Man in the mirror

He was apprehensive, he says now.

It’s 16 years since he was on an inter-county field; 22 years since he did something no-one else in the GAA has ever done.

When the full-time whistle blew for the 1990 All-Ireland football final, Cork had won the double and Teddy McCarthy had won his second All-Ireland medal in two weeks.

Why did he slip away into the dressing-room almost immediately, however?

“I’d had my sense of achievement in the hurling two weeks beforehand, and I didn’t want to be centre of attention. I might have been wrong but I thought there was a chance I might take away some of the attention the other lads were due — I might be wrong — so I slipped away.

“I wanted them to enjoy themselves. To have their own day.”

They had their day. But nobody before or since has had a time like Teddy McCarthy’s September back in 1990. No wonder his autobiography, Teddy Boy, is flying off the shelves.

Then again, he was famous long before that. In the early eighties he was a colleges hurling phenomenon: this writer can still see the 16-year-old McCarthy pointing from the sideline for the North Mon against Coláiste Chríost Rí in a Harty Cup final over 30 years ago.

The difference between McCarthy and many other schoolboy stars is that he was a phenomenon at senior as well.

“At club level I honed my basic skills, the likes of Mickey Barry would have been a huge influence on me, and I could see I had ability. At nine I was playing U12, at 11 I could play U14, so I knew I had something.

“I always wanted to go to the Mon because I’d heard the stories, and the Harty would have been huge in Cork back in the seventies when I was growing up. Farranferris, the Mon, Sullivan’s Quay, Críost Ri were the big schools and because we had no school down here we all went into the city to school.

“The likes of Br O’Brien spotted I had something and in second year I got called to Harty training sessions, but at 14 you were up against 18, I was overawed — and not strong enough.”

Teachers Murty Murphy and Donal O’Grady helped to cut the diamond.

“They were good to hone your tactical awareness, whereas with the club team you’d try to do it all. We won the Harty the first year I was on it, and Flannan’s beat us the next two years. It was a great grounding. It put you in the limelight for minor teams, you were going to small club pitches, Emly, Bansha, Buttevant, and there might be 3,000, 4,000 people cascading through the village — cleaning out the sweet shop — and the build-up was huge.

“For two weeks before that there’d be bunting and flags, competitions for slogans, the Monsoon book was produced, rallies — people outside the school didn’t realise that.

“If you were on the team you’d get the Mon soup, the day of the game you might have 18 buses filled with kids going to the game then . . . you were alive to it, and it made you aware of what the GAA could be.”

There was never a preference between hurling and football for the Sarsfields and Glanmire clubman.

“No, it was the GAA to me, and the tribal thing with the club jersey — you were defending that jersey, and against the likes of Midleton, Youghal, Cobh, big towns. You were defending the small village against them.

“That was the big thing, not whether it was hurling or football. Though I probably had more success in football as things turned out, but I couldn’t pick one.”

In 1990 McCarthy became the only man ever to win two senior All-Ireland medals in one year.

Cork’s achievement that year wasn’t universally welcomed, mind — one sportswriter said that in view of Italia 90 it was something the GAA could have done without.

Does he reckon they got due credit for their achievement?

“Go back then, the media wasn’t as big. There weren’t many newspapers. RTÉ radio and maybe Cork Local Radio, not much more. Now there are loads of stations all over the country, a lot of papers, the internet ...

“I think relative to the time we got plenty of coverage, though that wouldn’t compare with what it would get today. Something might be done for the 25th anniversary, but at the time the media was beginning to expand.

“For instance, we went up to Dublin for the football All-Ireland in 1990 and we got off the bus at the Burlington. Century Radio was just starting off, and they sponsored the bus, they had flags and bunting, girls at the hotel in Century t-shirts, asking where we were heading off to that night — the night before an All-Ireland, that you wouldn’t be fairly nervous.”

McCarthy looked impervious to tension when he was on the field, though. Was he nervous before games?

“Hugely. I can’t speak for anyone else, but the first one (All-Ireland final) was the easiest, after that the pressure comes on to perform, to lead. The pressure is huge, but that’s where the company of a team comes in, the presence of good team-mates. That helps. But I’d have been nervous going out, simple as that.

“Exceptions? In football, Steven O’Brien was brilliant. I don’t know if he was nervous, I never asked him, but he didn’t seem to be. He never seemed to have a bad game, and for a young lad he was light years ahead of his time. If he was going back he’d bounce back and drive on.

“Maybe he was nervous, but that’s not how he came across, certainly.”

McCARTHY stays connected to the current scene through his son, Cork senior hurler Cian.

“When I started in 1986 the team was well established and successful, which isn’t the case now . . . I don’t see the game, to be honest, when he’s playing. You’re pucking every ball, asking ‘why is he in that position, I’d be in the other position’, but the one thing is we get on great.

“He’s open and one thing is he knows when he doesn’t play well, which is a good sign. If he asks me how he did I tell him straight up; that’s the way he wants it.”

The double-winner was involved as a selector in the last two strikes on Leeside, first with Teddy Holland and then with Gerald McCarthy. He says only an All-Ireland hurling title will heal the scars left by those days.

“You were either on one side or the other — that’s human nature — but it’s history now. Not a nice part of history, but it’s there.

“Hopefully we can learn from it, though it’s something nobody wanted. It’s up to people to determine whether it worked or not.

“I had no axe to grind with the players, I wasn’t involved with any of them at underage levels so I didn’t know them.

“It was a raw thing and irrespective of what people say, it’s there. I’ve said that I think it’s put hurling in Cork back ten years. In my own club you had half the members saying the players were right, and the other half saying they were wrong.

“There was no winner, really. I don’t think you learn from them because they’re about different issues, but the sooner we can put it to bed the better, and the only way to do that is to win an All-Ireland.

“I know lots of people who still won’t go to see Cork play, but that’s their problem. It’s a difficult situation to comprehend now, but it’ll cast a shadow over the GAA in Cork for a long time to come.”

There’s a good deal of gloom about hurling in Cork at present. McCarthy sees a couple of possible remedies on offer.

“You can’t blame a manager in Cork at senior inter-county level, you have to look at what you get from underage teams.

“At U21 you’re only as good as what you get from minor; at minor you’re only as good as what you get from underage teams and the Harty teams, which would have provided those kinds of players, aren’t there.

“Huge work is being done in the clubs at underage level in the last ten years but it’s not coming through. In the past players came through the Harty Cup — that was the introduction, the next level — but the city schools aren’t strong any more because kids go to their local schools — in Glanmire, Carrigaline, Ballincollig, wherever.

“Take Glanmire, where you have a community school and Coláiste an Phiarsaigh. Half the Sars players are in one school and the other half in the other; if you amalgamated those for the Harty you’d have players from Sars, Erin’s Own, a few from Watergrasshill, Carrigtwohill together. You’d have a good team.

“The work is being done. But to go from underage with your club to intercounty minor, you don’t have that intermediate step — learning tactical awareness in the Harty, playing strong teams from other counties, big games and big crowds.”

The Sars man looks to the playing field for another problem to be rectified: “One thing about hurling in Cork is that a lot of forwards want cheap ball — they want the ball popped into their hands without realising how hard it is to win the ball back in your own half-back line or in midfield, how hard it is to deliver that ball under pressure.

“Okay, play the percentages, but if you look at Kilkenny Tommy Walsh is hitting the ball over his head and his shoulder, not looking where he’s putting it. In Cork you’ll often see all the forwards coming out for the same type of ball — leaving nobody inside in the full-forward line, as a result — and another result of that is that you have average players looking good when that ball works out.

“In contrast, John Fitzgibbon stayed around the square. He was a classy hurler in his own right, but look at the goals he got — pulls, kicks, knocked over the line. An out and out corner-forward, getting goals near goal.

“A lot of goals are a result of luck in hurling — you can work goals from out the field, but a lot of them come from lucky breaks. From work. That’s one thing I’d like to see, more hooking and blocking from forwards.”

McCarthy sees a place for tactics in hurling, but he also stresses instinct.

“To me hurling is anticipation. Eighty per cent of the game is being in the right place at the right time. You have to have skill and you can coach skill, but most of it is played on anticipation. Kilkenny are a physical team, for instance, but people get carried away with that. Cork had a running game and Kilkenny countered it, but I think it’s hard to get your tactics right in hurling. They might work every now and again but they won’t work all the time.

“And Kilkenny play with huge anticipation — when they win the ball they’re on the move and they can come from anywhere. Take TJ Reid -he’s rarely underneath the dropping ball but he’s great to anticipate the break, to read the game.”

In his book, McCarthy ranges candidly over the challenges he’s faced — marital problems and legal issues, not to mention his sister Ellen’s medical condition.

“That was a lot more difficult than I’d thought, because I wouldn’t have spoken that much over the years about her, or when my father died.

“Ellen has been in a vegetative state for over 30 years after a car crash and I suppose I didn’t realise how emotional it would be to get into that. We were very close and there wouldn’t have been a day, weather permitting, when she wouldn’t come in from work and puck around in the garden with me. I remember her for those great days, not for where she is now.”

McCarthy is open in the book about how hard he finds it to visit Ellen: “It hurts me terribly, and my family goes in to see her on a regular basis. I go in on birthdays or weddings, other occasions, but I’m not the better of it when I come out again. It’s just something that’s there and that won’t go away. I feel it’s unfair, that it shouldn’t have happened, and it’s stressful. It’s tough, and not going in is an easy option. It’s not what I want to do but it’s what I’m forced to do for peace of mind. It’s part of life, though, and it brought back great memories in a lot of ways, too, to recall those days.”

Great days, great memories. It could have been a book title.

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