regard for Stapleton.

“He was just so efficient, solid, Mr Reliable,” says Cummins who won an All- Ireland and four Munster championships with Stapleton playing outside him. “If the ball was on the opposite side of the field, he would take up the midfielder or whoever might have been coming through and leave his man. Others, you’d have to call back. With Saint you didn’t. He’d make the right decision, for the team. He had a great calming influence. Nothing would faze him.”

Last autumn though, something did. Amanda got sick. And as much as they and everyone around them rallied to support her, she died in May. Stapleton remains the personification of pleasantness, consistent with Cummins’ view of his positive disposition, but that’s probably more because it’s the way Amanda would want it rather than just his way.

“She was a very strong girl. Particularly mentally. And,” he smiles, “such good fun. Even when she was sick. She actually made it very light for us when it shouldn’t have been light. She had every reason to be giving out all the time, from morning to night, but she never did.

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"She could make light of her condition with the most inappropriate comment or text or trick, leaving you shaking your head at it. But that was her character.

“I know people say what would Amanda want. But I also think of what would Amanda do. And in my opinion, she’d be saying to us, ‘Come on, live life.’ We’re thinking of her every day, every hour, but if she thought we were moping around, thinking about her all the time, she’d be disgusted.

“Because even when she was sick, she’d be giving out to us, ‘Why are you staying here [in London]? You need to get home and live your life.’”

And so, what’s their life? It’s family. And it’s The Game. The other night on the latest episode of the television series of that name, Joe Connolly, the Galway legend, spoke of how hurling was a refuge when in recent years he was sick and his brother died.

You’d sort of say, ‘Where is hurling in all of this, like?’ And at the far end of both episodes, I’m saying, ‘It’s f****n’ more important than ever.’

The Stapletons could echo that. Shane, the well-known journalist and two-time All-Ireland club winner with Cuala, has upped even his outrageous output of quality GAA content while Paddy at 34 has immersed himself even more into their home club of Borrisoleigh.

It was there for him as a kid. And it was there for him when he finished up with Tipp at the end of 2016, their subsequent march to their first north divisional title in 10 years and first county final appearance in 20 years helping him get over any withdrawal symptoms he might have had no longer being in the inter-county bubble.

The same manager, John Kelly, they had that season is still in place with an upgraded backroom team all with the view of going one step further than 2017.

“I still love the game. I still love the club. No one was saying after minor, ‘There’s a hurler for Tipp.’ I was five years hurling senior with the club before I ever hurled senior for Tipp.

“The way I looked at it, Tipp could always have done without me but I always felt the club could do with me. I remember in 2011 playing a match two weeks after dislocating my rib, because the club needed me.

“In 2012, I only played one game with Tipp but I played every game for my club, even if I set myself back with an injury I might have picked up. Because for me the club is the most important thing. It’s a small county, as in it’s made up of all small communities.

“We don’t have a big city like Cork or Limerick or Dublin where there’s another way of life. Everything here in our communities revolves around hurling, it’s what takes over life. So there’s a duty of love to the game and to the club. So I want to hurl as well as I can the next few years. I want to just keep enjoying it.”

Amanda wouldn’t want him or it any other way.


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