‘Players should get 10% of gate for providing the entertainment’

Diarmuid O’Flynn interviews Billy Byrne and Eddie O’Connor.

Billy Byrne: We had so many bad days, so many bad years. But '96 was such a great year And even though I was a sub, it didn't matter, you felt part of the whole thing, that was the great thing about Griffin. Everyone was pulling together.

Eddie O'Connor: What do you think of him?

BB: He was the best I ever had whether it was training, preparation, organisation, and he was a fantastic players' man.

EOC: I always felt he was the one man that got it 100% percent right.

BB: Yes, but in '95, Griffin got some stick. We lost a League game to Meath that year, were relegated to Division 2, and what he had to put up with was unbelievable. I think that was one of the big motivating factors for him in 96.

EOC: One of the greatest moments of my life was lifting the McCarthy Cup in 1993, but it wasn't the best day I ever had. That was in '91, my first championship game with Kilkenny, in the Leinster semi-final against Wexford. I was on John Conran, not a forward at all really, John was always a backman. Jimmy Barry-Murphy was doing man-of-the-match that day for RTÉ, he said to me afterwards, it's between yourself and DJ. 'Ah Jaysus Jimmy,' said I, 'give it to me, that fella will get plenty of other chances, I'll never get it again!'

DOF: And did you get it?

EOC: No, they gave it to Carey.

DOF: Did you ever get one afterwards?

EOC: No, never, nor was I likely to, after the speech in 93, looking for a holiday!

DOF: Did you get the holiday?

EOC: Holiday? I was lucky to get home!

DOF: Was that speech planned, or spontaneous?

EOC: Planned, sort of. I had always felt the GAA got away with murder, all those people putting so much into it, for nothing, and I'm not just talking about players either.

BB: You hit the nail on the head anyway, that day.

EOC: A lot of people said that to me, but then they said I shouldn't have said it when I did, that it was the wrong place. Well, where was I going to say it? In the toilet, in the pub, where I'd have fellas telling me to shut up? In fact the GAA is still getting away with murder. If I was senior manager now, and if I got to an All-Ireland senior final, I'd tell the GAA the week before, I'm pulling them out unless they get 5,000 a man, with money also going to their clubs.

BB: It wouldn't work, you'd be on your own.

EOC: It would work. If Brian Cody rang Seamus Murphy this week, and they decided, we want ten percent of the game, are they going to call off the Leinster final? If John Allen and Ken Hogan had agreed something last week, with the backing of the players of course, would they have called off Munster? There's no way a player should be paid, but you have a fella there like Nigel Higgins, trying to run a business and expected to train several times a week. Now, he's off the Wexford panel this week. Something has to be done for those fellas, ten percent of the gate back to the clubs, and the players providing the entertainment.

DOF: What would you do if you were a player in the current circumstance, with Club Energise?

EOC: Forget about not doing RTÉ interviews, I wouldn't even play, and I think all the players should take that stance. The control of that is in the hands of the managers, they should take a stand. All it takes is a phone call, but if they all stood together, it would work.

BB: All that would happen then is that he wouldn't be the manager the next year, he'd be voted out.

EOC: The year after I made that speech, I met a top GAA official 'You know that speech you made', he says, 'you were dead right, but I'll put it to you this way. If I was building a house tomorrow morning, and I got a price from a blocklayer over there for 30,000, and the fella over here was going to do it for nothing, who would I use? If the players are stupid enough to play for nothing why would we pay them?'

BB: Maybe that's why you never got an All-Star!

EOC: Ah I got one, in 1993. But if I ever got a chance, that's what I'd do, no fear, pull them out. I admire the way the Cork hurlers are doing it, and the Dublin footballers; if the rest of the teams would follow that, in hurling and football, then you'd have a rolling stone, hard to stop. The stewards are paid as is everyone else. Go back a few years, you had no AIB, no Guinness sponsorship, no money from RTÉ. But I don't think the GPA is strong enough. Another thing I don't like is the way mistakes are highlighted now, on television. I was asked to go into studio by RTÉ a few years ago, but I refused, not while I had a brother playing (Willie, captained Kilkenny to win in 2000). I wasn't asked since. Anyway, you get fellas being taken apart now on television.

BB: I was a rep for a while and used to have to visit about twenty pubs on a Monday after a game. It's grand up to about four o'clock, then you start to meet the lads who've been drinking all day. From there to six o'clock was a long two hours, and God help you if you'd lost, and played badly!

EOC: Trial by media shouldn't be allowed, for an amateur game. Look at the Tomas Ó Sé incident against Limerick. The man had to go all the way from Kerry to Dublin, to defend himself, when he wasn't even booked.

DOF: What was your own best game, Billy?

BB: Would you believe, the same game as the one Eddie mentioned, that Leinster semi-final in 91. I was on a lad with a bit of a moustache...

EOC: Pat Ryan?

BB: That's him, at midfield. According to the statistics afterwards, myself and George won 75% of the ball in midfield. And we still lost!

EOC: Ye lost a few games around that time that ye should have won. I remember 93, ye should have beaten us that day. We were four points down with just over three minutes to go.

BB: Wexford used to panic when they were in the lead. We made three substitutions in the last five minutes, lost our shape, didn't know what we were doing. A ball came in to me, at full-forward, I caught it, looked for Martin (Storey) or someone coming through to pass it to; you'd never get a swing in with (Pat) Dwyer, he'd tie you up in knots. There was no-one there, I had to throw the ball on the ground, Bill Hennessey cleared it out and ye scored. That was the year we drew with Cork three times in the League, five draws we had that year, made it a long year.

EOC: Ye should have won the All-Ireland in 97 too. Ye were a better team that year than in 96, I thought, but Tipp beat ye, Leahy got a few fast scores, a great goal. What happened to ye?

BB: Same again, more selection problems. We had two fellas injured going into that game, and I know they were mad keen themselves, but they should never have been played. Gary Laffan, Rod Guiney, both of them were gone early, had to be replaced. We were in a bit of disarray then, and Leahy got 1-3 in that period, I think. We contested three Leinster finals in a row in the early 90's, lost the three, then suddenly we won two in a row. Offaly were very strong at the time also, so even if we beat Kilkenny, we then had them to worry about.

EOC: That's what I maintain about hurling then, compared to now. In the early 90's, you had about ten teams who were capable of winning the All-Ireland. Go through the 90's, Cork, Tipp, Kilkenny, Offaly, Clare, Wexford, all won the title, with Galway getting to an All-Ireland final, Limerick unlucky in two. Even Dublin had a good team then. They reached two Leinster finals, and we only beat them by two points in 91. Look at it now. Would Wexford win the All-Ireland? With all due respect, probably not, and the same could be said of Galway, Limerick, Clare and Offaly. You have Cork, Kilkenny, Waterford, maybe Tipperary, that's about it. Leinster hurling was good then, very competitive. And someone else we're forgetting about, Antrim, with Ciaran Barr and those lads.

BB: I don't think we're going to get back to that again, not with this back-door system.

EOC: It hasn't helped, in fact I think it's destroyed Dublin, Laois, even Offaly. Look back over the last few weeks, the margins of defeat for those three; 17 points, 11 points, 31 points. How can that be good?

BB: The second chance makes it even harder to beat the likes of Cork and Kilkenny. Before, you had a chance of catching Kilkenny; that's gone, they're back into it now again.

DOF: Who's going to win the All-Ireland this year?

EOC: Waterford, definitely, I have them backed.

BB: So have I, nine to one.

EOC: Dammit, I only got eight to one! I want Kilkenny to win, don't get me wrong, but if there's a God in heaven, surely it has to be Waterford. Go back over the last four or five years, they've played some of the best hurling, every year. No-one deserves an All-Ireland more. Clare and Wexford deserved their titles in 95 and 96, but if there's a God in heaven, it must be Waterford's turn.

DOF: A full strength Waterford side, playing to their peak, would beat anyone.

BB: They would, if they can get away from playing their own individual game. I've seen Paul Flynn in situations where a goal was on if he passed the ball, but he won't. That wouldn't happen with Kilkenny.

EOC: There is another thing about Waterford. This year, in the League, they never had a better opportunity. Shefflin was out, a lot of new faces for Kilkenny against a very experienced Waterford side. Waterford were ahead at half-time, then Kilkenny got a goal. And that was that. Even with Waterford still ahead, they gave up. And that's a weakness they have.

DOF: Who's going to win tomorrow?

BB: If we're to win, we'll have to get the ball past the Kilkenny midfield, and the half-back line, the way we did last year. The problem is that Kilkenny will be ready for Damien's puck-outs this year.

EOC: Tell me something, did Wexford try at all in the League, in Nowlan Park this year? I reckon they were holding back that night. 3-25 to 0-5? I guarantee Wexford will score more than five points on Sunday.

BB: It was a bit embarrassing now, alright. If we're to beat Kilkenny, we're going to have to score at least two goals, because they'll be getting them at the other end.

EOC: They didn't get them last year, in the All-Ireland final, Cork stopped them. Stop Shefflin, that's what Cork did, Ó hAilpín did the job. But in my opinion, Shefflin is being blackguarded he's the best centre-forward in Ireland, should play there and nowhere else. Instead, he's inside in the corner, because he carries this huge goal threat. I can see where Cody is coming from, he feels he's got enough ball-winners in the half-forward line in Martin Comerford and John Hoyne.

DOF: How do you rate Eoin Quigley?

BB: He had a very good year last year, but people are aware of him now, they're looking out for him.

EOC: That's the real test of a hurler, isn't it? You can have a great first year, unknown, but it's your second year, when teams are ready for you.

BB: Quick ball inside, that's what they need, and that's what they got last year. Peter Barry was standing outside, waiting to grab the ball over his head, but it was sent in low, hip height, and the Kilkenny size advantage was taken away that way. I can't see that happening again. If you have a physical centre-forward, like Cork have in Niall McCarthy, it's a big advantage.

EOC: He'll run at you, and I know myself, that's the worst thing, from a defender's point of view, it's almost impossible to stop without giving away a free.

DOF: What about Kilkenny this year?

EOC: The Kilkenny training this year is very different. Last year, even the week before the All-Ireland final, it was very hard with 17 hurleys broken one night. It is different this year, a lot of running with the ball and it's not near as physical. I'm not as convinced about the team as a lot of people seem to be. There are too many question-marks hanging over them. Eoin Larkin, centre-forward, first year, same for Richie Power, Brendan Barry, first year, Jackie Tyrell, corner-back, the same. Ryall too has been struggling, I don't think he's ever decided that, right, this is my position, I'm going to play here for the rest of the year, make it my own. Cody has said, ye're only as good as your last championship match. Right, that was Offaly, an easy win, but what about the last championship match before that? Cork, in last year's All-Ireland final. They're good players now, don't get me wrong, but they haven't been tested yet, really tested. The one thing I'm worried about is our full-back line They can't turn. What kills Noel Hickey is work. He's up on the tractor, jumps off to go into training, home, back on the tractor, and he might be on it then 'til four in the morning. A couple of hours sleep, and he's off again. That's tough going, going on for a few years now, but sure he loves the hurling. This fella is a bit like Paul Codd, working all hours, but sure they'd have big loans on that machinery, and that has to be repaid. What choice have they? If our backs can perform this year, if the new lads live up to their promise, we'll be hard to beat.

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