Tony Keady: A past master working towards Galway’s future success
Twenty seven years on from the county’s last All-Ireland triumph, there is belief that another is close
“We could have won four of five All-Irelands in a row,”says Galway’s two-time All-Ireland winner (1987 and ’88) Tony Keady, seen here during the 1990 All-Ireland hurling final loss to Cork. Photograph: Inpho
Tony Keady at his place of work, Calasanctius College, Oranmore, Co Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy.
“Twenty-seven years? It is frightening,” Tony Keady acknowledges on a soaking lunchtime in Oranmore, his voice bouncing around the empty classroom of Calasanctius College. “I often say that if Galway win an All-Ireland we will have to teach ourselves how to celebrate.”
In the kaleidoscope of hurling, Keady is riveted to Galway’s electrifying half-back line of 1986-’90, when the maroon team created a revolution all of their own. He was the Hurler of the Year in 1988, when Galway were back-to-back All-Ireland champions. Found himself banned for 12 months a year later in bitter circumstances which, viewed in hindsight, seem at once shameful and farcical and was ushered through the exit gates of the Galway hurling squad by 1993, deemed surplus to requirements at just 29.
His reign was so compelling and incandescent that he is inevitably associated with a period that Galway hurling people are beginning to remember as a kind of a dream. Today, Keady still looks cut from coiled steel.
He is the caretaker at Calasanctius. The school is a famed basketball nursery but Keady recently coached the hurling team to the school’s first ever senior B title. He has always stayed involved with coaching hurling and is serving as a selector on the Galway under-21 team this year. As a consequence, he has never watched as many hurling games in his life.
The young hurlers whom he coaches now – in school and at county level – know Tony Keady’s name and they know that he belongs to the select group of Galway hurlers with Celtic Cross medals. For reasons that have never been fully explained, the Galway hurling team of late 1980s hurled with an attitude that thread a fine line between exuberance and arrogance. They took on the establishment counties with a carefree swagger that surely pointed a way for the risings in Clare, Offaly and Wexford which were to follow within a decade.
Sometimes at home the children will haul out one of the old recordings of Galway’s winning years. “Dad! You’re on the TV.” Shannon is in first year in Calasantius. Anthony is 10. The twins, Jake and Harry, are nine. The Keadys have reached the stage where every evening is a series of activities. “I go home in the evening and I don’t even turn the engine off. I get a menu of who is going where. But it’s great to get them involved. All parents go through the same stage.”
They all hurl but are much too young to have seen their father playing for Galway. Occasionally, he sits down and watches the old games with his children.
“Some days you would get stuck into watching one. But they put on the Cork final from 1990 a while back. Sure God above, we were all over them. I couldn’t stay watching it. I shook my head and walked away from it.”
Keady agrees that Galway should have won more All-Irelands in those years. They were better than two. He points out that the results might have been flipped: they could have just as easily won the finals of 1985 and 1986 and then lost in their double years of 1987 and 1988. “Or we could have won four of five All-Irelands in a row.” But he is not locked into that time. The contemporary game fascinates him and he quickly warms to the residual themes of the recent Munster quarter-final between Clare and Limerick, sympathising with Seanie Toibin’s red card in particular.
“The poor divil . . . it was the heat of the moment. It was an awful thing to be off the pitch without seeing a minute. Now, he came up with the bas of the hurl and your lungs are there. Jesus, I remember one day playing Kilkenny and Christy Heffernan put his hand up to catch a ball and I pulled from the other side. Christy caught it. It wasn’t malicious but today I would have got a red card. There wasn’t even a free. Christy just went off on his travels and that was it. There is a lot of pressure on referees too.”
Foot speed has been the big transformation since his time in Croke Park. Keady believes that no matter how technically accomplished a hurler is now, he won’t make it if he is slow. “You might get away with it on a soft day but come to Croke Park on a fine day and you will be exposed.”
He is wary of the counter point too, sometimes despairing of how so many young hurlers are “burstin’ with muscles and can’t strike the ball 40 yards”. Sometimes it is fitness over technique. When Keady came through – he grew up in Attymon and his potential was known across the county when he was in his mid teens – everything revolved around the ball.
“Every evening there was a gathering of hurlers. These were the guys who made us. All we had was two big sticks down the field and a bit of twine going across for a bar. It was great hurling. Six or seven a side and the schoolbags fired over by this little water pump.”
Keady is as perplexed as everyone else as to why the formula for winning All-Irelands has eluded successive generations of Galway hurlers. Every year contained a different story with the same result. He isn’t convinced that the structures do all they might for the county. The seniors and the intermediates are permitted to play in Leinster but the minors and under-21s are not. It means that the under-21 must wait until late August to play a meaningful match. It is as it was for the seniors in the 1980s, training all summer for a win-or-bust semi-final.
He is still immersed in hurling and although he doesn’t claim to have any answers as to why the county hasn’t won since 1988, the debate preoccupies him.
“Has a full back ever gone in since Conor Hayes who got a spell of five or six unbroken years in that spot? Has a centre back gone in and had that chance to grow? Maybe we were chopping and changing too much to try and get the balance right. It is a hard thing to do. And poor old Anthony (Cunningham) has the decision now because maybe he was aiming for Daithi Burke, who has a good hand and now he is injured. Any hurler will tell you: get the middle right down along then you can put on the branches.”
Critical partCyril Farrell
It later transpired that the Tipperary delegates present that night voted for Keady’s reinstatement. It turned out that the votes which damned him were cast by Connacht Council delegates. The subsequent semi-final was played in an atmosphere of unprecedented rancour that was foisted on both teams. Tipp won, en route to collecting their first MacCarthy Cup since 1971. Afterwards, Babs Keating labelled the game “a disgrace”.
The popular notion that Keady’s absence cost Galway the match is not necessarily so. “I don’t believe that I would have hurled as well Seán Treacy did for us that day,” he says. It was more that entire episode soured – and effectively ended – what was an absolutely magical few years for Galway hurling. Conspiracy theories abounded but the truth was that Keady fell foul of the GAA – and Ireland – at its intractable worst.
“If I had got off it would have been forgotten about a week later. Of if Galway had won, it would have been forgotten. Look I got suspended by people who didn’t know too much about hurling. I have a scrapbook with the whole lot at home and I do flick through it from time to time. What could have been? Young hurlers are cycling over to America now, they can go where they please.”
Relations were repaired with their Tipperary contemporaries: those teams shared a healthy, mutual interest in the social side of the game which they retained long after retirement. Last summer’s qualifying match in Thurles illuminated the inconsistencies of Galway hurling. The Tribesmen scored 4-12 in the first 50 minutes of the game and had held Tipperary to just 1-15 but the final score was 3-25 to 4-13. Those 70 minutes transformed Tipp’s summer and left the Galway hurling community in bewilderment.
‘Quietly confident’Jason FlynnJohnny GlynnDean HigginsPaul KilleenJohn HanburyCathal Mannion
He accepts that the talk about the outing against Dublin is muted. Keady will be there and many of his former team-mates will be scattered throughout the stadium. He believes that this thing is going to end soon, that Galway will get the combination right and that the safe will fly open. They have been locked out for far too long. “I think we are close. I firmly believe that it is close.”