Tuesday 24 April 2018

Former Dublin star's sobering tale of sex, drugs and alcohol

Michael Verney

If someone told you his story you probably wouldn't believe it. A tale of drugs, sex, alcohol - indulgences which rarely go hand-in-hand with the life of a Dublin footballer.

But John Leonard's brutally honest account of a road less travelled and his time as understudy to iconic Dubs goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton transcends sport. Just two years before he was on the panel, he was smoking opium in India and losing his marbles doing ketamine every day.

The idea of returning home to the capital and winning an All-Ireland was the genesis of his autobiography, Dub Sub Confidential, which fended off stiff competition to scoop the inaugural Setanta Sports Book of the Year award yesterday.

Leonard's incredible journey from the Himalayas to Croke Park didn't end by lifting Sam Maguire, and when Pat Gilroy replaced Paul 'Pillar' Caffrey as boss in 2009, his inter-county career ended with a short, polite phone call.

Former Dublin goalkeeper John Leonard, winner of the inaugural Setanta Sports Book of the Year Award in Dublin yesterday, with his wife Serena
Former Dublin goalkeeper John Leonard, winner of the inaugural Setanta Sports Book of the Year Award in Dublin yesterday, with his wife Serena

Nothing would hold him back from the life of excess now and therein lies the beauty of his book, which is eloquently captured in its subheading, 'A Goalkeeper's Life with - and without - the Dubs'.

Bored by too many half-hearted sporting memoirs, Leonard (39) vowed that this would be "no sham of a story" and influenced by "incredible writers" like William Burroughs and Hunter S Thompson, he removed the "fear of what other people would think".

"I've always been up-front and I've always been outspoken, but as regards being really open about being abused as a kid or being aware that I was an alcoholic or on drugs, I only really learned to open up when I started to get sober six years ago," he admits.

"You become honest. Otherwise you are going to fall back into your old habits and that's not something I want to do again. It did come only when I started getting sober, that's honesty."

In a world of sanitised sporting media where many sports stars are reluctant to talk openly in public for fear of demonstrating personal weakness or upsetting the applecart, Leonard's openness is refreshing.

"Players have to be open and talk about these things. Certain players would have to step away from the game and then be willing to put their balls on the line, or their reputation as GAA men," he says.

"It's that closed circle to a degree. You don't move beyond the ranks, you don't talk about what's going on because you don't want to be that person to be standing up. Instead, everybody just regurgitates the same crap.

"More GAA players need to go and do Arts degrees and not accounting or whatever it is. Because if you get that potential to have a spliff here or there, we might have people who are more open-minded at the end of it."

He has lived life to excess, went to places people could only dream of, done things people would not dream of but yet there are regrets. His unbreakable belief in his ability to make it as a goalkeeper has never wavered.

Six years separate him and Cluxton, and he feels he could have been the one to help rewrite Dublin history.

"There were times in the past when I wondered what could have been if I hadn't gone off the rails," he says.

"If I had kept my sh*t together back then when I was 17, 18 instead of getting into the drug scene. . . If I had gotten more serious about training and worked harder. . . Stephen Cluxton wasn't even around back then.

"I had three or four years to try and oust Davy Byrne and establish myself around that time, and I didn't. I was off messing all over the world, drinking, doing drugs, carrying on and 'enjoying life'."

Despite living in his shadow for three seasons, Leonard admires Cluxton "more than any GAA player" he knows - and when the five-time All-Star saw red against Armagh in the third round of the Qualifiers in 2003, his life hit one of many rock bottoms.

"I was in Greece when Clucko got sent off against Armagh and I remember thinking 'What am I doing here on this little island in the middle of nowhere drinking my brains out with nothing going on? Who is this guy anyway?'," he recalls.

Simple reassurance was offered by Jim Gavin: difficult roads often lead to worthwhile destinations

"'Who is this Stephen Cluxton?' He had come in and taken the jersey and then he gets sent off. I was angry and bitter about that as well and that just sent me on to another spiral of deeper alcoholism at the time."

Now happily married to fellow author Serena, Leonard's blog SoberPaddy.com regularly updates his battle with sobriety.

His love of writing will lead to further books, led by stories which weren't suitable for this project.

And given his inside knowledge, he would love to help pen a Cluxton autobiography. But for now, he's likely to continue his extensive travels with his wife in the new year, with Gaelic football firmly in his past

He concludes: "There are so many other things going on in my life that I don't have time for Gaelic football really. Sport has to take a back seat now. It is part of my older life."

John Leonard never conformed to any stereotype, and in today's watered-down sporting society, his story would pull the heart strings of even the most hardened individual.

Revisiting your past and confronting your demons is a lesson for us all.

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