Len Gaynor's lifelong season
By Cian O'Connell
“It is very important that people who had experience and success, that they put something back into the game, hopefully that is what we will all do in our time,” is Len Gaynor’s last sentence in the interview.
Humble and quietly heroic, few have done more for hurling in North Tipperary and far beyond.
Still enthralled by the sport Gaynor takes a session every week in Cloughjordan, teaching youngsters about the basics. Hurling’s infinite possibilities excited Gaynor from the first time he played a competitive juvenile match for his beloved Kilruane MacDonaghs way back in 1955.
On Saturday, Gaynor will point the car for Pairc Ui Chaoimh to watch Tipperary and Clare collide. He won’t look for fuss or fanfare, but his imprints will still be evident. Having managed both counties Gaynor knows what it takes to survive and thrive at the highest level.
Something struck Gaynor about Clare when he opted to go to school at St Flannan’s in Ennis. “I went down there in 1956, I did my Leaving Cert in 1961, we had a great time hurling there.
“We had hurling there every day of the week, I played in the Harty Cup, I didn't win a Harty Cup, but I won a Dean Ryan medal with them. I have great memories from that.”
As a boy, Gaynor was struck by the magic and mayhem of the still cherished Harty Cup. “My father said to me will you go to the Brothers in Nenagh (Nenagh CBS) or will you go to Flannan's?
“I had an older brother, who had been in Flannan's and I had seen them playing hurling. I was very taken by it, the support they got from their fellow students. I remember thinking I'd love to play like that so I said I'd go to Flannan's, it was my own choice really. The hurling didn't let me down.
“You were playing top class hurling from the day you went in. There were no competitions for your first, second or third years, but we played challenge matches against different schools. We played St Kieran's, Kilkenny a few times.
“You are playing against good players all of the time. Then you get on to the Dean Ryan at Under 16, you were up against it then, there were great Cork teams at that time, North Mon and those. Yeah, you were playing quality players all of the time, meeting the best. I'm sure it helped.”
In the blue and gold Gaynor collected three All Ireland medals, four Munster titles, and two National Hurling Leagues.
Modest about his significant achievements, Gaynor’s adoration for Kilruane MacDonaghs endures. Gaynor doesn’t spend too much time reflecting on the past, simply trying to stay busy with the present.
“What do I think now? Only that I could have done better. There are always regrets I suppose, but I don't look back that much.
“I will say that I enjoyed it all of the time, I really loved hurling. It really was a big part of my life always, playing of course was the thing, it was the real deal. Managing and coaching after that was secondary, but it was also very nice as well.
“I got a great kick out of it, I like to see players developing, working with young players, seeing how they can develop, how they can come on. I was delighted to be able to stay in the game.”
Gaynor continues to find something to do. “I'm still slightly in it, I train beginners here in Kilruane MacDonaghs one night a week. It wouldn't be a team, it would be just young lads starting out. I love that, I get a great kick out of them and a great buzz out of it.
“They are starting just after four and any age after that up along until around 10 or so. I play little games with them and then split them up to put them together to have little games. It is amazing.
“You'd have them this year, they'd hardly be able to swing the hurley and they come back next year flying it. The improvement that comes with a bit of time and practice is amazing.”
That is essentially what happened towards the end of the 1970s too when Kilruane MacDonaghs became the standard bearers in the competitive environs of the Tipperary Championship. “I was finishing up my career, but in 1977, 78, and 79 we won three county finals in a row, I was managing the team and playing as well,” Gaynor recalls. “Then I retired after that and we went on to win another county final in 1985 and won the All Ireland club final.”
Kilruane came with a late flourish to beat the Tony Doran inspired Buffers Alley in March 1986 earning a remarkable success. “It was one of the best games played around that time,” Gaynor states. “Buffers Alley would appeared to have been on top right through, not seriously on top, but they were that bit ahead of us all the time.
“We just caught them in the end in the last five minutes, we won by a point or two. It was a very good game, especially in the second half when we got going. It was a hard fought game, it was hard won.
“Big Tony Doran was in his element, he was moving on a bit at the time, but he was a very dangerous forward, his brother Colm as well, Tom Kinsella all those lads. They had a good team, we did well to beat them, it was a tremendous victory for us.”
A couple of years later Clare came calling, but Gaynor, a proud Tipperary man to the core, needed some cajoling. The St Flannan’s factor mattered.
“They persuaded me to go down there, I wasn't really anxious to go outside Tipperary, but on account of being in Flannan's and the five years hurling I got there I felt a sort of an obligation to go when they asked me so strongly,” Gaynor admits. “I went down at the end of 91 for the start of the 91-92 League and stayed there for four years 91, 92, 93, 94.
“They were in a bit of disarray at the time, they were finding it hard to put a team together. We had to start from scratch, but they came along nicely.”
Slowly, but surely Clare started to develop. Gaynor sensed that the Clare team could go places. “Anthony Daly was there from day one, those sort of guys had great leadership in them,” Gaynor remarks.
“We worked along, we should have won a Munster Final. We were beaten in two Munster Finals, Tipp hammered us in 93 and Limerick beat us in 94. I felt we should have won one of those, we should have won the 94 one anyway, but we didn't and a team was forming.
“It was mostly all of them that Ger Loughnane brought on another step to win the All Ireland in 95. There was some satisfaction in that we had played our part in putting the team together.”
In Clare respect for what Gaynor did, raising standards and belief, runs deep. Gaynor felt that Loughnane was well placed to bring glory to the Banner.
“I could definitely, I thought they were good enough to win a Munster Championship,” Gaynor says. “I remember I went to the County Board meeting to say I was retiring, they asked me the same thing and I told them they were going to win a Munster Championship very soon.
“They won it the following year, not alone that they won the All Ireland. You could see it in them alright, they were good lads, good players, good leaders. Brian Lohan, Sparrow O'Loughlin, Dalo, of course, there was great enthusiasm and great hurling skill about them. All they needed was that bit of confidence to go all the way.
“They would be lacking in confidence because they hadn't won which is normal enough. Ger Loughnane hardened them up, he put that confidence and self belief into them. That is why they were successful after.”
By 1997 Gaynor was in charge of Tipperary. Ultimately the Clare team he helped create defeated the Premier County in breathless Munster and All Ireland Finals.
“I was back with Tipp, we had a good team, we had a strong team, but Clare were at their peak at that stage, they caught us in the Munster Final, they beat us by a goal, we were in hard luck with John Leahy's half a chance near the end to level it,” Gaynor remarks.
We were disappointed, very disappointed to lose so narrowly, but you have to be able to take your defeats as well
The standard reached by Clare, though, was something that struck him. The mixture of strength and speed, defiance and dynamism. It was a truly special era.
“At the time it was tremendous hurling, fierce hurling and very strong, competitive games, we went on to the All Ireland where they beat us by a point, they probably were the better team on the day, but we could have won it.
“We could have sneaked it in the end. We got goals near the end to get level with them, but they immediately got back level after we went a point ahead. That levelling score was the crucial one, they got it very quickly after we went ahead.
“Jamesie (O’Connor) then got the winning point in the last couple of minutes, but they were very competitive, strong, robust, and very honest games. Both sides gave everything, Clare were very good at the time, very fit, they had an awful lot of training and hard work behind them that year.
“They were very determined so it was a big coup for them to beat Tipperary. We were disappointed, very disappointed to lose so narrowly, but you have to be able to take your defeats as well. Life goes on, you have to be ready for the next year. That is the way it works out.”
Gaynor is encouraged by the fact that people from Kilruane MacDonaghs who played under him have contributed to the hurling cause throughout the country. Getting others to believe in how hurling can be played brings satisfaction; Dinny Cahill and Eamonn O’Shea were influenced by Gaynor’s methods.
“I would, of course, I like to see people follow on in the game and do so well,” Gaynor replies when asked is it a source of pride for him that some former Kilruane MacDonaghs players became such prominent and innovative coaching figures.
“Dinny Cahill is on the route for a long time now, he did well with Antrim and a lot of club teams around. He has done fierce work in hurling, developing hurling and promoting hurling.
“Eamonn O'Shea came with his brand of hurling which was revolutionary if you like, a short game maybe, all about forwards outwitting backs. It is nice.
“You get satisfaction that they came through your hands. Hopefully they took a bit from me, I don't know if they did or not, but what I look for is to see people enjoying hurling.
“It is a tremendous game, a beautiful game, a very skillful game, when you see the top players at their best it is a lovely game to watch. For me to see players coming through from club level going on to play with an inter-county team or train with them is great.”
That journey continues in Cloughjordan.