GAA Legends - Tony Keady
By John Harrington
If Galway hurling supporters want to get themselves in a positive frame of mind for Sunday’s Leinster SHC Final, they could do worse than to head to Croke Park a day early.
Because on Saturday one of the county’s greatest ever hurling sons, Tony Keady, will be the host for the first Bord Gáis Energy Legends tour of the stadium.
A natural raconteur, Keady’s colourful recall of the greatest ever era in the history of Galway hurling is guaranteed bang for your buck.
Their All-Ireland wins of 1987 and 1988 might have gathered some dust with the passing of years, but anyone who saw that Galway team in their pomp will never forget them.
They were a rare combination grit, guile, and skill, and in a team of big personalities and dashing hurlers their stylish centre-back Tony Keady stood out as something a little bit special.
He was one of those rare players who looked totally at home on the big stage as soon as he walked out on it.
A midfielder or centre-forward at underage level, the then Galway senior manager Cyril Farrell decided he had the makings of a centre-back and promptly handed him his senior Championship debut in the 1985 All-Ireland Semi-Final against Cork.
It’s hard to imagine a baptism more fiery, because the rookie 21-year-old was pitted against Cork’s famed veteran centre-forward, Tim Crowley.
“I was at the beginning of my career and he was at the end of his,” recalls Keady.
“That 1985 Semi-Final was an awful wet day. I think the game was only on a minute and I went running for a ball but the two legs went from under me.
“Crowley rolled it up with one hand and threw it over the bar. Before I even got up off the ground I looked over to the side-line and thought they're probably making a little spot for me to come out and sit down.
“Two or three minutes after that another ball came down the middle and landed into a little slush in the ground. Myself and Crowley pulled around four or five times and all you could hear was the two hurls clashing and a big splash going up in the air every time. The ball never moved.
“So, I kind of said to myself, 'I can compete with this lad'. That was progress as far as I was concerned.
“On the day Tony Kilkenny was wing-back beside myself and (Peter) Finnerty and they brought the three of us up to Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh upstairs and gave three of us man of the match on the day.
“I was only gone the 20 or thereabouts, so it was a huge occasion for me.”
Galway announced themselves as an up and coming force with that 1985 All-Ireland semi-final win over Cork, but they had a painful apprenticeship to serve yet before they finally got their hands on the Liam MacCarthy Cup.
They were narrowly beaten in the ’85 All-Ireland Final by Offaly and then suffered an ever sorer defeat to Cork in the ’86 decider before they finally came of age in the ’87 Final against Kilkenny.
“Do you deserve to win one when you go straight in young? Maybe not,” says Keady.
“People will always say when they take over a team that they're building for three years, but if you win the first one you'll say thanks very much, I'll take it.
“But maybe you'll have to serve your time like anything else. We didn't think it might take the three years, but when we won it we probably thought we were a special bunch and we might go on to win another two or three.”
When you think of Keady and that Galway team of the late eighties, it’s hard not to visualise him flanked by Pete Finnerty and Gerry McInerney.
As a trio, they will surely be forever remembered as one of the greatest half-back lines to play the game.
Keady was the consummate hurling centre-back, and his control in the centre combined with Finnerty’s toughness and McInerney’s dash and daring on the flanks was a potent cocktail.
“When we're together and there's people around and we're having a bit of banter, I always say to the two boys that the basis to a good half-back line is to have a good centre-back!” laughs Keady.
“I don't have to tell you what happens after then! To be honest with you, people will always say to a centre-back that when a ball is coming down on a wing-back, cover in behind.
“But I don't believe I ever had to do that. And I'll tell you, if I had, I would have been told where to go!
“To have those two beside you was just great. You'd hate when you'd miss a match or one of them would miss a match and the chain would be broken. They were two serious operators, no doubt.”
If a ball or two did go through that half-back line then there was a good chance their ferociously tough full-back line of Sylvie Linnane, Conor Hayes, and Ollie Kilkenny would look after it.
John Commins was a steady presence between the sticks; Pat Malone and Steve Mahon were a perfectly balanced midfielder partnership; and in attack they had a potent blend of power, pace and skill in the shape of men like Martin Naughton, Brendan Lynskey, Joe Cooney, Eanna Ryan, Michael ‘Hopper’ McGrath, and Anthony Cunningham.
“If you looked at our forwards, and if you were the manager, you couldn't come to terms with taking any of them off if they were playing bad,” says Keady. “All you had to do was move them, that was it.
“Lynskey, Cooney, Hopper, Naughton, Anthony Cunningham, and Eanna Ryan. They were just super. You could play them from midfield in anywhere. They were a special bunch to be hitting a ball down to, I can tell you.”
Keady was based in Dublin when that Galway team was in their pomp, sharing a house in Phibsboro with Brendan Lynskey.
Back in those days a car journey to Galway was a tougher proposition than it is now, so they did their training together in Dublin and joined up with the team then on match-days.
It’s hard to imagine any inter-county manager nowadays being comfortable with that sort of arrangement, but Cyril Farrell knew the type that Keady and Lynskey were and so trusted them.
“No-one knew the training we were doing,” says Keady. “Myself and that man used to run on the road, five or six miles, and used to train every single night of the week.
“You'd always do a bit of training on your own and no-one would know about it, but by Jesus we pushed one another to the limit when we trained together above in Dublin.
“I was working in the bank and used to do a bit of boxing with the Finglas boxing club. The first night I went training we went for a run in the road and I thought that would be grand, but when we got back to the club that run was only a warm-up.
“In the gym afterwards, now that was training, boy. I know what boxers go through, that's for sure.”
Keady’s training regime certainly had him in good shape in 1988 when he helped Galway to their second All-Ireland title in a row and was ultimately crowned Texaco Hurler of the Year.
He was also Man of the Match in the All-Ireland Final, but famously never made it as far as the Sunday Game post-match banquet to claim his award.
After the game he and Lynskey had repaired to their local pub, The Hut, in Phibsboro where the owner Bob McGowan had laid on a champagne reception in their honour.
So when Keady was announced live on air as the All-Ireland Final Man of the Match, Cyril Farrell had to collect it on his behalf.
When the Galway manager was asked by Ger Canning where his player was, he kept a straight face and answered: “All I can say Ger, is he’s such a dedicated player he’s probably out training for next year!”
27 years later RTE would finally get their man when they gave Keady a piece of cut crystal on Up For the Match the night before the All-Ireland Final against Kilkenny.
This time they were taking no chances. When Keady informed them he’d be going to the dogs in Shelbourne Park before the show, they detailed the late, great Joe McDonagh to accompany him and make sure he got in a taxi in time for the show.
“If I moved two foot to the right, Joe would move too, if I went to the toilet Joe would go too,” laughs Keady. “Talk about marking a fella!”
The 1988 All-Ireland Final win over Tipperary would ultimately prove to be a high-water mark for both Keady and that Galway team.
The following year he found himself embroiled in one of the most infamous controversies in the history of the GAA – ‘The Tony Keady Affair’ - when he was banned from hurling for a year for playing a club match illegally in New York.
That ruled him out of the 1989 All-Ireland Semi-Final defeat to Tipperary, which itself was a sulphurous occasion as all of Galway raged against the decision of referee John Denton to send off both Sylvie Linnane and ‘Hopper’ McGrath.
It took a long time for the anger to subside, but with the passing of time the whole episode is no longer as raw as it once was.
“At this stage it's not,” says Keady. “I was in America and did everything exactly to the book. Everything was signed and delivered, but apparently there was a hiccup somewhere along the line that had nothing to do with me.
“Nowadays they can go over and back whenever they want now, they're nearly cycling over. But back then they wanted to stop this and they wanted to make a scapegoat of someone who would be well-known, and what better fish to catch only myself.
“People wonder would we have won the All-Ireland if it hadn't happened, but maybe the cog was broken anyway, I don't know.
“Sean Treacy was centre-back and probably played way better than I would have played. You'll have hums and haws, but what's done is done now.”
1989 stung Galway all the more because it was Tipperary who beat them in that All-Ireland Semi-Final.
The rivalry between the two teams was one of the hottest in the history of the game, and until then Galway had had the better of it, beating Tipp narrowly in the ’87 All-Ireland Semi-Final, the ’88 All-Ireland Final, and the ’89 National League Final.
When two evenly-matched teams keep meeting in such big matches, it’s inevitable that familiarity will breed some contempt.
“Oh Jesus, definitely, when we were playing against Tipp, and I don't mean this in a bad way, but in those years by Christ there was a rivalry,” says Keady.
“Sure, look it, Pat Fox and Ollie Kilkenny wouldn't leave one another alone and the National Anthm on. Lord, t’was severe. But it's all good banter now at the end of the day. You had tough men on both sides.
“We played a match to open a pitch one year and we played Tipp in it. We were all in the dressing-room afterwards. Babs Keating came in, there was a car blocking a load of people in the car-park, to ask us did anyone own it.
“I was just inside the door and I said I think it might be John Denton's! Babs wasn't long closing the door!”
After that ’89 defeat, the great Galway team slowly started to break up. And when Cyril Farrell departed as manager after a heavy All-Ireland Semi-Final defeat to Tipperary in 1991 truly it marked the end of an era.
Farrell was blessed to have the talent at his disposal that he did, but his role in knitting it all together was crucial.
“He had his own ways to keep things together, he had a great way with him,” says Keady. “He was always out and about, and you'd meet him everywhere. In fairness, he was a manager that would always give you a bit of leeway because he'd know that you'd work hard and he'd always get the best out of you.
“You'd go into a restaurant there when you'd be having meal and Farrell would go around to every single player in the restaurant, you'd be eating your dinner, and he'd put his hand in and take a chip off the plate and have a few words.
“Before he sat down to eat himself he had enough ate. He was that kind of a fella who'd have a word with everyone and he was good to get on with and he'd have a bit of a laugh at training.
“Once lads are having a bit of a laugh they'd hardly know they were working hard at the same time and he knew that.
“He had a special team but he was a speical man as men. He knew how to handle us, he wasn't a principal for nothing!”
No-one would have believed you in 1988 if you said that Galway would still be waiting for their next All-Ireland title 29 years later.
Perhaps, though, the long famine will soon be ended. Certainly their destruction of Tipperary in this year’s League Final and their form since suggests we now finally have a Galway team capable of lifting the Liam MacCarthy Cup again.
Keady can’t quite believe the county hasn’t inked its name in the honours list since that ’88 triumph, but cautions against over-optimism as they prepare for Sunday’s Leinster Final against Wexford.
“You wouldn't have got much odds on that in 1988 alright,” he says of their long barren run ever since.
“It's scary. If we did win one an awful lot of people would have to be brought out to celebrate because it's so long since we won one.
“Even this year, they're gone in straight as favourites two or three months ago which I think is ridiculous to be honest.
“Any one of five or six teams could win that All-Ireland yet. I wouldn't like the favourites tag going on them too soon.
“Galway will know after Sunday where they stand. But you have to think positive.”