John Leonard Interview: ‘I had just five grand in my account and spent it gambling and drinking’

John Leonard is one of the best GAA goalkeepers you may never have heard of. As understudy to Stephen Cluxton, most of his inter-county life was spent on the subs’ bench. Amazingly, his incredible rise onto the Dublin senior football panel was achieved against a backdrop of a troubled life, battling drug addiction and alcoholism...

To get an idea of just how different a GAA autobiography and career John ‘Lenny’ Leonard has written and lived, as good a place to start is in the Himalayas.

A 27-year-old man is smoking a cigarette in a small café, gazing at the vast valley outside. He pays his breakfast bill, makes his way back to his hostel.

Then a little Indian man whispers to him as he passes by.

“Hash, weed, speed, cocaine?” Leonard just keeps walking. The guy could have thrown in heroin while he was at it. Leonard had seen and done them all, fallen asleep in the T-shirt how many times since he last wore a Dublin one as an U21.

Then the man speaks a bit more loudly. “Opium?” Leonard stops and turns. Now opium is something he hasn’t done – at least not yet.

He follows the little guy into a house perched on the side of a cliff, acquires the latest drug of his choice and then lights it up upon returning to his hostel.

Henry Shefflin this ain’t. Or even Stephen Cluxton. Any other county player for that matter.

And yet, only a couple of years after being high in the Himalayas, Leonard would be up the steps of the Hogan Stand, just like Shefflin and Cluxton, hoisting silverware above his head.

He wasn’t quite winning All-Irelands or starring on the pitch, but he was winning multiple Leinster titles just like them as Cluxton’s trusted – if you can say that about a man who’d a drug problem – backup.

If it were to have ended just there, with him getting his hands on the Delaney Cup and greeting it with a kiss and a scream “You little f*** dancer!” Leonard’s book and journey would have been remarkable.

Rocky-like. A guy who hadn’t played inter-county football of any description for seven years, not even club football for donkeys with all the travel and drugs he’d done, makes his way back into one of the top football panels in the country to experience all the days they’d pack and thrill Croker in Pillar Caffrey’s time in charge.

But there’s a lot more to Leonard’s story than that.

It’s a lot more troubled and complex than that.

In the off-season he reverts to old vices. When new manager Pat Gilroy lets him go, Leonard goes off the rails. The journey back to sanity and sobriety and happiness is a long and painful one, though he arrives there and it’s a destination he’s not leaving for all the travelling he and his wife Serena continue to do.

As fascinating as its insights into the Dublin dressing room and the big matchdays are, to reduce Dub Sub Confidential to being just a sports or GAA book is to do it an injustice; it is an astonishing, exceptional visceral account of a confused young man not so much searching for himself as for long periods trying to run away from himself and what he had endured as a kid.

It’s been a tough read for some loved ones. His younger sisters would have been unaware that as an altar boy he’d been sexually molested by the convicted paedophile Fr Ivan Payne. For his mother, the book has found herself revisiting some awful dark times.

“The only reason I could write about it is because it’s now done and dusted – for me,” says Leonard when you meet him in a Dublin city centre hotel. “I’ve dealt with it. But she (his mother) would now still be angry about it.” She wouldn’t have known the extent of the damage it would case. Payne used to greet her son as “my little angel”, only to acquaint him with the devil. Leonard no longer believes in such concepts as heaven and hell and God or Satan, but as a figure of speech he gets it alright. Payne transmitted the devil into him, and as he puts it in his book, “The devil inside did not want a pure and happy life; he wanted a f*****d up, sordid and twisted affair.” It would trigger one endless downward spiral. Drink, drugs and lots of meaningless sex. After graduating out of UCD with a degree in English and philosophy, he’d skip Dublin, trying to escape all its ghosts and would head to Australia, then later Greece, then India. Yet everywhere he went, there he still was.

His one refuge had been football. In the late 90s he had been a member of the St Sylvester’s team that won a Dublin county title and had played on a Dublin U21 team alongside stellar names like Ciaran Whelan and Jason Sherlock. He was talented, chippy, cocky. Goalkeepers and goalkeeping had always intrigued him. As a kid he’d sit beside his father and idolise and watch Bruce Grobbelaar on the telly and John O’Leary in the flesh and dream that someday he’d play either for Liverpool or the Dubs.

Sylvester Stallone was an influence too.

“If someone had a penalty I’d go up and talk to them. Maybe say something about their family. Or I might say ‘Do you remember Escape to Victory?’ And they’d give me this weird look. And I’d say ‘Sylvester Stallone! Hatch! (Where he stares at the penalty-taker and then saves his kick) That’s what I’m going to do to you here!’ It tended to jar them. Quite often it worked. Sometimes it didn’t.” Payne might have stolen him of so much of his childhood, yet deep down his boyhood dream lay intact, only dormant, not extinct. Shortly after sampling that opium in the Himalayas, Leonard found himself by the Indian Ocean, lost, directionless. What did he want? What would make him happy? He got out his journal and pen and wrote three things: to write a novel, to spend quality time with his ailing father, and play football again for the Dubs.

Just those three things. No mention of drink, drugs or women.

Within a year he was back in Dublin, cementing his bond with his father, and amazingly, back on the county panel. Brian Talty had been his manager with Sylvester’s when they’d won the county. He was now a selector to Pillar Caffrey. Talty had always fancied Leonard as a keeper and upon seeing him Caffrey would too. They might already have had the most promising keeper in the sport, but even Stephen Cluxton needed someone who would push him hard.

And for three years that’s what Leonard would do. In two of those seasons Cluxton would end up as an All Star, even though Dublin didn’t even reach an All-Ireland final in either of them. That was testament to not just the man’s incredible talent and dedication but how someone like Leonard and their specialist coach Gary Matthews challenged him. Even Gilroy, when informing Leonard that his services would no longer be required by his new regime, would tell him that he was probably the best shotstopper in the county. But nothing or no one was stopping Cluxton from being number one.

“When I was training I trying to get any edge I could. Initially I tried to go in earlier than ‘Clucko’ but I couldn’t. He was in at 5 o’clock at training two hours ahead of everyone else. You could never get there before him. So when we weren’t training with the county I’d head to the club field before heading to the gym and bring a bag of balls and start hitting the ball as hard as I could. Because Clucko, while his kickouts are extremely accurate, they’re not necessarily long, so I wanted to see if I could get another 10 yards on him that would give me an edge.”

There’s a terrific, extremely honest passage in the first chapter of the book. It’s the 2006 Leinster final.

Dublin are in a right battle against Offaly. Coming up to half-time Cluxton rugby-tackles an Offaly forward. It would be a black card in 2015. In 2006 it’s closer to a red.

The referee marches over. Time slows down. I clench my cheeks a little. I feel my fists go into balls. I hold my breath and hear my heart lashing through my chest as I wait and hope. Come on, ref, I think: send him off.

I’m ready, ref. I’m ready for it.

Send him f*****g off.’

Leonard was pragmatic enough to know the only way he’d get to play championship football was if Cluxton got injured or sent off. So he’d have often planned and prepared for such a scenario.

“For me, the psychology of sport has to be real. It can’t just be about how great you are or seeing yourself catching balls out of the skies. For me there’s something false and superficial about that. I needed to follow the chain right back to me getting access to the pitch. So I could see him doing his groin in a warm-up in Parnell Park, or coming off in Croker, and I’d hear the tannoy go, ‘Stephen Cluxton is replaced by number 16, John Leonard’ and him hobbling off and me dashing on.”

That scenario would never materialise. In that Leinster final Marty Duffy would bottle it and show Cluxton a yellow card. The only bit of competitive action Leonard would see in his three years with the squad was an O’Byrne Cup final against Westmeath. As he puts it, his time with Dublin was like dating and wining this beautiful woman for three years, all the time knowing he’d never take her home.

But at least there was a thrill and a status with being out with such a beautiful woman. When it was taken from him he’d suffer much more than just the blues.

Instead of looking at it that a remarkable and successful comeback story had just run its course, Leonard could only see and feel failure.

“Every day-to-day conversation revolved around the Dubs. People would be asking ‘How’s it going with the Dubs?’ And it was a constant regurgitation, ‘Oh, I’m not with them anymore.’ And you could see with that people’s attitudes to you change. ‘Oh, okay.’ I just couldn’t handle it.” His self-esteem went hand in hand with his status. He was a Dublin footballer. When he was no longer a Dublin footballer, he felt nothing. Life was meaningless because he felt worthless.

“Another sportsperson I would have loved growing up was Paul McGrath. And he’s written and spoken about that even when he was playing for Ireland he never felt worthy enough as a person. And when I came back here with the Dubs and in the off-season I was more than happy enough to get off my face it was because I felt had to escape from reality and that I maybe wasn’t good enough to be there – even though I was there on merit.

“And that comes from a lack of esteem and genuine self-confidence. Early abuse does affect you that way.”

He’d head off to Australia, now in his early 30s, only to find a pattern from his early 20s was repeating itself. No matter where he fled, there he still was. But in Australia he’d meet Serena, the love of his life, a writer on personal development and much more. And around the same time, he’d hit the bottom of the barrel. The more he pursued short-term pleasure to escape from it all, the further he found himself from happiness. It was time to stop running.

“I kind of went on a mad one over there. No visa, I had just five grand in my account and spent it gambling and drinking. One week various things happened: I woke up in laneways, fighting with friends, one of them ending up in hospital. I just felt this has to stop.”

A few years ago on his travels he’d bump into Billy Connolly.

“One of the things he said was that every man has a certain amount to drink in his life; he just drank his quicker than everyone else. I like to apply that kind of attitude now. I just knew I had to stop. There was no good coming out of me getting drunk or getting drugs. It was just destructive the whole time.”

Wild Lenny has been Sober Paddy six years now. He even has a blog and website by that name that Serena helped him set up. Together they sold everything they had in Australia to fund their travelling and work, something they’ve been doing for over four years continuously now. They run their own website, fivepointfive.org, filming and highlighting the work of people and charities making a difference on the ground. It’s taken him all around the world while helping him change his own.

“Before I’d gone to places like Cuba or Colombia I’d have gone to a bar and then another bar and I’d get drunk, recover, and then the next day go to another bar. You get a very one-dimensional picture of the world that way. But when you don’t drink you have to seek out other things. Your options are infinitely more.”

A while back they were in Cambodia. The Killing Fields. They filmed the work of a charity helping families struggling with disability and poverty. One day they came upon this ramshackle house on stilts, home to a widow and her five children under the age of 10 where the middle child has epilepsy and disability. No electricity, no water as well as no father.

“They couldn’t afford to cremate their father in a proper funeral home. They had to do it on the ground where they live and it took five days for his body to burn. The kids have been afraid that the ghost of their dad will come back. So through this charity someone donated a solar panel and now they have a light at night to help the kids not to be scared. And to see this woman deal with it all with a smile on her face; it’s humbling. It blew my mind. You think you have problems with your mortgage or whatever it is but it all pales into insignificance when you can see that people can get on with life with almost no help.”

It’s why he no longer dwells on what he missed out with the Dubs, rather savours what the Dubs gave him. This was the first of their subsequent three All-Ireland wins he was back home for and he savoured it all, being in Croke Park. He was thrilled for them, with no temptation to join them or anyone out on the town. Instead he was back home in his mother’s house in time to watch The Sunday Game before falling asleep on the couch.

With this book, he’s completed the three goals he wrote back in India.

And as for the memory of Fr Ivan Payne? Yeah, he says, he’s fine now with even that.

“Look, he’s an old man now. He’s going to die. He could be dead already, I don’t know. What happened and the shame and guilt that it made me feel, there’s only so much of that you can carry around with you. And for me I had to almost forgive him and move on.

“Look, he’s a paedophile. Most paedophiles can’t really change their habits. In a way he wasn’t even responsible for what he was doing. Well, he was, but the people who enabled him should be the ones now held accountable. If you put a wolf in among sheep...

“But look, I don’t really think about him. I’m at peace with myself. That’s the important thing. I live in the moment. A lot of people who drink are worried about the past or worried about the future, running away from reality. Thanks to Serena, I’m happy with where I am day to day.”

*Dub Sub Confidential: A Goalkeeper’s Life with – and without – the Dubs, by John Leonard


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