GAA Legends - Michael Duignan
By John Harrington
Those who have purchased tickets for Michael Duignan’s sold out Bord Gáis Energy Legends Tour in Croke Park on Saturday should get plenty of bang for their buck.
The Offaly man is as good a story-teller as he was a hurler, and there’s little chance of him being stuck for a word or two as he guides people on a guided tour of the stadium and museum.
It helps when you have lived through the experiences Duignan did during a golden era for hurling for Offaly hurling that saw him win two All-Ireland titles and five Leinster titles.
Ahead of his Legends Tour, he spoke with GAA.ie to reflect on his colourful playing career.
Q: With the remove of a few years now, how do you look back on your time as an Offaly hurler.
A: Sure, look it, I suppose it was really life-defining. It was a huge, huge part of my life. I suppose I'd look back with a certain amount of pride on it. We're a small county and we achieved quite a bit as a group. And, you know, the old cliche, but you make life-long friendships and I met some really great men along the way. I suppose when you have a bit of time to reflect, you appreciate more the people that are in the background. What they would have been doing.
I'm involved now myself training teams and chairman of a minor club and that kind of thing where you actually appreciate all the work and see the bigger picture. At the time you're playing you just appreciate your own team-mates and think about your own playing.
But, looking back now, what so many people did helped us to achieve what we did. And then the great friendships that I have made from those times are just brilliant.
Q: You grew up in era when Offaly hurling made its big breakthrough and tasted early success yourself when you won a minor All-Ireland in 1986. Do you feel fortunate to have come through at a time when the game was on an upward curve in the county and a generation of exceptionally talented young players was emerging?
*A: *Yeah, I always say that I really appreciate the 1980 breakthrough. Padraig Horan from St, Rynaghs, my own club, was on that team. Damien Martin and Aidan Fogarty were St. Rynagh's too. I was 12 years of age in 1980 when they won the Leinster and then they won the All-Ireland in '81. So that's all I kind of knew and I'd always give those lads great credit.
And then, I suppose, for me to play in a County Final with Damien Martin and Padraig Horan and then to play with that Offaly '80s team was great. We won an All-Ireland Minor title in '86 and I came straight onto the senior panel.
I was fierce lucky I suppose that I played with both great Offaly teams. I played with Jim Troy, Eugene Coughlan, Ger Coughlan, Joachim Kelly, Pa Corrigan, Aidan Fogarty, all of those lads off that team. And then to go along and play with the great team of the '90s too, I was just fierce lucky that I played with so many off the two teams. And they were such different personalities and different characters.
We got a great start and we had a bit of confidence. Birr were going well too, Banagher were going well and we had no fear of anybody. That's a great way to play, to have that confidence.
Now, we got a right few kicks in the arse along the way as well. We lot three All-Ireland U-21 Finals and I was captain in '89. After winning a minor in '86 we thought we'd follow on and win that. It took us a while probably to make the grade. We won a few Leinsters, but it was a long time from '86 to '94 until we did eventually win the All-Ireland.
Q: There must have been a great buzz in Offaly hurling at the time because, as you mentioned, the club scene was very strong?
A: Ah there was. There was a huge standard there at club level. The thing that saddens me now is that the club standard has dropped off so much. We still produce a very good club team now and again in Offaly, but back then we had four or five or six club teams really operating at a high level. The club meant so much to us all as county players back then.
When we went back we put so much into it, and the club players themselves had so much pride. The club championship was absolutely savage and all the teams prepared so well. For a lot of my career there was no back-door so if you were beaten early in the year you were back to the club and the club standard improved because of that.
But, I suppose, with the focus moreso on county, I think the club-standard has dropped off. No, it was fantastic. I won four championships with St. Rynagh's and had the four of them won by the time I was 25, I think. And we a Leinster club that year and were beat in an All-Ireland semi-final. We said we'd be back the following year but we haven't won an Offaly Championship since then, which is hard to believe.
Birr came along and won their four All-Irelands and seven Leinster clubs which was phenomenal, it'll never be matched again. Clareen with the Dooleys, the Kinahans, and Eugene Coughlan, they had a great team as well. They beat us in four county finals. Lusmagh won their one in '89, the only one they ever won, which was great for the Troys and Joachim. Coolderry beat us in the '86 Final, so there was a great spread of clubs going well at the time.
Q: As you said, your generation of Offaly hurlers got a few kicks in the arse along the way in the senior grade, so when ye eventually won the All-Ireland in '94 it must have been special? And all the more so because of the dramatic way it was won?
A: I suppose at the time it felt unbelievable and surreal. I often look back on the two All-Irelands that we did win and both of them were won in such unusual circumstances, if you like. The Limerick game will never be forgotten for the way we came back. And in '98 the year was just mad in terms of everything that went on with Babs Keating and the Clare matches and the backdoor. And even with Waterford and Clare down in Munster, it was just an epic year.
Look it, I suppose in '94 we didn't play particularly well. When we played well we played really, really well. That was a trait of ours. And when we didn't play well we didn't play well. But that particular day we didn't play that well but just hung in there. The Dooleys deserve huge credit because they scored 2-11 between the three of them in an All-Ireland Final. Three brothers in a forward line out of the one house, I think that's an incredible achievement.
They actually did the same thing in the first County Final that they won when they beat us. The three of them scored 2-11 between them that day. Johnny was only 16 at the time. You can't underestimate their contribution to that particular win in '94.
We just stayed in the game and I think the way it finished just hurt Limerick really badly. They never recovered and haven't managed to win an All-Ireland since. I thought the '96 All-Ireland was there for them. Wexford, again didn't play that well on the day, but Limerick's confidence was rattled after '94 and they never really recovered.
But, look it, it's a 70-minute game and it was unreal how we won it in the end. I met Joe Quaid recently and there was a bit of slagging. That ball was pucked out very quick and it ended up back in the net. I think there was 21 seconds between the first and second goal.
So, look it, you get ups and downs in hurling. We'd been beaten in the first-round in '93, knock-out, gone. In '91 Dublin beat us. There were three years in a row when we were gone after one match, so we had suffered a bit. We had very good form in '94 on the way to the Final, and while we didn't play as well there, I think we did enough to stay in the game and I think we hurled for the 70 minutes and deserved it.
Q: As you said, 1998 was a bit of a crazy year. You had the situation with Babs leaving as manager after the Leinster Final defeat to Kilkenny and his 'sheep in a heap' criticism of the team. It was another dramatic way to eventually win an All-Ireland Final.
*A: *Yeah, by '98 I had more experience and I really enjoyed the whole year. I used to travel down to training with Babs and he was a great character. We had a good win against Wexford in the Leinster semi-final but in the final we didn't play well. I often think that maybe Babs forgot that we were still in the Championship with the back door because he really let loose at us.
It was just an amazing year. I was living in Naas at the time and Sean my young lad who's 18 now was born that February. I won a Towns cup with Naas in the Leinster League that year, I was playing a bit of rugby. Babs was good that way, he let me back to the rugby, and I was very fit. I think that helped as well. We trained really, really hard.
Johnny Murray was the physical trainer and we were in fantastic shape, but it just took something like that to get us going. A lot of us were getting on. I was 30 and there would have been Martin Hanamy, Joe Dooley, Billy Dooley in that bracket too. Even the younger lads had a lot of mileage on the clock at that stage. The likes of Brian Whelahan and Johnny Dooley had played three years of minor hurling before they'd even played senior and had a lot of hurling done with club and everything else.
We just needed something to spark us into gear and that certainly did. And then the Clare matches were just unbelievable. My favourite match is probably the 1995 Leinster Final against Kilkenny because it was a phenomenal match despite the bad weather, but without a doubt the best year of my sporting life was '98. There were just so many big matches to be involved in. Playing in Semple Stadium in Thurles and then back to Croke Park again.
And even the Final was a great game. I was at a charity thing last Friday night and hadn't watched the match since but they showed it there and it was a savage game of hurling. I'd say Dickie Murphy hardly blew the whistle, but I'd say he wasn't able to because the ball was going up and down the field so fast. It was just incredible.
A different game than we see now with the tackling and the physicality. But lads were aerobically very fit and that's what really struck me. And the speed with which the ball was moved and the hurling and the touches and skill of men like Troy and Whelahan and the Dooleys. And the toughness and tackling of men like Martin Hanamy and Kevin Martin. Great men and a great team to be involved with.
Q: That Offaly team had a bit of everything.
A: Yeah, we did. Even our tough men could hurl. Like, Kinahan was a hard man at full-back but he was a fantastic hurler. Hanamy was a great man too. There was a lot of heart in that team but you had athleticism too in men like Kevin Martin. He was a vital cog coming into that team in '94 when he was only 20 years of age. He fulfilled a massive role from then until he retired. He was one of the great wing-backs. Whelahan was on the other wing and then Hubert Rigney was the enforcer in between the two of them at centre-back.
Pilkington's flair and athleticism. His character, his personality, which was larger than life, was a huge part of our team. And then the skill of the Dooley's and John Troy and Whelahan, obviously, the magician, the Millennium Man. We had 10 or 12 exceptional players with a great love of Offaly and hurling. Many of them 13 to 15, 16, 17 years of their life to Offaly hurling. Joe Dooley was there for 19.
It didn't happen by accident. There was huge work done there. We had great times, fun, and holidays. We drank a few pints when the time was right, but in general we were very serious about our game. I just look back with great pride and I'm delighted to have been part of it.
Q: You would have been an important cog in that Offaly machine too.
A: Well, yeah, look it, I suppose I was very committed and I knew my job. I wasn't in the same class as a lot of those players I mentioned, but I was probably an intelligent hurler. I knew what I could do and I fitted into the team and I was a good ball-winner and could get a few important scores now and again. I was able to fit in to the team and do what had to be done.
And I suppose I could play in a lot of positions which was a big help. I was happy once I was on the field. Someone said to me once that I played in a lot of positions for Offaly. I said, "Between hurling and football I played 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15." Joe Dooley was there and as quick as a flash said, "17, 18, 19, 20!" You don't get away with much!
Q: Is it fair to say that Offaly team could or should have won more All-Irelands?
*A: *Yeah, we often talk about that. But if you look back at it, in '94 we could have lost and in '98 we could have lost along the way before the All-Ireland. We could have maybe won in '95 and '96. If you go through the '90s, for a lot of years, we were beaten by the team that won the Final and were there or there abouts. So we could have, but looking back, we had a reasonably small squad of players and didn't have that much turnover.
And it's very hard at that level to keep going. Then factor in the success of Birr who had a good few players on the panel, they were going all year and winning Leinster clubs and club All-Irelands, so winning two All-Irelands in that era when you had very good teams wasn't bad.
In the late eighties when I came on first we won three Leinsters and got beat in three All-Ireland semi-finals, maybe we could have sneaked into a Final there. But it was probably a mixture of an older team and very young lads. We were missing lads in the middle at that stage. Look it, I won five Leinsters and two All-Irelands, and I'd be happy enough.
Q: Did your work as a match commentator and analyst with RTE soften the blow of retiring from inter-county hurling? A lot of players find that transition difficult.
A: Yeah, it did greatly. I probably didn't realise it at the time, but it did. I did find the transition from finishing playing very, very hard because it was such a huge part of my life. I would have traveled down to training from Dublin or Naas all of those years which was an extra-commitment, but it was just something I did and loved doing.
I often left home at six in the morning and wouldn't get home until 12 that night. I was on the road with work and all of that and you could be travelling anywhere. That became such a huge part of my life and I just found that gap massively hard to adjust to.
Certainly the media work was brilliant at the beginning. I probably didn't think about it too much, except that it kept me involved in the game. But as the years have gone on I really treasure it now because I really enjoy the work on The Sunday Game. I love staying up to date with the game. I'd be critical at times, but over the years I've experienced every emotion. I've seen some of the greatest matches of all time with the Kilkenny v Tipp Finals in '09 and '10 and that.
And then some of the modern stuff...but that's part of the game, it changes, the trends. But it's brilliant to be at the coal-face all of the time and commentating and writing about it. And being involved in it. And staying in touch with all of the players and personalities in the game.
The love of my life really is hurling and it's great to be still having that opportunity by The Sunday Game to be involved in it. It's a privilege, really, to be involved at that level. I enjoy it greatly. I enjoy giving my view and meeting people all over the country.
This year alone, I think I was in around 13 or 14 different counties during the winter between presentations and after-dinner stuff and all of that. I was the guest-speaker at the Glen Rovers centenary dinner and cracked a joke that Christy Ring would turn in his grave with a man from Offaly down talking to the guests!
But it just shows you the love of the game, and it's a privilege to be asked. I was in Oulart presenting their Leinster medals this year and I was in James Stephens judging their Strictly Come Dancing. It's great to visit those great clubs and talk to all the great people there.
I was in Meath too giving a seminar to their underage coaches and I've just traveled all over the place, Leitrim, Sligo, Roscommon. You'd be asked everywhere. There's great hurling everywhere and it's great to get to know so many of them. And I never would have done that without the career I had first and all the team-mates that made that possible.
I suppose I was the lucky one then that got the opportunity to move on in the media and I suppose make a career out of it. But it's really bigger than that. It's the involvement with the whole hurling community throughout the country. Because I have that profile I'm asked all of these places and I really enjoy and I'm thankful for it.
The details for the forthcoming 2016 Bord Gáis Energy Legends Tours at Croke Park are as follows...
• Michael Duignan – 30th July
• JJ Delaney – 6th August
• John O’Brien – 13th August
• 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.