He now resides forever in the GAA Hall of Fame but Larry Tompkins came close to obscurity.
Instead of being a legend, one even Alex Ferguson and his Manchester United staff would bow to, he was nearly a myth, just a tall tale of those who’d claim to have seen him play some time in Newbridge or New York.
He’d been unfortunate enough to come along at a time well before Micko would land in Kildare, before there was any backdoor to prolong the summer, when a lot of league football was played before Christmas.
Seven years on from making his senior county debut, probably the best player in football was merely the best secret in football, the height of his ambition to either win another county title in Gaelic Park with Donegal or this crazy notion of joining the Cleary boys and winning a county with this club called Castlehaven that they kept talking about.
Cork? “It was never in my head to go back [to Ireland] and play with Cork. It was [just] Castlehaven.”
Croke Park? Again, never entered his head. The Hall of Fame? Stop.
“When I was a player and I’d hear of people being inducted into a museum,” he muses, upon accepting an invitation to Examiner HQ to mark the occasion, “I thought you had to be dead.”
‘YOU WILL NEVER SEE MY BROTHER PLAY FOR KILDARE AGAIN’
He’s 56 now, young enough to have a 12-year-old son but old enough to recall an Ireland where everything was in monochrome.
“Growing up, my family didn’t have a lot. No transport, no electricity, no running water for a long time. All we had was a football and a farmer’s field. We’d go to the neighbour’s house to listen to matches on the old radio, thinking someday I could be [playing]. I was the youngest of seven: four brothers and two sisters. When the potatoes were thrown out on the table, you had to dig in.”
It was the same with a football out on that farmer’s field. No mercy from his brothers. “But it helped me. It toughened me up.”
By 16 he was playing with the county seniors; he can still hear Jimmy Magee on the radio on the way back from his debut above in Dr Hyde Park, mentioning how it must have been some kind of a record for a lad that young to be playing. He was light but he wouldn’t stay light.
A couple of years later he was part of a Kildare team hosed by five goals down in Tralee, tagged by Jimmy Deenihan and Páidí Ó Sé. After the game Ógie Moran came over towards him to greet the Kildare manager, Éamonn O’Donoghue, an old Sigerson teammate from UCD.
“Éamonn introduced him to me and before I said ‘Great to meet you’, I asked ‘What kind of training do you do?’ He said, ‘You’re very
young, maybe get into a gym and do some long running to help your strength.’
“The next day I contacted Dermot Earley, who was in the Curragh camp, about a gym. They had a gym which Dermot couldn’t let me use it because it was against rules and regulations unless you were in the army. But two or three weeks later Dermot rang my home place and said there were two fellas in the camp who were opening a gym in Naas. When it opened, I lived there.”
He’d play five years with the county U21s, winning a Leinster in his final year, only to miss out on the subsequent All-Ireland semi-final through injury. It was a shame but hardly a tragedy. A tragedy would have been if that same injury had killed him. Which it nearly did.
In an intermediate county final for his home club Eadestown, a rampant Tompkins took a sly elbow to the head just after half-time.
“I got up afterwards and took a stagger. Nobody knew what concussion was [back then]. I scored 1-10 and we hammered them out of the gate but I don’t remember anything about the game and collapsed in the dressing room. I was in a coma for over two days.
It was a hard time for my parents, touch and go, [wondering] whether you’d come out of it. It looked like it was over, a hairline fracture of the skull on the temple bone.
At one stage he was told he wouldn’t be able to do anything for 12 months. But that’s where Dr Gerry McEntee came in.
Years later he and his county teammates would torment Tompkins but it’s not coincidental that when that Cork-Meath rivalry was at its poisonous height, Tompkins was the one to make his way over from the red zone of a beach to the green.
From that scare in ’83 on, Tompkins always retained a huge level of respect for McEntee and his colleagues as men and as footballers.
“Gerry sent me to all the top specialists and in time I got a bit more confident. I was back playing within nine months.”
Soon after that, a good friend of his had their own stint in hospital.
Matt Connor was a hero, inspiration, a teammate with Leinster, and a friendly rival; in those days the late Owen McCann would track the leading scorers in the country throughout the year and Tompkins and Connor would knock great craic out of jostling and jockeying for top position.
Tompkins would go to Walsh Island games to see what score his buddy might post up. It was that tight between them. The scoring race. Their bond.
“The morning of his [motor] accident, his brother Richie rang me to inform me. None of us realised at the time the extent of it. I went to see him the next day, St Stephen’s Day, in hospital... And sure Matt was happy as Larry, if you excuse the expression.
“He didn’t think the injury was anything major. But within 24 hours he was moved to Dun Laoghaire and the news broke then that he was paralysed from the waist down and that he would never play football again.
“It was a massive blow, not alone for his club and for Offaly but for the whole of Leinster, the whole of football. You’d love that young people would have got to see him play, the ability that man had.”
By the end of the following 1985 season, Leinster football had lost another one of its most outstanding talents, albeit in different circumstances.
Tompkins had lined out for Kildare in that year’s championship, a second-round loss against Meath, having flown back on his own account from New York where he had been able to get work as a carpenter.
“At home we were all tradesmen and there was only one of us working. People were just sitting at home, looking out the window. It wasn’t a nice place in a rural area just to be at that.”
He had flown back to play the Meath game on the assurance that the Kildare County Board would cover his return flight to the States. After the game, a raging, cringing Éamonn O’Donoghue came over to Tompkins in the dressing room: ‘The boys have told me there’s no ticket for you’.
“Éamonn was gutted because I had been dealing with him but it didn’t surprise me. They’d said they would see me down in the hotel to explain. It was the Beechmount Hotel in Navan... I was having no meal, I just wanted to get out of there, so I went down to see them [board chairman Pat Dunny and county secretary Seamus Aldridge].
“They were in having their meal with the minor team. They never even lifted their heads. I will never forget the words that they said.
“In six years I had never missed a training session yet [Aldridge] said, ‘Look, we couldn’t get any ticket for you to go back to New York.’ A late booking or something like that. ‘And seeing as we won’t be needing you anymore, why should we pay for the ticket?’ That is exactly what they said.
And they never even looked at me when they said it. Dunny didn’t take his face off the table and Aldridge was eating as he was talking. And I just [thought], ‘F****** hell, it’s no wonder that Kildare football is the way it is.’
“Pat Dunny was a great player himself, won Railway Cups with Leinster in hurling and football. But he had what you would call a jealousy over his shoulder, that I was taking his limelight. It just felt to me that was the case.”
Tompkins would eventually find a way to get back to New York — listen back to last week’s podcast or read his autobiography out next year for more detail — but you should know this for now: After bringing his brother to the airport, Tommy Tompkins, the eldest in the family, turned his car around and drove straight for a certain house in Naas.
Tommy had earlier had another brother who had been county standard. In the late ‘70s Joe Tompkins had been one of the best midfielders in Kildare club football. Even played a bit with the county, like when his 16-year-old brother made his home debut against Armagh.
But Joe had become disillusioned with how the board and the team was “such a disorganised crowd” and quit soon after.
Larry was different. Kildare, playing at the highest level, was everything to him.
In the mornings he’d leave their mother’s home at 6.30am and either walk four miles or thumb a lift to work on the sites for 10 hours; then get a spin into Naas, grab a sandwich and tea in a shop, then walk half-an-hour to train with the county; then, after training, set off with his bag on his back and walk another five miles to thumb another lift.
By the time he’d get back to the dinner his mom would have ready for him on the table it would be 11.30 at night.
For six years he did that. Then came Ticketgate. That was a breaking point, for more than one Tompkins. And so, after dropping off his brother at the airport, Tommy Tompkins stood outside Seamus Aldridge’s residence in Naas.
“He knocked at his door,” recalls Larry, “threw the cheque back at him [Aldridge] and told him, ‘You will never see my brother play with Kildare again.’”
And he wouldn’t. In trying to save themselves a couple of hundred quid over a transatlantic flight, Kildare football would pay a much higher price.
In others sports it can be easy enough to identify the standout player over a sustained period. Diego Maradona, figuratively at least, towered over all other footballers, even Michel Platini, for over half-a-decade.
The past decade has belonged to Messi and Ronaldo, just like in basketball it has been the era of LeBron, similar to how the 1990s were owned by Jordan.
Gaelic football doesn’t quite work like that. It’s one sport without a Mount Rushmore, let alone an obvious GOAT, the way hurling has Ring, Shefflin, Mackey and then lets you quibble about AN Other.
But who has been the best footballer of the past five years? Cluxton? McCaffrey? Fenton? Murphy? Keegan? See?
Occasionally there’s a clear standout for a stretch. Gooch. Jacko. And from 1987 to 1990, Tompkins. No one, not even as crafty and superb a corner-forward as Colm O’Rourke, had anything like the impact and all-round game as Tompkins in those years.
He was head and shoulders over everyone else, not just in how he could turn games but dominate them: powering through the middle channel, kicking points on the run; nailing frees from everywhere within 50 metres of goal; switching to midfield, with number 11 on his back, and hauling down kickouts and hauling Cork back into games.
He didn’t just transform games; he transformed the game itself, redefining the commitment and preparation levels of what supposed amateurs could offer, a precursor and inspiration to the likes of Tohill and McGeeney, though they would add a bit more Ivan Drago and not just Rocky Balboa to the mix.
Ask anyone in those years to pick one player, the answer would have been virtually unanimous. Tompkins.
Yet ask the man himself when was he at his peak and he’ll claim it wasn’t in any of those seasons where he inspired Cork to four consecutive All-Ireland finals.
“I still say to this day, that year, ‘86/87 [just before I joined up with Cork] was the best football I ever played in my life.”
By then he’d succeeded Frank McGuigan — like Matt, another prodigious baller whose career was cut short by a car crash in that precarious early winter of 1984 — as the King of Gaelic Park; a certain opponent playing for Leitrim and working in Rosie O’Grady’s in Manhattan, one Billy Morgan, anointed him thus.
“I used to pop in [to Rosie’s] the odd time,” says Tompkins. “I knew him to talk to.”
Tompkins’ own local was the Celtic House in the Bronx, near the apartment he was staying in on West 231st Street on Godwin Terrace. Every Monday evening he and his buddies would head down there to watch the video of the games from home, flown in that morning with the papers.
There would be a big gathering there because they’d show the matches: Munster Championship, Leinster Championship, whatever. It was a nice place to go on a Monday evening. We’d also go out after games, talk about home. When the Wolfe Tones would play, everyone would go, because you missed Ireland so much.
The hottest meetup point was Gaelic Park. “It was just rocking.”
Five games on a Sunday, maybe eight thousand people, with John Kerry O’Donnell in the bar and the way he might growl and then grin at you.
Tompkins playing for the Donegal club; through his connection with the Connors and a friendship with the Offaly player Mick Wright. It was mostly players working and staying in the city with the odd weekend-tripper. Like a certain Pat Spillane. There was just one problem. Wright and Spillane were far from buddies.
“It was gas. Pat Spillane was the only player we brought over (for the 1985 final). Mick Wright called to me the night before the final and said to me, ‘Under no circumstances are you to pass him the ball tomorrow.’ And five minutes before half-time a row broke out between them.
“The two of them on the same team, it was hard to believe, and we were playing a hell of a [Sligo] team. We had to get it right at half-time but there was ructions afterwards.”
They’d just about survive, eking out a draw, 1-9 to 0-12, Anthony Molloy’s brother kicking a point, Tompkins the other 1-8. Spillane barely kicked a thing other than Wright. But he’d stay around for the replay. By the end of the week himself and Wright were “the best of buddies” and Donegal were county champions for the first time in 20 years.
They’d win it again the next year, blowing away a Cavan side loaded with 13 county players on a scoreline of 4-14 to 1-6, Tompkins again doing the bulk of the scoring. He was in his element and among friends, but always there was a yearning for home.
Four of his Donegal teammates hailed from the same small club in west Cork: the Collins brothers Anthony and Vincy, Martin Connolly and Martin O’Mahony. “And they used to always be talking about Castlehaven. It was like their life depended on it. They’d say ‘We’re going to go back some year. We have to win a county with Castlehaven. We won’t die happy unless we do.’”
Tompkins himself would experience pangs for home. “That time, your communication to your parents was all by letters. My mother used to be always asking, ‘When are you coming back?’ That was always the end of the letter.”
In New York people were telling him the home country had to see for itself just how good he was. But he couldn’t go back to play with Kildare. Which left who? Easy, his four west Cork friends would joke. Castlehaven! You’re just what we’re missing! And it’d be great craic!
It wasn’t an offer Tompkins took particularly seriously until one January night, probably after getting another letter from Mom, he had what you could say a moment of spontaneous clarity.
“I was training a lot on my own. I used to go a gym and then I’d go for long runs up a big hill beside it. It was snowing this particular night and coming home I was parched with the thirst, so I ran into his store.
“And I looked outside and the snow was pelting down and I said, ‘You know, if I don’t go [home] now, I’ll never go.’ And I ran back, forgot about the drink, and went back up to the apartment.
I was staying on the fourth floor and Martin Connolly was staying literally across the corridor from me. And I knocked on the door, the snow dripping down off me, and I said to Martin, ‘Have you got that transfer form? I’ll sign it.’
“And that’s how it happened. It was just one of those moments.”
‘HE. WAS. BRUTAL!’
The early summer of 1987 for Larry Tompkins was all about varying first impressions, some which would last and some he’d completely change.
Frank Murphy was someone he liked from the start. Suffice to say, when the Kildare County Board wasn’t being the most helpful in processing his transfer, Tompkins discovered that Cork could see your Seamus Aldridge and raise you their Frank Murphy.
The day of his 24th birthday, in a dressing room before a challenge game against Dublin, Murphy gifted him the greatest present of all: you’re free to play with Cork and Castlehaven.
His first game for Castlehaven was a Kelleher Shield game against St Finbarr’s, then kingpins of the Cork scene.
“I walked down to the pitch. Glorious evening. The crowd was so big they had to put the game back 20 minutes. I marked Gene Desmond, must have kicked 12 points and we won by six points. As I was coming off the field, an old man with a hat came out of nowhere. He got down on one knee and said, ‘That’s the best performance I ever saw by anyone in my life!’ He’d learn later it was Dan Collins, father of his New York buddies Anthony and Vincy. A favourable first impression that would last.
The beginning of other beautiful relationships were hardly love at first sight. Tompkins was initially completely underwhelmed by his new county teammates.
“My first training session with Cork, Niall [Cahalane] drove us up in his van. I was fearing the session. Billy [Morgan] said to me it was going to be a really hard session, two or three weeks out from the Limerick game in the Munster Championship.
“He said the lads were in great shape, that I could fall out if I had to, whenever I wanted.
“So we did a few exercises in the gym, then warmed up on the field and we did four laps. I lapped them without breaking sweat. I was wondering if they were letting me win… Then Billy said we’d do four more laps. I lapped them worse the next time.
“Billy said, ‘You’re in great shape.’ I said, ‘Billy, I’m in good enough shape but some of those lads, I wouldn’t like to be training them.’”
A few weeks later though, some of Tompkins’ new teammates didn’t think he was so hectic himself. The day before the Limerick game he trained down in Union Hall by himself for a couple of hours, probably looking too far ahead to a Munster final, leaving him flat for his championship debut. As Colm O’Neill would put it in Adrian Russell’s new book, The Double, “He was brutal. He. Was. Brutal!” And that wasn’t the worst review he got.
“Coming off the field I remember a fella roaring down from the stand, ‘Go back to Kildare! You’re useless!’ He might have been in the Beamish Room earlier. So the following morning I was out at 6am training away in Union Hall, thinking of this little f***er up in the stand and how I wanted to see him four weeks later.”
A month later Tompkins would kick 0-8 of Cork’s tally of 1-10, including an injury-time free to bring Kerry to a replay.
The following week he’d inspire Cork to their first win in Killarney in 13 years, the cue for Morgan to order his team to walk through the town’s streets, having had to walk under its yoke for over a decade.
As for “the little f***er” in the stand? Tompkins didn’t catch him after either of those Kerry games, but he would soon thereafter.
“And he became one of my best friends — Paddy Walsh from the Glen. A great character and never missed a match.” In those years how could you miss one when Larry Tompkins was playing?
‘I’M WILLING TO SUFFER ALL RIGHT’
If you were to select a series of games that encapsulated what made Tompkins special, there are many candidates. Those two Munster finals against Kerry in ’87.
The subsequent All-Ireland semi-final series against Galway when he kicked an equalising injury-time free from 50 yards — the greatest clutch play Donal O’Grady ever saw in either Gaelic code — then kicked 11 of Cork’s 18 points in the replay.
But probably no two games epitomised what Larry Tompkins was all about than the two All-Ireland finals against Meath in ’88.
Had Cork won the first day it would simply have gone down as the Larry Tompkins final instead of the Tommy Sugrue final, much the same way as ’97 will always belong to Maurice Fitzgerald and ’53 will always be Stanley Matthews’.
At one point early on when Meath were in the ascendancy around midfield, Tompkins hobbled to the line to tell Billy Morgan that his hamstring was gone. But before he got the words out, Morgan spat out some to him: Midfield!
“And you know what,” recalls Tompkins, “I just turned and said, ‘If this is the last game I ever play, I’m going to wipe this [hamstring] out of my mind.’”
And that he would, lording the game, kicking eight points, four from play, from midfield. After, when Dr Con Murphy looked the leg, the assessment was bleak.
There’s not a hope in hell this guy can be right for the replay.
And yet he was, thanks to Tompkins’ remarkable powers of resilience and Dr Con’s and Frank Murphy’s remarkable network of contacts.
A few days later he was picked up at Manchester Airport by 1968 European Cup winner Paddy Crerand, and the following morning brought from his hotel to the Cliff training ground by Paul McGrath and Bryan Robson.
“My first introduction there was [Alex] Ferguson, who came up and met me and told me anything I wanted, not to hesitate to [ask].”
So much of the setup was impressive, the medical facilities, expertise, the staff, especially Jim McGregor. Other aspects were not. While the dressing room and treatment table was coming down with huge names — Robson, McGrath, Whiteside, and a kid they’d signed from Torquay called Lee Sharpe. You couldn’t exactly call them high-performing athletes.
“I used to be getting taxis back from getting treatment in The Cliff. They’d be employed by the club and I’d be asking [the drivers], ‘Are Man United going to win anything this year?’ And they’d say, ‘I’ll bring you down to the pub tonight and they’ll all be in it. They’ll win the drinking competition!’
I used to get physio three times a day. I’d go in at nine in the morning with the lads [Robson and McGrath]. They’d pick me up at 7.45 and they’d have to be there at 8.45. The smell of drink off some of them was unreal.
Within a year Ferguson had moved on all of Robson’s drinking buddies, raising the eyebrows of many outside observers, but not Tompkins’.
There was no doubting Tompkins’ professionalism. He’d arrived at The Cliff with a letter from Dr Con for Jim McGregor who then conducted his own assessment. “He said he’d never seen anything like it, that I had torn it to bits. He said, ‘Look, I can’t guarantee anything. When is this match?’ I said, ‘Less than three weeks.’ He said, ‘Okay. One thing I’ll say to you — are you willing to suffer?’ I said, ‘I’ll suffer all right.’ He said, ‘Okay. It’s not going to be easy. Chew on that.’ So I had to bite onto this thing and his assistant held me down.”
The Friday before the replay, Tompkins arrived back in Ireland, “perfect for the match”. The match itself was far from ideal, instead another defeat to Meath would inflict further suffering, but nothing said as much about him as the fact he could play at all.
What’s more, his mindset was now pervasive among the group. “We were a different team in ’88 compared to ’87.” Mentally, physically. While Meath were still ahead of them on both scales it was now just by a nose rather than a furlong.
Two years later Cork would finally beat Meath. More than winning back-to-back All-Irelands, more than rounding off an historic double for their county, more than him being captain, beating Meath was the thing. Tompkins again injured himself in that battle, lunging in to get a ball as Martin O’Connell was coming full belt.
“My knee took a wobble and my cruciate severed, but I hopped up quick, afraid Dr Con would come in and take me off. It was like someone had shot you. The pain was unreal. But then it went and I just blanked it out of my head. If I was going to die, I was going to die there.”
Tompkins would kick two points after doing that cruciate. Cork would win by two points. Want to hear how he got to be Cork’s captain for that seismic game against Meath?
‘NIALL, I’LL BEAT THEM ON MY OWN’
By 1989, the two Collins’ brothers and the two Martins couldn’t commit to another summer coming back to try and win that elusive county for Castlehaven. But though people thought he was mad, Larry Tompkins felt their dream was still alive.
And so as captain that year, he did everything to protect it, nourish it.
“We played [St] Nick’s in the first round in Ballinascarthy and were lucky to get over the line. I remember I went berserk in the dressing room after. They thought I was a lunatic but I told them, ‘We’ll win the county after this. We’ll knuckle down and work hard, no drink, no messing’.
“We got to the county final against the Barr’s and were given no chance. I’d just opened up the bar across from the train station and had been invited down to the agricultural show in the showgrounds the night before the final.
“So I left the pub and said it’d be a nice walk down. I brought no bloody coat. So I did my piece around the showgrounds for an hour at various stalls. It had started to rain a small bit when I started to walk around the stadium.”
Then, noticing no one was around, he got down on his knee, just like Dan Collins did that evening in Castlehaven a couple of years earlier to give worship and to give thanks.
“I prayed to Almighty God. Well, the rain started teaming down as I said to the Man Above, ‘Give me the strength to have the best game of my life tomorrow.’
“I walked out of there and I didn’t even feel the rain belting off me as I walked back to the pub. I went home that night, had a cold shower and woke up the next morning, feeling as if I could take on the world. Niall picked me up.
“I got into the car and he said, ‘How are you feeling?’ I said, ‘Niall, I’ll feckin’ beat them on my own today.’ And it probably was one of the best games I ever played.”
And who was there that night to join joyously in the celebrations but the two Collins brothers and the two Martins back from New York. They’d been right. He was just what they were missing. And it had been great craic.
Listen to a podcast of the full Larry Tompkins story on Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud or Spotify. Or at irishexaminer.com.podcasts