The Big Interview - Liam Griffin: Part 1
It is 20 years now since Wexford won the 1996 All-Ireland title, but the colour and drama of that achievement still plays vividly in the mind’s eye.
Just like Clare had the year before, Wexford burst from nowhere to claim hurling’s biggest prize. And just like Clare had an inspirational leader in Ger Loughane, Wexford had their own in the dynamic Liam Griffin.
The Rosslare man has always been an interesting and inspirational character and did not disappoint when he sat down this week for an in-depth interview with GAA.ie’s John Harrington (@jharrington79).
In Part One of a three-part series that will continue on Friday and Saturday he talks about…
· Where his passion for Gaelic Games comes from.
· His inter-county playing career with Wexford and Clare.
· His father’s tragic death.
· His own near-death experience.
· How he became Wexford manager.
· His difficult first year in the job.
Part Two of Liam Griffin’s interview cane be read here.
John Harrington: Where does your pure passion for hurling come from? I would have presumed Rosslare was more of a football than a hurling town when you were growing up? Was the fact that your father was from Clare a factor?
Liam Griffin: He was actually from a place called Maurice's Mills which wouldn't have had a hurling tradition either. Basically, I couldn't avoid it. Growing up, I was too young to go to the 1950s All-Ireland Finals because I was too small. But I would have grown up in that era and would have been listening to the matches on the radio every Sunday and so forth. As a kid you'd be in and out playing and I remember eventually getting interested in all of this. Hurling was big, but it wasn't big where I came from. But my mother was from north Wexford and she was related to Tony Doran and to Pat Nolan and Sean Nolan who played for Wexford. My mother was from that side of it and my father was interested in hurling and football and all sport anyway so I got the passion from the general atmosphere.
Don't forget, from the time I was five until I was 18, Wexford were in nearly half of All-Ireland Finals that were contested. So it was an era of hurling in Wexford. Up until the '40s, Wexford had been a football county. They got to an All-Ireland semi-final in '45. Nicky Rackard played in that and Cavan beat them, I think. The hurling was coming because of the Rackards and you couldn't grow up in Wexford and avoid being touched by hurling. I just happened to love the game from the time I was young and used to play against the wall all the day.
JH: Was the 1960 All-Ireland Final between Wexford and Tipperary the first one you would have attended?
LG: Yeah, the 1960 All-Ireland was my first one. I was 12 going on 13.
JH: Did that leave a huge impression?
*LG: *That left a huge impression on me for the simple reason that my cousins Pat and John Nolan played. Pat was in goal, and John was wing-back. John was marking Jimmy Doyle, and it was his first ever Championship match for Wexford that day even though it was an All-Ireland Final. That would be practically unheard of today. And to put him on Jimmy Doyle! That was big because they were relations and I used to be in their house a lot when I was a kid. In those days my mother used to drive around meeting relatives on a Sunday and every time she went to the Nolans I went with a hurl in my hand and Pat and John used to come out and hurl with me in the yard. So, like, obviously I would have had a big affinity with that team.
And when I was young as well I used to go to all the League matches with my father and mother. I used to get into the dressing-room with Pat Nolan and used to wash his boots for him. I was in the dressing-room with Padge Kehoe making speeches. Everyone would be put out, but Pat used to say to me, “stay where you are.” I was only a kid and I was sitting with Pat Nolan listening to Padge laying it on to the boys. So it was amazing actually. That was for the League matches, especially the ones in Wexford Park. Sure I used to love going out and washing Pat's boots in front of all the other young lads.
I was immersed in it. I had a lot of hurling connections in my family, but I was big into football as well. Because I grew up in the Guard's barracks in Rosslare and the fellas next door played football for Wexford and one of them was one of the greatest Wexford players of all time, a fella called John Gallahue. He was a brilliant footballer. We had a lawn outside the barracks and I was one of the youngest guys around among a clatter of Guards' sons and football was the big game they would play. I would be put in goal, of course, and they'd be banging balls at me from all angles! You had to learn quickly! Football was what they played, so I was playing hurling mostly on my own against the Barrack wall, morning, noon, and night. It was a great era for sport, and mainly hurling, because the county was on a high because of hurling.
JH: You went to boarding school in De La Salle in Waterford? That must have given you a good flavour of the GAA culture in other counties too?
LG: I went to school in De La Salle in Waterford, yeah. De La Salle was fantastic. It was a brilliant football school, absolutely brilliant. I played with lots of lads who went on to win All-Ireland senior medals. Gerry Lucey who played for Cork was there. Eamonn O'Donoghue and Paudie O'Donoghue who won All-Irelands for Kerry were there too. Brendan Murtagh played wing-back for Cavan and played in the All-Ireland Semi-Final of '86. Cormac O'Sullivan from Castletownbere played for Cork and he was there too. The Geaneys of Castleisland, I played with them too. You were playing great teams, but we were unbeaten in Munster all the way up along.
I was trained by the best trainer I ever, ever saw in my life. He was a Brother Eugene Crowley who trained us in De La Salle. He was way before his time, even today. I've seen some great trainers, and even today he would be ahead of them all. He played football for Cork and Dublin. A brilliant footballer, and he used to join in with us. He could do things with a football, and he had us all doing them.
Like, I remember him saying things to me which you wouldn't hear today. I was skinny and I was really fast. But he used to say if you're going to a ball and you have time to run and a fella is coming out from the full-back line, he's thinking you're going to bend to pick that ball. You've got to pick that ball on the run and you'll beat him and be gone around two fellas before they know where they are and you're straight through on goal or you have a chance for a point. Pick that ball on the run and keep practicing that skill.
He was way before his time in terms of strategy and teams. He had game-plans before others were even talking about game-plans. But the Colleges were so intense because you were living together morning noon and night. You know the fellas inside, out. So you have an advantage with that system. The boarding school was great for that purpose. I was lucky to have been trained by someone like him. It was a privilege to be trained by someone like him.
JH: You got to the Final of the Harty Cup too, didn't you?
*LG: *Yeah, we got to the Harty Cup Final for the first time ever and I was captain of the team and I was very proud of that. We had been beaten in the football senior final in Munster for the first time ever in my time there just before it, we had won every game we ever played until then. And then we lost the Harty Cup Final too shortly afterwards. That loss is the biggest regret of my entire sporting life, bar none. I must have hit 10 wides that day.
It was the first time we had gotten to the two Munster Finals in the same year, the only time ever I think for the school. But hurling was the poor relation in De La Salle because football was on such a high. In my five years in De La Salle we only lost one Munster Senior Football match. Hard to believe it.
The reason was because De La Salle was a teacher training college before that, right back as far as Thomas Ashe's time. And a lot of people in Cork and Kerry who were teachers there had an affinity with De La Salle and sent their kids there who happened to be good footballers. I played with them as well. So we had really, really good footballers.
JH: You were a Wexford minor and U-21 hurler and footballer and won an All-Ireland U-21 hurling title with Wexford in 1965 before you moved to Clare to study Hotel Management in Shannon. Did you miss out on another year with the Wexford U-21s because of that?
LG: I missed out on two more years. I was an 18-year-old and a sub on the team, I'd say I was the youngest in the panel. I wasn't 19 until after we won that All-Ireland Final. I ended up playing U-21 hurling and football for Clare when I moved there and was beaten in a Munster hurling semi-final by Tipperary who went on to win the All-Ireland the same year. We got to the Munster Final in the U-21 Football, and I knew more lads on the Kerry team that beat us than I did on the Clare team I played for!
Because I was from East-Clare technically now so I was an outcast because all the other lads were from clubs in the West of the county where football was traditionally strong. They brought me on against Cork, one of the selectors, a gas man called Dermot Halpin from Newmarket-On-Fergus, called me in. I was playing for Mohane which was the football club of Newmarket-On-Fergus and we won a County Junior Football Championship that year.
I was playing good football, and most of the other Newmarket lads, and they won't mind me saying this, weren't great footballers. I'd been playing at the highest of levels, for God's sake, at Colleges level. So I was fairly confident in myself. I came on against Cork in the Munster semi-final and did well so I was on for the Munster Final. I knew all the Geaneys playing for Kerry and all the lads from the Sem in Killarney because we'd beaten them in the Munster Final. When I came out on the field one of them come over to me and said, “What the f**k are you doing here?! I thought you were from Wexford!” I said, “I am! they hired me out for the day!"
JH: Hurling for Newmarket must have been a great experience because they had such a strong team at the time.
LG: You couldn't believe what it meant to me. I had never hurled underage for a club. I don't ever remember playing U-14 or U-16 hurling (with Rosslare). I don't even remember playing a minor match. We might have given a walkover to somebody, I'm not sure. My hurling was done against a wall in Rosslare or in College at De La Salle. So for me to even get onto a Wexford minor team, for any Rosslare lad, was very difficult because Wexford were quite good at the time. They had just won the minor All-Ireland the year before (1963) I came onto the panel. And we had nearly 12 of that team, but Kilkenny beat us. So it was an interesting thing to be able to try to make county teams for me and try to play hurling and football at the same time and get my skill level up to the standard required.
It was the week or two after I won an All-Ireland U-21 title as a sub that I moved to Clare, and I'd played in an Intermediate All-Ireland Final that year too for Wexford. That year too I had played against St. Flannan's and I played really well against them in the Harty Cup semi-final and that was a massive win for De La Salle because we'd never even beaten them, in fact I don't think we'd even had the honour of playing them before that.
But we beat them in Munster semi-final and I happened to have a really good game on the day, the ball just fell right, and I scored about 2-10. Everything just fell for me. I couldn't hit the ball but it went where it was supposed to go, one of those days, and I would have been known after it. So I had only gotten to Clare when a fella walked up to me one day and asked, “Are you Liam Griffin?”, and I said, “I am”. So he asked would I do a bit of hurling for Newmarket and I went off and joined them. And I happened to unwittingly join the best hurling team in Ireland! They really were the best hurling team in Ireland at the time.
I arrived down to the field, and for me it was like arriving in heaven. They were so good to me, honest to God. They were unbelievably good to me. I was a bit of a wonder to the locals because I was from Wexford, and don’t forget we were winning All-Irelands at that stage. Wexford were carrying a profile. Now, “Could he play?'' was the next question.
I had done well in Colleges and fellas would have known that, but I got onto that Newmarket team and for me that was an achievement. To be hurling morning, noon, and night in that field was fantastic. And then to feel so really welcomed was great too. My Clare heritage did me no harm either. We won two Munster clubs, we won everything. I didn't lose a single game in my time with Newmarket. Seriously. That was only over two and a half years, but I never lost a match. I often told some of the lads back there afterwards, “Jesus, ye went downhill after I left!”
We had some geniuses of hurlers. Jimmy Cullinane was hurling with us, one of the best small men I ever saw hurl in my life, an amazing hurler. Gus Lohan was a really forceful hurler. Pat Cronin was a magnificent hurler, and so was Liam Danaher. And you had Mick Arthur playing full-forward, so just a whole clatter of brilliant hurlers. I was playing in the half-forward line, and I was the only player not playing for Munster! I couldn't believe it, I was in Nirvana. It was just a brilliant place to be. I have great memories of it and I still keep in contact with guys I hurled with there.
JH: You played U-21 and senior hurling for Clare. I'd say your father took a lot of pride in seeing his son play for his own native county?
LG: It's the thing I get the greatest thrill out of. My father was special to me anyway, like most fellas’ fathers are, but he was just special. He was a great man, a great character. Great to go to matches with, he was just brilliant. Anyway, my great memory is that I was going out to play for Clare and my mother told me afterwards that there was a fella watching the game with one of those big transistors up to his ear and Micheál O'Hehir said, “Here's young Liam Griffin from Wexford, his father hails from Maurices Mills.” He would have named my father as well. And my mother said that when my father heard that, the tears just started rolling down his cheeks. That, to me, afterwards, when he died, that was worth anything to me. Because it must have been some thrill for him.
You're too young to take it in at the time because you're so full of yourself, but it was afterwards when he died and now looking back in retrospect that it means so much. I'd say it was one of the greatest days of his life. To hear his name being called out by Micheál O'Hehir of all people and to see his own son in a Clare jersey.
Because when we were going to family funerals in Wexford the slagging my father used to get over Clare! Tony Doran's father would be there and all the various hurling people on my mother's side from Boolavogue, which would be Buffer's Alley, and all around Ferns and that area. When my father started talking hurling with the boys, the boys would be saying, “Sure, Mick, for Christ's sake, what do Clare know about hurling?!” Clare had beaten Wexford in an Oireachtais Final in 1954 after a replay, so his comeback was always, “Sure didn't we beat your bloody great hurling team!” He was so ingrained in it that it must have been great for him to see me wind up playing for Clare. It was fantastic for me, and it's one of the most treasured memories I have.
JH: Did your father pass away at quite a young age?
*LG: *He died as a result of a car-crash, and I was driving which made it ten times worse. And it was only the second holiday of his life. He had never been outside of Ireland in his life. We had a brother living in England, Pat, who became a very good coach in England. He became a teacher over there and then became a coach. He was involved in swimming mostly at the end but he used to coach soccer teams as well. He got his badges and various things with the FA. He retired from teaching and became a full-time coach. He went to work for Warrington Council and was in charge of the Warrington Warriors and produced a swimmer for England every year for most of his time there. He was big into training methodology and would become a big help to me when I managed Wexford.
My brother lived near Leeds and we brought my father to see Leeds United play because he loved all sports. I had come back from being abroad and I played for Ferns because there was no hurling club in Rosslare at that time. I didn't want to play, but I was persuaded to go back. We had gone on holidays the year before and the following year he said, “I wouldn't mind going on an auld trip like that again soon.” So we organised to go and we were playing Offaly in the League in Gorey and we were playing Tipperary a fortnight later so I said to him sure we'll go after the Offaly match and we'll be back again eight or nine days later in time for the Tipperary match. So we went anyway, and when we were in England we had never been to Scotland and I said, “Will we go up to Scotland, even?” Go up for a spin and see what it's like, and we did.
He met a guy and started talking sport with him, about horses, and wound up in a situation where your man gave him a short-cut to Edinburgh. We were late going, and it was dusk. We took a road where there were roadworks but your man said not to mind the roadworks because that way would take us onto the right road. But sure there was no signage at the end of the road and we came around a corner and straight onto another road and were hit by a lorry.
How the three of us weren't killed, myself and my mother too, I don't know. We should have been all killed, there's no way we should have all survived that. The car was a write-off. What a smashing up we had. My father got out of the car and said there wasn't a thing wrong with him. He didn't want to be annoying my mother. But then a few minutes later he said he wasn't great and maybe we should call an ambulance.
We went to the hospital, and after we left my father there the police brought myself and my mother back to the nearest village. We got fixed up with a bed and breakfast and I asked your man could I get a cup of tea for my mother because she was in a bad state but he said there was no tea or anything to be had at that hour of the evening, and this was just nine o'clock. He was just really rude. My mother was really upset and she was very religious so she asked could we ring a Priest for my father.
So we rang this Priest, a Father McCormack from Donegal, and he said that the guy whose B&B we were in was an awful bigot, and that he'd come down for us and we could stay with him. So when the Priest came down your man said, “What the f**k are you doing here?” He absolutely went berserk. We got out of there as fast as we could with your man cursing and swearing in our ears.
When we went back to the hospital they had brought my father out of intensive care and had him in a day ward. They had a band in this day ward to entertain the patients there but when I looked at my father I just knew he wasn't well. He was annoyed by the noise and I told the nurse it was distressing him and she just said, “Well, there's more people here than your father.” He was dead in an hour.
JH: Jesus, that’s awful. Was it some sort of internal bleeding?
LG: His adrenal gland had been pierced. And it was pierced because of the old seat-belts, which he would never put on, and I used to make him put them on. I'd always be saying, "Dad, would you ever put on that bloody seat-belt!" But the buckles in those days could wind up anywhere and he had the buckle up here on his side somewhere and that's what did the damage. I was glad to see him in it the same day, but it was just a tragic accident and there was nothing I could do.
JH: What year was that?
*LG: *It was '71.
JH: So you were very young.
*LG: *Ah yeah, and I had come back from being away and had started playing for Wexford again. After the funeral Paddy Roche the County Board secretary came over to me and said, “We're playing Tipperary, sure you can call down to the match at the weekend”. I said, “Paddy, I'm finished, that's it”. I didn't want to play anymore. I was playing, but I wasn't that interested at that stage because I was working in the hotel business and I was working shift-work. And, anyway, I felt everything had passed me by. I had gotten older and I had been away and I had been working in Switzerland and England. And now I was working for Intercontinental Hotels.
I remember going on a plane from Shannon to Switzerland at the age of 21. Newmarket actually brought me back for a County Final the following year, not that they needed me, let me tell you, but they brought me back. But when I got on the plane I realised that was it, it was all over. One of the boys handed me the Cork Examiner, and the headline was 'Clare lose player to Switzerland'. I didn't open it until I got on the plane. And when I saw it I suddenly thought, “This is it. It's over.” And it was, because really at the end of the day I had broken the whole cycle at 21 years of age. You can't afford to step away at that level.
And, besides, life takes over and you've now got job commitments and you're suddenly maturing more I suppose. At that stage a job was fierce important to have. My parents had put a lot into me and I suppose I felt a sense of loyalty to them as well which is no harm. There's more to life than sport. And my mother had started to get worried about me with hurling, anyway. I wasn't a brilliant academic. I wasn't stupid, but I was more interested in hurling and football than I was academia, let me tell you. In the study hall I would pick more teams...I could have picked the Connacht football team for you and then I'd hand it around to the fellas next to me.
JH: But did you not start playing again even after your father's death? Because I heard you were seriously injured on a hurling field.
LG: That was football. When I left all that behind me I thought it was all over, but when I came back to Ireland I went to work with Intercontinental in Dublin. A few years previously my parents had bought a small hotel that had closed down and had invested everything they had in it. I actually enjoyed it as a small kid growing up, I was 12 or 13 when they bought it first, and I enjoyed working there and side by side with my parents. I was working in the bar and doing all the things that you would do.
When my father died I came back to take over the business and when I did I was asked by the lads locally in Rosslare would I train and play with the football team because we didn't have a hurling team at the time. I said I would, provided we really wanted to do something. Everyone bought into it and we actually won the Championship for the first time since the 1890s. We won the County Junior Football Championship.
Then I was then asked to train the District team in the Senior Club Football Championship as a player-manager type of thing. A crowd of us got together and you can talk all you like about amalgamations and district teams, but that was as good a team of fellas and as closely bonded a group of fellas as any parish team that I ever saw. They were brilliant guys, every single one of them, and great footballers.
We laid down the ground-rules that we weren't going to do it for fun. We'd have fun, but we wanted to do something. Why don't we go and win this Championship, like? So we got together and we really trained hard under lights of cars in fields at night-time and everything. We made up our mind we were going to try to win it.
We played good football and we did win it, but in the county semi-final I was hit going for a high-ball. We were playing St. Anne's, and there was no love lost there. They never liked me anyway because when we were playing in the Junior I would have been a reasonable footballer. I had come through this College system, so why wouldn't I be a reasonable footballer? But, again, I suppose I was cheeky. I was soloing and doing things Kerry fellas were doing and I was trying to do things I saw good College players doing.
That day there were a few gunning to sort me out because I was the player manager of that team. John Meyler, who would play for Cork, I passed him a ball going in and I called him for the return pass. As it was coming in a guy was coming out from full-back. As I'm going in the ball is in the air and I've got two choices. Either go for it or funk it, so I went for it. I had gone for it and I had to turn sideways going for it because I was over-running it.
I was trying to catch it and turn him at the same time so I'd come out the far side of him and be through on goal. So, anyway, he hit me a box straight into the kidneys as I was coming down. And this is what he did (Griffin lifts his shirt to reveal a vivid vertical scar running from his breast bone to his navel).
LG: He didn't do that, the Doctor did! They had to do some investigative surgery because no-one knew what was wrong with me. I was nearly dead, and was anointed that night. He hit me such a belt that it was unreal. Now, he did not mean to do the damage he did, I know he did not mean to do that much damage. You couldn't possibly mean to. But he was hitting a skinny fella and all I can remember is him putting his fist out and as my rib-cage dropped his fist was there. I was in an awful state.
All hell broke loose because we had a tough, hardy team that time. Our lads were well able to handle themselves. They saw me getting hit, and that caused a bit of rancour. Anyway, I was stretchered off and I was on the ground and no-one was bringing me anywhere because everyone got so involved and because the game got edgy. Eventually someone said, "Jesus, if you don't bring that guy to hospital then he'll be dead, he's after turning a thousand different colours there."
So I was brought off and had what was known as a nephrectomy, a kidney removal. I didn't have it all removed, I still have a little bit of it left. That night I remember waking up on the operating table and the doctor came in, a fella by the name of Johnny O'Sullivan, a very decent man. I was in desperate pain and no-one would do anything because it was a Sunday afternoon and no-one was on duty so he had to be sent for. When he came in I said, “Doc, I don't care what you do, but I can't stick the pain, I'm in desperate trouble.”
He said, “Liam, I don't know what's wrong with you, so I'm going to have to open you up. You're after coming off a football field, but this is the game of your life. You've got to play the game of your life, that's it. Grit your teeth and work with me.” So he split me wide open. He actually did that kidney operation which wouldn't have been the norm for Wexford hospital either, so I owe a lot to him.
I remember waking up and there was a Priest, Father O'Reilly, standing over me. I remember the nurse saying, "Father, keep back, he's waking up." I could see his stole was hanging down and he was anointing me. I thought, "Christ almighty, I'm going to die over a football match," because I knew I was being anointed. There was no sense of panic or anything, but the realisation just hit me that I was going to die over a football match. Jesus, what a stupid thing to do! Anyway, I survived, and that's it.
JH: Were you married with children by that point?
*LG: *I was, yeah. I was 31, it was 1977, and myself and Mary were married. We had Michael, and Mary was pregnant with our next boy, Niall. She was in hospital the same time as me. She went into labour while I was in hospital. We had lived in Bray while I was working for Intercontinental Hotels and her gynecologist was a fella up in St. Michael's in Dun Laoghaire. So she's in St. Michael's of Dun Laoghaire, and I'm in Wexford Hospital. She's having a baby, and I'm having my kidney out!
JH: All sorts of thoughts must have been rushing through your mind.
*LG: *Yeah, lots. It was just an unbelievable time. Like, I was in hospital for a good length after that. I was there several weeks anyway. My biggest memory of that was waking up the next day and saying, “Jesus, I'm still here.” But there were tubes everywhere for a long period. Because this was a serious operation for them to have to perform and to mind a guy who just had his kidney removed. I understood at that stage as well that Johnny had been on phone to Jervis street, which was the kidney place, and he was actually consulting people as he was going on with the surgery. That's what I understand. He had to do whatever it took, so fair play to him. I lost an awful lot of blood obviously. I was bleeding internally because the kidney knocked off the artery and I was bleeding like mad in there. It was as close to death as you could possibly be.
JH: I presume that was the last time you laced up a pair of boots, so?
LG: No, no, no! I played again the following year. Because we were trying to get a hurling team off the ground in Rosslare. I started hurling in Rosslare because we were going to be extinct as a club. Soccer had taken over in the early '70s, Match of the Day and all that, and we were down in the cosmopolitan village of Rosslare with a lot of connections around the world. Our GAA club wasn't going anywhere and it was really concentrated on football. But we were only borrowing the lads that were playing soccer to make up our football team. So their allegiance, which I understand, wasn't fully to us. They were getting matches every week playing soccer, but they were getting one knock-out championship game with us. So why should their allegiance be to us, just because we're Irish? These are kids, they want to play football.
Then the County Board kept fixing the first round of the Championship for the same day as the Cup Final which our lads were in. They had no team, like. So the whole thing was nuts. So if we didn't start a game that was going to be a stand-alone game, then we were in trouble. And what was the game I had any skill for? Hurling. Hurling would save our club, that was my view at the time. If we didn't start hurling in the club there would be nothing left.
JH: Fast-forward to 1995. How exactly did you become Wexford hurling manager?
LG: I don't know if this is true, but I would say I might have been the last man standing. I had wanted to be the minor manager, because I became very interested in the coaching kids area. I felt if I could become the manager of a county minor team and if they'd let me do it for five years I could get five players a year that would be up to senior inter-county standard. My ambition was that would be my contribution to Wexford hurling.
I stood for election before Bord na nÓg. I put my name forward. Now, I never rang anyone to vote for me. I didn't believe in it, I believed they should pick whoever they wanted to pick on the basis of what they were able to do. I didn't win the vote. I was beaten by Willie Carley who I had played with for Wexford and I had no problem being beaten by him because he was an excellent hurler and great hurling man. I'd say I was one of the first to ring him and say "I really wish you well", which I did. I suppose then when I was asked (to become senior manager) was because lads saw that Rosslare didn't have a hurling team and all of a sudden they're coming up and winning Rackard Leagues, winning U-12s and all sorts.
A great side story to that is that we beat Buffers Alley in the County Final of U-12 hurling and Joe Doran, who's a cousin of mine and a brother of Tony's, walked into our dressing-room and his speech was, “Jaysus lads, it's a sad day for Wexford when Rosslare can beat Buffers Alley in a County Final!” I said into Joe's ear, “Joe, for f**k sake get out of here!”
So, anyway, we were going well in Rosslare and I suppose that was noticed. Now, John Quigley would be a good friend of mine although he'd never admit it. His famous line with me was always, “Did you ever hear about Griffin. He was a sub on every Wexford team that left the county this year!” That was when I was 18 and I was a sub on the county hurling and intermediate teams and I was on the Junior and U-21 football team. My retort has always been, “Yeah, and he couldn't even get on the panel!” It's a great line of his though in fairness, and every time he sees me still he says it. It's just such a GAA slag! I still think deep down if I was on my death-bed he might say he really does admire me, but he probably wouldn't! So, he was on the (County Board) committee and so was Joe O'Shaughnessy who was a fella I used to knock around with, a great football man.
When Wexford had lost in '93 (against Kilkenny in the Leinster Final) it was seen as the end of an era at that stage. That team had a go and lost a League Final after three matches against Cork and a Leinster Final after two against Kilkenny and were now seen as past their sell-by date.
But, from my perspective, when they then asked me would I do the Wexford job, I don't know who else they asked first. My answer to John Quigley when he first came down to my house was, “Sure why don't you do it?! Why the hell are ye asking me?! Sure you were better than me, so why wouldn't you take the job?” He said, “No, no, no, no.” I didn't want to do it, I told them I wanted the minor job. I would say they couldn't find someone, that's what I believe happened. And eventually my name just came up, “Sure, look it, we'll ask him.” Now, I may be doing myself an injustice saying that, but I would have thought it would be more logical to ask a lot of other lads first.
Paddy Wickham was the County Board Chairman and he actually said at one of the meetings that if I wouldn't do the job they'd go outside the county to get someone. I said, “That's absolutely a disgrace. We have a tradition of hurling in this county and we're going to go outside the county to get a manager for the Wexford hurling team, lads what are we made of that we'd do a thing like that? We can't do a thing like that!”
I knew from being very active on the ground in Rosslare of all of the fault-lines in Wexford hurling and what needed to be done to address them. So I started to think that if the County team was doing well it should lift everything else, and eventually I said I'd do it for three years and no more, not a minute longer. I couldn't afford to do it because I was running a business, not a school-teacher. I knew if I wanted to give it what it needed I'd be up at five or six in the morning for the next three years, which I was. Because I would never go to a session unless they were absolutely planned to the last detail when I was going there.
Now, does that make me great? I'm a trained manager for Christ's sake, management is my game, I'm trained in management skills so I don't deserve any great credit for that, and there's too much made of managers anyway. I believe that firmly. They're only managing resources which they have at their disposal. They're managing them to the best of their ability, but some of them are seriously advantaged before they start and some are seriously disadvantaged before they start. That's why you're not going to see anyone come from Kilkenny to walk into any county in Ireland and start winning All-Irelands frequently, bar Kilkenny. It's not ever going to happen.
You're in resource management. You can build up all the managers you like from Cork, Dublin or wherever you like, but at the end of the day it's a resource management system and you manage resources you have and the structures in which they operate and that's what will decide what you do at the end of the day. The management is a skill that's absolutely required, but you need the foundations in place first. That's my opinion, others may disagree.
So, hero worship for me? Forget about it. I don't want to know anything about it because I'm no Messiah and I won no All-Ireland. But I did my job as a manager and I'm proud of what I did. But I wouldn't have done that without the people I had in the management team that we assembled as well as the great players we had. We assembled a team of people behind the team that were totally committed and united and everyone of them were totally brilliant in what they did. That was my job to pick the right people.
JH: Success didn't happen for you and the Wexford team overnight, did it? In 1995 you finished behind Down and Kerry in the Division Two League table and ended up level on points but ahead on scoring difference with a relegated Meath team that had defeated you. Then you controversially axed Liam Dunne as team captain a few days before you lost to Offaly in the Championship.
*LG: *I took over in October of 1994 and I wanted to see what we were made of. Did I think we could win the All-Ireland Hurling Final in 1995? I would have been out of my mind to think we could win the All-Ireland in 1995. Did I think we could win anything major in 1995? I sat down and looked at it objectively and said to myself this is going to have to be a seriously good building year. Now, what do we have in this group? What are they made of? What kind of fellas are they? We have to get them over a few bad years here, so they need a bit of breathing space. So let’s give them some trust. Look it, we haven't won a whole lot, but I put something up on a board that I felt would show them that with a lot of minor adjustments we could move from where we were to a much better place. Now, I didn't guarantee them we would win anything.
I had worked out the average score losses of the previous few years and on the first night I met them the question I posed was, “Right, how much does it take, what per cent do we need to improve by to get closer to the top teams?” To tell you they were wildly enthusiastic to answer questions I was asking would be wrong. They sat there saying nothing. Fellas I thought should have gotten up to say something and lead the participation, the serious guys, said absolutely nothing.
What they were doing, in my view, was sitting in judgment of me which they were quite entitled to do. They were thinking, “Well, what's he going to bring to the table? He's asking us questions, well we'll see what he's made of.” You couldn't fault them for adopting that line, but I would have much preferred had they gotten involved and been enthusiastic about it. But I do understand why they didn't.
I asked them, “How much do you need to improve by, do you think?” There were no answers, then someone said, “100 per cent I'd say,” as a throwaway line. I asked what they thought of that and there were a few nodding heads. “Would that not be a bit hard?”, I asked, but the conversation went nowhere. So I said, “What if I told you that if you improved by 15 or 20 per cent that you could win an All-Ireland? What would you say to that? Well I'm telling you now we don't need to improve by 100 per cent, but we need to improve by 15 per cent. And if we do that incrementally, is it achievable? You go home and think about that. Because if we can, we’ll be in the mix.”
So, how could we improve by that much? In my opinion, there were lots of ways, quite easily. I told them that all I wanted was honesty and wrote down a list of other attributes that fed into that. I had assembled my own management team - Rory Kinsella and Seamus Barron - and discussed it with them. Honest to God, they were brilliant men and are brilliant men to this day. We're still close friends. Seamus lives miles away in Rathnure and Rory lives in Bunclody, but we keep in touch with each other on a regular basis. We are life-long friends without having to meet each other every day of the week because we're of a similar mind-set.
I picked two fellas who had come from the kids game. That's who I wanted to travel with me. Seamus had given a lot of time to underage players in Rathnure and Rory did a brilliant job with FCJ in Bunclody and with his club in Bunclody. I felt I needed fellas thinking in that zone. Because when you work with kids you break the game down a lot and get down to basics. But why shouldn't you also do that with a senior team? I don't see why you shouldn't. Anything I'm saying means we. We all agreed on this. I wasn't going away on a solo-run. Yes, I was writing up what I thought, but passing it by them. And everything we did we did that way.
The only other structural change we made to management which we all agreed on was that committee meetings before making moves on the field just didn't work. I said there's only one rule, and it's that the minute the team hits the field, I'm the boss. I wasn't doing it for my ego, I was doing it because it was the right management structure.
I had previously managed the Wexford football team, and I had experienced first-hand how debilitating committee meetings on the sideline were. It was a nightmare. I was given five selectors and I was too young when I took it over. I lasted six months. We were doing well, we got to the Final of Division Two. The five selectors were imposed on me and I'd be trying to bring a guy on in a match and the guys didn't want me to bring him on. They wanted to have a chat about it and by the time I'd get back to them they would still not have made up their minds.
Eventually I decided one day to just make a change myself, and the selectors were annoyed with me. I can understand why, they were coming from a different school of thought than I was and I was usurping my authority. They didn't want me there anyway because I was a bit of a maverick. I was getting lads to practice frees on the Saturday before a match. This might sound ridiculous now, but that was unheard of at the time. You weren't fresh unless you stopped on a Tuesday or Wednesday night and were 'ball hungry'! Lock that ball away and don't even look at it!
From that experience, I said I wasn't going to have any committee meetings on the sideline with the hurling team. If the lads thought of something they could discuss it together, and when they agreed on it they could come to me and say we think we should do the following. 90 per cent of the time I went with exactly what they said. Only a few times I said "No". My point was that if we win, it's grand, and if we lose it's grand as well. If we're going to start losing matches I will take it in the neck because I'm making the decisions. But ultimately someone must carry the can for this team. Somebody must have the balls to stand up and make a decision, because at this level if you don't do things quickly and pick up something DJ Carey, Charlie Carter, Johnny Dooley, Brian Whelahan or any of those great players are doing, then they'll have come back and punished you twice more. I felt we needed to make quick decisions.
In terms of convincing the players, we got it into their heads first of all that they should do things on their own. Did they do it? No. So 1995 petered out, but on the way to petering out they were given plenty of head room to show what they were made of. I was never going to walk in and dictate to them from the first minute because I would have lost the dressing-room before I'd even started probably.
But we did have to say there's going to have to be discipline here. And we're going to have to make people responsible for what they're supposed to do. So because of that we made some decisions like not playing George and John O'Connor one day because they'd played a club League game a few days previously. Club Championship matches we had no issues with, but if we had a big League match coming up we didn't want them playing a club league match the Wednesday night before.
Anyway, Oulart decided they were going to play the Wednesday night before we played Offaly in the Championship. Rory rang me first and said, "You're not going to believe this, but the Oulart lads played a League match last night." I said, “Oh Jesus Rory, this is going to give us an awful dilemma. What are we going to do with this one?”
Because we had to take action whether we liked it or not, else we were lost for the following year. This is a knock-out Championship don't forget, and I knew then straight up we were going to be beaten by Offaly. Because we were going to have to make a decision that was going to impact on the morale of the team in the short-term for the long-term good. But if we didn't make the decision we might as well have just walked away and be finished with it.
We had to be seen to take action but we had to be fair to supporters too who were already after booking tickets so we did something which was never heard of in the GAA before. We left the team intact, but we stripped Liam Dunne of the captaincy. Not because he was Liam Dunne, because he was from Oulart and had played in the club match. Liam, to his eternal credit, said, "If I'm stripped of the captaincy could you give it to Martin Storey because he didn't play in the game." Storey hadn't because he was slightly injured and was keeping himself right for Sunday.
But we had made up our mind that we weren't going to give the captaincy to anyone from Oulart because they had had done this themselves and compromised the lads. I can see the dilemma the club player has, but the lads still should have said, “No way am I playing, we're playing county championship on Sunday.” By Oulart asking the lads to play and by the lads agreeing to play, they had written the county team off as going nowhere. We had lost to Meath in the League so we were perceived as being useless.
So what happened then was that George O'Connor was made captain. There was no debate on this. We weren't asking George to be captain, we were telling him. And we were telling him in the group. There was no other way about it. “George, you are the captain, it is not negotiable. You have to take the job. No-one can disagree with it. You're the captain because you're the senior member of the squad.”
We wouldn't give it to Martin Storey, not out of any malice towards Martin who was a great friend of mine at this stage, but we had to prove ourselves. We had been scrupulously fair, everything was honest, and we had taken some corrective action to be seen to do something.
We lost the match to Offaly, but when we came back together again in September '95 we said, “This is it, this is what is going to happen from here on. You've had your chance to do it your way, you're going to do it our way now.” We wanted 100 per cent from the players, and that's exactly what we got from them from the moment we went back in in September on the Wednesday after the 1995 Hurling Final.
*Liam Griffin will reflect on Wexford’s epic 1996 All-Ireland Final win in Part 2 of the The Big Interview on GAA.ie tomorrow. *