'We thought he was invincible," Ken Hogan said of Tony Reddin, who died on Sunday last aged 95. Blessed with longevity and good health, his death after a short illness came as a shock to those who knew him. "We never thought he would die," admitted Hogan, who followed his hero into goal for Lorrha and Tipperary. "We were looking forward to honouring him reaching the century."
At St Rynagh's Church, where Reddin's remains were taken from him home in Banagher on Tuesday evening last, Hogan spoke endearingly about the Galway man whose move to Lorrha led to a highly prosperous alliance with Tipperary. His origins were in Mullagh where he lived and hurled until he was 28 when he left to work as a farm labourer in the north Tipp parish in 1947.
"Some make the suggestion he went there to hurl; he didn't, he went to work. He didn't want to hurl ever again, because he was fed up with the Galway situation. It was only the parish priest in Lorrha that persuaded him to play," says Paul O'Donnell, author of a history of Mullagh GAA. Hurling wasn't the priority - work was - but his failure to nail a place on the Galway team made it easier to leave. His club, too, was back in junior ranks and not making much headway.
He was born Martin Charles Reddington in 1919 but the family were known locally as the Reddins and that is the name that stuck. He had the pet name Thaudy which to the Lorrha ear was mistaken for Tony. His failure to make the Galway county team may partly be explained by unfair bias against small rural clubs, but it was chiefly down to Seanie Duggan, who had the position nailed in the 1940s.
O'Donnell's nephew Mark is the current Mullagh GAA club secretary and says Reddin never lost sight of his roots, making regular visits back home. The club has unveiled a plaque commemorating its link to the man who was chosen on the Team of the Century in 1984 and the Team of the Millennium in 2000.
"We've always been very proud of him," says the Mullagh secretary. "Having someone from our parish on the team of the century and team of the millennium was a big thing. He was unlucky I suppose. He came from a small rural parish in east Galway and he didn't get fair play when it came to hurling for Galway.
"We had a function for Iggy Clarke last year. Iggy said Tony was a big inspiration to him, that was coming from one generation of Mullagh hurler to the next. Iggy's father had a big farm in the parish and Tony would have been a labourer for his father at the time. Before he left.
"I know where the land is in Carra where he was from and it's not great land. The house that they were originally in is derelict now, and it's boggy land and very hard to visualise anyone making a living out of it."
He could never have imagined what was to follow. An outstanding performance in the 1948 North Tipp final against Borrisoleigh brought him to the attention of the Tipperary selectors. He joined the county panel and was on the team that won three All-Irelands in a row from 1949-'51. He also won six National League medals and five Railway Cups with Munster.
Writing in the Tipperary Star, John O'Grady, himself a former county goalkeeper who won an All-Ireland in 1958, recalled the wonder Reddin created when thwarting "(Borrisoleigh's) Paddy Kenny's hardest shots" in the local championship in the late 1940s. O'Grady wrote of his "truly astonishing" career and cites his best display being one against Galway in Tuam in the 1950 All-Ireland semi final when his former rival Seanie Duggan was in goal for the opposition.
"He certainly had everything. He was two-handed, he wasn't weak on either side; he was a hurler, he was a ball player. He was not only a stopper, but a controller of a ball. He was not easily shifted. I remember one match where the forward came in trying to drive him into the goal and he ended up staggering back five yards."
Ken Hogan's late father Hubie was part of the Lorrha team of 1948 and often spoke about Reddin to his son. "My father filled us with stories of Tony and his feats on the pitch and what he done. I used to hold the hurley ciotóg, even though I wasn't a natural ciotóg, when I started playing at seven or eight and I remember my father saying in the garden 'you will never make a Tony Reddin if you hold it that way'.
"He just had that mystique about him. Daddy used to tell me about matches where hundreds would converge behind his goal and go to the other side for the second half and follow him into the dressing room after the game. Even in later years there were always people around him even though he was a man of few words."
He recites a story allegedly about Lorrha's North Tipp semi final in 1956 when someone asked a member of the approaching opposition, Toomevara, who they were about to play. 'We're playing Tony Reddin,' was the answer given.
Reddin's bravery at a time when goalkeepers could be physically charged was one of his main virtues. "He defied the Kennys (of Borrisoleigh) who were in their pomp at the time," says Hogan. "He was just fearless - that was a word that was always used about him. He was daring and at that time you had the usual mayhem around the square."
When Hogan began to make a name for himself as a goalkeeper, Reddin was always available to give advice. "He would always say to me, 'be on your toes.' I was not the best one on my toes, or fast off the line. The one thing I had was a big hand. I played in club finals with Lorrha and he would have a few words with you before the match, he would stand outside the dressing-room and meet you, take the time to do that with you. Goalies nowadays, they have everything: specialist coaches, warm-up drills.
"When we were playing you pucked the ball as far as you could, you did not get any specialist goalkeeping coaching. He thought about these things. Nenagh is a very fast pitch and he would say the ball will come very fast at you. He would emphasise those things that no mentor would ever think of.
"You would just be in awe of him. My father had died in 1983. He probably took on that role of being a father figure to me."
His nerves of steel were tested most graphically in the 1950 Munster final during an especially fierce spell of Tipp-Cork rivalry. The game in Killarney is remembered for pitch invasions, palpable crowd tension, an attack on the referee and Reddin being the victim of sustained harassment from Cork followers who gathered behind his goal. Pelted by missiles and physically manhandled, he managed to get through the match intact and victorious though he had to make a run for safety at the final whistle.
Fears for his wellbeing saw some fast-thinking clerics throw a priest's coat over him as a form of disguise. Tipp went on to retain the All-Ireland and won again in 1951, but Cork stormed back with three All-Irelands back-to-back and Reddin had retired when Tipp reached the summit again in '58.
Typical of a goalkeeper's precarious existence, he was harshly held culpable for Tipp losing the 1956 National League final when they blew a 15-point lead against Wexford. The previous year Clare defeated them in the championship and by the summer of 1956 he was no longer first choice.
He played his last match for Tipp the following year during a trip to the US. In 1960 a job with Bord na Mona led to a move to Banagher where he lived for the rest of his life. He married Maura Smyth from Rathcabbin village in 1956. The reared a family of nine.
Donie Nealon, part of the exceptional Tipp team of the 1960s, saw Reddin in goal while in his early teens. "The most famous one I saw him playing against Borrisoleigh, who were one of the top teams in the '50s. They were playing Lorrha in the north final (1956) - they had the Kennys and all those. The score reflects the impact Tony had on that game, Borrisoleigh had such a fantasy forward line (but) Lorrha won 4-8 to 0-18. To be quite honest, Borrisoleigh gave up trying to score goals on him.
"He didn't have a frying pan like they do today, he had an ordinary sized hurley at that time. That is what made it all the more remarkable. He had a tremendous capacity for deadening the ball on the hurley no matter how strong it would come to him, you would not see it rebounding it back off his hurley. Physically he was very strong.
"They were all fantastic goalies in recent years but I would say Reddin was top of the pile. The thing about the modern goalies is that they have protection. Reddin didn't have any protection, the forward could come in on top of you. He had no nerves at all. He enjoyed it so much. He was so much in control of his area."
Moving to Banagher in 1963 brought a new chapter in Reddin's life, with a spell in coaching. The seeds of Offaly's hurling revolution can be traced to the arrival of Brother Denis Minahane in the county but also the remarkable run of success achieved by St Rynagh's who won 10 senior championships in 12 years. A young Damien Martin was another to fall under this wing.
Martin was goalkeeper when Offaly lost the 1969 Leinster final to Kilkenny, their first final appearance since 1928, and he was also there when they made the historic breakthrough in 1980. "Longevity is great but quality of life is obviously just as important and Tony had both," says Martin. "He was as strong as a horse, sure. He had a hurl that most lads wouldn't lift. One lad told me that you could drive stakes with Tony's hurl.
"When Tony started coaching me he got me to change the weight of my hurl to make it heavier. I always thought the lighter the hurl the faster the reactions, but the heavier the hurl the greater the control. And when he was coaching, it was all about control, control, control.
"He said you never batted a ball unless you put it out 50 yards; otherwise you took it down straight to the hand. Up to the day he died, he would put his hand up in the air and show you the way he would catch it in his chest. He made the hurls for me and used to put an extra bit of weight on the nose. A fast ball hits the nose and it's going to turn the hurl in your hand."
His role in the St Rynagh's golden era is acknowledged by Martin and the other players involved.
"He had two things going. I had seen him hurl and I was one of the youngest, so all the older lads, lads 30 years of age, they would have seen Tony when he was in his prime. Remember, Lorrha is sort of our neighbouring parish, so these lads would have seen him, aside from reading about him. On top of that he was such a gentleman, he was such a nice person. Tony couldn't offend you if he tried."
Martin was at the 1956 county final in Tipperary when Lorrha were defeated by Thurles Sarsfields in Nenagh, and recalls how Reddin took the 70s and long-range frees, which was unheard of at the time. "Tony Reddin's philosophy of hurling, how to play the game, the distribution of the ball, control and delivery and where to deliver and how to deliver - Dermot Healy came to Offaly in 1980 and you would think they read it out of the same book.
"Speed of control, speed of delivery and accuracy in delivery; the same principles applied to the man who got the ball. Sure I mean there are coaches now and they are able to make themselves important by making it sound as if hurling is complicated. I mean hurling is a simple game."
Pete Finnerty, another Mullagh native, wrote a piece ten years ago where he recalled a memorable visit to Reddin's home. He also recounted a meeting in 1988 with an elderly gentleman at a function in Nenagh. 'You're from Reddin's country,' the man informed him. 'You're hard but you're not a patch on Reddin'.
And so on Wednesday his remains were taken from Banagher and across the county boundary to rest at Bonham cemetery in Rathcabbin. Someone sang Slievenamon and the last crowd that gathered to see Tony Reddin offered a final loving salute.
Sunday Indo Sport