Two youngsters clashed in the 1987 All-Ireland minor final, Tipperary v Offaly, who featured in a lot of headlines subsequently. You know them well...
“I remember it, that’s one match that’s always clear in my head,” says John Leahy.
“It was a huge disappointment. Playing for Tipperary at minor level, (mentor) Paddy Doyle would have instilled it into us that most lads only get one chance at minor level; the odd player might get two, but I didn’t.”
His marker that day? One Johnny Dooley, who had another few years ahead of him in the grade.
“I was 15. I’d only been drafted in for the Leinster final, played against Kilkenny — my first game in Croke Park — and then we beat Antrim in Dundalk in the semi-final.
“The final was frightening. After that I never had any fear of a game because I remember coming into Croke Park and looking up at the big concrete stands, and the dressing rooms. That stays in my mind more than any other year because I was young and I’d been there the year before with my father, looking out at the field, and then I was thrown out onto the field.
“It was a big occasion, because a lot of minors don’t make it on to senior inter-county, so it’s a huge day. The crowds mightn’t all be in but the cameras there and you’re representing your family, your club... it’s a big day.”
Leahy can recall some pre-game issues that may have influenced Tipp.
“How things have changed — we played in two different jerseys that time. Back in the 80s, there were silky-type jerseys, they were common enough. There was a set of them in the bag and there were long-sleeved jerseys, and I remember thinking, ‘I want one of those silky ones’. And I did.
“We were all psyched up and we came out of the dressing room — but weren’t we stopped in the tunnel, stopped from going out on the pitch. We could hear Offaly revving it up in their own dressing room. And it intimidated us. It intimidated me, anyway, I felt ‘we’re ready and now we’ve to stop’. It caught me, definitely.”
Dooley says he and his teammates were aware of Leahy, even if it was long before the era of YouTube.
“We’d have been told about Johnny. We saw him play in the Munster final and the All-Ireland semi-final, and you could see the talent — he had speed, he was strong, skilful. The following year he was on the senior team, he was that strong for his age.
“I was two years behind him so I wasn’t going to mix it with him physically, and it was such a wet day I was just trying to keep it away from him: you’d have been fearful of him doing serious harm.
“He turned me twice in the second half but I was lucky enough, and you need a bit of luck. He didn’t expose me but it was a nerve-wracking experience for a 15-year-old. In the 1989 minor final I was far more experienced.”
Leahy recalls the game passing him by in the second half.
“I started like a bomb that day, and they put Johnny on me. I got shifted out to midfield then and right at the start of the second half I got a free around midfield and put it over the bar — and then I was totally out of the game.
“They’d been putting me in centre — and full-forward all year — I marked Cork’s Damien Irwin at full-forward in the Munster final — but in the All-Ireland I was put midfield and it didn’t suit me.”
Leahy played with edge and attitude at senior level but he was a quiet minor, says his marker.
“He was fiery, but that’s a good thing,” says Dooley. “He played on the edge but most of the good players have a cutting edge. He wouldn’t have had too many sendings-off over his career, he had the skills to back himself up.
“And on an All-Ireland final day there’s so much going on in your head that you’ve enough to keep in mind rather than thinking about getting a slap into another lad.”
Offaly took the honours, 2-8 to 0-12, and Leahy took it hard. In his words he was “in a bad way for a few days” following the loss. Better days were ahead for him, though. And for Johnny Dooley.
— Michael Moynihan
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