‘I realised the book had helped people and that has been part of the healing’

Iconic sports books revisited: John Leonard on his story Dub Sub Confidential

‘Lenny, show this lad the ropes, will ya?’

‘No problem, Ski. Who is he?’

‘Diarmuid Connolly – the most talented footballer in the country is who he is.’

‘Oh yeah?’


‘Yeah, unbelievable talent. Bit of a head case, though . . . He has a few issues, but not as bad as you, Lenny.’

Scratch the surface of Dub Sub Confidential and discover the memoir of a man who shadowed the goalkeeper that transformed the way Gaelic football is played forever.

Stephen Cluxton looms over John Leonard's narrative especially when their lives move in opposite directions. But Cluxton is mere bait to hook the reader into a wild tale of debauchery, despair and eventually redemption.

The enigma of Irish sport is smiling on the cover, wearing a sketched crown to Leonard’s court jester cap. The insight into what makes Cluxton tick ensures this is a rare GAA manuscript as the secondary school teacher refuses to entertain the media or monetise his legendary status all because, as he tells the author, “Len, it’s not my job to speak to them. It’s my job to teach kids science. The rest is all bollix.”

Delve fully into Dub Sub Confidential and discover a darkly comic, enduring autobiography six years after it won sports book of the year. Leonard unveils a range of addictions and spectacular life choices that stem from child abuse at the hands of Father Ivan Payne. He skilfully shows how this horrific experience, while serving as an altar boy in Sutton, pursued him into adulthood.

‘My first sexual experience was the Parish Priest rubbing my . . . ’

In 1981 the Catholic Church was informed that Fr Payne had molested a 12-year-old boy. A year later they moved the paedophile to Sutton where he served Mass until 1995. They even had him counselling couples that intended to get married.

For Leonard, it has never been about surviving abuse or being a victim. At least, not until he listened to the podcast ‘Where Is George Gibney?’

"I have always written but way back when I was first thinking of this idea – when I had first got back with the Dublin panel having been over in India going bananas – the title I originally put into Penguin was 'Dublin goalkeeper's journey from smoking opium in the Himalayas to lifting Sam Maguire in Croke Park.'

“A different story came out after I had to flesh out three chapters and put the other 10 chapters into a brief synopsis.

“I had all these crazy drugs and drinking stories and stories about the Dubs. Then I went back to my childhood and wondered – what is the central [theme] in all of this? That’s when I thought of Father Payne.

“But do I really want to open up about him?”

Payne was released from prison in 2002 having served four and a half years for abusing eight boys between 1968 and 1987. The Irish Times estimated Payne's abusecost the Dublin archdiocese €400,000 in compensation and legal fees. Chillingly, after his release, the church provided him with accommodation and an income equivalent of a retired priest.

“It was the kernel for a lot of the madness that came out,” says Leonard from his current existence near the beach in One Tree Point, a few hours north of Auckland. “I think it was a big part of my mentality because I never got treatment for it, which I was told to do.

“I just said f**k it, I’ll be grand.”

‘The Spanish cocaine was really strong. It lifted your eyeballs and gave you a heavy over confidence and recklessness.’

Leonard presses the ‘f**k it button’ on numerous occasions. This leads to some hilarious rollover sessions throughout the late 1990s in “flats and houses” all around Dublin but the way he describes blackouts, via glances and hazy interruptions from friends, is what really resonates.

“The detail I went into was probably because I have always enjoyed books like Naked Lunch and Fear and Loathing – in your face graphic understanding of what it is like to drink or do drugs or take hallucinogens.

“Couple that with Paul Merson’s autobiography and Paul McGrath’s and Tony Cascarino’s – the stories are in the detail of their sessions. That’s where the nuggets are found. That was the idea. Get a glimpse into the real stuff that makes a mad person go deeper and deeper.

“Does that make sense?”

It does on the page. Like the first time he smoked heroin, on a family holiday to the Costa del Sol at Christmas.

Leonard's flowing narrative from inside and outside the Dublin panel was initially edited by his wife Serena, a bestselling author, before the expert eye of Penguin's Brendan Barrington took over.

The wonder is if such a searingly honest memoir proved cathartic. His answer provides a glimpse into the excruciating yet rewarding nature of penning 200 pages about yourself.

“The writing wasn’t cathartic at all. The writing process was really hard work because I was trying to remember what happened and then put it all together and checking all the facts and then rewriting that to make it into a good story. And then rewriting that again and getting it edited by my wife and then rewriting that and getting it edited by Brendan. And then rewriting his edits.

“It is a labour, man, so it was never really cathartic. But after broadcasting the fact that I had been abused and that I had issues with other stuff I realised the book had helped some people. That has been part of the healing for me.

“In the year or two after the book came out I was back in Ireland promoting it in schools all over the country. The feedback I got was really satisfying. That brought a lot of closure to parts of my crazy personality.”

How does a person move past child abuse, in that it seems like a constant struggle?

“I think I have definitely moved on. When I was pressing the ‘f**k it button,’ subconsciously, I was playing out those roles but, for me, it was important not to consider myself a victim or a survivor [of abuse].

“They are important words for me to avoid in many respects because I think if you carry that stuff around, I think it is not a healthy frame of reference to keep yourself in.

"That is something that has helped me move on but, then again, I listened to the Where Is George Gibney? podcast and a few more about Jeffrey Epstein and to be honest I did get emotional. It did bring up stuff that I know I probably have not dealt with in many regards but even listening to other people's stories and feeling real deep emotions and sadness – letting a few tears roll down my eyes as I am doing the dishes in remote New Zealand, that for me is fine.

“I feel so much sadness for the people who it happened to. For me, when I hear these stories, I see how it destroys people’s lives. And it does. It destroys people.

"There was a fella I met for coffee a couple of times after the book came out. He was telling me his story – he went to meet the Pope. He had been raped by a Christian Brother in school. The Christian Brother was moved over to Africa and he was doing the same over there so this guy took it upon himself to go and hunt down this 'priest'.

“The Brothers were moving these paedophile rapists around with this mad sick level of knowledge that was going on, and is still available in the inner circles of these institutions. Whether people think it is a conspiracy or not, there are paedophile rings at very high levels of the world.

“I think whatever my book does or other people’s stories about the George Gibneys, the great thing is it brings a light to it. It lets other people – hopefully – know that they are not alone. They can get on with their life. They can come forward and talk about it.

“That was what I found – the response was overwhelming from people who had been abused. I had dealt with it in many regards but to hear their stories and feel their sadness, it is mind boggling.”

Initially, Leonard pitched a manuscript that had Cluxton going “loco” or “cracking a metatarsal” so he could come off the bench to clip the winning point into Hill 16 that beats Kerry in an All-Ireland final. When that fantasy became Cluxton’s reality in 2011 Leonard was watching “early on a Monday morning in Sydney . . . crying real man tears of unfettered and sweet happiness.”

The story concludes with the two goalkeepers on a double date during the Compromise Rules tour of Australia later that year, when the local media were moaning about the Ireland captain’s refusal to engage.

“Clucko is a real machine. It is 12 years since I was with that team and so obviously a lot of things have changed but he doesn’t seem to have; his demeanour, his physique, his application, his tone, have all stayed impeccable throughout it all.

"The team that galvanised under Pat Gilroy and came out under Jim Gavin has really all been about Cluxton."

One night at training Cluxton lost his temper over all the “pricking around” that was the norm before Gilroy “got rid of the messers”. This was Leonard quoting his former teammate from that night out in 2011.

“I don’t know what he is like now in the dressingroom but I imagine all the young lads look up to him and take on board what he says. Fifteen years ago he didn’t have that same influence.

“What he would have wanted, when he was frustrated all those years ago, is what has been put in place – the attitude, the application, the dedication. That hunger to perform, which he always had, that professionalism, which he always had, and I imagine he has brought that out in all the young lads. Obviously, they are quality but you can see his shadow over it all.

“When he retires, I think they will lose. They won’t win the following championship. He is that important to them. Whenever that is, I don’t think it will be this year or next year. Maybe the following year.”

But Dublin, Leonard believes, will recover and continue to dominate the sport.

"We never actually sat down and worked out the strategy that would fundamentally change the way Gaelic football is played forever. We'd all take 30 or 40 kickouts to the midfielders before training up in Parnell Park and Shane Ryan would do these dummy runs and come back around and Clucko would just ping the ball out to him. Because he was able to do it so well, I think it snowballed into what we have today.

“It is funny if you think about it like the butterfly effect. People try to over analyse it and rethink it but it is a lot simpler.”

Leonard's insane years of mass consumption take us bar hopping from Greek Islands to Bangkok to India and into the labyrinth of Copper Face Jacks, but by the time he returns to Australia, mixing with another towering Dubliner in Damien Dempsey, the drink had turned him into a nasty character. It takes a lot of close shaves before 'Sober Paddy' – his online pen name created by Serena – is born.

“I actually never read the book since I wrote it and I’d forgotten a lot of the stuff so I picked it up and read the first chapter the other day and thought – this is actually a good read!

“I wonder what this guy got up to next?”

Do you still have the recurring dream about training with the Dubs and feeling out of place?

“For a while now I have just dreamed about being with Sylvester’s. Back at the club. I think the Dublin dream is gone but then it would come along again.”

The players would find it weird that he was there. The managers would ask “are you really back?” An untied shoelace or a bird flying by would distract him and the bus would be pulling away. He would scream after them but they wouldn’t stop.

‘Come back! I should be on that bus.’

“It is weird when you get to this stage. I mean, I am in my early 40s now, or whatever, 40 . . . something. My little fella is two years old and I want to guide him down every path to make sure he is a success in life and doesn’t make the same mistakes as I made. But I can’t guarantee that. My dad thought he was doing what he could do, to give me the best path but I ended up making my own decisions. And looking back, they were stupid a lot of them.

“Suppose you can’t live regretfully or your dreams will haunt you.

“The next book I think I am going to tap into that – into waking from the dream, but I have about 10 years of living before getting that out on the shelves.”

In the meantime, John Leonard will exist along a coastline that attracts orcas with a ringing bell and ideally create an "eco friendly self-sustainable village" with, he laughs, "all the other crusty hippies".

The Dubs will always invade his dreams. At least for a short while it was real.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent