Friday 15 December 2017

'Pillar gave a rousing speech and called each one of us by name to receive the Blue Book'

In an exclusive extract from his new book, Dublin goalkeeper John Leonard opens up on life behind the scenes as a player - the banter, the belief and the bonding ritual that came from the 'Blue Book'

Dublin sub goalkeeper John Leonard
Dublin sub goalkeeper John Leonard
Former Dublin goalkeeper John Leonard
Dublin substitute goalkeeper John Leonard takes a practice kick-out as both teams attempted to warm up on the same half of the pitch. Bank of Ireland All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Semi-Final, Dublin v Mayo, Croke Park, Dublin

On the Tuesday before our next match in the [2006] Leinster Championship, I drove to St David's, parked the car, hopped out and breathed in the sweet, summer air. The sun was still high in the blue sky. A lonely cloud hung down to the west.

The distant low sound of laughter rippled from the dressing rooms to my right. A lawnmower rumbled away in some distant garden. I looked out at the pitch and saw that familiar sight of Clarkey and Ski setting up the cones for tonight's session.

I walked into the dressing room and sat down in my usual spot, between Vaughny and Keaney. Vaughny, to my right, was a conveyor belt of words. He talked incessantly. Keaney and Dec O'Mahoney, to my left, were a little more reserved. I put my bag down and began unpacking.


My gear bag was jammed full: two pairs of boots, two pairs of socks, sport-type underpants, jockstrap, box to protect the family jewels, UnderArmour leggings, shorts and compression tops to help keep the muscles warm, two pairs of heavily padded goalkeeper shorts to cushion the hips when you land on the ground, three-quarter-length tracksuit bottoms, two training tops, a T-shirt, a rain jacket, a beanie, a towel and shower gel.

My gear was always clean and my boots polished. Earlier in the year I turned up for a challenge game against Monaghan with some muck on my boots from a game I had played for the club the day before. When Jayo saw the dirt on them he wasn't long giving me an earful.

"What the f*** is that, Lenny? That's some way to prepare for a match for your county."

He was genuinely disgusted. He shook his head and walked away.

It never happened again.

Former Dublin goalkeeper John Leonard

Warming up before the infamous 'Mill at the Hill' 2006 semi-final with Mayo

Unpacking the bag and getting the gear on could take 10 or 15 minutes. It was a nice slow ritual. Mossy and Geezer sat across from me and were always good for some banter.

Vaughny was waffling on about some shenanigans he and some friends had been up to. Pillar poked his head through the plastic strips that acted as a door and looked at us with a quizzical, amused expression.

"What's that, Mark?" he asked Vaughny.

"Oh, nothing, Pillar," answered Vaughny, grinning maniacally like a naughty little schoolboy.

I shook my head and laughed and took my Blue Book from the side pocket of my bag. The Blue Book was a diary customised for the Dublin senior inter-county football team. It contained quotes, timetables, ideas and plans. You brought it to every training session in the side pocket of your gear bag.

Inside the front cover was a quote from George Patton, a five-star US general during the Second World War. I flicked open the front cover and stared long and hard at the quotation on the inside.

It was part of our pre-training ritual to recite this quote in pairs. It was left up to the players to take responsibility to find a teammate with whom to recite Patton's words.

I looked around for someone who was almost changed and ready to recite... Dec O'Mahoney. Dec was a man's man, a quiet man; the kind you wanted standing behind you in the heat of battle.

I gave him the eye and we nudged closer to each other. We began to mumble the quote.

"Today you must do more than is required of you. Never think that you have done enough or that your job is finished. There's always something that can be done - something that can ensure victory. You can't let others be responsible for getting you started. You must be a self-starter.

"You must possess that spark of individual initiative that sets the leader apart from the rest. Self-motivation is the key to being one step ahead of everyone else and standing head and shoulders above the crowd.

"Once you get going, don't stop. Always be on the lookout for the chance to do something better. Never stop trying. Fill yourself with the warrior spirit - and send that warrior into action."

Our voices droned together as we speed-read in the lowest tone possible. When I first heard of this ritual I had a little chuckle to myself. I thought it was a joke.

Were we really meant to read a quotation to each other before every training session?


The Blue Book for this season had been presented at a ceremony after our Saturday morning training session. This happened the week after the squad had been cut to thirty, just before the Championship kicked off.

In the gym, beneath the basketball hoops and with the morning sun streaming in through the triple-glazed Perspex windows, Pillar gave a rousing speech. He spoke of special places, special people and the desire to be a success. He spoke of the transient nature of the game, of sacrifice and of commitment. He called each one of us by name and hand delivered the sacred tome to us.

He then pulled out his copy of the Blue Book and held it aloft. In here, he told us, was the simple code for us to follow.

In here were the words written by players gathered in the room. These words dictated how we should behave to be the standard-bearers for Dublin GAA.

Reading the Patton quotation before every training session was cheesy, but we did it. We did it because we were soldiers and we wanted to win. We did it because we wanted to please the manage- ment. We did it to be part of the collective.

Pillar's opening gambit at some team meetings might be: "How many of you read the quotation before you went training today?"

A few hands would go up - sometimes less than half the room. "This is what I'm talking about, lads. This is not f***ing good enough. It is the inches that will win this for us . . . the f***ing inches!"

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