Welcome look at one of hurling's finest


THE CENTENARY year of the GAA set off an extraordinary chain of events which may yet be seen as a watershed in the setting down of a major part of Ireland's social history.

The GAA at the time - 1984 - encouraged clubs, county boards and individuals to put together and to publish memoirs, histories and anecdotes pertaining to the affairs of the GAA.

Since then there has not been any sign of a let up in the publication of such material and at the present moment there are, at least, half a dozen books on the shelves dealing with all sorts of aspects of Ireland's greatest sporting body.

It is indeed ironic, or even appropriate, that in a week which saw the much lamented passing of a man who did more than any other to promote the image and culture of the GAA, hurling in particular, that these books are elbowing each other off the shelves to such and extent that the Games Administration Committee may have to suspend some of the protagonists vieing for space.

Here today this column would like to focus on Beyond the Tunnel - The Nicky English Story not because it is regarded as the best of these but the only one which the column has had an opportunity to read.

Quite frankly the fact that Nicky English decided to tell "his story" to his close friend, journalist Vincent Hogan could have resulted in a rather palid account of a great hurler's career. The danger was that the "fan with typewriter" syndrome could have spoiled everything.

Not so, as things turned out. There is considerable frankness in the book about events both on and off the pitch which, taken in the context of what others have said, or may yet say about the same events, will, surely, illuminate a significant period in the history and development of hurling. The result is both entertaining and illuminating.

Those of us who were privileged to see English in the full flow of his hurling greatness will come away from this book saddened by the fact that there was so much more to him that we never saw because of his propensity for being injured or, getting himself inured.

The phrase "getting himself injured" may need some explanation. There were elements in his game which made him vulnerable, not least his courage in the face of danger. He suffered. There were also opponents who traded on this and his open and even naive approach in pursuit of scores often exposed him to some of the cynics he met on the field.

On a personal level I remember with horrified clarity a day in Pairch Ui Chaoimh in a Munster final against Waterford in 1989 when he was scourged by the Waterford defence to the extent that he could scarcely remove his jersey after the match and that when he did the weals and bruises on his shoulders and back which I saw myself, were a disgrace to the game and, indeed, to the goods name of Waterford hurling.

In spite of the penumbra around his bloody head on the cover of the book, he was no saint either, nor could anyone playing the game be expected to be. Yet many of the photographs in the book show him either bloodied but unbowed or in pain and in need of assistance.

A chapter heading in the book brings back personal memories for, this column. The heading reads: "If I had ducks they'd drown." It was his own phrase used to me on the occasion of a controversial draw in a Cork Tipperary Munster final in Pairc Ui Chaoimh in 1991.

Early in that chapter he makes point which may have eluded many. Tipperary is surrounded by near neighbours who are also hurling rivals Kilkenny, Limerick, Galway, Offaly, Clare, Laois and Waterford. Cork can be taken for granted in this context. One quote from a Tipperary supporter in this context sums up the situation as seen in Tipperary: "Look! If Tipperary were playing South Africa, Limerick would be shouting for South Africa". If that suggests something of approaching paranoia it still explains a lot.

He goes on to point out that it was in this game in Cork that he first felt he was reaching the end of his career when things he could do previously without thinking, now were becoming difficult.

He recalls getting in behind the Cork defence with only Ger Cunningham to beat. "The ball hit Cunningham on the shoulder and I just wanted the ground to open beneath me," he recalls. Worse was to follow for, when he ran through, having lost his hurl and kicked the ball over the bar, not long afterwards, for the score to be disallowed, the umpire deciding it had gone wide.

It was that "score" which exposed the almost human vulnerability of the television cameras for, no mater how often the tape was replayed or at what pace, the matter could not be decided although the majority of people there, including Cork players, thought it was a legitimate point.

As things turned out Tipperary managed to get the equalising point before the end but English was not happy with his own performance and told me in the dressingroom afterwards: "If I had ducks they'd drown."

Of particular interest to non hurling or even non sporting people is the episode dealing with an article in a gossip magazine. The article said that English was "going out" with Olivia Treacy, the former Miss Ireland.

His frank relating of this episode is a stark reminder of what loose talk can do to innocent people. Not long married it could have had a fatal effect on his marriage and indeed on his career in the bank, wives and employers not being very open minded on matters of this nature. Family and friends were also shocked and disturbed.

Although the matter was settled "on the steps of the court" English recalls: "If I live to be a 100 I don't ever want to endure that kind of trauma again. Of all the hurling venues I've played in, none has ever unnerved me like the High Court managed to do that morning."

These are only a few of the well worthwhile insights into the life of one of hurling's finest practitioners. It gives a very interesting look into the area of devotion and commitment which players of this standard and calibre must bring to their game to achieve their aims. Nobody ever said it was going to be easy.

Apart from the hurling there are insights here for all, particularly young people but it would be a welcome inclusion in anyone's Christmas stocking.