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Breaking the mould

by Diarmuid O'Flynn was published in the The Examiner on Saturday the 11th of June 2005

Breaking the mould

He bounced out onto the grass in O'Moore Park, Portlaoise, a twinkle in his eye: 'God I always loved this pitch!' he says to Liam Fennelly, 'but it also holds some bad memories, 1968 in particular. We should have had ye that year.'

Liam wasn't playing with Kilkenny then. He had another 14 years to his senior debut, but he knew what Johnny meant.

Poor old Offaly, under the thumb, under the boot of the hurling aristocrats of Kilkenny. Dublin, in the days when they were culchie-backed, Wexford, even neighbours Laois, were allowed break the surface in Leinster occasionally, but Offaly?

Never, or at least not until 1980, when Johnny Flaherty got his revenge. They spoke to Diarmuid O'Flynn ahead of tomorrow's Leinster SHC semi-final.

JF: In 68, we played Kilkenny in Portlaoise. We had hurled well in the League, over the winter. Johnny Kirwan got put off in the first ten minutes but Kilkenny only beat us by two points. I had the winning of it. I got a super ball tapped back to me by Paddy Molloy, I knew Pat Henderson had followed Molloy out, so I had a clear run on goal, and I thought, 'Jesus, this is it!' I was going to lift the roof off the back of the net, Offaly were going to lift the roof off the stand. But I hadn't bargained for Jim Treacy - the last line of defence. He was deceptive and very strong, but always there, covering. He got my stick, the ball hopped off my knee, wide and the chance was gone.'

LF: That was some Kilkenny team.

JF: It was, but it was some Offaly team as well. We beat Cork around that time as well, in the League and beat Tipperary in a famous game in Birr. A super hurling team, but we had a couple of hoors, their mentality was to sort fellas out, and they cost us dearly, it never allowed us the extra game to go and develop ourselves. There's a famous photo from the 69 Leinster final against Kilkenny and you can see the mauling that's going on by the two corner-backs. We only got beaten by a point that day, but it was still enough, Kilkenny were saying to us, 'ye're good little lads, but go back in ye're box now again for another few years.' And rightly so. We were trying to bully our way in Croke Park, but it wouldn't happen, not against Kilkenny - outmanoeuvre them, beat them with skill, that's how you do it. By the time we made the breakthrough in 1980, with Delaney, Coughlan and those lads, we'd feel sick if we gave away a free, any free, 'Jaysus, what the f*** were you doing!' It's a cowardly way, you're beaten.

LF: That's how I think as well. There are two main reasons why fellas keep giving away frees; you're lazy, number one, and you're cowardly.

JF: Force a fella onto his weak side, double-team him, make him work for anything he gets.

LF: And take it off him then! I used to get the greatest pleasure from taking the ball off the wing-back. I'd sneak out behind him, on me tippy-toes, hook him, and as soon as the ball touched the ground, I'd flick it away, didn't give him a second chance at it. It was a real demoraliser, he'd get a bollicking from the line, the crowd getting onto him, and me going away with a smile on me face.

JF: That's psychology, pure psychology, and it's those little things that make the difference. I'd be talking to meself for two weeks before a big match, about the fella I was going to be marking. Okay, he's bigger than you, he's faster, he's stronger, he's a better hurler than you, he's even better-looking, and all that first week I'd be training, preparing myself, getting into the humour. As the second week went on though, I'd be bringing him down to my height, maybe he's not so good, maybe he's not so strong, and by the time the game came around, I'd be really ready. I'd try to show him up, if he made even half a mistake, I'd pounce. After winning our first Leinster, in 1980, we played Laois in 1981, and they got off to a fantastic start. They were six points up and we hadn't even seen the ball. A fella called Tom Flynn was brought back to hurl on me. Who the hell is this Flynn fella, I thought. A ball came in, he was behind me, I went as if to go for it; instead of pulling away his hurl, letting the ball off wide, he blocked it, I grabbed it, stuck it straight in the net.

DOF: You must have got a lot of special attention like that?

JF: I did. Before the All-Ireland final in 1981, against Galway, I knew I'd get an awful lot of attention, and I got a few huge raps; I thought, someone is going to the Mater out of this, and it's not going to be me! But that game came a bit late for me. A few years before, I could dominate a match from out the field. But to go in at half-time in an All-Ireland final seven points down, and know there was nothing you could do about it out the field, that you didn't have the legs anymore, that was hard. I was caught at me worst, if you like, I was well past my best anyway. Still, I felt if they could only work it up to me, if they'd puck it up to me, I'd be able to do something with it. They did, and sure I managed to get the ould goal.

DOF: Thrown, or hand-passed?

JF: Passed (vehemently). I had learned, you see, I had served my apprenticeship. If the 1968 chance had fallen to me in 1981, I wouldn't have missed. I paid a heavy penalty, the whole county paid a heavy penalty.

LF: I never had to leave the field. But if we're talking about hard men, what about Brendan Lynskey? He was a hardy hoor.

JF: Did you hear what he said to Ger Henderson before one of the All-Ireland finals? Lynskey never wanted to get involved in this shaking hands business before the game, just throw in the ball, get on with it. That day, instead of going back to his position at centre-forward, he headed out to the Cusack Stand, to avoid Henderson, but sure when he turned around, who was behind him only Ger, with his hand out. 'I'll shake it for you afterwards,' says Lynskey, 'if you're still around!'

DOF: Ger was a hardy hoor himself.

LF:Another time I was at a match between Clare and Kilkenny, the opening of the Young Irelands field in Gowran, standing beside Fan. Philly (Fan's son) was corner-back, first ball came in, I got an elbow in the back. Fan. Next ball, same thing, elbow again. Fan was still playing corner-back, playing every ball with the young lad. After a while, I turned around to him, 'Fan, Philly is trying to use his elbow.' 'Sure aren't I always telling him to do that!' says Fan! And where did YOU learn it, says I. 'Where do you think,' he says, 'I learned it from me father.' There it was, passed down from father to son, a very important skill for a corner-back, using the elbow, even more important for a corner-forward. But every ball that went into Philly, I got the elbow from Fan. Those little tricks were passed on through the generations, but I worry, are they being lost, under the modern system?

JF: Ah, there's so much bad coaching around, doing all these complex routines in the wrong way, when they could be doing the simple things. Centre-forward, break the ball, get in to the ground anyway, don't let the centre-back dominate. If the centre-forward only did that, he's doing a huge thing, break the ball, hold it, and it's then up to the wing-forward, who should be fast and skilful to his fingertips, to pick up those breaks..

LF: The basics of hurling are the same for everybody, but every position in hurling requires a different skill. The full-back line has to be tight, stoppers, the wing-back has to be fast and fit, a hurler, midfield has to be able to cover backwards and forwards, the centre-forward needs to able to break the ball, but the way things are going, it's versatility they're all looking for. It's still a great game, but I don't like these developments, every fella nowadays seems to do the same training.

DOF: What's happened to the great Offaly-Kilkenny rivalry of recent years?

JF: We went off in the 90's, really. We had so many super hurlers then, Whelahan, Dooley, Pilkington, Troy, all those lads, but we didn't bring on the underage. Hurling needs more attention, but we weren't putting in the work. You have to learn, you have to pass your exam. The All-Ireland final is the big one, you're not just going to win that without putting in the homework. Some people seem to think you can just go out and win the All-Ireland, but you can't, and isn't it great that you can't? But things are changing in Offaly. We have a new chairman, one that's willing to invest in hurling, and now the structures are in place. I've been put in charge of the underage, approached the members of the 80/81 team, and I got full co-operation. We have lovely young hurlers in Offaly, and lots of them. We had 45 U13 and 45 U15 at a training camp lately; I was watching them training one night, I just couldn't believe what they were doing. I'm telling you, a year or two, we'll be there with Kilkenny, we'll have our underage organised.

LF: You have to go with the times.

JF: You have to have the power also, if you don't, if you're up against a lad that has, he'll wipe you out for the whole hour. No point in being the most skilful player, if you can't keep yourself on the field of play. It's up to yourself to make sure you are there for the long haul. I will be bringing in lads from outside, specialist coaches, forwards to work with forwards, expert forwards; you're going to come up and give us a hand Liam.

LF: Ned Quinn did all that in Kilkenny years ago, and it paid off. It's the only way, you have to have the investment, and you have to have the experts, the former players, involved, putting it back in.

DOF: How will Kilkenny go this year?

LF: Cody's team this year will be miles different to last year. You'll have six forwards all of whom are deadly scorers bar one, Martin Comerford, and he has 1-4 in an All-Ireland final under his belt, so he isn't bad either. The other five are the main scorers and free-takers in their clubs. You'll have Comerford, Larkin, Tommy Walsh, Henry, DJ, and Richie Power. That's a serious forward line.

JF: The centre-forward is a big addition, there are workers and there are finishers, and he's both. Kilkenny always seemed to have more of those than anyone else.

DOF: What about Offaly?

JF: I haven't been tuned in that well, to be honest, but you'd always be hoping to do well. I don't like the way McIntyre is going on, very negative, not the way to go into the championship at all. You have to burst out the gate, take the hoors on, have a go at them anyway.

DOF: What's the difference between the Munster and Leinster championships?

LF: I think Leinster hurling is tighter at the back, Munster teams find it hard to score goals against Leinster teams. All the space behind the full-back lines, you won't find that in Leinster. Mind your square, protect the back.

JF: I saw Nicky English one day, a fine player now, don't get me wrong, but I was playing his game, and I thought he was playing it all wrong. He was out when he should have been in, in when he should have been out, underneath the ball way too soon. He was on Mulcahy, strong man, good hurler, but I'd have loved to have been on a fella like that. Nicky ended with a point, but there was 2-3, 2-4 out there.

DOF: What's the answer in Leinster?

LF: Take it out of Croke Park. Play in Wexford Park, in Portlaoise, in Birr, in Nowlan Park. Bring it back to the people, play it on a home and away basis. Look, there won't be 20,000 people in Croke Park this Sunday, but if it was in one of the local venues, it would be packed.

JF: Another thing I'd do, there are too many good hurlers in Cork, and in Kilkenny, who don't ever get a chance to make it, because there are so many good hurlers there. They should be allowed to play with other counties. I would open it up, bring back Dublin, Laois, Westmeath, teams like that. We have to go back into these counties with money, with enthusiasm, with a love for the game, and develop the skills. It's about hurling, at the end of the day, it's not about politics, or shouldn't be. But it is, too often.

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