WHEN ONE THINKS OF THE GREAT TEAMS OF THE PAST IN CLARE HURLING clubs such as Newmarket, Clarecastle, Sixmilebridge and St. Joseph’s Doora/Barefield spring to mind. Of course within each club grazes skilled players with names such as Cullinan, Callinan, Stack and McMahon, to mention just some, featuring in the annals of Clare hurling glór. Another skilled player was Timmy Ryan from Newmarket.
A Clare minor for three years, a Clare U21 for four and a senior during the early 70s to early 80s. Ryan was one of the main lynchpins of the famed Newmarket side from the late 60s to the early 80s. It was during this time that Ryan and his trusty band of sidekicks such as Cullinan, Lohan, Danagher, Arthur, Cronin, O’Leary, McMahon et all were the high kings of banner hurling.
The ‘Blues accumulated a tidy haul of ten championships within this time with experts labelling some of these games as classics. Invariably just like the great Clare team of the mid 90s and early 00s there comes a time for these great teams to go their separate ways and for other teams to come along and take their place on the throne.
In an interview recorded at Timmy’s home in early May 2010 he gave an interesting insight not only into his own career but sport in general. As a young lad growing up in the 1960’s sport played an important part of their lives he informed me.
“When I was growing up everyone was hurling in Newmarket. You had the parish league, which was probably the start of it. You had four different areas in the parish – Stonehall, The Village, Mooghaun and Cahercalla. I remember the first match I went to was one in Kilkishen in 1962 when Newmarket played Sixmilebridge in the famous Clare Cup final. I was 11 years of age and that was my introduction to serious hurling.”
Ryan did not have to wait long before he tasted success with his club as he told me, winning all underage titles.
“The first championship I won was at U15 and I won three Under-16 medals. That would have been from 1965 to ’67. I think I played in about six minor county finals and nearly every time we were in the final we were up against Ennis Rovers or Éire Óg. Whenever we met them we would usually draw the first time around and then they would beat us in the replay. The one final we won was in 1968 and I was fortunate to be captain that year. “
One important thing Timmy took into account was a word of advice from his father, who incidentally along with his mother is still hale and hearty. That crucial bit of advice was that he had no business being on the hurling field unless he could play off both sides. Taking this into account he religiously practiced off both sides every day when he got home from school. It paid off as he was soon called in to join the ‘Blues senior team.
“I think I was 18 when I first played senior. We won the Munster club title that year (the 1968 Munster club final) but that had actually been delayed by a year so the final was in 1969 or 70 so that’s how I ended up playing in it. I remember in 1971 I had gone away to England at the time on my summer holidays and one weekend Newmarket were playing Crusheen in the semi final. The flight at the time was £2.50 to London! For some reason I couldn’t get a flight from Heathrow to Shannon so my father, who was an aircraft mechanic at the time, said I could get a flight to Cork. The earliest flight was a Sunday morning and I arrived in Cork around 12. “
In an era where players stick to a rigorous diet regime with dieticians and gym programmes, his eating habit back then was hardly what you would call healthy compared to what they have these days! He also attributes nerves as having a positive affect on his fine performance that day.
“I hadn’t caught a hurley for 2-3 weeks so my nerves were at me. Kevin Marren was chairman of the club at the time, an absolute gentleman, and he collected me below in Cork. I was after having gold grain biscuits and marshmallows coming off the flight, and a bottle of Lucozade! I got home around half 2 and my gearbag was already packed so we headed to Ennis for the championship semi-final. Mick Moroney, an All-Star, was whom I was marking in that game. I actually think having nerves was the best thing that could have happened to me because I played out of my skin. Moroney was taken off me and someone else was marking me. I got 0-10 or something that day (it was more, he got 1-9!), it probably happened because I was so nervous! They went to so much trouble to collect me off the flight and you might not take any notice nowadays but it was a big thing at the time. It shows how you can be nervous before a game but that goes away once you’re out on the field.”
As modest as ever and not interested in personal glories, Tim attributes the great players he played with on their path to success and remembers the Munster club final of 1968 when they beat Ballygunner of Waterford by 5-8 to 4-3.
“I remember the 1968 Munster club final and the photos are below in Tess Mac’s (now called the Sports Bar) and I suppose it’s the same for people in Sixmilebridge (winning a provincial title).I played with great players such as Brendan Considine, Jimmy Cullinan, Pat Cronin, Liam Danagher and Gus Lohan [father of Brian and Frank] at the time. I have a story about Gus. One time in training I managed to turn him over and not too many can claim to have done that! He’d go in on fellas in a certain way and he would never be knocked over, apart from the time I got him in training! Another fella was John O’Leary from Newmarket. He was one of the best corner-backs around, I hated playing against him in training!”
With all three underage titles of that time being won he also went on to win three U21 titles with his club and remembers playing in the Munster U21 final of 1972 where his participation was ended by broken finger. It would not be the first injury he would sustain in his career.
“We won three Under-21 titles with the club as well. I remember hurling U21 for the county, in 1972 we had a very good team, we lost to Tipperary in Ennis. It was my last year playing Under-21 and in this match I broke my finger before half-time. I think it was a lad named Quinlan from the Silvermines who did it. That was a time when I was as fit as I ever was. I came off at half-time and we lost the match. I regret to this day coming off in that match. Seamus Durack [the Clare senior goalkeeper of that time] was actually playing in the forwards that day.”
The Ryan name is synonymous with sport in Newmarket and continues to this day. All his brothers played at some level with the ‘Blues with five of them winning county titles. The former employee of Molex in Shannon married a West Clare woman, Mary Keane from Cross near Kilkee before settling in his home parish, close to Shannon. They now live on the back road from Newmarket to Shannon and have two sons Timmy Jnr and Aidan, both of who surprisingly only played a small bit of underage hurling with Newmarket.
In his day Ryan played a lot of soccer with Newmarket Celtic at the time winning a few league title and three Haughey Cup titles, he recalls the time of the ban where before one particular final he had to put his head down for the team photograph. He considers the four-in-a-row Newmarket hurling team from 1971-1974 as perhaps the best team he played on with the 1974 team holding special pride for him.
“There were five members of my family in the Newmarket team that won the four in a row. There was Martin [father of current Clare hurler Colin Ryan], Christy, John, Pat and myself. Another of my brothers, Ger also played senior but he wouldn’t have been in that team; it was just before his time while my other two brothers Brendan and Mike played underage. It was easy for lads like me to come in at that time because there was a really good senior team there before us. There was no great senior team before the team that’s there now. I had to finish playing in my early 30s. My knee wouldn’t allow it.”
When I asked Tim when he played his last game of hurling, he was unable to give me an exact year! He reckons one of his last games was in the Munster club campaign of 1981 but the book Clare GAA: The Club Scene 1887-2010 mentions him as hurling for Newmarket in the 1983 championship so it was likely around this period he played his last game. While, he may have retired he still kept an interest in the game and with his wife from West Clare, he used to follow some of the club football of that time with some of his workmates, he tells me, playing for their respective clubs.
“When I stopped hurling I used to go back to West Clare and follow a few football matches. The biggest problem was walking to the games because my knee would come at me and I’d pay for it when I got home. I remember one time in 1980 I was in a hospital in Dublin and who was in the bed across from me but Father Harry Bohan! I was having an operation on my nose. I couldn’t breathe through one side of it.”
The topic of a forward’s best ever-individual performance may yield an astonishing personal scoring return. However, not being one to go on about personal displays he eventually (after persuasion) gives in on his best performance.
“My best performance was probably in the Munster club one year against St. Finbarr’s in Charleville. I wasn’t even meant to be playing that day but I ended up scoring 3-4 and I also had a goal and a point disallowed.”
In fact, one of his last ever games for the ‘Blues was in the 1981 county final where he notched 2-1 from top of the right against Tubber and collected the man of the match gong to go with his other one from the 1978 final.
Ryan has had his fair of injuries over the years both on and off the field. He is happy with his ten medal haul, all of which he remarkably has misplaced, oh how they would kill for those medals in that parish now days! He credits the 70s as a golden era for his club.
“Newmarket won county titles in 1971, 72, 73, 74, 76 and 78 and lost finals in 1975 and 1980. It was in the late 70s that the cartilage in my right knee went and my playing career started going downhill. This was when I was only 27. I didn’t play at all for a year. I remember in 1981 I hadn’t been playing for a while. One of the selectors rang me before the semi-final against Eire Og asking me if I would play in a challenge game against Claughaun. I decided I would. Although I hadn’t been playing I didn’t put on any weight and I wasn’t drinking. After the Claughaun match I was sure that we would win the county title. Tubber actually beat us in the first round but at that time we came back into it via the ‘losers group’. We went on to beat Eire Og in the semi-final and my brother John was captain.”
And what about the highlight of a golden career? Was it his ten county titles? The National League he won with Clare in 1977? Or was it the Munster club winning campaign of 1968?
“If you’re asking me about the highlight of my career, I would say winning the Munster club title with Newmarket. I would rank it ahead of winning the National Hurling League with Clare because I didn’t actually start in that team and if you don’t have the club then you don’t have the county. “
Ryan credits his fellow team mates and mentors of his younger days as the biggest influences on his career and he also cast his mind back to the great Under 21 team of 1972 to give me an idea of the calibre of players he soldiered with.
“I played on a great Clare U21 team in 1972 along with Johnny McMahon, Sean Stack, Sean Hehir, and the late Paddy Hickey. I have a great story about Paddy Hickey. When we got to the Munster Under-21 final that year we were 10 points behind at half-time in the semi-final against Cork. Paddy was playing wing forward and at one stage in the first half he hit the ball into me. I was on the edge of the square and then I finished it to the net. That was the start of the revival; we came back and won the match. When I heard that he died two years ago I was very upset. I met some great lads from my time in hurling. Jimmy “Puddin” Cullinan would have been one of the biggest influences on my career, along with lads like Liam Dannaher and Pat “Fagan” Cronin who all played for Munster. I’d also mention Don O’Neill, Fr. Rodgers and Fr. Tuohy as other influences.”
A keen follower of all sports, particularly golf, he has some interesting theories on the modern game. The all-conquering Kilkenny hurlers, both of recent times and days gone by, are the main source of his assertation.
“I have a theory on why Kilkenny are so successful. They have played the same brand of hurling for as long as I know – they always play on the edge. By that I mean all their tackles are borderline. If you watch them, you will see when the ball comes in that the hand holding the hurley is down over the opponent’s shoulder, so they can’t jump up to catch the ball. The Kilkenny lads are taught that. Unless you were brought up to hurl like that, you can’t suddenly start doing it in a match. Clare would have been more open, certainly in my time. When you see the ball coming, you would play the ball. Kilkenny play the man first and then play the ball. That is why they have been so dominant. They were always so good under a dropping ball because it came in from a vertical rather than a horizontal position. They had time to go in under it and their opponents couldn’t. If you’re only playing the ball you’re wasting your time. Cork showed a bit of it in the win over Tipperary [May 2010] and Galway are showing signs of it as well, but Kilkenny have been playing like that for 40-50 years. Nobody else had really latched onto that style of play. If you’re up against only one opponent, nine times out of ten you’ll put the ball over the bar, but first you have to create the situation.”
It is not uncommon for a former player with good credentials to branch into coaching or management after finishing up on the playing front. However, the 60 year old has never been involved in this capacity.
“You might find it surprising that I’ve never gone into coaching, but I have my reasons why. Coaching is something you shouldn’t get involved in unless you can give it 100% and I was never prepared to do that. I hate when people get involved in things but don’t give it their all. I’d have to be fully committed to something or I wouldn’t do it at all.”
But did it ever cross his mind to get involved with a team of any sorts?
“The thought did cross my mind about joining the Newmarket set-up in recent times but I think you can’t live in the past. The 30-year odd wait for a county title is a burden on the current team and if I was over them I would not bring up the past. Very few players on the current team would have been alive when Newmarket last won the county title.”
He has this to offer on the current ‘Blues senior team and feels that there is a mental burden on them.
“They could easily have won a county final in the last couple of years. They have the talent to do it but I think there’s a mental burden on the team. You can never be too confident heading into a game; you have to be a little nervous. If not, you’re likely to switch off. You have to have some nerves once you’re able to control them. If you don’t control them you could end up doing something stupid. Controlled aggression is ideal. One time we were playing Eire Og in a juvenile game and we were ten points behind when someone hit me on the nose – no helmets in those days! I wouldn’t be a fan of this new rule making helmets compulsory. You still get some good hard challenges but the physical side of the game is definitely being taken out. It’s a contact sport. If you went to a match you’d like to see some small bit of a scrap. If there is no form of aggression nobody would want to watch hurling.”
Speaking of teams, another former one of his, is the county one of which his nephew Colin Ryan is currently a member. Another one of his nephews, the late Pakie (son of Christy), also hurled senior for the 'Blues and wore the Clare jersey at intermediate level. The interview was conducted not long after Wexford beat Clare in the National Hurling League Division 2 final in 2010 and he had this to say about them as he refers to the U21 success of 2009, the infamous U21 final of 2008 and having luck.
“They have a young team. I was thrilled for that group to players to win an Under-21 All-Ireland, even though I wasn’t at the match. I was at the 2008 Munster final in Ennis all right when they played Tipperary. It was the greatest injustice I’ve seen in hurling in my life. Even some Tipp people would say that. It just goes to show that you either have cop on or you haven’t. All he had to do was go to the umpire and ask him what happened. Then he could book the guy and carry on with the match. In fairness though, he didn’t set out to do that deliberately. It’s just the way it panned out and it didn’t go Clare’s way. It’s the same with Thierry Henry. I was at an Under-21 game against Tipperary in Thurles many years back when Michael Kilmartin from Newmarket hit a ball from 21 yards out in the last minute of the game. Clare were a point down and the ball hit the Tipp goalkeeper on the forehead. They got the ball up the field, got a point and the game was over. It’s all luck!”
While hurling is what he is best known for, he was also a useful footballer in his day and also played some handball. He played big ball with Mooghaun and one year they reached a minor A final only to be found of fielding an ineligible player from one of their hurling rivals, Sixmilebridge!
“I played a minor football final one year against Miltown or Kilmurry-Ibrickane and we got a raw deal because we were from a hurling stronghold. The club I played with was a club from our parish that was called Mooghaun. Some of the Newmarket fraternity didn’t seem best pleased with me playing football. Another year we got to the minor football final again and the first game ended in a draw. We had a lad called Pa Joe Keane from Sixmilebridge who was playing illegally. He was about 20 at the time and he had a beard! Pa Joe was and still is a bit of a character! In the end the opposition realised that Pa Joe shouldn’t have been playing and we were disqualified then!” he laughs.
He did eventually get a flavour of success at the big ball on the inter firms front.
“I have an All-Ireland medal for inter-firms football, which I won with Molex. It was in 1979 and we were amalgamated with SPS. We had a few famous players on the team including Con Shanahan who played hurling and football for Limerick, John McGrath from Shannon Gaels who played with Clare, Sean Silke from Galway and Sean Foley who played wing back for Limerick when they won the All-Ireland (hurling) in 1973. My brother Pat played full-back on the team. We drew the first game and won the replay. In the second game Pat kicked a ball out to John McGrath, from Shannon Gales who was as good a footballer that you will see, who passed it on to me. I’d always try punching the ball because I could never catch it. I punched it and it got caught between the goalkeeper’s legs, spun wildly and went into the net. Pat was delighted because he’d just made a mistake which resulted in a goal at the other end!”
It was common practice for county players to go to America to hurl in the 70s and 80s while further back some lads would play for other clubs in neighbouring counties. Ryan tells me he was actually asked to play with a club in Limerick on one occasion and how before his time two Newmarket men actually won junior championship medals in Limerick playing illegally. This is something he says went on in nearly every parish.
“I’ll tell you a story about some of the things that were going on in GAA circles at the time. In 1965 I was playing juvenile hurling and I also used to be a golf caddy in Dromoland when a lad called Tom Harrington who owned a paper shop in Newmarket came up asking for someone to play in a final against a club from Limerick under a different name. I told him I didn’t want to because I didn’t really know what was going on. He came up to me a week before the match and offered me £5 to play. The same thing happened two lads from our parish years before that. They went to play a junior hurling final with a club in Limerick and the year after the actual Limerick junior hurling team came back and asked for the lads! This went on in every parish. Eventually I decided not to play in that game because I would never play illegally. Also, I got an opportunity to go over to the USA in the early 1970s but I wouldn’t take it because I didn’t want to be flying over and back every weekend and suffering from jetlag.“
These days the happy go lucky figure of Ryan can be seen enjoying his retirement on the fairways of Shannon golf course. Although currently playing off 15, which many people agree is “bandit” territory for a man who once played off a handicap of four and who was off single figures not so long ago (before an operation on his hip and knee). For good measure he has got five holes-in-one in his time, one of them on a par four! What’s more, he actually played left handed when he first took up the game before switching to his right!
A remarkable man with plenty a story to tell, this talented all rounder certainly accomplished a lot in his career.