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Tribute to Pat Cleary

Ballyanne clubman giant of the game

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The late Pat Cleary (left) with his doubles partner, John Fleming.

The late Pat Cleary (left) with his doubles partner, John Fleming.

The late Pat Cleary (left) with his doubles partner, John Fleming.

Wexford sadly lost one of the county's finest-ever handballers on Friday, when Pat Cleary from Southknock in New Ross died after a brave battle with cancer.

An extremely talented all-rounder, he also excelled on the hurling and football fields with the Rathgarogue-Cushinstown club.

Tony Breen, the Development Officer of Wexford handball, penned the following tribute to his good friend:

'In a long and brilliant career, Pat Cleary tasted success at just about every level of the sport. A man driven by ambition and by a burning desire to be the very best he could be.

'Like everyone else, Pat Cleary was not born a champion, but when he took up the game he was determined to become one. How well he succeeded is evident from what you are about to read.

'Born into a famous handball house at Ballyanne and only a few good underhand strokes from the local court, Pat Cleary began his career, like everybody else playing in Ballyanne at that time, very much in the shadow of the great Dick Lyng.

'It did not take long for Cleary to create his own profile however, as he quickly forged a winning partnership with clubmate John Fleming, and the pairing were soon on the way to earning a name for themselves.

'In those early days it was pretty much all softball, and the Willwood Tailteann (All-Ireland) Under-16 doubles title came their way in 1975, followed by Under-21 doubles in both 1978 and 1980.

'Their rise to Senior status in that particular code was confirmed when they won the Junior doubles in 1984.

'In the late '70s Cleary and Fleming had also begun to turn their attention to the four-wall (40 x 20) court and, attracted by the international aspect of this game, they quickly established a fearsome reputation for themselves.

'They began by winning the Under-21 doubles in 1980 and followed up with victory in the Junior doubles in 1981. They made history the following year, 1982, when they captured the first of three Senior doubles titles in succession, thus becoming the only pairing in the history of the game to win Under-21, Junior and Senior in consecutive years.

'Those three Senior doubles titles in '82, '83 and '84 established them as one of the all-time great four-wall partnerships, and it speaks volumes that only two other pairings - Paul Brady/Michael Finnegan (Cavan) and Pat Kirby/Michael Hogan (Clare) - have managed to better their achievement in 45 years.

'The pairing also won the special competition run to commemorate the centenary of the G.A.A. in 1984.

'During those five unbeaten years, Pat Cleary commanded the right-hand side of the court with absolute authority, mixing power and craft with a great ability to play the right shot at the right time.

'His overall reading of the game earned him the reputation of being one of the best right-sided players to have played in this, or any other, era and forever secured his legacy in this ultra-competitive sport.

'Pat said the toughest match he ever played in took place in 1988, when he partnered Fleming to victory against Tom Sheridan and James McGovern from Meath in the final trial played to select the Irish representatives for the world championships in Melbourne later that year.

'The Royals had won the All-Ireland Senior doubles in both '87 and '88 and were hot favourites to win this coveted trip of a lifetime, but, just as they had done throughout their career, the Wexford boys rose to the challenge to pull off the type of victory that went down in the annals of handball history.

'Not surprisingly, Pat also described this as the most enjoyable win of his career. In Australia later in the year, the Ballyanne players went all the way to the final where they eventually gave best to reigning champions Poncho Monreal and Jon Kendler from the U.S.A

'Apart from his earlier wins with regular partner John Fleming, another statistic that set Pat Cleary apart from his peers was that, later in his career, he went on to win several doubles titles with different partners, including Benny Doyle, Johnny Goggins, Seamus McLoughlin and Seamus O'Connor.

'He also played on a number of successful Wexford teams throughout his career and finished his playing days with between 25 and 30 national titles to his credit. These included softball, four-wall and hardball, and bore testament to his versatility across the codes.

'While Pat Cleary was acknowledged by all as a brilliant doubles player, it would be a mistake to think he was not a formidable singles player too.

'Although he tended to be more at home in doubles, he did win All-Ireland singles titles at Over-40 and Over-45. His greatest years in over-age occurred in 2000 and 2001, when he proved well-nigh unbeatable in both singles and doubles competitions.

'Arguably, his finest performance during that period came at Dublin City University in April, 2000, when he defeated the almost invincible Mickey Walsh of Roscommon in the Irish Nationals Masters singles final. Walsh had won seven of the previous eight All-Ireland championships and was justifiably considered the best Over-40 player the sport had ever seen.

'Cleary broke him down bit by bit, before eventually rolling over him like a train! It was an awesome performance and, when put alongside another three titles that year, it rightly earned him the coveted GAA Handball player of the year award.

'Pat Cleary left nothing to chance when it came to handball, and his words of advice to young players - 'repetition, repetition, repetition' - sums him up perfectly. Weaknesses were identified early and rectified quickly, and mistakes thereafter were simply not tolerated.

'This constant demand for perfection drove him onwards and upwards and led to him being regarded as one of the toughest opponents to play the game.

'In a county notable for producing top players, he has to be ranked as one of the very best to have donned the Wexford jersey.

'At county level, Pat Cleary amassed an array of championships and medals, and at one stage the powers that be decided that both he and John Fleming were too good to be allowed take part in the county championship. That happened after they had dominated for several years, but when they returned after this sabbatical they simply took up where they had left off!

'Truly a giant of the game.'

Wexford People