He had thought his club and county days were over but Johnny Enright was wrong, writes Dermot Crowe
IN his early days, when the world seemed his to conquer, Johnny Enright drew favourable comparisons to Jimmy Doyle, the Thurles Sarsfields and Tipperary legend of the 1960s. Some dauntlessly ventured that he would be "the next Jimmy Doyle". The merits of those judgements are less relevant than the fact that they were cast in the first place. Doyle is rightly venerated and anyone being compared to him had to be something special.
That's how highly they thought of Johnny Enright. At 16, he won a Munster minor medal with Tipperary in the first of three seasons at the grade. At the same age he made the club's senior team. Small and light, and left-handed like Doyle, he eventually made it on to Fr Tom Fogarty's county senior panel in 1996. Three Fitzgibbon Cup wins with UCC embellished his profile. But various spells with the county team never earned him the recognition his earlier promise appeared to forecast.
Today he will play in his second Munster club final, two years after the first, against the same opponents and in the same venue. When he last faced De La Salle he was at the tail end of a year in which his form had never reached a level he'd have considered acceptable. It ended in a 41st-minute substitution. As he left the field, the TG4 commentator referred to his age, 33, and his extensive service to his club – it sounded valedictory. In his absence, Sarsfields dominated the second half but could not make their possession count and lost by a point.
That day played a great deal more on his mind and mood than any of the missed opportunities from his early flirtations with the Tipperary hurlers. He had made his peace with those. But the club was all he had left and any proud hurler would not be happy signing off their career with a substitution after a poor year. Not if they could do anything about it.
"At the end of it I was wondering had I something to offer, I wondered if it was time to go," he says now. "But then a new management team came in and I sat down with them. I really didn't want to go out like that. I think people felt I was finished at that point."
Enright is, by his own admission, naturally introspective and slightly uptight about his hurling. Or at least he used to be. In recent years he has learned to relax more and enjoy the experience, knowing he is in bonus territory.
"Over-thinking things maybe at times, yeah absolutely. I have gone through all that. That would have been my nature, without question. I was probably hard on myself a lot during my career. I probably now look at it, like, whatever happens, happens. I would have been quite hard on myself after games if things didn't go well. Something my dad always said to me, 'look, just go out and enjoy it'. It's something I probably didn't do enough of over the years."
In 2009, he was captain when Thurles Sarsfields regained the county title they had won in 2005 after a 31-year lapse. Newtownshandrum put them out of the Munster championship, as they had in 2005, but it had been a good season for him and the Sars.
The next year stayed good for Sars, not so good for Johnny. He thinks he simply didn't train hard enough, do the work, and he struggled to have an impact in games. With the usual incoming stream of wristy wannabes queuing up for places, the omens didn't look bright.
He stuck with it, changed his training methods and his form picked up. "Even in early 2011 my form was still a bit patchy. But I was coming with some form, coming in as sub most days, I could feel myself getting back stronger." They went out of the championship in the semi-final to Clonoulty Rossmore. Later in the year he sat down with the selectors again and they assured him he had a role to play.
He has been living in Kildare for a few years so they worked out an arrangement where he would train midweek at UCD with three other Dublin-based players and join the rest of the squad at weekends.
This year his form has picked up a few more notches and he has won a steady place in the side. A move to midfield after a lifetime of forward roles handed him a freedom he's relished. Enright's performances have been one of the delights of Sarsfields' recent victories, with his striking from distance a feature of the win over the Cork champions, Sarsfields, in the semi-finals.
"The thing about Johnny, I would have felt myself, was he probably spent too long in the forwards," says team selector Brendan Carroll. "Everyone's pace goes eventually; he's using his head and his hands more than anything. We lost a lot of county finals and the resolve he took from that is probably the reason he is staying going now. He probably sees the writing on the wall. Midfield has given him a new lease of life."
Enright is relishing his 19th year as a senior club player. "I feel great actually. I don't have the pace I had, I know that. When I was playing in the forward line the last few years, I wasn't getting away from players. Midfield now you are playing more of a percentage game, you don't need that burst of pace. What helped me a lot this year was I played with Kildare and that gave me a great building block. I wasn't travelling down home as much."
Kildare approached him late last year to see if he wanted to try some county hurling.
"Mattie Dowd from Thurles, who is a Kildare selector, came to me out of the blue last December after we lost to Clonoulty. To be honest, I didn't know whether I was going to go back for another year with Sarsfields. I said I'd think about it for a day or two. Am I mad (I thought)? I am at the end of my playing career, my inter-county career is long over but I had a think about it. I said, 'look I'll give it a go, see how I go'. They were starting training pretty soon after that.
"But it's been great. I couldn't have enjoyed it more. The set-up is very professional. We trained hard, three or four times a week like any inter-county team. I came on in the league final and we won that which was a big thing, to win promotion. I played corner-forward early on and when it came to the Christy Ring I ended up midfield."
The Tipperary career that wasn't is a source of regret, no more than that. He played league matches, hurled under Len Gaynor, Nicky English and later Babs Keating but it never got to the point where he felt he was going to win a place in a championship team. Then his younger brother Eddie, less feted, who had never represented Tipp at minor, broke through and won an All-Ireland 11 years ago and his club's first All Star. The joke that went around after that was that whereas once people had introduced Eddie as Johnny's brother, now it was the other way around.
Not that Johnny felt embittered. He was delighted for Eddie and they later had the shared joy of the club's breakthrough county title win in 2005. Johnny's performances that
year earned him a recall to the Tipperary senior panel the following spring when Keating was in charge. He was 28 and had virtually given up on that ambition.
In a league match in February against Limerick, he came on in injury time. Later that month, he started against Kilkenny in Thurles but the team was well beaten and he was one of three players replaced at half-time. That finally ended his county prospects until the surprise return in Kildare's colours this year.
"I suppose," says Brendan Carroll, "a lot of managers didn't like his style. Tipp, maybe to their detriment, looked for the more robust player. Put it this way, he would have walked onto the Cork team, he was not a million miles from a player like Seánie McGrath. I don't think anyone put their arm over his shoulder and talked to him, he definitely had that in UCC. Tipp were a team in a hurry."
But that is past and this is present. He plays against De La Salle today on a good run of form, two years on from the last final when he reckoned his career might have fizzled out. Given all that early-career promise, it would have been a sorry way to go. "I suppose I thought I'd never get another chance. I remember talking to (selector) Tom Barry coming out of the ground saying I am going to regret this for a long time. Thank God now we have another chance to put that right."