The Big Interview: John McIntyre’s conflict of interest

Whether Galway win or lose, John McIntyre will be outside their dressing room tomorrow evening seeking out words of despair or triumph. Win or lose, he will feel despair and triumph too.

The Big Interview: John McIntyre’s conflict of interest

At some point tomorrow John McIntyre will look down from the press box high in the Hogan Stand and monitor a sideline that he has patrolled himself, a place he knows well that’s more unforgiving than any critic.

Below he’ll see two men that he’s followed one way or the other for decades now, and who in some ways are now following him.

One will be Eamon O’Shea.

How long or well does he know Eamon O’Shea? Well, two days into McIntyre’s marriage to Pauline he was up close and personal with O’Shea as well, marking him in the North Tipperary final of 1987.

The previous night, McIntyre had taken leave from his and Pauline’s room in the West Park Hotel in nearby Portumna to attend an eve-of-match team meeting. It did Lorrha only so much good; the following day, Kilruane beat them, “2-15 to 0-13” McIntyre can recall, the way only a player who has doubled as a journalist can.

O’Shea won their individual battle well. McIntyre never marked a faster player. After the game instead of heading straight back to Portumna to his bride, his bride joined him and his teammates for their lengthy, tipsy post-mortem in the Portland House Hotel, located right at the bottom of McIntyre’s own father’s land. By the time McIntyre and Pauline made it back to their honeymoon hotel in Portumna they found it was closed. They tried tapping on doors, car lights were shone into reception: no joy.

“So what did we have to do, this our third night after getting married?” he winces over a coffee in a cafe across the street from the Connacht Tribune’s offices.

“I had to go back to the Portland, at the bottom of our land, and ask the owner to give us a room.” So after that, yeah, how could he forget his link to Eamon O’Shea?

Anthony Cunningham is someone he’s covered too, just in other ways. He’s written regularly about him for the Tribune: first when Cunningham was a player, then later as a coach. He’d like to think there’s a mutual respect and civility between them but he’s conscious that occasionally through the years he may have written things Cunningham would not have liked, and McIntyre is too honest and direct to say otherwise: sometimes the sight of Cunningham on that sideline has stirred some mixed emotions in him too.

Cunningham’s first year as Galway manager was McIntyre’s first as a former Galway manager. That same year, Galway won their first Leinster championship and reached the All-Ireland final.

“You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t have some envy and wish that you were still there or think about people saying Anthony had done in one year what I couldn’t do in three. Most people won’t admit that but if they’re honest that’s there.

“That same summer [of 2012] my mother [Mary] passed away unexpectedly from a brain haemorrhage. I remember then when Galway won the All-Ireland semi-final against Cork it was definitely odd. I was willing Galway to win the All-Ireland because of the great time I’d have had for the Galway players but you did have mixed emotions. But the following morning I just had to get into sports editor’s mode and organise the pen pictures and everything else.”

In a way he’s brought this on himself: all these conflicting emotions, the constant challenge of somehow circumnavigating any conflict of interest. Because every role he’s ever gotten is pretty much what he’s wished for at some point.

It all started back in Lorrha, on his father’s home. As a kid he’d always an interest in being a sports commentator. “We had a dairy herd and every cow had the name of a racehorse. I’m sure the neighbours used to think I was half-mad, this young fella calling cows Red Rum and Gay Trip.” That interest prompted him to write away his Leaving Cert year to provincial newspapers across the country, enquiring if they had any work, especially in sport. The only paper to write back was the Connacht Tribune to say they’d keep his application on file. A year later when he was finished his first year at agricultural college, he was called up to Galway for an interview as a trainee reporter. He started the same day John Lennon was shot: December 8, 1980.

He was a complete greenhorn, covering the courts, inquests: what sustained him was covering games at the weekend. But even that was a tricky affair. He had no car so he had to thumb, beg, charm his way. On Friday evenings, transport was even more mandatory. That’s when Lorrha trained.

“As a kid there was no sanctuary too precious for my hurley. Myself and my brothers, we’d take it to bed with us, Mass with us, we’d drive the cows with it. At times I look back and think that I’m sorry I was so one-dimensional but on the other hand I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.” McIntyre’s father played for the club in the 1956 county final. In 1966 his uncle played in another. Then in 1984 McIntyre and two of his brothers played in another.

That was the same year he was voted Tipperary Hurler of the Year, was probably the county’s best player in the classic Munster final against Cork. What did he do within minutes of such a sterling display and agonising defeat? Hop into a car heading to Holycross to play a tournament game for Lorrha.

The week before the county semi-final against Drom-Inch he got a knee in the back playing football. “It was the first time I’d ever had to leave the field of play. I drove up to Nenagh Hospital the following morning, stumbled into the car and out of it and I remember this doctor coming into me with the x-rays saying ‘You’ve broken two side vertebrae. You’re going to have to lie on your back for six weeks.” By the Wednesday McIntyre was walking around the corridor. By the Thursday he was jogging. On the Friday he discharged himself. On the Sunday he played.

Ten minutes into the game he broke his hand in two places. He strapped his hand to his hurley. After he and Lorrha got through that game, his hand would be wrapped up in Paris plaster which he’d duly, prematurely, break off. As he says himself, “I defied all medical opinion to play the county final of ’84.” Looking back, playing that day took so much out of him, mentally and physically, he wasn’t right for two years after. So would he risk it again?

“Yeah,” he says instantly. “No regrets. The only regret is that we didn’t win the bloody match.

“It would still be a void in my life that Lorrha haven’t won a senior championship. It still torments me. Especially when you’d be driving on your own. I’d love to turn back the clock and play one more time for Lorrha. I played my last game for them when I was 41. I’m 54 now but I keep myself relatively fit and there have been times over the last five or six years that I’ve seriously considered playing again.” Then he smiles. “But then I remember I’d have to wear a helmet. I’d have to get a court injunction not to wear a helmet. And that just sounds like a lot of hassle.”

He always has a lot on the go though. His first stint with Offaly back in ’97, there was one weekend where he played for Lorrha on the Saturday evening, then on the Sunday oversaw Offaly’s Leinster championship win over Meath before shooting back to Kenny Park in Athenry to cover a local championship game. Crazy, or at least crazy busy, but he’s found that the busier it is, the better he works.

He was still playing for Tipp when he was appointed sports editor of the paper in 1986. Within a year though he was out of favour with new manager Babs Keating while a fierce rivalry was about to take off between his native county and his adopted one. At the height of that rivalry Galway manager Cyril Farrell suggested to McIntyre he move to a Galway club so he could join their county panel. For McIntyre it was a non-runner.

“I would never have shifted Tony Keady from centre back. I was a bit of a dreamer as a hurler but I was also an utter realist.” Besides, it would have meant leaving Lorrha. Again, never.

So, instead he wrote about that Galway team and all sport in the county. His copy had an edge to it. At the time he would see the sports pages of most provincial newspapers as something more fitting for a parish newsletter.

“I’m not God’s gift to the English language,” he says, “but I suppose I quickly got a reputation in Galway for not sparing what I considered substandard performances. And it got me in a lot of trouble through the years.” In hindsight he overstepped the mark at times, especially with players. “I wrote some stuff that I’d nearly cringe at now,” he says.

He remembers a young fella called Jimmy Burke from Turloughmore. Played centre-back in an All-Ireland U21 final one evening in Ennis back in ’87. McIntyre can’t remember exactly what he wrote about him, only that he went too far, that he wasn’t fair.

But as for administrators? It was his duty to monitor how they were doing in theirs. “I wouldn’t have been flavour of the month with them, that’s for sure. I have no doubt that if I hadn’t been a journalist I would have had a much better chance of being Galway manager a lot earlier than I was.” He’d like to think he didn’t make it personal. He remembers making a point of going to visit Phelim Murphy in hospital when the long-serving county secretary was having his hip replaced. “At the time we had fallen out for the umpteenth time. So I looked at this as an opportunity to have our latest peace accord. So I went along with my black grapes and bottle of Lucozade but I also had my two young fellas in front of me, the rationale being that he was hardly going to eff me out of it in front of them!

“It worked. I didn’t give him a relapse anyway. I’m sure Phelim and a lot of his colleagues would have been thinking after an article ‘that fecker from Tipperary is at it again.’ But at the same time I think a part of him would have seen that I was a hurling man, going up and down from Lorrha, helping out a lot of Galway clubs, and the paper was giving the GAA a lot of publicity.” McIntyre’s track record on the Galway club scene meant he was invariably linked with the county management any time the position became vacant. He’d won county championships with Sarsfields and Clarinbridge, taken Carnmore to a final. Throw in his stints with Kinvara and Loughrea and every club he’d coached in the county had reached a county semi-final at least. Only for an exceptional Athenry team being around, he’d probably have won a county with every one of them.

In the autumn of 2008, 17 years after first applying for the post, McIntyre finally got the chance to become Galway manager.

“I think possibly looking back on it now the achievement was getting the job. That it had taken me so long to become Galway manager it disarmed me slightly. Sometimes I think ‘Maybe I should have done more.’” Then at times he wonders how could he? He think of his selectors: John Hardiman, Joe Connolly, John Moylan: they put their heart and soul into it. They brought in two of the most recognised mental performance coaches in the country in Enda McNulty and Gerry Hussey. And the team would have some great days: each season they beat Cork in either a qualifier or in a league final as was the case in 2010. But each year they crashed out at the All Ireland quarter-final stage.

The 2010 single-point defeat to Tipperary in Croker saw a devastated McIntyre choke up with emotion in the post-match interview but on reflection the previous year’s defeat to Waterford in Thurles was even worse.

“We were 18 points to 14 up and I remember looking at my stopwatch and there was 68 minutes and 14 seconds gone and we were in possession. And within four minutes of that we were gone. There was a turnover in that attack, long ball downfield, Shane Walsh stuck it in the net. Then Waterford got another point and then [John] Mullane fired over the winner. The Tipp game was touch and go right through but that Waterford game we were in control.” Exactly two years on, the same two counties met and this time there was no need for any injury-time Mullane heroics or a stopwatch. Waterford trounced them by 10 points.

And yet the previous month the Galway boat was powering smoothly along. They’d hammered Clare by 17 points; then drilled Cork by a dozen.

“I remember after the Cork game being with the rest of the management having some downtime when this absent-minded thought came along: ‘This could be all over in a fortnight.’ Supporters were coming up, shaking my hand, but I knew that if I didn’t get Galway to a semi-final in my third year in charge I was bollixed. And we didn’t front up against Waterford. I remember being on the sideline with 20 minutes to go and knowing in my heart of hearts that I would never stand on the sideline as Galway manager again.” He’d later consult with players who’d suggest they maybe trained too hard the week after the Cork game. And maybe they did. “But,” he says, “it’s like everything. When you lose is everything is wrong. It’s all about the result. I’ve had good days on the sideline where teams have lost and I’ve been absolutely demonised, and I’ve had bad days on the sideline when we’ve won and people don’t care.” He still strides a sideline; these days with Castlegar. It’s his third year with them; could be his last with them or anyone else for a while after decades of constantly being on the go. All the more reason so to savour what’s left.

“Some of the greatest days in my life have been out on a hurling field, as a player, as a manager. Unfortunately there were more days when I woke up on a Monday with a sporting depression. But I always viewed myself as being like a rubber ball: after maybe a word from and with Pauline I’d bounce back

“I was involved with a horse called Rigour Back Bob. He finished fifth in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle at Cheltenham in 2011. I’ve watched the race video a thousand times and I’m convinced if he hadn’t been interfered with at the top of the hill the worst he’d have finished would have been second and that we might even have won. I was crushed afterwards, but that horse won seven races for us. And they were magic days.

“I’ve often quoted in dressing rooms what JP McManus said after Istrabraq won the second of his Champion Hurdles. ‘These are magic moments.’ It’s different for Kilkenny; they win virtually all the time. For the most of the rest of us, the balance sheet suggests there are more bad days than good. So that’s why when you do win you’ve got to cherish the moments.”

Tomorrow in Croke Park a team will get to experience one, even if it will be with the eye towards an even greater moment in September. McIntyre will head down from the press box to outside the Galway dressing room. On one hand it’s a great opportunity to get quotes from former players of his that no other journalist would have that connection with. There’s an awareness that almost 35 years on from Lennon’s death he’s still scrambling for quotes. And he’s mindful that in the eyes of the younger players he could be something of a yesterday’s man, if they can place him at all. That’s fine with him.

“It’s all about the here and now. It’s funny. I remember being on Up for the Match for the 2012 final. Stephen Molumphy was on the panel with me and we were having a drink in the green room after and up until then he thought I was a Galway man! And I didn’t realise it until later but it kind of irked me! Like if I had a euro for every time I drove through Killimor.... But then sure Stephen was only born the same year I played in that Munster final in ’84!

“My wife is a Galway woman. My two children are from Galway.

“I’d love to see Galway win the All-Ireland. But I still consider myself a Tipperary man and that will always be the case.” For once he can’t lose. Or maybe he can’t win. Either way he’ll once mor e get on with it and around it.

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