Any Wednesday night for the last 20 years, you could learn how a club can be led from the top or the bottom, as long as it’s led from the front.
In the field you’d find Len Gaynor, Kilruane MacDonaghs’ greatest hurler — three All-Irelands, four Munsters, three Railway Cups, three Tipp SHCs — surrounded by boys and girls as young as four.
A couple of them are calling him ‘granda’ because he is their grandfather. More follow suit because it seems the done thing.
It is beginners’ night and the kids are learning to hurl. Some have mastered the lift. Others can strike. More can poke and root and enjoy poking and rooting.
Some have official training other nights, but need the extra attention. Some aren’t ready to mix it yet with those more sure of themselves.
This is where they come to believe in themselves.
“It’s just teaching them the basics,” says Len ahead of the club’s first Tipperary SHC quarter-final in 21 years this afternoon against Eire Óg Annacarty.
“You have to get them used to getting little raps on the hands. We try to encourage them not to hit each other, but it happens. And the first time it does, they think they are killed. But they get up and find they are OK. And the next time it happens, they don’t mind as much.
“And then they find they can lift the ball or hit it. And they get confidence. It’s amazing the difference you can see in a child after 12 months.
“They just need encouragement, be made to feel important. If we don’t nurture the game…”
The greatest Kilruane team won the club’s last county senior title 30 years ago, coached by Len Gaynor. The following St Patrick’s Day, they were All-Ireland champions, having beaten Buffers Alley in one of the finest club finals played.
They will mark all that next year, amid a lot of things to be marked. Proclamation signatory Thomas MacDonagh was born in the parish, in Cloughjordan. The club field was opened in 1966.
Gilbert Williams hurled on that great team, under Len. He hurled for Tipp too, though modestly points out that “everyone hurled for Tipp in those days”.
“Len is an amazing man,” says Gilbert. “He’s never a man who seeks the limelight, though it falls on him.
“He’d take on teams that wouldn’t be viewed as winners. Back in the early 2000s, we were struggling at minor. We actually had a Minor C team, a big step back. He took that team and they went on and won finals.”
Titles aside, something remarkable came from that great Kilruane team.
“Out of a panel of 25, I think about 22 became involved as selectors or managers. We got club chairmen out of it. We got secretaries. We never got more value out of a team,” says Gilbert.
Eamon O’Shea and Dinny Cahill emerged to national prominence. Gilbert’s brother Paddy coached Meath hurlers, another brother, Jim, several clubs in North Tipp. Len led Clare and Tipp, as well as several clubs to county honours.
Lately, Tipp All-Ireland winner Seamus Hennessy, son of Seamus on that side, has put disappointment with injury aside to lend an important voice in the area of mental health. A culture of giving back. Gilbert sees Len’s influence everywhere.
“He was a motivator and he led us from the front. When we went training, doing laps, he used [to] lead. There was no such thing as the whistle and meet you at the corners.
“And he and Donie Nealon are the two best men I’ve ever heard to give a speech. Though I only heard him curse once, the year we were relegated in 2000.”
In the Munster final of 1985, against the Blackrock team of all the stars, Kilruane were pegged back late. “A soft enough free,” reckons Gilbert. Overcarrying. Pat Moylan stole Rockies the replay.
Heads were down. Chance gone, the consensus. Gilbert can still drift away and picture that dressing room and hear the words. “Len stood up inside. He always stood up on something so he could be seen. The emotion inside there. Going in there was a feeling we’ve left this behind. But going out the door, we were thinking it’ll take a good team to beat us.”
lot of good and middling teams have beaten Kilruane since. In today’s last eight clash — their first since 1994 — they’ll start slight favourites.
The club has recovered underage, winning four county U21 titles in nine years. But conveyor belts stall. Of the 2006 side, seven have emigrated and two transferred. Injuries to Hennessy and Brian O’Meara also hindered them. Both should play today, with Tipp forward Niall O’Meara likely centre-back. There are sons or nephews of the ’86 heroes in every line. Billy O’Shea — Eamon’s brother — selector then with Len, trains them now.
Len might be in Semple. He’d definitely be there — and at all of this weekend’s Tipp quarter-finals — except it’s a desperately sad week in the club. Breda Kirby — wife of Tom, a forward-thinking club secretary in the glory years — lost a long fight with illness. Her funeral is this morning.
Wednesday night went ahead. It always does. Len loves it as much as the kids. He has nurtured the game around Tipp primary schools too for many years.
One visit to a school in another parish never leaves him.
“There was a very weak lad. He wasn’t interested, but he went out with the class anyway. On cold days, he’d wear a coat. I tried to keep him warm. Got him jumping around.
“One day, at the end, I gave out the usual… man of the match, best goal. And I named him most improved player.
“I met his mother a few years later. She told me those couple of words changed his life. Turned him inside out.
“I was taken aback. It just shows the power of a few loose words.” The power of Len Gaynor is that not many words have been loose.