'Theo English was an icon in South Tipp and a legend wherever hurling people gathered'

Former Tipperary chairman Sean Nugent and manager Declan Ryan pay tribute to the late Theo English
'Theo English was an icon in South Tipp and a legend wherever hurling people gathered'

MARLFIELD MAGICIAN: Tipperary's Theo English after the 1958 Munster SHC final win over Waterford. 

Theo English, one of Tipperary's finest hurlers, passed away on Sunday morning, much to many communities' profound sadness.

The innermost circle was Marlfield, outside Clonmel in South Tipperary. Ninety last July, and President of Marlfield GAA Club, he stayed immensely proud of home ground. Four South Senior Championships were won (1960, 1962, 1964, 1970) and these medals sat among his most cherished possessions.

Even by Tipperary's daunting standards, Theo English enjoyed a phenomenal career, one of the game's supreme midfielders. He glittered for well over a decade and so did the silverware: one Junior All-Ireland (1953), five Senior All Irelands (1958, 1961-62, 1964-65), eight NHL titles (1954-55, 1957, 1959-61, 1964-65) and four Railway Cups (1959-61, 1963). Following retirement in 1967, English acted as a senior selector for All-Ireland successes in 1971 and 1989.

"Theo was an icon in South Tipp," Seán Nugent summarises. "An icon all over the county, of course, and a legend wherever hurling people gathered, all over Ireland." 

Nugent speaks with doubled intimacy, both former Tipperary County Board Chairman and a neighbour in Kilsheelan-Kilcash GAA Club.

"Theo was just Theo, always accessible to everyone," he continues. "He had no airs and graces whatsoever. He was a man as popular for his demeanour off the field as for what he had done on the field.

"And he paved the way for so many South Tipperary hurlers, Mick Roche and all the rest. Theo didn't just do it himself. He made it possible for other men to do it. What a legacy, aside from the medals..."

This friend stresses how absorption in the game could not be exaggerated: "Theo never had a closed season. When the intercounty season finished up, and if Marlfield were gone, he would look to go training with another club who were still in their own championship. He fairly often came to Kilsheelan-Kilcash in those circumstances, and the calibre of our training immediately went way up."

If anything, retirement as a player intensified immersion. Nugent remains movingly in awe of this aspect: "It would be a brave person who would take on compiling a list of all the clubs Theo trained, aside from his involvement with Tipperary teams. He went everywhere and he never left a bad air behind him anywhere.

"They mightn't always have won a county title, but sometimes they did, and whether they did or not Theo always left that club far better off than they had been. He just had this way of getting things out of people, and he was also an absolutely fantastic judge of any hurler, at any level."

 Theo English lines up for a throw in with Cork's Christy Ring

Theo English lines up for a throw in with Cork's Christy Ring

The Marlfield native made that firm impression wherever he went. His quiet charisma passed from middle age into old age without fade. Joe Hayes, assisted by Declan Ryan, managed the Clonoulty-Rossmore Junior B panel for 2020. Hayes asked English to be their Ambassador. His man, chuffed, agreed.

Ryan was a Tipperary star over three decades, won three Celtic Crosses and served as senior manager during the early 2010s. He beams at the memory: "Wasn't it a fantastic idea by Joe, my old county teammate? We got a right buzz out of Theo's generosity, and so I hope he got a kick out of the thing himself. I think he did, and it might have kept him going through a tough time."

He elaborates: "I first met Theo in the back end of 1987, after joining Tipp's senior panel. He made an immediate impression, and I'd consider him one of the really strong influences on my own career. When Theo talked, the players listened. There was total silence.

"I couldn't tell you how much it meant for young Tipperary hurlers back then to hear him, and [Michael] 'Babs' [Keating] and Donie [Nealon] as well, talking about winning All-Irelands. Winning an All-Ireland had gone a long way away for Tipperary in 1987, but they brought doing it back close. Would someone like me have any one at all without Theo's example?"

The grade involved changed drastically but memories of 2020 at Junior B hold, for Ryan, equally warm: "Theo came over for a few Clonoulty matches during the later summer, and no bother on him. John Kennedy, another old teammate with the club and with Tipperary, used drive him down from Clonmel, and listening to them talking in the car was a fierce tonic, always.

One man's vigour passed without fade into ripest old age: "Theo was asked by us to speak to the group, and by God he did, a couple of times, and he was excellent. Everyone still listened to him carefully, including myself. Theo was a great hurler, and a great man. And he was still a great man at 90.

"How many could you ever say all that of?"

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