In 2002, my older brother Michael first admitted to the grip alcohol had on his life. The disease had been following him around like a black dog and Michael finally accepted the damage it was doing to himself and his family — he checked into the Aiseiri Addiction Treatment Centre in Cahir in South Tipperary.
As I drove Michael down on that first morning, it was a sad and lonely journey for both of us. The tears came to my eyes as I dropped him at the door.
“I’ll see you on Wednesday,” I said to my bigger brother, because I was the nominated family member who could visit midweek.
I was in bits driving out the gate.
When I arrived down on that Wednesday, Michael was in the kitchen cooking. It was part of the rehab programme but before we began talking, Michael had something to say to me. “If I ever hear you say a bad word about Johnny Leahy again, you’ll be in trouble with me,” he boldly announced.
“That man has been a gentleman to me during these first few days.”
Johnny had come through his own battles with alcohol and, as a trained addiction counsellor, he often called into Aiseiri in the evenings. He and Michael started chatting. Hurling naturally came up. When Clarecastle was mentioned, Johnny’s eyes lit up before any past battles were discussed. Michael came clean: “Before you say anything, I just want to let you know that he’s my brother.”
Johnny and I would have cut each other’s throats when we played against each other but, people are people, and human nature is just fantastic. What went on between us on the pitch in the past was irrelevant. Johnny was doing his job, which was doing right by Michael. And it meant a lot to me and our family.
The first time I had a run-in with Johnny was when Clare and Tipp met in the 1995 league in Ennis. Ger Loughnane had us psyched up to our eyeballs. Fights were breaking out everywhere. At one stage, Leahy and I went at it.
We were gone to skin and bone by then from Mike Mac’s brutal training regime and I questioned the extra pounds around Johnny’s hips. “Have you had your Mars bars,” I enquired.
His response was that I’d got the handiest All-Star ever given to anyone the previous year. “At least I played in the Championship anyway,” I said to Leahy, who missed our Munster semi-final after getting injured with the Tipp footballers. “They gave you one for sitting on the bench.”
Not long afterwards, there was a dispute on the far sideline and Ollie Baker kicked Leahy up the arse. We were all in a frenzy. So were the crowd. We had always resented Tipp’s attitude towards us but that day, we stoked the smouldering flames into a bonfire of bad blood that burned ferociously for the rest of the decade.
Johnny didn’t take too kindly that afternoon to being accused of buying boxes of Mars bars and he was invariably looking to have his say anytime we met afterwards.
We had some heated words in the 1997 Munster final. When the sides met again in 1999, Liam Doyle and I were goading Leahy at every opportunity trying to get a hop out of him. Nicky English had him completely focused, but I had an angle for the replay. After the drawn game, some Tipp supporters had set fire to curtains in one of the carriages on the train back to Clonmel. When a shemozzle kicked off early in the game and Leahy was stuck in the middle of it with Doyler, I let him have it. “I see you got the train home the last day.”
Leahy started roaring laughing. So did Tommy Dunne and Brian O’Meara. I got a fit of the giggles then. As the shemozzle was breaking up, four or five lads were falling around laughing in front of nearly 50,000 people.
By that stage, we could have some fun with Tipp at our expense because the wheel had turned full circle. And we were no longer the butt of their jokes.
Any resentment I first formed against Tipp was framed from my experience in St Flannan’s. Most of the Tipp borders were sound lads but you still always detected an underlying lack of respect they had for Clare.
You could detect the same undercurrent from some of the clergy who taught, and coached, there. They were brilliant coaches, people who had huge influences on our lives, but even though they were very proud of their Flannan’s heritage, you still got that sense off them: “We’ll do the coaching because we’re from Tipp, we know how it’s done right, because ye’re only from Clare.”
We didn’t play Tipperary much in the early stages of my Clare senior career. But with Len Gaynor as our manager, and Len having played alongside Babs Keating, we had a track beaten down to Tipp to play them in challenge games and pitch openings.
We travelled to every corner of Tipp and it was pure torture. Tipp would regularly leather us, and it was just a total show for Babs in the lead up to the Championship. He’d have the half-time team talk in the middle of the pitch and the whole Tipp crowd would circle in around him and the players to listen to what Babs had to say.
Tipp would be hammering us by ten or 15 points and you’d look over and see Babs pointing and remonstrating at players, almost scolding them for not being ahead by 20 points.
You could almost hear Babs orchestrating the show. “And you Nickee, and you Johnee Leeehy, I want more out of ye.”
You could just imagine lads from all over north Tipp going back to the pubs around Nenagh and Toomevara and everywhere else that evening. “Did ye hear what Babs said to Fox and Nicky at half-time?” And the two lads probably having already 3-7 bagged between them at that stage.
They often had plenty of other stuff to talk about. We played them in Tipperary town one year and Pat Markham and Stephen Sheedy were midfield on Declan Carr and Declan Ryan. “You mark the two of them, and I’ll stay loose,” Carr said to Ryan beforehand, completely dismissing the two Clare lads. The first ball, Sheedo opened Carr. “You’d have been better off picking up one of us,” Sheedo said to Carr as he lay on the ground with blood streaming from his head.
Another night in 1991, we played Tipp somewhere up around Dolla or Templederry. I wasn’t playing but I was sitting on the bench. At one stage, right in front of us, a ball dropped between Mikey McNamara and Bobby Ryan and Mikey just let fly.
Mikey was as clean as a whistle, but his timing was off, and he met Bobby with full force across both shins. The air was pierced with a combination of Bobby’s shrieks and that unmistakable sound of ash on bone. Subconsciously, Mikey apologised in full earshot of everyone. “Sorry Bobby’.
Poor auld Mickey had had the misfortune to travel in a Clarecastle car that evening and sure we wouldn’t be known for letting a lad have a free pass for a boo-boo like that.“Bad enough for us to be hammered and then you with your ‘sorry Bobby’,” says Sparrow to Mikey. “You should have been saying ‘I’ll give it to you twice as hard the next time.’”
Poor auld Mikey got reddened over the comment. For weeks, we blackguarded him anytime we saw him coming. His nickname around that time was ‘Sorry Bobby’.
It was just a reflex response from Mikey because we were just too deferential to Tipp. We never really believed we could beat them, and the 1993 Munster final annihilation just confirmed what we’d always feared.
It only reaffirmed Tipp’s dismissive attitude towards us. Later that October, I was part of the 1993 Munster Railway Cup which lost to Ulster in the semi-final in Casement Park. Most of the lads were out on the town the night before and were in no fit state to play a match but Babs — who was the manager — was disgusted with the position we were in at half-time.
At one stage, he referenced me and Davy Fitzgerald. “It’s not young Daly or young Fitzgerald’s fault we’re in this position,” he said, before rounding on the Tipp lads.
To me, it sounded like artificial praise, as in Munster can’t be relying on those lads to dig us out of this hole, that the digging would have to be done by Nicky or Leahy or Declan Ryan or whoever else from Tipp from on the team.
“Other lads here would love a Railway Cup medal,” said Donie Neylon, half-looking at us in, what I felt was a sense of pity. After that year’s Munster final, Babs probably felt it was all some of us could ever aspire to.
He may not have meant it that way but that’s the way it appeared to me. We all had to learn but we had to start standing up to Tipp too if we were to ever start beating them.
Before the 1993 Munster final started, Aidan Ryan stood in front of me. He just stared at me for about 10 seconds before ambling off into his corner. I met him at the All-Stars later in the year and asked him what he was at. “There was all this talk about you before the game because you played well against Cork,” he said. “I’d never heard of you, so I wanted to take a good look at you.”
It just reaffirmed how tuned out I was. I should have planted him. When we met Tipp in the Munster quarter-final the following year, I was ready to rip the head off him. When Ryan stretched out his hand before the game, I caught it and pulled him out the field a few yards. The message was clear — you’ll know all about me after today. We were all pumped up, but we were also on a crusade for more reasons than just atonement for 1993. John Moroney, who played corner-back that day, was killed in a car-crash that winter.
We were so charged up on raw emotion that Tipp never saw the uppercut coming. They hit the canvas like a stone. I was so overcome afterwards that I cried inside in the dressingroom. It was one of the most special days of my career.
It was a massive breakthrough win for us, but Tipp struggled to accept we could beat them. After 1993, Babs came up to our dressingroom and made a brilliant speech. When we beat them in 1994, Babs sent up Tommy Barrett to do the talking. That pissed us off no end. I’ve got to know Babs since. He’s a great character. That day in 1994 was his last time managing that team. He was obviously deeply disappointed, but it was almost as if he was too ashamed to show his face after losing to Clare.
I’m sure that attitude drove Loughnane wild because, although his last day as a player was the hammering to Tipp in the 1987 Munster semi-final replay, Tipp were at nothing for the vast majority of Loughnane’s Clare career.
When Clare were reaching Munster finals, Tipp were lost in their wilderness years.
I remember Johnny Callanan telling me a story from the Clare-Tipp Munster semi-final in 1986. Tipp had lost Munster finals to Cork in 1984 and 1985 and, in the parade before that 1986 semi-final, Bobby Ryan roared back to the rest of his team-mates about how that game was effectively a gateway to getting another crack at Cork. If Callanan said the comment drove him demented, you can imagine how much it riled up Loughnane.
After the game, Callanan met Bobby in the ‘Halfway House’ pub on the Limerick road and challenged him over the comment. “It was disrespectful to us,” he said. Bobby apologised but he couldn’t even remember what he’d said. “Well I, and all of us, remember it,” replied Callanan.
That kind of summed up the relationship. Tipp may not have meant to disrespect us, but they just did because it was in their DNA.
It was that kind of stuff which prompted the unscripted line “We’re no longer the whipping boys of Munster hurling” in my 1997 Munster final-winning speech. Beating them again in the All-Ireland final two months later was the ultimate nirvana for all of us in Clare.
Unfortunately though, as the bonfire of bad blood burned higher, the poison wafted through the air. The 1999 Munster U21 final in Ennis was the nadir. The air was filled with sulphur that evening. I remember thinking “This has gone too far”.
By that stage, Tipp wanted to beat us as badly as we had always wanted to beat them. Although we hammered Tipp in the 1999 Munster semi-final replay, we couldn’t keep beating back their waves. The tide eventually rolled over our heads.
When Tipp finally took us down in 2000, the first person I shook hands with afterwards was Johnny Leahy. “Fair play Johnny,” I said. “My war is over now.” I was listening to a podcast recently where Tommy Dunne spoke about the first half of his Tipp career. Tommy said that Tipp measured everything they did off what Clare were doing. While we ran up the hill in Shannon, Nicky English had Tipp running up the Devil’s Bit. It put a smile on my face.
Two decades on from those days, from when everyone in Tipp wanted my head after the 1997 Munster final, I always get a great welcome from the Tipp crowd when I go to Thurles to cover games for this paper, or for RTÉ.
The banter and slagging will invariably start but it will only return us all to those golden and eternal summer Sundays when Clare were kings and Tipp did everything to dethrone us.
There will always be an edge when Clare play Tipp. We will always love beating them, like we did in Thurles in 2018. But I have a respect for Tipp now that I never really had as a player.
Age and experience always bring perspective but, if we had lost to Tipp twice in 1997, which we could have, I’m not so sure I’d have mellowed as much as I have. Having that in the locker makes it easier. We always have that over Tipp, beating them in an All-Ireland final, the only Munster county to do so.
The medals are great to have but memories are mostly made from the people you meet along the journey. Of course, there will be battles along the way. After Johnny Leahy missed his late goal chance in the 1997 Munster final, I whispered in his ear that he had bottled it as he lay on the ground.It was all part of the war at the time, but wars always end, and peace will inevitably break out. After Michael was in Aiseiri, the next time I met Johnny was in
Clonmel one year when I was down for the coursing.
A group of six of us were inside in a small pub in the town, full of the joys of life, when I took a notion to do a party piece. I completely acting the clown because we thought we were the only ones in the place, but it was some craic. When it was all over, this fella hit me a tap on the shoulder. “Hi Dalo,” said the bould Johnny Leahy, “there’s a bed out in Cahir for you too if you want it.”
We had some laugh but I know if I’d had the misfortune to end up there like my brother, I know for definite that Johnny would have looked after me.
Sometimes we all go too far, but the game always returns us to what’s most important in life. And that’s what hurling is really all about.