Paul Kimmage - Success and acceptance at the centre of Jason Sherlock story
Having won the All-Ireland at 19, adult life had a lot to live up to
Five years ago. I'm sitting at a table with Jason Sherlock at the Louis Fitzgerald Hotel. The talk is Dublin and Donegal and Lance Armstrong and Katie Taylor. It's an awards dinner. The usual fare:
"Soup or salad?"
"Beef or salmon?"
"Tea or coffee?"
And then, something I wasn't expecting.
"You interviewed me before," he says.
"Yeah, in '95," I reply.
"Just before the All-Ireland."
"We met at that hotel on Eden Quay . . . Is it the Clifton Court?"
"Yeah, that makes sense."
"They were basketball people."
"No, why did you bring up the interview?"
"Oh, you asked me something I hadn't been asked before."
"Something that always stuck in my mind."
He didn't say what it was.
One day, as I headed out to join the kids from Carrigallen Park for yet another soccer marathon in the estate, a pal started off on me, singing a song called 'Japanese Boy' at the top of his voice. When I cast my mind back that tune still grates.
The rest of the lads found it hilarious and started doing this geisha-girl dance. But I was humiliated. Devastated. I picked up a rock, flung it at the window of my pal's house and waited for the sound of the smashing glass. To my disgust I only cracked the pane.
I ran into my house and sat waiting in the sitting room for the investigative process to get under way. My uncle Brian was alerted to what happened, he arrived on the scene and went to inspect the broken window. When he came back there were no questions but I knew what was coming. Brian let me have it. There I was, in my own mind the injured party, punished and embarrassed, and because I made no effort to explain why I had thrown the rock, why I had reacted like I did, I compounded my own misery.
I was slagged off for how I looked but I wrapped it up inside. Looking back, Brian probably defended me in public before chastising me in private, but I should have spoken up and told him the full story. Trouble was, I never told any of the family about stuff like that.
Jayo, My Autobiography
Twelve days ago. We are sitting in a room of the Castleknock Hotel talking about his soon-to-be-published autobiography. "Do you remember this?" I say, handing him a copy of our interview from '95. "You mentioned it the last time we met."
"Yeah, that's the piece," he says.
"I went through it line-by-line trying to find the question, the one you remembered, but it only made sense when I read your book - it was a reference to your father: He doesn't have a dad. Not one that he remembers anyway.
"Yeah. I was intrigued you put that in. It wasn't something journalists brought up. I don't know whether that was because they didn't want to broach it, or because I didn't want to deal with it."
"Humour me for a moment while I fill in the gaps: your father was Denis Leung?"
"His family owned a restaurant in Dublin and had moved to Ireland from Hong Kong in the 1970s?"
"He is not in a relationship with your mother when you're born but you see him from time to time?"
"You didn't tell me any of this in '95?"
"No, I didn't have enough . . . I don't know if it's emotional intelligence or perspective. I just denied that side of the family."
"You're born in Dublin, and raised in a three-bedroom semi in Finglas?"
"It's the home of your grandmother, Kathleen Sherlock?
"Kathleen and your mother, Alice, share a double bed. Your uncle Eddie has the second bedroom, and you share the other one with your uncle Brian?"
"So as a family unit, you're different to your neighbours?"
"Are you aware of being different?"
"Yeah, our next-door neighbours were the Cahills and the Geraghtys - a typical country family with a dad and a mum and brothers and sisters. So I knew it was different."
"And you look different?"
"Yeah, but I felt like a Dub. I felt like everyone else."
"What's your first memory of being different?"
"Well, you go back and there was that (old nursery) rhyme: 'Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these' and I used to hate it because I felt they were slagging me. Any word that was associated with Asia or Asian had negative connotations for me. I hated Bruce Lee because he was highlighting how I looked. Anything like that I really struggled with."
"What's your first conscious memory of your father?"
"That's a good question. I probably knew his family first. I think he moved out of Ireland when I was born but . . . I don't know. I didn't want to find out. I resented that part of my life."
"So your first memory is of his family rather than him?"
"Yeah, they lived above the restaurant on South Anne Street, beside the Church of Ireland church. I remember being there, very young."
"It's obvious from the book that they treated you well?"
"Absolutely. They used to spoil me. There's a Chinese tradition for luck and they would put money in these red envelopes and pass them around for me. And they would give us all sorts of food when we were leaving."
"And your mother embraced that? She didn't resent them?"
"No, my mother has a heart of gold. She wanted to keep the contact but it was something I had great difficulty with. My perception of my father and his family was a negative thing for me."
"Because of the abuse I got for it."
"For the way you looked?"
"Here's a quote from the book: 'Looking back now, maybe if someone has just sat me down and said, "Jason, you're a little different because of where your father came from, but sure we're all different in our own way" - it might have saved me so much grief and turmoil. Had it been explained to me why I was slightly different from others, and why some people might remark on that or even show hostility or prejudice, I might have understood and learned earlier how to deal with it. But that is all reflective'."
"So what was explained to you?"
"What do you mean?"
"Did your mother never sit you down and say: 'This is your father, Jason. This is how we met'."
"It was never something we went into any detail over."
"When are your memories of him?"
"He brought me to a fair once, a carnival in Dunsink. I remember going on all of the rides."
"How did that work? Did he just turn up on the door?"
"No, I was brought to the end of the road to meet him."
"By your mother? Or your uncle?"
"Yeah. And was dropped off there as well. Again, I wouldn't say I gave him much of a welcome because of the negative connotations for me. I didn't have the intelligence to understand: 'Look, there is nothing wrong here'."
"What about your friends?"
"Yeah, my friends would have known."
"Would they ask you about him?"
"No. If I was with teams and played well, that was as much as they needed to know. And maybe I kept a distance. I wouldn't say I have a huge amount of friends; there is that part of me that is guarded."
"Yeah, not consciously, but subconsciously maybe. It's a paranoia I have when I deal with people: 'Are they looking at me as a footballer? Or because I look half Chinese?' There's a part of me that second-guesses people all the time."
"That was my childhood. And that rawness or anger or whatever it was, was the reason I went on to play for Dublin, and to represent Ireland. That was the motivation. That was the drive. I played to win. I played to be accepted."
"Because winning meant being accepted?"
"Yeah, in my head."
Twenty-three years ago.
The Irish Times carries a photograph of the 19 students - mostly first year - to receive sports scholarships at UCD on October 25, 1994. Among the recipients is a gifted rugby player, Dennis Hickie, and a boyish-looking soccer talent called Jason Sherlock.
Six days after that.
The paper carries a report of Sherlock's debut for Dublin, a National League game against Kerry in Killarney: "In the other corner young Jason Sherlock became the umpteenth player to audition for possession of the number 15 shirt. He did as well as any of his predecessors, getting away from the sticky marking of Mike Hassett on several occasions.
"What impressed most, though, was Sherlock's goal late in the game. Having continually taken up good intelligent positions across the full-forward line a good pass finally came his way. Sherlock drove the ball home through the narrowest of gaps with the confidence of a veteran poacher."
Two weeks later.
A Saturday night in Ballybofey. Sherlock lines out for UCD in their 2-1 defeat of Finn Harps and then takes a taxi to Dublin - stopping in Sligo for a bag of chips - for the National League game against Donegal in Croke Park the next day. He scores a goal and a point, impressing the Dublin faithful and the manager, Pat O'Neill. "Jason Sherlock has done very well so far in conditions not ideal for him - or his size or pace. But he will do much better when the ground gets harder."
Four months after that.
Sherlock is named in the Republic of Ireland squad for the under 21 European Championship qualifying game against England at Dalymount Park. Among his team-mates are Shay Given, Gary Breen, Stephen Carr and Mark Kennedy. After the game (a 2-0 defeat) he is invited to join the senior squad for the qualifier against Northern Ireland at Lansdowne Road.
"One night we all went to the cinema in Santry," he says, "and as soon as the squad walked in it was carte blanche, we could have whatever we wanted. I ended up sitting beside Tony Cascarino watching Dumb and Dumber. Tony was cracking up all the way through and again it was unreal to be there beside him."
A month later.
UCD clinch the First Division Championship and Sherlock is the PFAI Player of the Year. Their last game of the season is a friendly against Liverpool at Lansdowne Road. The Liverpool team includes Steve McManaman, David James, Robbie Fowler, Jamie Redknapp and Michael Thomas. But Sherlock, as Noel Dunne reports in the Irish Independent, is not overawed.
"Jason Sherlock, who is the focus of so much attention from across the water, did not disappoint his observers. Particularly in the first half when he gave Michael Thomas quite a torrid time of it and even 'sold' Phil Babb outrageously on one occasion."
Two days after that.
Gerry Thornley in The Irish Times reports of interest from Liverpool: "Tuesday night was a chance for UCD's finest to parade their abilities in the proverbial shop window and nobody grasped the opportunity more eagerly than gifted Jason Sherlock. Scouts aplenty must have been impressed, and none more so than Roy Evans. The Liverpool manager singled out Sherlock in his after-match comments and later intimated strongly to Sherlock that he will be invited over to Anfield for pre-season training."
Three weeks later.
Sherlock is selected for the Ireland under 21s in a 3-0 defeat of Austria at Richmond Park. He takes a flight to Portugal for a short break, and then lines out for Dublin against Louth in the quarter-final of the Leinster Championship.
A month after that.
He scores a goal in the semi-final against Laois and prepares to face Meath in the Leinster Championship final. What they said before the game (David Walsh in the Sunday Independent): "A friend who used to play in old Dublin/Meath matches holds out little hope for Sherlock. 'He is entering into something that he never knew existed. This is one match you have to experience before you know what it is like.' Yet who is to say that we are not talking about an exceptional young talent, one who can come into his first Leinster final and leave his mark?"
Three weeks later.
He delivers a brilliant performance against Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final. What they said after the game (Miriam Lord on page 1 of the Irish Independent): "BOOM, boom, boom . . . Let me hear you say Jayo, Jayo! How long does it take to canonise a young fella? About 23 minutes. That's how long it took before Dublin wonderkid Jason Sherlock blasted home the goal that sealed his status as the Dubs' new heaven-sent hero.
"It was VJ Day in Croke Park yesterday. There may be 15 players on a team, but as far as the Dubs were concerned, there was only one player on the field . . . young Mister Sherlock. He needed a good game, and delivered. It was Victory for Jason. The fans celebrated."
A month after that.
Dublin have defeated Tyrone to win their first All-Ireland since 1983. Jason Sherlock is sitting in the dressing room with tears streaming down his face. Eleven months have passed since he got the scholarship at UCD. He is 19 years old.
"Against adversity Sherlock now stands on the threshold of greatness," Seán Potts writes in the Irish Independent. "We pray that some unlikely flaw will hinder his professional soccer career and that he will mature as a Gaelic footballer with Dublin. What an awesome prospect that would be. But we know already he will succeed, his genius will not be denied."
In 2011, with the gaping, gradual realisation that my days were numbered, I relented and started doing some media stuff. I loved the GAA, loved sport and wanted to share my thoughts from a player's perspective so I took on a newspaper column and did some pieces with RTé. But my emotions remained raw. Still, it was important to me never to say a bad word about Pat (Gilroy) or any of the lads involved.
I bottled a lot of things up, still feeling I had let people down. Part of the reason I wanted to continue and win with Dublin was to thank the people who had invested so much in me. But there I was, 16 years on from 1995 and still looking for that second fucking medal. A career of failure. I felt I'd let down Brian, the family, Joey and my other friends. I was embarrassed at how I had finished up.
Jayo, My Autobiography
"There's a story you tell in the book about the All-Ireland final in 2011. You're sitting in the stands, watching the Dublin players celebrate and you spot an old team-mate, Senan Connell, doing some media work down on the pitch.
"You call his mobile and wave to him from the stand. He's standing close to Bernard Brogan and Paul Flynn and you want them to give you a wave. He goes to them and points to you, 'Lads, Jay is up there.' They look up and you thump your heart."
"I thought that was really interesting."
"In what way?"
"Why would you do that?"
"Well, it was the connection I would have felt with them, regardless of whether I was involved with the team at the time. I had goosebumps when I saw them looking up and pointing to their heart. It was special to me."
"I got a sense, reading the passage, that there was more to it than that - a sense of disappointment that, having played with them a year before, you had just missed out."
"That was the other side of the coin, the personal side. But the overwhelming feeling was being happy for them."
"Okay, keep going. You go to the team hotel that night and end up in Coppers?"
"And then it's on to an early house?"
"And then you end up somewhere else. So it's the Full Monty?"
"Yeah," he laughs. "A good aul' day."
"Which is kind of odd behaviour for a 35-year-old?"
"Yeah, well, I don't know. It seemed the thing to do at the time. But maybe, deep down, it was a way of avoiding what the reality was."
"Yeah, that's the interesting bit. You get home on Monday evening and suddenly you're in this 'dark place'. That's the bit that intrigues me."
"In what way?"
"Dark implies depression, or a deep sense of unhappiness."
"Yeah, well, that's how it felt. There were dark times from 2009 up to 2011 and probably for a couple of years later as well - not only from what was happening in football but (generally): 'Where are you? What have you done with the last 14 years?"
"So your whole identity, even at 35, was still wrapped up in your ability as an athlete? You were still 'Jayo the football player'?"
"I haven't and didn't know anything other than being associated with Dublin all through my adult life. It was one year of happiness, and 14 years of general failure. I had never given up on Dublin and there was still a part of me (in 2011) that felt I could have contributed in some way, so not being part of it was tough. It wasn't something I displayed straight after the game, or in front of the players, but when I got home . . ."
"How does she deal with that?"
"By supporting me. You asked about people who know me - Louise knows me best. She's had to deal with the highs, and mainly the lows, of my playing career so she knew how much it meant to me. And how much it impacted on me. There are a lot of people that associate me with '95 and I would never say, 'Go away, I'm not talking about that.' But when I was on my own it was a burden to me. That was the anchor. Rightly or wrongly, I was still judging myself on what happened in '95."
"Okay, let's go back there. You meet Kevin Moran, who has been acting as your agent, a couple of hours after winning the All-Ireland. "What do you want to do?" he asks.
"Yeah, my 'Sliding Doors' moment. There was a lot of talk about me going to England and if he had said, 'Roy Evans wants you over. You need to get on a plane tomorrow morning,' maybe things would have been different. Because that was the moment to go. But we were celebrating and I wanted to join in, and I lost focus for a while."
"Did the fame affect you?"
"No, losing affected me. Feeling a failure affected me."
"The celebrity didn't affect you? You tell a story in the book about the opening of 'Planet Hollywood' and rubbing shoulders with Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes?"
"Yeah, but that was the acceptance I craved. I had escaped being different; I was no longer 'the Chinese-looking fellah'; I was 'Jason Sherlock, the Dublin footballer'. And that was all I wanted. I had no motivation to win 10 All-Irelands or to go and play in the NBA. I was happy."
"When did that change?"
"Unfortunately, it only lasted for a short window because as soon as the results went the wrong way, the negativity crept in and it put me in a totally different place."
"In your own mind?"
"Not really. I had underachieved, and I had to dwell on it. How had I got here? Was it because I looked different? Could I really play or was I just a novelty act? And that's when the obsession with winning kicked in. I don't like saying, 'I wanted to prove something to people', but I suppose all of my life I've been trying to prove something to people, and that definitely kicked in from the end of the '90s until I finished up."
"To prove you could do it again?"
"Yeah, winning again would have proved I wasn't a novelty act, or a fluke. I didn't want to be known as a failure, or a loser."
"But you weren't a failure. You had won an All-Ireland?"
"They would rip your arm off in Mayo for one?"
"Yeah, I am lucky and privileged, I know that. But we got so much criticism as a team about what we were, and what we stood for, and we wanted to prove we were better than that. And I look back now and it's disappointing that we never succeeded. But I never gave up."
"What if someone had told you in '95 that it was the last All-Ireland you would win?"
"That might have been the best thing. The rules of engagement had changed for me. My focus was clouded. I wasn't the same player for a couple of years."
"What if they had told you that Dublin wouldn't reach another final for 16 years?"
"It's funny, I had my picture taken with John O'Leary after they won in '83. I'm seven years old and wearing my communion suit and the next time he wins an All-Ireland I'm playing beside him! We used to slag him about it for years: 'What kind of a gobshite are you still trying to win an All Ireland?'"
"And then you became that gobshite?"
"I became an even worse gobshite," he laughs. "At least he got a second one."
The MBA contained a significant workload but, while it was daunting, I really got into it, principally because one of the first modules we took was Organisational Behaviour, which centred on teamwork, group leadership and individual leadership. Right from the start this module stood out for me. Like, how often do any of us take time out of our daily routine to reflect on how we got here and where we are going? It's very rare that happens. We don't get time, life gets in the way. This module allowed me to reflect on my personality and to examine my obsession with success from a healthy distance. It was like studying and actually figuring myself out at the same time.
Jayo, My Autobiography
"Tell me about Louise?"
"What would you like to know?"
"Does she have a surname?"
"McGreal, a good Mayo name. She has relations in Westport."
"How did you meet?"
"I met her through basketball. We were St Vincent's, an all-boys team, and our rivals were Coláiste éanna, where the game was played by both male and female players. They used to have a few fans at their games and that's how we met . . . around 1993."
"So you were young?"
"Yeah, very young."
"And you've two kids?"
"Yeah, Caoimhe is 19 and Joshua is 13."
"How are they doing?"
"Great. It's lovely to see them growing up with their own minds, and their own hopes and dreams."
"Do they play sport?"
"A bit. Caoimhe plays a bit of hockey; Josh plays a bit of basketball. It was never something I would have forced, obviously, having gone through what I went through but Josh is quite like-minded. He has a strong personality but he plays with a smile on his face and he's a great team-mate. When he's playing he's laughing, and his team-mates around him are laughing, and ultimately that's what sport is all about - particularly at that age."
"That's not how you played?"
"No. I was consumed by it for the wrong reasons - it became my identity. It's great to be the best you can be on the pitch, but there is a life outside football as well. And that's important to pursue. I never really had that when I was growing up."
"What about a career? Had you any ambitions or ideas about what you wanted to be?"
"Not really. I went to UCD and got a Diploma in Health and Safety but there was no long-term plan. It was just 'go with it and it will be grand'. And then '95 would have clouded things because there were so many opportunities doing this and that . . . commercial stuff . . . the TV programme (Rapid) and it wasn't until Tommy Lyons (got the Dublin job) in 2002 that I really started thinking about it. He said: 'What are you going to do in terms of a career?' And like a lot of GAA players I found a role in sales."
"You were working for Louis Fitzgerald when we met in 2012?"
"The hotel business didn't appeal to you?"
"There was a lot I liked about it, but I think we all want to wake up and do something we're really passionate about. When I finished playing, the GPA were in touch and Dessie Farrell said: 'Have you considered going back to college?' And the MBA (Master's in Business Administration) gave me the confidence to apply the traits I had acquired playing sport - team work, motivation, communication - to a different sphere like business."
"Dessie was the last Dublin player to write a book."
"No, Philly McMahon," he laughs.
"That's not out yet."
"It's out this week."
"But it's not something Dublin players have done. I've lost count of all the Kerry books - ó Sé, Galvin, Donaghy, Cooper."
"Well, the most basic answer I suppose is that they have the medals. And winners write the history."
"I often think losers make better stories."
"Well, there's plenty of losing in my book."
"What made you want to do it?"
"One of the assignments we had for the MBA was to write your life story in 3,000 words, and that was interesting because it forced me to go back and reflect on my life and I felt, after writing it, that I understood myself a bit more."
"So the trigger was the assignment?"
"Yeah, and in fairness to the lecturer he thought it was well-written and was something that could be published."
"Jim Gavin has written the foreword?"
"Yeah. How is it?"
"Well, I've never seen the point of forewords but as they go it's fine. Has he seen it?"
"Well, it's not that I didn't let him but . . ."
"He didn't ask?"
"You were team-mates in '95; there's that iconic photo of him with his arms raised at the final whistle. Who was he and who is he? Is it the same person?"
"Absolutely. Dublin is very close to his heart. He did the best he could do as a player, and he's doing the best he can as a manager."
"How many have you won now as part of his team?"
"How do they compare?"
"I don't know if I'd compare them . . . sorry, no. The first one in 2015 was a massive release personally - just to be able to be a part of a winning Dublin team again. And I was very focused when I met Jim that it had to be back-to-back, but somewhere between year one and year two it became less and less about the outcome for me. It was more: 'How can I help? How can I assist them? How can I be the best that I can be to make them the best that they can be?' That's been my motivation for the last three years and we've been lucky enough that the performances have been enough to get the wins."
"You mention your father in the acknowledgements?"
"He died in '95, just after you won the All-Ireland."
"Yeah. He had moved abroad and was living in Johannesburg and had a wife and a couple of kids, and I got a call from his brother, my uncle, to say that he had been murdered in a burglary. It was weird. I put down the phone and thought: 'Should I feel upset now?' Because in my head this person had no impact on my life."
"When is the last time you saw him?"
"It was probably that time in Dunsink . . . I was in Johannesburg (filming) with Rapid about four or five years after he died and I had a few hours to kill. I called my mam, and Louise, about going to meet his family - because I believe I have a half-brother and potentially a half-sister - but I decided not to."
"What stopped you?"
(Sighs) "I just didn't feel the connection. I didn't feel it was important to me. What was I? 23? 24? I hadn't seen this person in my life at all and yet . . . I thought about it. I contemplated it."
"You're 41 now?"
"How does it feel to be Jason Sherlock at 41?"
(Smiles) "I'm older but probably not much wiser. I've just done this autobiography and you look back and, yeah, it's been strange trying to make sense of where I am and how I got here. And it feels weird to be excited about the future, because if you had asked me a couple of years ago, I might not have felt like that."
Sunday Indo Sport