Jason Sherlock now at ease after confronting complicated past
New documentary provides poignant insight into life of former favourite of Hill 16
Jason Sherlock: “Once I got through it and I did what I did, there was an overwhelming sense of calm and peace because in my own head I had come to terms with my father as a person.”
That’s the best place to start. Let’s start with Jayo. Four small letters but the last one is massive. That “o”, that teeny-weeny enormous “o”. Bound within that little ‘o’ is the complex crossword of Jason Sherlock’s identity, a problem he has taken most of his adult life to solve.
He never asked to be Jayo. He had Jayo thrust upon him. And for a while, he loved it. All the glory, all the opportunities, all the doors that flew open at the drop of his name. It was easy to be Jayo because all he had to do was be whatever anyone else wanted him to be. And back then, back in the mid-1990s, all anyone wanted him to be was young and fun and brilliant at football. Sure that was easy. Easier than being Jason Sherlock anyway.
But here’s the thing about an “o”, regardless of the size of it. It’s round and it’s strong and there’s no way out of it. There’s no start, there’s no end. When you’re in, you’re in. And you’re stuck in there with all the other flotsam in your life, whether you asked for it or not.
“For most of my career and all through my adult life, I was very resistant to Jayo,” Sherlock says. “I had a lot of negativity towards Jayo. But now I see it in a totally different light. It’s part of me and I can see it for the nice thing that it is.
“Whereas for years, I just didn’t see it that way. If someone came up to me and called me Jayo, my instinct would have been to think, ‘Aw no, here we go’. But now it’s nice. Now I’m interested and open with it. I suppose that’s just another part of my development.”
Here’s what nobody knew. Jason Sherlock was in the top, top percentile of people unsuited getting trapped inside that “o”. Being Jayo was all surface. There was nothing real about it, nothing true. And by the time it came around, he’d had a lifetime of that already.
He was Irish but he didn’t look it. He was Chinese but he didn’t feel it. His father was from Hong Kong but left when he was three. Throughout his childhood, Sherlock deliberately detached himself from that side of his existence, resentful of something that made up half of his life. He was carefree on the pitch but paranoid off it. He was a superstar but he felt a failure.
So when Jayo arrived, when that little “o” encased him, it smothered any chance he might have had to air all the other stuff out and let it breathe. Jayo was a caricature slapped on him by the outside world and, to survive something like that intact, you’d want to start out being fairly solid and sure of who you are.
Jason Sherlock wasn’t. He turns 43 in a few weeks and he’d say that it’s really only now that he has a proper handle on it all. A few years ago, he went back to college and did an MBA. In 2017, he brought out his autobiography titled, not insignificantly, Jayo. And now he has taken part in a documentary of the same name – again, not by accident.
“I always had a distinction between the people who know me and the people who know of me. The people who know me call me Jay – and they always have. The people who know of me call me Jayo. And the thing with this documentary and it was the same with the book – it’s important to me that the name that goes on it is Jayo. Because I am now comfortable with Jayo.”
For the film, made by Loosehorse productions and being shown on RTÉ on Sunday, Sherlock locks in what he considers the last jigsaw piece. His father Denis Leung moved to South Africa and built a new life for himself in Durban. He married there, had a son Jack – a half-brother Jason became aware of for the first time around a decade ago but only meets for the first time in the documentary.
The idea was pitched to Sherlock by Cormac Hargaden of Loosehorse as being half 30 for 30 and half Reeling In The Years. But though there is plenty of sport and archive footage in it, the finished article is actually closer to a Who Do You Think You Are?
Sherlock grew up keeping his Chinese heritage at arm’s length, insisting on having fish and chips any time he went to a Chinese restaurant because he didn’t want to admit to it being a part of him.
By the time he exploded on the GAA scene in 1995, it was something he had more or less suppressed within him, the only vestige of it being the fact that he looked different to all the other players. It was always there, the great unspoken, never really explored or pushed despite the oceans of media that surrounded him.
“I’d say at the time there was a lot of understanding of how sensitive it was,” he says now. “My uncle kept all the old clippings from back then and there was a line from Paul Kimmage once that said something short and simple like, ‘His father was Asian’. Or maybe it was Chinese, I’m not sure which. But he was the only one that ever mentioned it.
“That always stuck in my head because either no one else ever thought of it or no one else had the balls to go there. Now, he didn’t ask me. It wasn’t a question directed to me or anything. He put it out there.
“I think it’s probably different these days. I think a player coming through with that sort of background would be asked about it now. Certainly if I had been asked about it back then, I don’t think my reaction would have been very open. I probably wouldn’t have received it all that well. And people probably knew that so they didn’t go there.”
Yet it was always there. In him but not in him. A hole he couldn’t bring himself to fill. He touched on it here and there in his book but even when it was published, he knew he had more ground to cover. So when Loosehorse talked about a documentary, he suggested a trip to South Africa. He was going to have to deal with it somehow – maybe this was how.
“Based on the personal stuff I had put in the book, I felt it would be remiss of me not to address it in this way. It was very, I don’t know if therapeutic is the right word, but it was definitely good for me to do it this way.
“I’m at a stage of life now where I’ve been lucky in sport and in work to come across certain things that have helped me personally. Teamwork is definitely one of those, leadership is another. To lead – or to be seen in a leading capacity – you’ve got to understand yourself as an individual. That process for me started with going and doing the MBA and later by doing the book and now this documentary. I’ve made sense of it now, I think. At least I’ve made sense of my interpretation of it.”
Meeting Jack and going to the Buddhist temple where his father’s ashes are stored make up the most gripping parts of the documentary. Jack is younger than him but had a similar relationship with their father.
Denis Leung was murdered on a street corner in Durban when Jack was three, robbed and killed as he was cashing out the takings from his business at the end of his working day. They both grew up without him in their lives. In the film, they are both understandably nervous as they meet each other for the first time.
“It was massive,” Sherlock says.
“I grew up as an only child. And to have a blood relative out there, a blood brother, it means a lot. It’s interesting, because he’s in his early 20s, I don’t know if it resonated as much with him. He didn’t know his father because he was very young when he died. Quite similar to me, as in we both lost Denis from our lives when we were three years old.
“It was really good for me to be able to sit in his company and just see that here was a very genuine, good-hearted person. It might sound stupid but I had built up this perception of my father with a lot of negativity attached to it.
“And so to see another human being, another son who was a good guy, that was enough for me. It was so nice to be able to do it. We met on camera and then had some time together and I went for dinner with him and his mother that evening. It was great to be able to get some sense of our father together.”
Denis was murdered in 1995. Sherlock remembers hearing the news and then going to play a soccer match for UCD that night, feeling no real connection to the death of a man he barely knew thousands of miles away. For most of his life afterwards, he did nothing about it. Didn’t go to the funeral back then, he didn’t go looking about him at any stage ever since. Until now.
In a brilliant scene near the end of the documentary, Sherlock is led up the steps of a temple by a Buddhist monk and into a beautiful room where his father’s ashes are in a vase on a shelf – one of hundreds, stretching the length of the wall. The monk who leads him into the room instructs him to talk to his father – to Sherlock’s obvious surprise.
Watching it, you’re half-thinking he might turn and tell the makers to cut the cameras to let him have a moment but he’s so deep in what he’s doing that he just goes with it. It makes for a stunning piece of film, with Sherlock laying himself completely open and facing his life in its entirety for the first time. Smashing his way through that little “o” once and for all.
“I can understand the cynicism that some people might have,” he says.
“Like, why would you do it in that situation with cameras there rather than in private or whatever. But I think if people watch it, you can see that it was literally a journey of discovery for me. I’m waiting at the gate as the guy is bringing me in – I wasn’t aware of what was going to happen or how it was going to turn out.
“And when he said, ‘Talk, talk . . .’ I was just so thrown by it. But as I was doing it, it was genuinely as though the camera and guys weren’t there. I didn’t notice them or I wasn’t conscious of them in the slightest. It didn’t feel like a TV programme, it was a personal thing.
“The experience of going to see Denis’s ashes was intense. And when it was over, there was a calmness that came over me. The place itself, the Buddhist temple was just surreal and beautiful. Driving out there, you just arrive at this temple and there was such a calming influence about the place in general. It really felt, as a resting place, it was a comfortable place to be. And to go there and, as a mark of respect not only for Denis but his family as well, for them to be able to see it was very special for me.”
I mightn’t have got the benefit of it from my perspective but he was a good person
They made the trip a fortnight after the All-Ireland final this year. Sherlock’s role in Dublin’s four-in-a-row is only barely touched upon in the film, as much to show how it has rounded him out and made up for the some of the pain his playing career brought him. Nobody associates Jayo with bad times but there were plenty of them, on and off the pitch.
“Being back involved in Dublin in 2015 put me at peace as a sportsperson. And I think this has put me at peace as a human being. I do feel a lot lighter in that sense. All the guards that I had built up over the years, all the paranoia, all those barriers were broken down. I feel open to people coming to talk to me and asking about me. It’s very hard to verbalise what that means to me. But that’s certainly how I felt after I came out of the temple. I was just at peace.
“Once I got through it and I did what I did, there was an overwhelming sense of calm and peace because in my own head I had come to terms with my father as a person. I would have had a lot of negativity and anger towards him because I would have felt that he didn’t care about me.
“But I’ve got a much broader perspective on what a human being he was, understanding even that he left his home place when he was 15 as the eldest of his family – he went with his dad to Dublin to see if they could set up a business.
“Like, not to even know that or understand that and then to find out about it and see what kind of husband he was and what kind of father he was, it gave me that sense of understanding that yeah, he was a good person. I mightn’t have got the benefit of it from my perspective but he was a good person. So that was important.
“But also, all the faults and wrong things that I do and that we all do, I was attaching them to him and to his involvement – or lack of involvement – in my life. It’s good for me to break that and get away from it and realise that the ownership is on me. Not anything he did or didn’t do for me. And that’s a big thing.”
JAYO will be broadcast on Sunday 30th December, RTÉ One, 9.30pm