Westside column – December 3rd 2011

 

As we head into December and the Christmas season the playing fields are still buzzing, though I must admit to running short of appetite for much of the stuff that’s on show now. There are still a number of championships plodding along in the mud and inevitably the U21 will be the last of the lot to sign off – so much for hurling being a summer game. Might I humbly suggest that allowing defeated divisional finalists into the county series is part of the problem here.
Anyway it’s that time of year when publishers are busy launching their products for the Christmas market, so there’s no shortage of reading material as a substitute for the ‘live’ action. I’m eagerly looking forward to the John Doyle book, which was launched last week and has already drawn generous praise for its author, John Harrington. In the meantime I’ve been immersed in Michael Duignan’s book, ‘Life, Death and Hurling’ which is quite a fascinating read too.
The Offaly man is by now well known, and respected, as a hurling pundit with RTE, whether on ‘The Sunday Game’ panel or as co-commentator with Marty Morrissey or Ger Canning. As a player he was part of that great Offaly side which won two All Irelands in the nineties and since then he’s sampled inter-county management with Meath as well as developing quite a following as a pundit. Given his spread of experience both on and off the field he’s well placed to offer opinions and generally isn’t shy about his views.
There’s an added dimension to this memoir though, one which is referenced in the title. Michael’s wife, Edel, died of breast cancer shortly after the ’09 All Ireland final and her story is quite a poignant aspect of this book. Without being in any way sentimental there’s a very moving account of her long battle with cancer before she finally succumbed leaving behind two young boys. It’s a touching story and one that will resonate with many people even those who may only have a passing interest in hurling. That human story certainly gives this book a dimension that many others lack.
But of course it is for his hurling exploits that Michael Duignan made his name and he does manage to offer a very interesting perspective on the Offaly team of the nineties and on hurling and sporting matters generally. By his own admission he wasn’t the most scientific of hurlers on a team that had many gifted players such as the Dooleys, Pilkingtons and Whelehans. Still he was strong and competitive and managed to carve out a slot on that team in a career which climaxed with the 1998 All Ireland win.
That ’98 campaign of course is the hurling story that helps make this book so interesting. That was the year of ‘Babs’, the sheep-in-a-heap controversy and the Offaly renaissance through the trilogy of games with Clare. The events of that year were truly remarkable and it’s interesting to read the perspective of one who was at the coalface of it all.
In the case of ‘Babs’ there’s a mixed perspective coming from Michael Duignan, though overall the Tipp man won’t be offering this book as a Christmas present to anyone. Duignan was living in Dublin and travelled to training with ‘Babs’ which presumably meant he was closer to the manager than most others. He credits ‘Babs’ with boosting his confidence as a player and also has praise for the player welfare initiatives he brought to Offaly. But on the key events of the year I’m afraid the picture dims for ‘Babs’.
It will be remembered that Offaly lost the Leinster final to Kilkenny and in interview afterwards ‘Babs’ let rip at his charges: ‘The players just aren’t listening. We’re like sheep running around in a heap … am I wasting my time in an Offaly dressing room … I’m not being listened to. It’s a vein running through this Offaly team of individualism …’ On and on it went in what Duignan describes as the manager ‘absolving himself of all blame’. The day after that outburst Johnny Pilkington hit back and eventually ‘Babs’ stepped aside, though as Duignan points out it wasn’t a strike like we’ve seen in other counties.
I’m afraid the assessment of ‘Babs’ that follows isn’t pretty. Duignan talks about the manager ‘forever harking back to the ‘60s, which had no relevance to us’. He highlights an incident where he seriously embarrassed a player at training by accusing him of catching a ball with his eyes closed, effectively telling him he was ‘afraid of his own shadow’. He criticises the manager for departing for Dubai during a key training period in January and accuses him of having no real game plan or style mapped out. In summary he questions the manager’s commitment to Offaly hurling: ‘Ultimately I felt his heart wasn’t in the job’.
Anyway with ‘Babs’ gone Offaly found a new manager by the name of Bond, Michael Bond, and the rest as they say is history. The championship, however, would remain controversial.  There followed the three-game saga with Clare. After drawing initially Offaly seemed to be heading for defeat approaching the end of the replay but referee Jimmy Cooney then mistakenly blew the game off a few minutes before time. An Offaly sit-down took place immediately afterwards on the Croke Park pitch and eventually the game went to a second replay, this time in Thurles.
Michael Duignan rightly identifies this game as a classic. By now Offaly had regained their poise, they were hurling fluently again and Clare were ousted by three points. The final was a replay of the Leinster decider but with a different outcome. Offaly won a most remarkable All Ireland title. In interview that night Johnny Pilkington was asked what he thought ‘Babs’ might say if he were present. The reply had typical Pilkington wit: ‘Ah sure, he might say we’re not a bad oul flock’.
That win really was the highlight of Michael Duignan’s career but the book traces his sporting life back to the beginning. I hadn’t realised he played so much rugby though when you think of it he was well equipped physically for that game. He also had a football career with Offaly and was into athletics as a youngster. One aspect of the narrative that I don’t particularly like is the hard-man image of himself that he seems keen to push. You get this stuff about his father being a boxer and how he was quick with his hands too and the different people he planted. It’s a bit overdone for my liking though there is a very honest admission about how his behaviour was getting out of hand around the time of his wife’s illness. He’s honest enough too to admit that he should have been sent off by Jimmy Cooney in that first replay against Clare after he struck David Forde.
Incidentally he has a curious speculation about Toomevara and his own club St. Rynagh’s in the early nineties. Sarsfields of Galway beat Rynagh’s in the semi-final before they met Toomevara in the All Ireland decider and Duignan includes this speculation: ‘I often wonder if we got there would that final ever have been finished. They had a few timber merchants and there was no shortage of hotheads on our side either.’ He then goes on about Sarsfields ‘taking every belt they got and going on to retain their title’. It’s a retrospective on that final that I’m sure some would  challenge.
On the managerial side of course there was another Tipperary connecting with Offaly through John McIntyre, who preceded ‘Babs’ in the job. Here Duignan is more generous in his assessment of the manager describing him as having many good points and being ahead of his time by introducing a psychologist. However, he feels McIntyre was too inexperienced for the job at that stage and he didn’t like his oratory either, feeling the Tipp man was too fond of long speeches in the middle of January training sessions. Overall though his assessment of McIntyre is generous enough.
All of which brings me to a point about Michael Duignan’s attitude towards Tipperary generally. As a county we tend to have few fans in Offaly and I’ve often heard comments about Duignan the pundit being anti-Tipp. I must admit I’ve never felt that way listening to his comments on games where he always comes across as fair and balanced. Actually I consider him one of the best commentators where his knowledge and instinctive understanding of the game comes across well, especially in the role of co-commentator.
For this reason I was particularly disappointed then to read his remarks on the 1989 All Ireland U21 final at Portlaoise. This was the one where a record crowd turned up a week after Tipperary beat Antrim in the senior. As a county we were still pumping adrenaline and Offaly got swallowed up in the surge, somewhat like the fate of Galway in the 2010 final. That was the day Dan Quirke wrote himself into the history books with a hat-trick of goals. That was against an Offaly side that had many future senior stars such as John Troy, Brian Whelehan, Johnny Dooley and Duignan himself.
Duignan was captain of that Offaly team and his bitterness at the outcome possibly explains his reflection on it here. He effectively denigrates Tipperary. Highlighting the following remarks won’t help sales of the book in Tipperary: ‘ … we had such an outstanding team and were much superior to Tipperary that day. They weren’t even the best team we had played that year. Declan Ryan was their captain and as he collected the trophy he showcased that brand of arrogance that Tipp have been famed and disdained for at times. In a sneer at the fact that we had lost to Antrim in the senior semi-final he said ‘I’d like to thank Antrim for the game .. oh, sorry, I mean Offaly’.
Coming in a book that has a lot to recommend it it’s deeply disappointing that Duignan would descend to such unfair stereotyping of an entire county. This arrogance claim isn’t new of course and I’m afraid in this instance at least Duignan lets the mask slip with regard to his true feelings. It’s similar to the guff from Ger Loughnane regarding Nicky English’s smile back in 1993. If you have a hang-up, I suppose, any crook will do to display it.
Overall though, if you can stomach a few items, this book is a riveting read. Between the sad story of his wife’s premature death and that remarkable period for Offaly hurling, there’s a fascinating story to be told. Pat Nolan was Duignan’s ‘ghost’ in the project and I suspect the production will sell well in the Christmas market.  If you’re an ultra-sensitive Tipp fan you might do well to skip it; otherwise it’s an excellent read.

 

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