The big interview with Jackie Tyrrell: A winner, warts and all

Jackie Tyrrell was a winner before he was ever a warrior. It took him a long time — and a lot of work with a dedicated mentor — to play with confidence in a Kilkenny jersey. Once he developed that confidence, he was willing to go to the very edge, and sometimes beyond, to stay a winner. And he didn’t care what Tipp or anyone else thought of him.
The big interview with Jackie Tyrrell: A winner, warts and all

To get an idea of how Jackie Tyrrell used to rock with Kilkenny and how Jackie Tyrrell has rolled with his terrific new autobiography, his account of the first training session back after the drawn 2014 All-Ireland final is as good a snapshot as any.

The previous Sunday the Tipperary forward line had led Tyrrell and the rest of the Kilkenny backline a merry dance around Croke Park. Noel McGrath had taken Tyrrell for four points from play. In total Tipp had raided the Kilkenny backline for 1-28. By Tyrrell’s admission, it could have been 5-30.

Needless to say, Brian Cody wasn’t happy and after the first night back training, he told the goalkeepers, defenders, and midfielders to stay behind, not so much for a chat as an inquisition.

Back-up goalkeeper David Herity mentioned something about puckouts. Cody wasn’t having it. “Brian nailed him,” writes Tyrrell, “more or less telling [David] to shut the fuck up. Puckouts weren’t the issue.”

Attitude was.

As far as Tyrrell was concerned though, that laxness also applied to management. So when Cody asked him what he thought, Tyrrell, undeterred by how Herity had been censured, spat it out. The players had been only told an hour before the game, in the dressing room, who they were marking. Martin O’Neill stuff. Mad stuff.

In 2011 Cody had called Tyrell aside a fortnight out from the All-Ireland final to tell him he was going to be on Lar Corbett detail. Martin Fogarty had given him a DVD with clips of how Corbett played and moved. Tyrrell put a photograph of Corbett on the screensaver of his phone.

That’s how focused and ready he was for challenge and that final, one in which Corbett literally didn’t get a puck of the ball.

Referee Cathal McAllister speaks to Lar Corbett as tempers fray between the Tipperary forward and Kilkenny defender Jackie Tyrrell in the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final.
Referee Cathal McAllister speaks to Lar Corbett as tempers fray between the Tipperary forward and Kilkenny defender Jackie Tyrrell in the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final.

Three years later Corbett and the rest of the Tipp attack had enjoyed the freedom of Dublin. Because Kilkenny hadn’t been ready. Cody hadn’t them ready. And Tyrrell let him know it.

“To me, that was completely naïve of management,” he’d say straight to Cody’s face about this crack of giving them their man-marking assignments only an hour out from battle.

How did Cody take it? “Brian may have been thick with me for calling him naïve,” Tyrrell writes, “but I didn’t care.”

What mattered was for the replay, Tyrrell knew well in advance that he’d be on Bubbles O’Dwyer. Seconds into the game, O’Dwyer got on a ball, only for Tyrrell to block him. The game had started as it would finish with the Kilkenny backline, as Tyrrell phrases it, “swallowing up that Tipp attack whole, like a boa constrictor snake”.

It’s a similar story with the book. The Warrior’s Code is as revealing as it is riveting, the book we always wanted about Kilkenny but thought we’d never get, so much so that there’s now hardly a need for another: Tyrrell has said and captured it all. Ask him if he was conscious while writing it that Cody may not have been happy with how much he tells about the workings of his winning machine and Tyrrell shrugs. No, he didn’t care.

“I know that Brian’s been very much involved in my career but if you’re going to tell the story, tell the story. If that’s what happened, then that’s what happened. There’s enough untruths around,” he says over some lunch in The Horse and Jockey, a few miles outside his old familiar battleground of Thurles.

“I would like to think I was always honest in how I played the game. You’re not 90% honest. To me, you’re either 100% honest or 0% honest. That was my attitude towards the book.”

It says something about both men that Tyrrell still asked Cody to speak at his book launch in early September and, though Cody had an inkling from a newspaper extract that The Warrior’s Code would be a warts and all portrayal of them all, Cody duly spoke at that launch, glowingly, if not about the book, about Tyrrell the person and competitor.

Though they’re both James Stephens clubmen, they’ve only spoken once since that launch. It was just after last month’s county final when Stephens were beaten by Dicksboro and Cody came onto the field to shake his hand and say hard luck.

There’ve been other times where they’ve been on the edges of each other’s orbit but that’s been the only time they’ve interacted.

“We’ve never really had that relationship, you know, we’ve never been buddy-buddy,” says Tyrrell, so no, he doesn’t know what Cody has made of the book yet.

If there was a time he’d have wanted Cody’s feedback on something, it was when he was still playing with Kilkenny – or, to be more precise, when he wasn’t playing and stuck on the bench instead.

It’s a striking, recurring sub-theme of the book: Though they say feedback is supposed to be the breakfast of champions, it wasn’t even on the menu of the most serial winner the GAA has known.

Even stellar talent like TJ Reid and Eddie Brennan were on the brink of walking in the absence of such sustenance, only for the intervention and encouragement of senior players like Henry Shefflin.

“Everyone craves feedback, whether it’s good or bad, just so you know where you stand,” says Tyrrell. “Every manager has a different style and that’s Brian’s. And I suppose it was the same when I was playing as it was when I wasn’t playing. You did your job and if you were picked to play, you played, and if you didn’t, you just found out from the team sheet on the Friday night. What’s crippling is when you’re not playing. Where do you stand? How far are you down the pecking order? What do you need to do differently?”

So it was up to you to figure it out for yourself?

“Exactly. And that’s hard to do. Especially when you don’t know what it might be. You’re just looking for anything at all. Sometimes the mind plays tricks on you then.

“I remember once being injured and the physio saying,: ‘Oh yeah, Brian rang me today.’ And I was there: ‘Yeah? Was he asking about me or what?’ And the physio was just: ‘Ah, he was just asking about lads in general, but yeah, your name came up.’

“Sure then in your head you’d be going: ‘Was he thinking about me for the next game? Or was it just a generic chat.

“Because you didn’t get any feedback, you’re just looking for all these little things. Anything to give you an insight into where you stand.”

In another set-up Cody probably wouldn’t have got away with it. Going forward, in a post-golden-generation era, Cody might not get away with it. But in the Shefflin era, he could. He created a sense of what Tyrrell terms “calculated instability” that staved off any complacency. And it cultivated a ferocious culture of self-sufficiency. When Cody did give a Tyrrell some morsel of information, like his need to improve under the high ball when he was left out of the starting line-up for the 2006 All-Ireland quarter-final, it was left to the player to figure out the solution.

“I suppose in Kilkenny that was the standard,” says Tyrrell. “That you should have the IQ on how to improve on that aspect of your game.”

So he’d closely observe his team-mates, study them, learn from them; sure all around him were some of the best winners of the high ball that the game has ever seen. He didn’t quite have JJ Delaney’s hand-eye coordination so he could hardly model himself on him, but he could look at a Brian Hogan and how he used his strength to establish his position under the dropping ball; if he did likewise, then at least he could stop his man from catching it, whatever about catching it himself, and stop Cody from thinking and fearing that Tyrrell could be targeted by the opposition.

As well as that, Tyrrell — and Cody — were lucky that he had another source of coaching and feedback.

‘The first thing I came to realise about Brother Damien Brennan is that he’d be no sycophant. Humouring people just isn’t his thing. ‘What marks out of 10 would you have given yourself for the Dublin game?’ he asked me.

‘Em, maybe five?’ ‘I’d have said three!’ he said… ‘I saw something in that match I never saw before from you. I saw a man just playing for himself!’

— Henry Shefflin, The Autobiography (2015)

Reading Jackie Tyrrell’s book on the back of Henry Shefflin’s, you would hope the Kilkenny county board at the end of each winning year would have sent some kind of voucher if not a cheque out towards Callan way for the mentoring services Brother Damien Brennan rendered in helping the county to their latest All-Ireland triumph. They certainly couldn’t have had any truck if he had filed them an invoice. In the case of Shefflin, he guided him from brilliance to mastery. In the case of Tyrrell, he transformed him from a survivor into a relentless champion.

To borrow an exercise of Brennan’s, when you ask Tyrrell what his confidence levels out of 10 would have been prior to contacting Brennan shortly after winning his third consecutive All-Ireland in 2008, he’d give himself a five, five and a half. After the first in 2006, he’d barely give himself a two. It was like he was operating in, as he puts it, “a psychological torture chamber”.

Back then he wasn’t about excellence, he was about survival. It wasn’t about showing what he could do, it was about not being shown up.

“I remember with about 10 minutes to go in the 2006 final against Cork, there was a big melee of players, fighting for the ball, and I was about five yards back, kind of waiting for the break. The ball ended up coming to me and I had to pick it, left or right, but I just pulled on it straight away and it went back into the melee, hitting about four or five people.

“And that mirrored exactly my mentality at the time: ‘Get that thing away from me. I don’t want it. If it’s not near me, I can’t be turned.’ After working with Damien, I wanted that ball.”

Brennan was — is — much more than a priest. He had studied counselling, psychology, physiology, the lot, as well as coached the Kilkenny minors to a couple of All-Ireland titles in the early noughties.

He’d work on Tyrrell’s game, body and mind, honing his skills, dismantling his doubts.

“A big thing with me was I used to be worrying about what people were thinking. ‘Jackie Tyrrell’s this, Jackie Tyrrell’s that.’ But after starting to work with Damien, I didn’t give that power anymore.”

By the 2009 final when Eoin Kelly took him for a few points, Tyrrell was unfazed by what even the sideline let alone supporters might think and came up to score a point himself. Before meeting Brother D, Tyrrell hadn’t even countenanced the idea of being able to score a point. It wasn’t so much a goal of theirs — a goal had to be something concrete, totally controllable, like getting himself into the best possible shape to mark a Kelly. But it was what they called a ‘Possibility’ — something slightly more aspirational, “fluffy” but still achievable. And in that final, it was achieved. The possibility became an actuality.

Yet as memorable and as intense as that duel with his old St Kieran’s and LIT teammate Kelly was, he’ll be remembered more for his scrapes with another Tipperary sharpshooter which, whatever about Brother Damien himself, may not have been approved by the God he serves.

“At the time of writing Jackie Tyrrell has five All-Irelands and four All Stars: He is a serious hurler. But I just couldn’t handle another 2011 scenario of being cragged and dragged, and jostled, even when the sliotar was at the far end of Croke Park with no referee, umpire, or linesman doing anything about it… The hurley was going to be a mere accessory because he had little or interest in playing the game.”

— Lar Corbett, All In My Head (2012)

“Winning the game is what it has all been about, but not at all costs. I’ve always felt that I can outplay my opponent and if I have to resort to bullying or intimidating him then I’ve been defeated, irrespective of the game. If I can’t beat the guy playing the game, then I don’t want to beat him.”

— Brian Corcoran, Every Single Ball (2006)

Another remarkable, refreshing, though arguably disturbing, feature of Tyrrell’s book is how unapologetic he is about the means, both fair and foul, that he went to in order to win. The title of the book suggest there’s a code to how you win and play, as if there’s a line you don’t cross. He highlights the case of Padraic Maher’s pull on Michael Rice in the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final, that he went too far. But did he himself transgress the line himself? Yes, he says.

“I got sent off in a county final. The Seamus Callanan hit in the 2009 final, I probably deserved to get sent off. We’re all human, we all make mistakes but sitting here now, would I rather not have done the Seamus Callanan hit? Of course.”

Does he really mean that? Afterall, Callanan got back up, played on, and finished the game, scoring three points. It wasn’t like he had to go off and was off work for the next six weeks.

“But he could have been,” says Tyrrell. “It was reckless enough. I’d say if I had more time to think about it, I probably wouldn’t have done it. But I had half a second, and I did it. So yeah, without a doubt, I overstepped the line.”

That said, he struggles with Brian Corcoran’s logic, how the Cork dual star wouldn’t pull down a Mike Frank Russell or Eamonn Morrissey because if he had to do that to win, really he had lost. Does that make him any more of a winner than Corcoran? Not necessarily, he says. But does that make him a completely different one? Absolutely.

“Just because you’re beaten on one or two balls, it doesn’t mean you’re beaten. I get his point, that he thinks he was beaten psychologically if he had to resort to that, but I’ve had fellas pull my jersey but they’d still have outplayed me. Take Séan Cavanagh that time against Monaghan when he pulled [Conor] McManus. I don’t think one incident can define you.”

He thinks the same applies to him. Ask him if the men he marked through the years would have left the field feeling that he was a scut and Tyrrell ponders.

“Let me think. Do I think Eoin Kelly thinks I’m a scut? No. Does John Mullane? No. Damien Hayes? I wouldn’t think so. Does Lar [Corbett] think I’m a scut? Possibly.”

So be it. Again, he can live with it.

He can also live with his decision to live without playing for Kilkenny. The day we meet him is the first anniversary of the time he met Brian Cody in a hotel lobby and sensed from their quick chat — just seven minutes — that it was time to go. If anything, Cody had given him an even bigger hint a few months earlier on All-Ireland final day by not bringing him on. Just as Tyrrell is delighted he came back from injury to play in 2016, he’s just as happy he didn’t come back for 2017.

“It was my just time. Sitting on that bench in the All-Ireland final and seeing the game unravelling in front of me, if ever there was a game I felt needed a change, that was it. But sitting there with 10 minutes to go and still not being brought on, I was like: ‘It’s time for you to go now. Your services aren’t needed here anymore’.

“You still look at both sides of it all, and at times you’d still have this little fantasy in your head, seeing yourself going back there, figuring out who next year is better than you? And I suppose there was still that little kid in you hanging on that Brian Cody would reach out and say: ‘Look, last year was last year, we’re looking at things differently next year, can’t guarantee you anything but…’

“But I know finishing up was right for me. I’ve been very lucky. I’m able to look back on a very fruitful career, something not all people get to do. So when I didn’t come on in the All-Ireland, I didn’t see it as a negative. It was more like: Okay, time to go. Great ride but the ride is over.’”

The heart swells any time he thinks about it. The nights coming off Nowlan Park with his team-mates in the lead up to a big championship game after an absolute belting training session. “In the back of your mind, you’d just be thinking, whether it was Waterford or Cork or Tipp we had next: ‘Bring them fuckin’ on.’

There was a sense of satisfaction and you’d go into the showers and there’d be laughing and joking. And there wouldn’t be anything said like: ‘God, lads, that was a great session.’ Lads just knew.”

And then matchday. Meeting up with the rest of the lads in Langton’s for breakfast. Hearing Tommy Walsh in the back seat of the bus laughing above the music from Tyrrell’s earphones. The spin into Croker. The motorbike police escort.

“I loved the sirens. For a moment you might think they were gone and then the motorbike would fly by you and you’d hear the sirens again.” He laughs. “It was like the other team crying for help!”

Jackie Tyrrell was coming to get ya.

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