Living on the edge – John Leonard’s extraordinary double act

The former understudy to Dublin’s Stephen Cluxton was an insatiable pills-and-thrills chaser

 

“That’s a tricky one,” laughs John Leonard when asked which felt better: being E’d out of his head on countless nights in the Kitchen and other venues in turn-of the-millennium Dublin or running out towards the blue wall of Hill 16 when Croke Park was deafening and expectant.

But he has always been aware of the connection between his two lives. Sports stars often thoughtlessly refer to their peerless days as an “addiction” or being “like a drug” and as a connoisseur of every combination of chemical and alcoholic kick going as well as being Dublin’s second-choice goalkeeper for four championship seasons, John Leonard is well-placed to make the comparison.

“You could definitely sell it,” he says of the rush that comes with being part of the Dublin football squad. “And it would probably be quite expensive.”

The subheading of Dub-Sub Confidential, Leonard’s unabashedly confessional and graphic memoir is “A Goalkeeper’s Life with – and without the Dubs”. It is a good title because the overall feeling of Leonard’s sporting life is of a high-wire act. He somehow managed to have a part-time romance with Dublin football while full-bloodedly chasing whatever and whoever was on offer in Dublin after dark.

With this book, Leonard adds to the large number of of goalkeeper-as-individualist stories and the book’s main conceit is that Stephen Cluxton is, inadvertently, living Leonard’s parallel life.

Cluxton is now lauded as the best goalkeeper in the history of Gaelic football. And because he is resolutely private, the public perception is of a monastic and serious individual. So there is something intriguing about the thought of Leonard, an insatiable pills-and-thrills chaser and general tearaway, as Cluxton’s understudy.

Burning ambition

In Dub Sub, he spends many pages “off his head”, loathes himself for behaving like “a slimy degenerate”, works in bars, tries and hates life in a bank (“like wrapping a frog in cling film”), takes off on druggy field trips to Australia and the East, writes poetry and keeps journals. But somehow he always found his way back to the GAA fields. (“As I wheezed around the bumpy pitch I felt a heavy dread. I wasn’t sure I could take it.”). He never took to heroin and ditched the hashish when the paranoia got too much but the GAA had him licked every time. He was an addict.

Early in the book, Leonard details an incident in which he was abused by the local priest, Fr Ivan Payne, in the sacristy after serving mass. He doesn’t claim the episode was completely responsible for his later life choices but does believe that the aimlessness with which he lived through his 20s – and the constant escapism he sought – was partly shaped by that.

“I have been on a strong path over the last four years,” he said this week, happily back in Dublin until Christmas with his wife, Serena. “I have been leading a great life. When all that stuff came out I was 17, 18. That is a time of great change anyhow. I know I just didn’t care. I let the energy of life take me wherever. I didn’t have direction. What that allowed to flourish were the mad encounters I had and all the rest. I was quite happy to do it even though I wasn’t happy. I was just reckless. I see myself as a victim and when I was in that period, I was angry and embarrassed and felt horrible about myself. I am happy with who I am now.”

Leonard was in Australia when the Murphy Report was published, chronicling the vast catalogue of clerical abuse in Ireland. Like many victims, he was shocked by the extent of the abuse.

“Here’s the thing. When I found out that the Catholic Church knew about Fr Payne, it didn’t take a genius to work out there was some kind of cover-up going on. But these reports showing the incredible systemic abuse which happened and I was surprised to see how rife it was. But then, the sort of culture over the last 60 or 70 years allowed it to flourish . . .

“People have opened up to me about their abuse since they heard what I went through. But it is still going on. . . But I think it was important to include it in order for people to understand my full story and why I went off the rails. . . I am just thankful that I was able to come out the other end .”

Despite that bleak central event, this is anything but a downbeat story. There is an antic and often jubilant energy to Leonard’s writing which brings to mind the Dublin conjured up in Dublin band Whipping Boy’s masterpiece, Heartworm – and specifically When We Were Young.

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He lived two, fully compartmentalised lives, running with what he calls the “arty crowd” and the GAA crowd. One of the most deft slyly funny passages in the book concerns Leonard’s university results: “I handed in my mini-thesis in English and got a first. The title was “The use of allegory and synecdoche in the poetry of Robert Frost, focusing on ‘The Ax-Helve”. I was stoned when I wrote it and stoned when I handed it in. I was also stoned when the professor of Modern English called me in to congratulate me.”

It is one of the many occasions which suggest Leonard was born under a lucky star. He gets away with it and looking back, he knows it. There were umpteen incidents where he admits he could “have fallen from window ledges and down cliffs”.

“That night I was absolutely out of my mind on pills and I was dancing with some girl and these guys squared up with me,” he says of the one time he felt in mortal danger. “One of them hit me on the head with a bottle and security got involved. Then I was stabbed in the side of the neck and I staggered backwards and that kind of thing. But I was so high on adrenaline and on drugs that when the security and management brought me over to the side of the bar, I burst out the front window onto George’s street.

“And I was doing these Jackie Chan moves while blood was spurting out the side of my neck. Then I ran over to the security guard shouting ‘Where the fuck are they?’ Then the guys were thrown out a side entrance and spied me and came running around so I had seven or eight guys chasing me up George’s Street. I was fast and I was high and I could outrun them. But if they caught me, yeah, I was probably a dead man. I see that person now and I understand how I got there. But it is a completely different person to who I am now.”

It seems a minor miracle Leonard managed to combine his nocturnal escapades with his GAA ambitions. GAA managers have watchdogs to report on sneaky pints, let alone busting through windows. But even if he had been the most abstemious and disciplined sportsman, chances are that he would still have finished with no starts for Dublin. In both league and championship, Cluxton was immovable: never injured, always good, usually excellent.

Most understudies usually get to act the main role once or twice. Leonard name checks other goalkeepers who have come and gone in Cluxton’s era. In retrospect, he thinks his best chance might have come and gone when he was passed over in the months after John O’Leary retired when Leonard felt he was playing out of his skin for St Sylvester’s but he didn’t get the call.

“When I got in for the 2005 season, I felt privileged and extremely lucky to be there because I had been away and been travelling and had gone down so many crazy paths. But when the dust settled, you find you are up against the guy who turns out to be the best goalkeeper of the modern era, who will revolutionise that position. I felt I deserved more of a chance in league games. Maybe not in the championship. But I genuinely hand on heart believe I could have given something to the goalkeeping position.”

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However by then, Leonard had begun to change: he met his wife Serena, ditched the intoxicants and started to write. Now that he is home, he hopes to talk to youngsters about not taking the path he did but admits he isn’t the best advertisement for the whole the-drugs-don’t-work message.

“This is the problem with drugs. Not that you want to glorify them but the reality is, when you take them, you know . . . they are great! They make you feel brilliant. And sure; coming down from them is a bitch for a few hours. But the up is incredible. You feel bulletproof . . .

“The arrogance of youth or whatever. People told my about knowing friends who got into heroin and died but you just don’t think it is going to happen to you. Now, you do lose people. I knew guys back in college who lost their minds after taking acid. They were really never the same afterwards And that is the issue when you are unbalanced or when you have sadness or just a reckless personality . . . you will try them. And I think the only way to deal with the issue is to regulate it. That is a different conversation.

“But I don’t want this book to read as a celebration of drugs. The reality is I lost my mind a lot of times. I was very close to losing friends and losing sanity. I want to be honest at all levels. There’s no point in my saying drugs are bad when for the guts of 10 years I enjoyed doing them.”

Since returning to Ireland he has found himself back on the football field. He trained with St Sylvester’s junior team this week and loved it. Since his book has been published, some of his old Dublin team-mates have been in touch with best wishes. He hasn’t chatted with Stephen Cluxton since Dublin’s latest All-Ireland win but hopes to meet up while he is home. After all, they trained alongside each other winter after winter and in so many of the big summer games Cluxton actually played, John Leonard was just metres from the field, playing every ball in his mind, waiting for his chance.

Even now, he has this recurring dream about playing for the Dubs again. “This would occur weekly,” he says cheerfully as if to confirm that the pull of it will never quite leave his bloodstream. “And it would always end with the bus pulling away.”

nDub-Sub Confidential by John Leonard is published by Penguin.

John Leonard’s website is soberpaddy.com

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