The night Dougal belted out the Rose in Dungannon


John Hoyne and James Ryall were freewheeling spirits who enjoyed their view from the back seats as Brian Cody drove Kilkenny to glory, writes PM O'SULLIVAN

JAMES RYALL is a natural born storyteller and one of his best involves the time John Hoyne and himself got waylaid by Ulster hospitality in Dungannon.

It was January 2003, the Saturday before the Walsh Cup final against Dublin in Parnell Park. It was Ryall’s first start as a Kilkenny senior. Brian Cody had signed off on the trip, instructing them to make the Burlington Hotel for Sunday noon.

Strikingly reminiscent of Spud Murphy, Ewen Bremner’s character in Trainspotting (1996), Ryall snorts as he recalls how his comrade had “only a banger of a car at the time”. Bald front tyres were replaced and the two of them, tight friends as well as Graigue-Ballycallan clubmen, headed away.

Up grand and they spun through some drills in the afternoon. Afterwards they were to present medals to youngsters, the usual story, and it stayed standard when Ryall, pulling off his boots, turned to Hoyne and cocked an eye.

Reply came phlegmatic, Dougal to a tee: “We were never going to come up here and not have a few pints”.

The nickname hopped courtesy of the Father Ted character. Hoyne, before the bar, has a genius repertoire of gags, mimicry and oneliners and is, as they say, a panic. I have been in his company on such an evening and I wish it could be printed, because Dougal is savage goodnatured. But it cannot, because John Hoyne is a rifle.

That Tyrone night, the same pair ended up in a hall dropped from the sky in the middle of nowhere. The medals were presented.

People started lashing down drink in front of them, the Kilkenny lads good enough to come up the day before they had to play Dublin.

Pints, shorts, vodka and Red Bull, all the shades of alcohols rainbow.

Through the warm blur at the counter, the mid-Ulster accents shouting and carousing, after the hours softened at the edges and started making for the centre, Ryall turned at the sound of an odd accent in the throes of song.

Dougal was up on stage, letting loose The Rose of Mooncoin.

“It must have been three or four o’clock in the morning,” Ryall says. “And we didn’t head off any time soon either . . .”

Eventually they were deposited in a guesthouse as night crept away.

Ryall, wildly ambitious, set his mobile for eight o’clock. Next thing Hoyne was sticking his head in the door and telling him take a look: ‘eleven o’clock!’.

They jumped, heads sticky, realising they would have to ring their manager and come some way clean.

Then James Ryall remembered the purchase.

Out on the road, John Hoyne rang Brian Cody and told him their front tyres had been slashed, Free State registration and all that. Phenomenal hard to get a garage open on a Sunday morning up here. Burlington is out.

Okay, said Cody, nothing like as severe in private as his public image suggests and probably undeceived in any case. Head straight to Parnell Park. ‘Be as quick as ye can’.

They belted down at a ferocious slant and closed in on Donnycarney.

“Not a scrap to eat,” Ryall laughs, shaking his head. “Just a bottle of Lucozade between us.”

He makes it cinematic, pure point of view:

“We came in heads down, naturally enough. All you could see was a row of Kilkenny socks, togged out.”

They got sat, conscious of knowing looks along the wall, got stripped fair quick.

Cody was over to Ryall with his jersey, telling him ‘you have it now and you should keep it’ and James Ryall was rummaging in his kitbag, getting as frantic as he ever gets, which is not frantic at all. Then it dawned.

Taking off his boots while sussing Dougal’s intentions, he had missed on landing them into the bag and now would have to get them from the car.

Kid Adrenalin took over. He sprinted back, barely, to line out. How did it go? “I hurled well,” replies Ryall, still a bit in wonder at that version of himself. “I was substituted near the end, but I must have done enough, because I held my place that year.”

Getting out on the field did not solve John Hoyne’s headache. Cónal Keaney immediately creased him with a shoulder.

“Never forgot it,” Hoyne says. Then his distinctive twisted grin: “Just after the throw in. I was on the ground, he had me on the ground and I was looking up at him. I was fecked. And I was saying, to myself, looking up: ‘If you only knew the hardship Ive gone through to get to this match’ . . .”

Stock notions of a robotic Kilkenny panel conceal the beauty of nuance. Personality-wise, the grouping has always been a mosaic rather than a wall of emulsion. Cody has long been canny about dynamics, a believer in personalities who leaven the mix.

Sure enough, Hoyne and Ryall were back-of-the-bus merchants, never taking themselves too seriously, never enthusiasts for gym work. They could self-deprecate for Ireland.

Ryall remarks of the draw with Clare in 2004: “A bit of a tennis affair, up and down. I was the free man the first day but not for the replay! They were on about the supply of ball . . .”

John Hoyne hangs candid about 2004’s cusp status:

“After 2003, Brian Cody had a schoolroom of a panel. (Charlie) Carter and(Brian) McEvoy were gone. The manager had won three All-Irelands.

“He had total control of the situation, the foundation of everything he achieved since. And you can only get that control, in Kilkenny, through winning.”

The moral of the Dungannon story is slanted but clear, a measure of indiscipline bespeaking iron focus from sliver start.

There was never anything but total respect for management. James Ryall’s open, alert face is a key to turn. He is testing me out, whether I can see beyond the superficial hint of controversy.

2004 chimes with 2012, as Ryall summarises:

“The way you get caught out, and the way Kilkenny got caught out against Wexford in ’04, is that it’s hard to get yourself right for every game.

“Everyone was worrying Dublin were coming with a woeful drive. There was big fear in Portlaoise. And then Kilkenny annihilated them. Then the whole county: ‘Ah, they’ll win the Leinster Final . . .’ You’d never be shut off from that as a player. A big performance nearly always means a lull.”

Tony Wall wrote in Hurling[ (1965), his still fresh monograph on the most beautiful game:

“The high ball into the full-forward line from centre field or half forward is practically useless”.

John Hoyne’s conversation is dotted with references to the many GAA books he has read but he has no need to consult Wall. This emphasis is part of his hurling DNA, one he tried to pass on via a six-year stint with the juveniles of Graigue-Ballycallan.

Back in the early 2000s, there was a lazy view of him as a Didier Deschamps figure, a mere hewer of ash. I never agreed. Even now, his recollections are flecked with frustration about an absolute “win your own ball” philosophy, a disregard of finesse about deliveries forward.

“Dougal would be messing and the big gallery,” Noel Hickey once said to me. “Then wed go into a team meeting, and start talking hurling, and he’d be the smartest of us all.”

“My own form was never consistent enough to be complaining about anything,” Hoyne says, not quite grinning this time. Although retired by the time Cha Fitzpatrick became a midfielder, he loved him: “Cha isn’t just low ball in the ordinary way. He was able to lob it in, a low lob, if you like, into a space.”

Hoyne rounds out matters: “Tommy Walsh crossing the ball to Henry Shefflin against Tipp last year probably wasn’t a training ground drill. Can’t say for certain, now I’m gone, but that’s what I’d think.

“Cody might have picked Shefflin at 12 for a particular reason, that he might win more ball in one spot. But it wouldn’t have been ‘feed Henry, feed Henry, feed Henry’.

“Tommy comes and he’s sweeping the ball that way, and Henry’s winning it. So it’s more a case: ‘Give him another one, give him another one. You go with the flow on the day. Cody lets us at it. And the flow comes alive on the day.”

Hoyne instances the Cork puck out in the first half of the 2004 All-Ireland final:

“Cody hardly spoke beforehand about Cusack’s puck outs, did he?” Ryall nods. “But everyone knew,” Hoyne continues. “We’d all watched the Munster championship, wing forwards coming out and all that.

“We knew what to do: block it out, stand up tall. Nothing went through in the first half. But the wides killed us . . .”

Ryall picks it up: “Beforehand, it’s not a matter of Cody saying: ‘This is how the game is going to go’. There’s no big science behind it.

“Theres no massive science with Kilkenny. And maybe that was what was half lacking the last day against Galway . . .”

Hoyne cuts in: “It was the difference between the first half against Tipp last year and the draw. With Tipp, it was six positions and six positions: six pairs, like an Under 14 match, everyone in their exact position. Against Tipp, all the Kilkenny forwards were on the ball early, Eoin Larkin nearly in for a goal . . . So Anthony Cunningham did his homework.

“When Kilkenny play six-on-six, you’d say: ‘Maybe hit the ball in this way or that way’. But, with Galway now, it’s hard to have a method for the forwards.”

They are alike firm on how use of possession must improve for the replay.

Hoyne notes: “There was a lot of silly stuff going on around the half-back line: on the swivel and boom, up in the air. Eoin Larkin was crippled. He had his own man and a man in front of him, waiting for the breaking ball.

“The same with Colin Fennelly, the one Johnny Coen caught behind him . . . walloped up in the air. Colin needs ball in front of him.”

Ryall offers the yang of a defender’s perspective:

“An awful lot of the Kilkenny clearances the last day came from around the 21-yard line. What was drilled into me was to try and clear from high up the field. Work it out to between half-back and midfield, if you can.

“Or make sure youre intercepting in the right place. Look at Tommy (Walsh) last September: he’s nearly out in midfield when he’s crossing those balls to Henry.”

Hoyne adds: “I think the two managers’ heads must be wrecked with tactics . . . Kilkenny probably have more to worry about, because Galway know the Kilkenny backs will mark, man on man.”

Ryall spools back to sport’s foundation: talents lunge into genius. “I wonder would Galway have the balls to go out and play a proper XV,” he asks. “Play Joe Canning full forward and leave him there for the hour.

“Look at the football: Michael Murphy, like. Started full forward and won the game for Donegal. Say what you like but his goal was pure brilliance. Then (Jim) McGuinness took him out of it . . .

“The second goal was pure luck. Came off the upright and yer man missed the drop. If Donegal hadn’t got that second goal, Mayo could have won that All-Ireland with Michael Murphy off out the field, after he did such damage in there off the first ball . . . It’s hard to mark pure brilliance.”

It is getting late and we have talked ourselves out. Sunday awaits, the skirl of tactics and talent.

John Hoyne offers one last grin:

“Make sure you say I was an awful loss when I retired, that we’d have won the five-in-a-row, not just the four-in-a-row, if I’d stayed on after ’05 . . .!”

James Ryall looks over, smiles and sings dumb.

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