GAA Legends - John O'Brien
*By John Harrington *
On Saturday, former Tipperary hurler John O’Brien will host the latest Bord Gáis Energy Legends Tour in Croke Park and recollect the highlights of his 14-year career in the blue and gold.
The prospect of ever being in a position to do so would have seemed like a very distant one in December 2006.
Back then, he lay in a hospital bed with a fractured and dislocated hip and a badly injured leg after a serious car-crash. He was told it was unlikely he’d ever be able to play hurling at the highest level again, but O’Brien wasn’t willing to accept that diagnosis.
Up until that time his inter-county career had been largely one of unfulfilled potential, and the prospect of now never being able to fulfill it at all gave him a new focus. He pushed his body to the limit through a year of painful rehab, won his place back on the Tipperary panel, and finally maximised his talent.
In the following seven years he won one All-Ireland, one National League, and four Munster titles. His skill and finishing instincts made him something special on the hurling field, but it was pure grit that allowed him to get back out there and show it.
“Look, I suppose you hear that in a lot of stories lately when lads come back from injuries that they were told they'd never play again. I was no different,” says O’Brien. “I was told there was a fair chance I wouldn't, but I did.
“It was kind of a second chance with Tipp hurling and I wanted to make the most of it. And with the club as well. You know, I was lucky enough to have my brother Paddy there who was a physio and I got good advice off him.
“I said I wanted to give it a go. I gave it a go and I was lucky enough when I came back fairly close to 100 per cent from it. It was nice to get back and I didn't take things for granted as much after that. It comes with age too, I think. You start to realise what you need to put in off the field in terms of nutrition and what you need to do in the gym to get yourself right.
“Yeah, that was a time when I had to ask myself a couple of question alright about what I was doing with Tipp and whether I wanted to get back there or not. I was after coming off a good year with the club so I felt like I still could get back there.
“Luckily enough I wasn't listening to too many negative people at the time so I was able to drive myself on really.”
O’Brien’s Tipperary career can be divided into two parts – before the car accident and after the car accident.
There was a buzz about him from a very young age. He was a star of the Tipperary minor team that won a Munster Championship in 1999, and by 2001 was a member of the senior panel.
In the Munster Final that year against Limerick he rubber-stamped his status as one to watch by coming off the bench and scoring the late point that made the win safe for Tipp. The ball for that score was broken to him by Declan Ryan, a childhood hero of O’Brien’s. The Toomevara youngster was living the dream.
“Yeah, it was mad, actually,” says O’Brien. “Declan was always someone I looked up to because he was a left-handed hurler and Pat Fox was another one. I was always looking up to them because I was left-handed myself.
“We had a hurley-maker, Phil Bourke up in Upperchurch, and at the time he was making Declan's hurleys and I remember calling up there and we were in just pure awe of picking up Declan Ryan's hurley. It was like it was made of mahogany it was so heavy. I have good memories of that.”
O’Brien was injured in an U-21 match a week after that Munster Final and wasn’t able to return to full training until a week before the All-Ireland Final. Despite that long lay-off, it was a testament to manager Nicky English’s faith in him that he was handed a subs jersey for the Final.
O’Brien didn’t make it onto the field for that win over Galway, but he figured there would be plenty of other big days ahead of him in the coming years. It didn’t work out like that, though. Tipperary’s fortunes declined in the following years and O’Brien struggled to live up to the billing he had earned as an underage star.
“It's kind of a double-edged sword really because it was great to start it like that with an All-Ireland win in your first year on the panel, but I suppose you were kind of going into 2002 thinking this is the way it is, we're going to get back there again,” he says.
“But we found it tough that year and if you'd told me in 2001 it would have took so long to get back and win a Munster title, I probably wouldn't have believed you.
“Looking back at it, I would have had huge faith in my own ability when I went in there. It's not to say it was harder or easier now or then, but players were a lot bigger back in the early 2000s and Tipp went through a phase of playing a lot of backs in the forwards and were looking for size. The backs that were put up there were very good, John Carroll comes to mind, he was very good when he was up there.
"Eoin Kelly had the size going in there at the time and would have been able to handle himself. I wouldn't have been overly fast so I found it a little bit harder. Eoin would say himself he was nearly fully ready for senior at 14. I was a long ways behind that. It probably took me longer to get up to the standard. And, look, you're young, you're probably not taking it as seriously as you should at the time either.
“Yeah, you learn all of these things unfortunately the hard way.”
O’Brien’s early development wasn’t helped by the fact that the Tipperary team was a less than stable environment from 2003 to 2007 when they went through three different management teams. It was a miserable time for Tipperary hurling as the team struggled to make any impact in League or Championship.
“Hugely frustrating,” says O’Brien. “For the players as well because you're putting in huge effort. But I still believe there was too much chopping and changing of management. Look, the players take a huge amount on their shoulders, it's not down to managers, players at the end of the day are the ones on the field.
“But managers get to know their players over a certain length of time and I think they get to know who to trust and who not to trust and what works best with their players. Every year or every second year when you're chopping and changing, each manager wants to come in and put his own stamp on it.
“So it probably made it that bit harder to get a settled team and, you know, it took us a long time to get back to '08 and I think when Liam Sheedy came in he put a structure on it and the physicality was a lot more emphasised and Cian O'Neill came in and helped with that.
“I suppose we worked with the players we had too playing a brand of hurling that suited us rather than trying to play a brand of anyone else's hurling.”
It was serendipitous for O’Brien that his own determination to take the game more seriously in the wake of his car accident coincided with Sheedy’s appointment. The new Tipperary manager was relentlessly driven, and O’Brien bought in totally to what he was trying to do.
“Liam is a smart one,” says O’Brien. “He brought some really good men in with him as well with the likes of Cian O’Neill and Eamon O’Shea and the rest of the backroom team. And he was a very good manager himself. He was a great organiser.
“I suppose it was nice to be involved in a settled group for a settled few years. The team was maturing as well. We were getting to the age where we had to lead it as well. We got a bit lucky as well with some great young players who came all at once.
“The 10 players who came through from that All-Ireland U-21 team of '09 and '10. They were a serious bunch of players to bring in. They came in ready to play senior hurling as well because the size thing wasn't as important. It was a lot to do with speed, skill and movement.
“So they were ready to come in and breathe a lot of freshness into us. I think we combined it well and it was a great group as well. Great personalities involved with those younger players who came in and you had some great personalities in the older crew.
“It blended very well and it was a very enjoyable few years. It was never a chore. It was always good fun and a good laugh in the dressing-room. When you had to train hard everyone had the same appetite to do so.”
Even though he won one All-Ireland, one National League, and four Munster titles in his second coming as a Tipperary hurler, when O’Brien looks back on his career his immediate emotional response is regret that team didn’t win more.
“I think it was a great team, it's just a pity we weren't able to add a few more All-Irelands,” he admits. “People say the best team always wins on the day, but in '09 was one we left one behind. You'd have regrets over that because I didn't actually play well myself that day. I was after doing okay in the championship up to that and I was looking forward to the day but it just didn't go right.
“For the team itself, the team played very well, and the team deserved to get over the line. But, look, I suppose looking back on it if we didn't win in '10 you'd never talk about hurling again. It was nice to get back there in '10 to win it.
“It's still recent enough so in a few years I'll probably look back a bit more fondly on it. At the moment you'd still look back still and think of the days it slipped away and you'd like to have a few more All-Irelands in the back-pocket."
Tipperary did look primed for a sustained period of success when they won the senior and All-Ireland U-21 titles in 2010. Those U-21s were so talented, it was hard to imagine they wouldn’t continue to win big.
They’ve yet to win another All-Ireland since 2010 though, and expectation quickly soured to criticism both within and outside the county. The scale of the criticism still annoys O’Brien, because he knows just how much that generation of Tipperary hurlers have committed and continue to commit to the cause.
“There was serious personality and character in that group,” he says. “The likes of Noel McGrath, Paudie Maher, Brendan Maher, Mickey Cahill, these guys that came in were really able to drive it on.
“The one thing that would annoy me over the few years afterwards would be that the team took an awful lot of stick for a few years afterwards. “The management (Liam Sheedy and his backroom team) did move on and I've no problem with that, they had to move on, but we weren't expecting it. It would have been nice for the thing to push on again because we felt that there was more in the team.
“Look, in fairness to Declan (Ryan) and Tommy (Dunne) and (Michael) Glossy Gleeson, it was a tough job to come into. Who wants to take over a team that's after winning an All-Ireland? To win two Munster titles in a row, I think that achievement has been glossed over.
“You only have to look at the situation with Clare. I feel like we've got a lot more stick than they would have taken over the last number of years. And they haven't gotten back to the level. We still won two Munster titles after '10.
“The team did take a lot of criticism and still do. That's one thing would probably annoy you. But, look, people are entitled to their opinion.”
The players like Brendan Maher, Paudie Maher, Seamus Callanan, Mickey Cahill, and Noel McGrath who were rookies in 2010 are now the leaders of the current Tipperary team.
It’s been very apparent this year that they have the bit between their teeth and are driving the team forward with them. O’Brien likes what he sees in the team this year, and admires the way those players keep coming back for more despite all the sore defeats they’ve suffered I recent years.
“Yeah, you can see it in them,” he says. “They can adapt to every game-plan and that only comes with experience as well. They're getting the bit of youth injected into them. Even though they're only very young. Noel McGrath is only 25.
“It's mad. They took a lot of stick, maybe the older crew you wouldn't mind taking the stick but they probably took a lot of stick and they were still only 19, 20, 21.
“I think a lot was on their shoulders as well because they were part of that leadership group in that team as well. They had to be because there was so many of them involved.
“I do think there is something different about them at the moment. They have that bit of raw aggression as well. They're not afraid of winning whatever way they have to. That’s something you've seen in Kilkenny for years and I think it's there at the moment with Tipperary."
The details for the forthcoming 2016 Bord Gáis Energy Legends Tours at Croke Park are as follows...
• John O’Brien – 13th August (2pm)
• Brian McGuigan – 20th August
• Declan O’Sullivan – 27th August
All Bord Gáis Energy Legends Tours include a trip to the GAA Museum, which is home to many exclusive exhibits, including the official GAA Hall of Fame. Booking is essential as the tours sell out quickly.
For more booking and ticket information about the GAA legends for this summer’s tours visit www.crokepark.ie/gaa-museum. Bord Gáis Energy customers can be in with a chance to win two places on the tours by signing up to the Bord Gáis Energy Rewards Club where regular competitions will take place.