herald

Saturday 3 December 2016

john back on hill 16

Gloves were perfect fit for Dublin's 1995 All-Ireland winning captain and hero

JOHN O'Leary looks out at Croke Park. He's high up in Corporate Box number 687.

Down below, final preparations were being put in place for The Script Concert.

John will have many stories to tell when he conducts his Bord Gáis Energy Legends Tour at the stadium on August 29.

The pitch is hidden by a thick white covering. Workers are using bicycles to get from one point to the other.

The massive stage is being assembled at the Hill 16 End. A place he knows well. A place where he is idolised.

When John did his official biography with Martin Breheny, it was titled 'Back to the Hill'.

John sits down and cradles his cup of coffee. He's unlikely to spill a drop.

GREATEST

He was one of the greatest goalkeepers of his generation . . . and of all-time.

He had the assured hands of a snooker referee, and he could stretch like an elastic band.

Over at Chelsea, they called Peter Bonetti 'The Cat'. But the Blues of Dublin had their own Jaguar.

"When I was growing up, Paddy Cullen and Joe Corrigan were my heroes. I followed Manchester City. I still do," says John.

Big Joe was the tallest goalkeeper in the Football League. They could have written that song about him - six foot six, he stood on the ground.

He was worshipped at Maine Road, just like John was in the capital, and in rural Balbriggan.

John played for O'Dwyer's.

"I found myself playing in goal when I was a young fella, and I was 13 as the Dublin surge came when they won the All-Ireland in 1974."

He still has a clear picture in his mind of Paddy Cullen's penalty save in the final against Galway.

"I got caught up in it all, and I used to think that it would be great to play for Dublin someday.

"But I never had any real sense that I could go on and actually achieve it.

"Then I got called into the minor squad in 1978 and played for the seniors the year after. And it all took off from there."

Croke Park, and indeed the entire Dublin set-up, is a different place these days.

"I remember when I played for Dublin, I'd park the car in Drumcondra and walk down Clonliffe Road with the bag over my back.

"There was banter on the way to the ground. Supporters would be having a pop at you, but in a nice way.

"The present players miss out on all of that.

"They arrive at Croke Park in the coach. It goes in under the stand and pulls up outside the dressing-room door."

The place wasn't packed when John played his only game there with the club.

It was a St Vincent de Paul Cup final. O'Dwyer's beat Scoil Uí Chonaill.

Over the years, O'Dwyer's did well to maintain their Division 1 status. But senior championship success eluded them.

"One year we got to the quarter-final where St Vincent's beat us well.

"I think the likes of Jimmy Keaveney and Tony Hanahoe were on that Vincent's side."

For much of his O'Dwyer's career, John played outfield.

"When I was in the training regime with Dublin, I was starting to get very fit, so back at the club they said off you go out the field," adds John.

"I started to play in the half-backs and at midfield, and I kept that going for most of my club career.

"I think it helped my goalkeeping skills. It certainly didn't do me any harm.

ROUGH

"When you were playing at midfield, you'd be going up with fellas for the ball and all that kind of stuff, so you got used to the rough and tumble.

"Sometimes as a goalkeeper, I'd find myself 20 or 30 yards off my line, but I had that bit more confidence to go and win the ball and take off."

John could never afford to take his eyes off Offaly's Matt Connor, one of the most classical footballers of them all. When Matt put on the boots, they turned to velvet.

He had the elegant style of Mikey Sheehy and Maurice Fitzgerald about him. "I have always said that Matt Connor was the best forward that I have ever faced. He was just top class.

"I would have come up against Meath on a pretty regular basis, and they had brilliant forwards like Colm O'Rourke, Bernard Flynn, etc, but I always felt that Matt Connor was the greatest."

John played with many legendary Dublin footballers, and he continued to play with them for the Dublin Masters for several years.

But now summer means two things . . . going to watch the Dubs, and playing cricket.

"I play Taverner's Cricket with The Gravediggers in Glasnevin. We play up in the Phoenix Park at the Civil Service ground.

"We play about a dozen games a year and I really enjoy it. It's great fun. It's a lovely sport."

On his last visit to the GAA Museum, John took on the hurling challenge, and he was striking the ball as crisply as Paul Ryan.

So a pretty decent batsman, no doubt.

And as for fielding, it's the same as it ever was.

He's got the whole world in his hands.

BORD GáIS ENERGY CROKE PARK LEGENDS TOURS

Saturday, July 4 (11.30am): Tommy Walsh (Kilkenny).

Saturday, July 11 (12.30pm): Paddy Cullen (Dublin) and Sean Boylan (Meath).

Saturday, August 8 (11.am): Eoin Kelly (Tipperary).

Saturday, August 15 (2.pm): John Mullane (Waterford).

Saturday, August 22 (2.pm): Tomas O Se (Kerry).

Saturday, August 29 (2.pm): John O'Leary (Dublin).

For more information check out www.crokepark.ie/gaa-museum. 8192323. gaamuseum@crokepark.ie.

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