'Typical of Mick, he always looked out for his friends'

The prince of centre-backs? Former Tipperary All-Ireland winner Mick Roche
'Typical of Mick, he always looked out for his friends'

In the opinion of Michael ‘Babs’ Keating, Tipperary’s Mick Roche, who passed away earlier this month, aged 73, was “up there with the greats of hurling”.

And Babs should know.

He and the Carrick Davins stylist graduated together from Tipperary’s minor side of 1961 to win an All-Ireland intermediate hurling medal in ’63, before annexing All-Ireland U21 honours in ’64, the year they also won their first senior medals. The pair would go on to win further senior All-Irelands together in ’65 and ’71.

Their stellar careers remained closely linked, their bond strengthened by travelling together to games and training, and room-sharing on trips to New York, Boston, Chicago, and London. Their promotion to the senior grade came after a hotly fancied Tipperary team — who had done an All-Ireland double in ’61 and ’62 — lost to Waterford in the ’63 Munster final. That defeat signalled the need to ‘freshen up’ the team and also led to debuts for the likes of goalie John O’Donoghue and Len Gaynor.

The initiative had the desired effect as Tipperary won the senior title in ’64 and ’65 with one of the best combinations the county has ever fielded. Mick Roche’s midfield partnership with Theo English was one of the key factors in that success. Theo was his father-figure and mentor who guided Roche’s rise to become one of hurling’s household names.

Mick Roche could play any position. He regularly operated in attack for his club, was at midfield for the county, and eventually took over the number six shirt for Tipperary. But midfield was his preferred position as he said he loved the scope it afforded him.

Babs puts it like this: “When talking to players from inside and outside Tipperary, there was never any question as to who was the best player of our time. Mick was only 20 when he established himself as a great inter-county midfielder alongside Theo but he could play anywhere. Often he played in attack with the Davins and then he moved back to centre-half-back when Tony Wall retired, and he gave exhibitions in all roles.

“He had everything you could look for in a hurler and more besides. He had lovely hands, and always seemed to have loads of time on the ball because of how he could read the game. He was deceptively fast, his elegant, laid-back style disguising a fierce determination and steely courage. Really, he was the complete player,” Keating said.

Babs recalls with amusement a National Hurling League quarter-final against Kildare on a miserably wet day when things were not going well for himself. John Lanigan was a selector with Tipperary and a very strict disciplinarian. He was pacing up and down the sideline and Roche warned Babs that Lanigan had him in his sights. When a forward sub began to warm up on the sideline, Roche went down with a feigned ankle injury, and called to Babs to dash over to him to start rubbing it. Lanigan saw Roche down and stalled making the substitution in case Roche had to come off. The crisis passed and Babs saw out the game thanks to the intervention of his great friend.

“That was typical of Mick. He always looked out for his friends.”

The statistics show that Mick Roche, in addition to his All-Ireland medals, won three National Hurling League medals and three Railway Cup medals with Munster, two Tipperary senior championships with Davins in ’66 and ’67 and a Munster club medal in ’66 also. In 1971, he was centre half-back on the inaugural All-Star hurling team.

Delve behind the statistics and a picture emerges of a hurler’s hurler. Tipperary All-Ireland-winning goalie John O’Grady, well-known GAA commentator through his Tipperary Star ‘Cúlbaire’ column, says of Roche: “Mick was even-tempered to a creditable degree. The sharpest exchanges did not ruffle him into playing the man rather than the ball. With ball play, and evasive stick work, he made room for clearances and deliveries with deceptive ease. In short, he exuded class.”

In recent weeks, the debate has raged as to which was his best game. Roche himself considered the 1971 Munster final showing against Limerick in rain-soaked Killarney as “the one he would love to play again.”

Others gave the nod to his display in the ’68 All-Ireland final, which Tipperary lost to Wexford. His clubmate Jimmy Ryan, who won an All-Ireland with him in ’71, reckons his best ever game was for Davins in the Munster club final win over Ballygunner.

“He was at midfield for us that day and he scored 1-9. We had a good team, but Michael was a massive part of all we did. Himself and PJ (Ryan) formed a great partnership. He left nothing to chance and was always practising frees, sidelines, and doing extra runs to ensure he had the legs to keep going in matches. He was very much one of us, but we all looked up to him. He never lost his love for Carrick and was always asking about the club,” he said.

The standing of Mick Roche in the hurling world was vividly reflected in the huge gathering at his funeral in his adopted Moycarkey, when stars of past and present mingled with “the grassroots” in a moving farewell, with his coffin flanked by guards of honour comprised of Tipperary and Davins players. His great friend Babs delivered an emotional eulogy that strikingly captured both the hurler and the man.

It was a fitting tribute to a man who had graced the playing fields in the 60s and 70s but whose quite unassuming ways also graced the life of his adopted community for so many years.

Sincere sympathy to his wife Mary, son Michael, daughters, Elaine, Siobhan, sons-in-law, grandchildren, brothers Tom and Donald and his extended family on their sad loss.

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