INTERVIEW: Johnny Dooley reflects on Offaly's golden era of hurling

"I would often be talking to Limerick people and they say we stole it but I say hold on, we won it by six points"

Kevin Corrigan

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Kevin Corrigan

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INTERVIEW: Johnny Dooley reflects on Offaly days and the goal that changed everything

INTERVIEW: Johnny Dooley reflects on Offaly days and the goal that changed everything

Johnny Dooley first came to the notice of the Offaly hurling public when he was a key member of the side that retained the All-Ireland Minor Hurling Championship in 1987. Just a thin whip of a fifteen-year-old at the time, he was wing-back on that team – when Offaly won a third All-Ireland minor title in 1989, he wore the number 10 jersey in a position where he achieved national stardom as one of the greats of the game.

1987 was a hugely exciting time for Offaly hurling. The first Leinster Senior Hurling Championship title had been won in 1980 and the All-Ireland visited in 1981 and 1985. An impressionable Dooley was starstruck in those years with Seir Kieran represented on that great side by heroic full-back, Eugene Coughlan. His older brother Joe was in great form on the 1985 side and it was inevitable that he would pursue a hurling path.

He retains vivid memories of the Liam McCarthy Cup being brought to Clareen National School, the Leinster Cup in 1980. “It was just mayhem, it was mad. Every living moment, you were doing nothing but thinking hurling.” Lunch breaks were taken up with the game and he believes those years were instrumental in their development.

They idolised local hero Eugene Coughlan and he also looked up to Padraig Horan, Pat Delaney and Mark Corrigan. “I used to love watching Mark Corrigan. Every time we went out, we were mimicking those guys, trying to visualise what they were doing.”

At fifteen years of age, Dooley was very young in 1987 and only got called into the panel before the Leinster final after impressing in an U-16 blitz that included Brian Whelahan. Dooley, Adrian Cahill and Hubert Rigney were called in after that with Dooley actually lining out in the Leinster final win over Kilkenny. “It was one of the scariest moments I ever had but we won the game and things progressed from there,” he smiled.

A Leinster final defeat by Kilkenny in 1988 stopped Offaly from winning four All-Ireland minor titles in a row (they won in 1986, '87 and '89) – he played full-forward that day but recalls that they had no hard luck story against a better team.

Many of those minor teams went on to become household names in the 1990s and he felt those years gave them great confidence and a belief that they could beat the traditional counties, the Kilkenny's and the Cork's. “We knew that all things being well, we could compete with what was out there.”

He was not on the Presentation, Birr team that won an All-Ireland senior hurling colleges title and lost a number of Leinster finals during his time there – he was captain when a late DJ Carey goal saw St Kieran's, Kilkenny deny them in a Leinster final replay but those defeats didn't dent his confidence.

A young Johnny Dooley was quickly pushed into the senior team, making his league debut against Laois in February of 1990. It was not an easy time for young players coming onto the team – the great team of the 1980s were effectively gone with most players either retired or in decline, yet there was an expectant air about what Offaly could achieve.

Offaly had won three Leinster titles in a row from 1988 to 1990, without reaching an All-Ireland final – they lost to Galway twice and most traumatically, to Antrim in the 1989 semi-final. “People talk and give out now about hurling but even back then, there was a fair bit of pressure and negativity. The 1980s team were breaking up, young lads were coming up but it didn't happen for three of four years.”

Offaly went through managers like wildfire – Kilkenny's George Leahy, Birr's Pat Joe Whelahan and St Rynagh's Paudge Mulhare and Padraig Horan came and went in the space of a short few years.

“There were lots of ups and downs, topsy turvy moments when we came out of minor. We lost a couple of U-21 All-Irelands (1989 to Tipperary and 1992 to Waterford) and that knocked us back a bit.” Not winning an U-21 All-Ireland remains a regret and he believes they should have captured at least one. Looking back on it now, however, it doesn't matter. “Lots of teams have won U-21 and never won senior so it was not such a big deal but it would have been a nice medal to have.”

They were up and down between Divisions 1 and 2 in the league, playing Derry and Kerry in an era when that was most unpalatable to the Offaly hurling public. “We would have been getting it tough to beat them so there would have been that phase for 2 or 3 years where there was a lot of inconsistency.”

He also felt that their training wasn't what it should have been and their discipline was below expectations. “Young lads weren't fully committed to the cause, myself included and it took a few years to bed in, for the team to develop.”

Asked to elaborate on that, he said they weren't doing what they should have been doing but by 1994, they were at a make or break age. “Things were looking like they were going to slip by us at that stage and I think the team decided it was a now or never sort of thing."

The transition process from the 1980s into the 1990s was not simple as some folk heroes ran out of steam but still hung on. There was a bit of a clearout in 1990 with Pat Delaney and Eugene Coughlan retiring – Dooley regrets that he didn't get to play with them but Joe Dooley remained on until the end of the decade and Jim Troy (sub in 1981 and in the goals in 1985) was the goalkeeper in 1994 and a sub in 1995. Mark Corrigan played until 1993 and Danny Owens, a late point scorer in the 1981 All-Ireland final win over Galway, captained Offaly to the National Hurling League in 1991 and it took the young crop time to find their feet.

For the first time in a decade, Offaly didn't get to the Leinster final in 1991, shocked by Dublin in the semi-final – they had beaten Tipperary in the league semi-final, Wexford in the final, and looking back now, he feels they were too complacent against Dublin. “We weren't the best prepared team going out that day.”

However, by 1992 there was light at the end of the tunnel. They ran Kilkenny very close in both 1992 and 1993 and it was clear that Offaly were emerging. “They went on and won the All-Ireland both years. It was the old system with straight knockout. It was very penal to a team trying to develop. You were trying to develop and the next thing you were out of the championship, gone until the league in October or November. It didn't lend itself to a young team trying to develop but it was a great system if you took out a big gun.”

In 1993, they were denied by a late John Power goal – it was controversial because of the number of steps D.J. Carey took in the lead up to it - and he feels they hurled well enough to win but has no regrets. “Maybe we wouldn't have developed or played the way Kilkenny did. They went on to win the All-Ireland but that's not to say we were going to do that. At the same time, it felt like we let it slip.”

Johnny Dooley agreed that the quick switchover of managers in the years before Limerick legend Eamon Cregan was appointed in late 1993 was a factor in Offaly's struggles in those years. Dooley himself played under Padraig Horan and missed the earlier managers but he acknowledged: “It's not good for a team trying to develop to switch managers every year. You are back to square one every time but with hindsight, they were competing and winning Leinster titles. It was a bit drastic to be changing managers every year but there were high expectations at the time.”

What did Eamon Cregan bring to the table when he came in?

“He brought a whole new level of discipline and professionalism. Fitness levels definitely went through the roof and he had a very direct system of how he wanted the game to be played. There was no other way than his way. You couldn't decide that you wanted to do things your way. I think he got everyone to buy into that. It was a simple system and it was Offaly's way of hurling anyway. He wasn't trying to bring in something we weren't familiar with. Even more so than ground hurling, everything had to be done in direct lines. You released the ball as quick as you could, whether it was on the ground or in the air. It was first touch hurling and we felt it suited the way we wanted to play.”

Cregan was a stern taskmaster who kept players at arm's length and was never their best friend. “He was not a guy you could say you had a conversation with or a bit of a chat with. He was his own man and he kept his distance. I think, professionally, that is not a bad thing. His sidekick Derry (Donovan, the physical trainer, also from Limerick) was very much the opposite.

Derry was very easy to mix with and get on with on a personal level. The two boys had a good mixture and it probably suited.”
Talented hurlers, apparently good enough for the team, didn't make the cut at that time – players such as St Rynagh's Roy Mannion and Birr's Adrian Cahill instantly spring to mind.

“I think he knew what sort of player he wanted to fulfill his game and he probably made up his mind that certain types of players mightn't fall in with the pattern he wanted played. There were a few unfortunate ones, super talents that were lost along the way. I suppose in any team you are going to lose players one way or another. It is part of the shedding process from underage to senior. Not everyone who is a good minor will develop into a good senior. I suppose they weren't fitting into Eamon's view of how things should be played and he fast-tracked that.”

Still, the retention rate from those minor teams was considerable and he agreed that it was bigger than many other counties.
By 1994, Dooley knew things were clicking together. He observed a jump in commitment levels, in intensity. After a few weeks of heavy training, Offaly had a fairly comfortable 2-16 to 3-9 win over All-Ireland champions Kilkenny in the Leinster semi-final. “On the day, we played particularly well. We weren't lacking in confidence or belief but our fitness levels were good, the commitment to the team was good and the attitude was good. That kicked started the whole season.”

Wexford were beaten in the Leinster final, 2-14 to 1-10 and Galway were swept aside by 2-13 to 1-10 in the All-Ireland semi-final.

“Wexford were a good side too, they were running up big scores and competing in league finals but we were playing really well. You could see things were coming together.”

It meant that Offaly were favourites for the All-Ireland final but it didn't happen for a long time on the day as Limerick exerted a powerful control. Damian Quigley was on fire in the first half as Limerick led by 2-8 to 1-5 at half time.

“Quigley was having one of those days where nothing could go wrong for him. He probably had 2-2 onboard by half time and you couldn't legislate for that. Leaving that aside, we weren't playing as well as expected but we were still hanging in there.”
It was not a complete nightmare. “No, not at all but by the standards we had set that year, it was probably our worse half-hour of hurling. We were disappointed to say the least.”

Offaly improved a bit in the second half before Limerick stepped on the gas again. Five points behind with just over five minutes left, Dooley said: “It looked like the game was just going to take its course and they would run out handy winners but thankfully not.”

His free is entrenched in hurling folklore. He looked to the sideline for instruction from Eamon Cregan and couldn't pick him out but he saw Derry Donovan indicating to go for a point. “I didn't follow that instruction. I know it's not advisable to be going against manager's decisions but at that stage, I don't think they could do anything to me. Whether he would have taken me off or not wasn't going to make much difference.”

Everything Offaly touched turned to gold dust after this. His brother Billy got three sensational points in a row (and was inches wide with a shot at a fourth just before the final whistle) after Johnny Dooley and John Troy had stroked over one apiece as Offaly pulled clear.

“You dream of winning All-Irelands in five minutes but for it all to happen in five minutes with the stuff we were playing up to that point and to then start popping over points from all angles. I would often be talking to Limerick people and they say we stole it but I say hold on, we won it by six points. I would be messing but it was just incredible that it all clicked in five minutes.”

Limerick goalkeeper Joe Quaid was criticised for a quick puckout after the Dooley goal but he pointed out that they actually won that ball only for a player to drop it.

In 1995, Offaly returned to the All-Ireland final against Clare but were overpowered late on in a defeat that still rankles with everyone involved.

Johnny Dooley remembered: “I took a long time to get over that defeat. It was painful from the point of view that we felt we were even stronger the following year. Maybe we got a bit relaxed or complacent and we were fairly hot favourites after our performance in the Leinster final. We played very well against Kilkenny and suddenly we were raging hot favourites.

"Maybe things got carried away and we didn't handle it as well as we could have. These things happen but it was a big disappointment not to win back to back. I felt that team deserved that at that time. We were good enough to do it and we just didn't pull it off. You take the rough with the smooth and I often think that if you can win fifty per cent when you play at that level, you are doing okay. We are not all Kilkenny who can dominate and you have to accept the lows with the highs.”

There was great excitement in the build-up to that final – thousands at training in O'Connor Park while Dooley and Kevin Martin were given courtesy cars. Did all that have an adverse impact?

“I think you are probably right there. There was very little protection for players. We were an open book for media as well. I could be working any day and you would get two or three phone calls from journalists. You were never schooled in dealing with media and management didn't really put much of an emphasis on trying to control all the things going on around you.

"It wouldn't have been any harm if there was less attention at the training sessions. Nowadays they would be behind closed doors but I wouldn't really agree with that either. I don't think that would have cost us a performance but it can lead to softness in your mental preparation. Clare came out and hit us with 100% an hour stuff and maybe our preparation wasn't 100%, that is all I can say."

Even with all that, Offaly still had ample chances to have won. “They got a late goal and we had chances at our end but we didn't take them. It was definitely one we should have got.”

In 1996, things went off the boil. They lost to Wexford in the Leinster final and Cregan bowed out. “It was a high scoring game and we weren't far off the mark. They went onto win the All-Ireland but you just know sometimes when things are not one hundred per cent and things were just not right that year.”

John McIntyre was a one year manager as Wexford beat them in the 1997 Leinster semi-final. Tipperary folk hero Babs Keating took over in 1998 and it was an extraordinary year. Keating was forced to resign after criticising the players following a bad Leinster championship defeat by Kilkenny. Galway's Michael Bond took over and they drew with Clare in the All-Ireland semi-final. They looked to be heading to defeat when the replay was blown up early by referee Jimmy Cooney and Offaly won the refixture on a high octane day in Thurles before storming past Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final.

Dooley acknowledged the role Keating played early in that season. “We did huge training earlier in the year. We had Johnny Murray, an army guy, as trainer and he had us running, running, running. I'd say we were the fittest team in Ireland but we did no hurling. Whether it suited Babs or not, all the work was physical. When Bond came in, we had all the physical work done and all he had to do was work on the hurling side. It all came together fairly quickly once we started zoning in and concentrating on what we should have been doing which was hurling.”

After that Leinster final defeat, Keating famously compared the players to “sheep in a heap”. Were you as offended as some of the other players?

“I would have been to be honest. I just thought it was the way it was done. He came into the dressing room and he said very little to us. He had nothing much to contribute within the dresssing room but when he went out to the media, he had a good bit to say. If he had done it face to face, we would have accepted it, one hundred percent but I think he was protecting himself a small bit as opposed to protecting us.

"Maybe it was what we needed as a group as well. There was some serious characters in that dressing room, serious belief with guys who had given everything for Offaly and the game. It is not nice when things are said like that and I think it rattled us up a bit. We had to do something to back ourselves up then, we had to stand our ground. It galvanised us and brought the team closer together so it probably worked to our benefit.”

That fantastic team had their dying kicks in 1999 and 2000 – they lost to Cork in a thrilling All-Ireland semi-final in 1999, beat them a year later but were destroyed by Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final with Dooley as captain and playing some of the best hurling of his career as he captured a third All-Star award.

“It was slipping a bit but there was a bit of a transition kicking in. You had guys like Ger Oakley and Gary Hanniffy coming on so there was a bit of freshness coming to it. Brendan Murphy came in under Pat Fluery. I suppose it gets to a stage where you have a team set for six years or so. Nowadays it's more about a panel of 25 but that time it was more about 18. You had your team and three subs and there was a few of them getting near to retirement. In 2000, I felt we were going well and training well.”

In 2000, Offaly beat Wexford, lost to Kilkenny in the Leinster final and then had a powerful surge to beat Cork. “We weren't a hundred miles off the mark. We had a poor enough All-Ireland but we got off to the worse start possible. We gifted them two goals early on. We still ran up a score of 1-14 which wasn't bad. I was captain that day and personally, it was a hard one because every player's dream is to captain an All-Ireland final win but it wasn't meant to be. But you give it everything and if it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out.”

Dooley was bitterly disappointed in the aftermath of the final. “I would always take a defeat bad. Whether that is a good or a bad thing, I hate losing but you have to accept it if you are beaten by a better team. It doesn't make losing any easier though and particularly as captain. You've given seven or eight months to something.”

In 2000, Dooley played some of his best hurling. Dominating midfield, he displayed a toughness that was often missed by spectators at wing forward where he was known for his scoretaking, from frees and open play, playmaking and silky skills.

“Wing forward is more man on man and you are probably cutting around all the time. You are trying to break away from your defender and there are times when you have to but in midfield, you have to get stuck in a bit more. You are more in the action and involved in play whereas on the wing you can be isolated a bit. I think midfield suited me because as you creep on in years, you lose a small bit of pace.

"In midfield, you can be running all the time and getting yourselves into good positions. If you are a good reader of the game, you can get into all the right positions but at wing forward, it was you versus your man. I enjoyed midfield, I had more freedom to express myself and if you were clever enough to be in the right positions, you pick up a lot of ball.”

Offaly's cause in that final was not helped by controversy over the omission of 1998 captain Hubert Rigney from the panel. Rigney had been injured and was dismayed to be left out after it was decided he wasn't fit enough.

“It probably affected the players a little bit but Hubey hadn't been featuring a lot throughout that campaign. We had a set of 15, 18, 20 players that were being used in and out so I don't think it would have affected the actual performance. Okay, it was a distraction and that is not good to have.”

Most of the noise was made by people away from the camp. “Absolutely and I don't think it would affect you as a player. We were more focussed on what we were doing and getting the performance right so I think something like that can be overemphasised.”

After 2000, Offaly hurling entered decline – a decline that hit freefall within a decade. Pat Fleury stepped aside after 2000, replaced by Tipperary's Fr Tom Fogarty. Dooley remembers that as an appointment that didn't “work out” while pointing out that the team was slipping with lads retiring and younger players such as Rory Hanniffy and Brian Carroll coming in.

“There were good lads coming through as well so it wasn't all negative but we started going through managers again fairly quickly.”

Dooley retired in 2002 but didn't expect Offaly to decline as rapidly. They got to a Leinster final in 2004 but he acknowledged that they weren't really competing at minor and U-21 level in those years. “If your team is not competing at minor and U-21, it is hard. The guy coming in is potentially not as good as the guy going out and eventually the panel is going to get weaker. That was happening from around 2005. We got a bad beating against Kilkenny in 2005 and from there on, performances started to get poorer and poorer.”

Offaly hurling is in a bad place at the moment, do you see any light at the end of the tunnel?

“I think you have to stay believing and there is a lot of negativity at the moment. We never thought we would be in the Christy Ring Cup which is a third-tier championship and we are relegated in the league but we are exactly where we are and we have been trending in that direction for quite a while. Maybe if we have bottomed out, we will start to recover but I don't know if we have the quality to bounce back. I'd be hopeful we can but we do need to start generating more talent from underage. That conveyor belt is not there from minor and U-21 and it is going to be a long project to get it right.”

Since retiring, Dooley has gone into management – taking charge of Westmeath as well as Offaly minor hurlers, coaching with Offaly seniors. He has done a few years at underage level with Tullamore as well as training camogie sides in the town, where his two girls play. At the moment, he is taking time out but hopes to get involved in management again.

Looking back on his career, he harbours particularly fond memories of his club Seir Kieran. He was 17 when they won their first Senior Hurling Championship title in 1988 but was a star as they won again in 1995, 1996 and 1998.

“We sort of dovetailed, we were running in tandem with the Offaly team. We had a good squad and were competing in county finals year in, year out. We were coming up against Birr and St Rynagh's, very good teams and we did well to get a couple of championships out of it. It is brilliant to win with your club because that is where it all starts and that is where it finishes in most cases. We were a very small base and pick. Okay, we lost five or six finals but we won four. It is not quite fifty per cent but it is not far off.”

His youth meant that the significance of the 1988 win didn't fully register with him and he didn't understand the emotion and tears of older players but he certainly appreciated it in 1995 and thereafter. “They are hard to win. Getting to finals is hard but winning them is very difficult and it made me appreciate them. We were lucky, you don't win much without a bit of luck. We won by a point, two points. We were beaten in three finals as well by four points in all so it is swings and roundabouts. I am just happy we got a couple of championships.”

The Dooley family helped backbone the Seir Kieran team and he said: “You couldn't ask for any better to have brothers on a team and you would have a bit of understanding as well. Joe would want every ball into him of course! It was good, we had a great run at it.”

His biggest regret was 1995 against Clare, his fondest memory, Limerick in '94. “I think lots of teams were as good as ours or nearly as good and got nothing so I just say be happy with your lot. You can say that we should have got one more but we should be thankful for what we have. It's not a bad return. We are not in the Kilkenny bracket so I am satisfied with what we got out of it.”

That Offaly team had a reputation for their social life; the cartoon of a pint and cigarette in one hand, the hurl in the other hand – a story that Johnny Pilkington, in particular, liked to paint.

Johnny Dooley feels this was overplayed a bit. “I have no hesitation in saying we enjoyed ourselves, myself included. We can't pretend that we didn't but when it was time to train, we trained hard. No better men than Johnny Pilkington, John Troy, Daithi Regan to enjoy themselves but when the training was there, those boys trained. They never gave an excuse. Training was tough and they did the hard work. When it was over, we enjoyed ourselves as well and I think that is not a bad thing.

"It is important to relax. We had matches every three weeks or a month at that time, there were gaps. Win a game, we would celebrate and be back training on Tuesday night. Okay, you might be sipping the odd pint in between but that helped people to relax a little. Sometimes it can be too regimental.

“I think we had enough common sense to know when to drink and not drink. I think it can be overplayed a bit but there were some great characters on that team. Maybe we did a bit more than the Clare's and other teams as regards socialising. It might have cost us an All-Ireland but I don't think so.”

Whether they overdid it or not, the modern hurler certainly wouldn't have the lifestyle of that Offaly team. Dooley questions if they can enjoy it fully but he did say: “I think players are different now. They buy into all that nutritional stuff, the strength and conditioning. They buy into that way of life, it is different than our time.”

Would you have done what the modern hurler does?]

"I would love to have had a go at it just to see what physique and fitness I could get to. We had no information on any of that stuff, it wasn't there in our time. What we did was what every other team was doing in our time. I was involved in Offaly two years ago and most of those guys are brilliant. I have no hesitation in saying that about the present Offaly team. They are great lads for training and showing up on time, doing all the dietary, weights. Unfortunately, that doesn't guarantee a hurler, doesn't give a lad the skill levels to go out and execute on match day. It gives him a lot of other things. You are doing what every other team is doing and if you don't, you are at a disadvantage.

“I would have loved it and to buy into the best technology, information, dietary and psychology out there. We did what every team was doing. If every team does the same, what wins out is skill and talent, belief that you are good enough to win. If you go out and there is even one per cent doubt in your mind that you are not good enough, to win, normally that comes through in your performance. That is where we are struggling a bit at the minute, lots of players from underage up don't have that confidence, they don't really believe in themselves.

"There are a lot of good players, good lads to train, great attitudes. They will do all you ask them to but they are a bit fragile when it comes down to it.”

That Offaly team had a deserved reputation for militancy. It came through in the Babs Keating affair and also when they accepted “rogue” sponsorship gear from a phone firm, First Link in the late 1990s.

“I think sometimes a stubborn streak is no harm. Lads are independent, strong-minded, we were not easy bought off but there were a few controversies, a few things going on around that time. Was it helpful? No, it wasn't. It doesn't lend itself to what you would expect. I think you need characters in a team and guys to stand up and be counted when necessary. If everyone is towing the line and being nice all the time, it doesn't work. Sometimes at training, the best thing that can happen is a bit of argy-bargy and that. If you go down to some of the Kilkenny sessions, lads are taking chunks out of one another. You need a bit of that cut in you."

He was happy with the way the County Board looked after them and feels that modern players get too much gear. “How much gear can you wear. I do agree that players are entitled to stuff, they are committing so much. In our time, the county was a bit more similar to club action, training Tuesday and Thursday, probably four times a week. Players are committing more now and entitled to get whatever they get. And more luck to them.”

He noted that the board stood behind them with the Babs Keating affair and also when full-time was blown up early against Clare in 1998. “I had no issues with the County Board, they were very supportive,” he declared.

He was nationally famous during his career and asked about the impact this had on him, he said: “It is nice to have it but life moves on. A certain number of years slip by. Ask any fifteen-eighteen year old now and they haven't a clue about Johnny Dooley and that is the way it should be. I don't believe in this thing. We have a habit in Offaly of reminiscing and going back over old stuff. In the likes of Kilkenny and Tipperary, they don't do that type of thing and that is good.

“The sooner we get away from it and start getting new heroes, new victories coming through, that is what we all want to see. While looking backwards, we can miss out on the new. The only way to change this is to generate new blood and teams. It's grand to look back but it's done and dusted now, parked up. You get on with your life, you can't stay living in the past and talking about something. We are too fond of talking backwards, we should be more forward-thinking. It is what it is but they are brilliant memories to have.”