Goodbye Johnny, it was fun
Johnny Pilkington took hurling seriously, but never too seriously. He was a rebellious figure and a successful promoter of the Offaly ethos. He looks back on a memorable career with Dermot Crowe
AH, the memories. Johnny Pilkington is sifting through a medley of them two days after announcing his retirement from inter-county hurling. They emerge at random: landmark matches jostling with frivolous renditions of Rock the Boat in Whelahan's. A career which began against Laois 12 years ago, crowned by a man-of-the-match performance, has ended in another mauling from Kilkenny.
Oscar Wilde would have told him the one thing worse than being talked about was not being talked about. He had no problems on that score and while Brian Whelahan was lauded for his wrist action, people were more interested in what Johnny did off the field. He took hurling seriously but never too seriously.
In that respect he was a rebellious figure and a successful promoter of the Offaly ethos. His irreverence provided a refreshing antidote to the stuffy pontifications of 'hurling men', and the grandiloquent bull that assails the game like no other. Offaly's tribe was at odds with this. They chorused: what's the big deal?
A thousand claps on Johnny's back for that. Offaly became the country's most venerated stress-free zone and he was their local Shaman waxing lyrical on how to relax and enjoy, yet still win a few All-Ireland medals along the way. He made you laugh and not feel bad about it.
So when you venture that maybe, with greater application, he might have achieved even more from his career the expression changes to a quizzical one, perhaps like George Best's when the intruder asked how someone spoiled by lots of cash, booze and a crack blonde had got it all wrong.
Alas, we find Johnny Pilkington not being pampered by some friendly blonde in a posh hotel room but instead sitting at the bar of the Cherry Tree in Birr in the company of Joe Errity and former Birr chairman Sean Doorley. The popular image of Johnny Pilkington delves, of course, into the realm of caricature and partly misleads. At times the laid-back propaganda has conned opponents into false states of security.
Within that happy-go-lucky shell there is a serious core, as there had to be for him to survive so long at inter-county level. During the mid-'90s he formed an effective midfield partnership with Daithí Regan that helped topple Kilkenny. The team's apotheosis was the dramatic 1995 Leinster final. He was All-Star material but had to settle for the sole award granted in 1990.
Since the 1998 All-Ireland win, and perhaps even a year before it, he believes his game had been on the wane. This was going to be the final year and it might have ended last summer but for the championship draw, as he explains.
"I was talking to (selector) Pat McLoughney after Michael Bond had been ratified as trainer and he says, 'are you going to hurl next year?' and I said, 'the only way I'll hurl is if we get Kilkenny in the first round.' I felt if we were bet by Kilkenny then the hurling was finished. I said if we could beat Kilkenny we have a chance of an All-Ireland."
For the first time ever in his career he approached last Sunday's match confident Kilkenny would be beaten. In all previous encounters there was trepidation. "I felt that their backline was there for the taking," he confides. "But you have to hand it to them; their backs were absolutely brilliant. When you get bet by that much, and three years in-a-row, what's the point in going on?"
Not even the talismanic Michael Bond could work the magic this time. "He had this great confidence in Offaly," acknowledges Pilkington. "And I think he brought it to training this year. He got an awful lot out of John Troy whereas a couple of trainers haven't. He got an awful lot out of me, Joe Errity, Kevin Martin and Brian Whelahan.
"There was no difference in the margins (of defeat) over the last three or four occasions. And it's a pity, too, looking at the team. I was just looking at the video there. You have Kinahan, Brian Whelahan, Kevin Martin, Johnny Dooley, Troy, Errity ... to see a team like that getting bet by so much, it's demoralising."
How a manager like Eamonn Cregan coped with Pilkington's idiosyncrasies is difficult to fathom and it was often a bumpy ride. Three times he was dropped for league games, once for failing to attend training two nights after winning the 1995 All-Ireland club title. He was Offaly captain at the time.
Cregan phoned the day after their win and insisted the Birr contingent be there. Pilkington relayed the news to an unenthused Birr party who made the travel arrangements for the next evening. When the day arrived Pilkington and Regan decided to go for a drink. "It ended up an all night kind of thing," he explains.
The rest of the Birr players, waiting for the lift, noticed the absentees and "put two and two together and got four." Soon they had joined them in the pub. All were dropped for the forthcoming league quarter-final against Cork. On another occasion Pilkington missed a league match against Kerry. "I tried his patience, there was no doubt about it. I think Eamonn was totally the opposite of myself. The way I prepared for a game was totally different to his but we worked on it.
"I remember talking to himself and Paudge Mulhare after we had a falling out as such in 1995 over a league match. They said, 'listen, hurling is 24 hours a day.' I can't relate to 24 hours a day and I think a lot of the Offaly lads can't relate to it either. There's a couple ... Brian Whelahan, maybe Johnny Dooley.
"So, I'd say it probably drove Eamonn mad. I remember one training session in '93 where we trained in the 'tech. Twelve of us trained and by the end there were only four left and that was four to six weeks before the Kilkenny game in the championship. So Eamonn would probably have found it very difficult to relate to us.
"I think in '94 that things weren't going well. But it just took one game to kick-start it, the Kilkenny game. Everything went exceptionally well for us that day. We'd a great start. And after that the whole thing just gelled. We went on from there."
Despite their differences, Pilkington regards Cregan as the best manager that Offaly had during his career. His spell in charge also encompassed Pilkington's greatest disappointment losing the 1995 All-Ireland final to Clare as captain. It is not something he has really talked about until now.
He had the victory speech half-composed. The punchline went: 'Offaly may have won this All-Ireland but it's been Clare's summer.' Maybe they peaked in the Leinster final but they let chances slip: one ball he gave to Troy was an exact replica of the final 12 months previously except the shot went a few inches outside the post this time. Maybe, he says, they weren't ruthless enough.
It hurt more than many appreciated at the time, not least because the moment was completely submerged by Clare's remarkable victory. And it still hurts. "Every time you see a lad lifting the McCarthy Cup your mind goes back to it. What would it be like? It's not devastating but it's just there at the same time and it'll always be there.
"And I will see it time after time because it was Clare. If it was Kilkenny, Tipperary or Cork you wouldn't see it as often. But you can ask the question: how often have you seen Anthony Daly lift the McCarthy Cup? Thousands of times."
Managers have tried to give the Offaly lads a good old fashioned boot up the arse but this therapy has not had much success. Appeasement has always been the smart approach. In 1991 Padraig Horan, hewn from the breakthrough team of the '80s, entered the ring with a regime in mind that contained little appeal for his audience.
He held a meeting at the start of the season and outlined his plans. Pilkington recalls: "He said, 'right, no drink this year, no smoking,' and two or three of the lads went up to him after the meeting and said, 'listen, we're not sacrificing our Saturday nights for anyone."' By the time Horan was in charge of Birr in '95 he had mellowed significantly.
On the eve of the All-Ireland finals of '94, '95, '98 and last year's, Pilkington treated himself to three or four pints because it helped him prepare. Before the sensational win over Cork he had a "small bottle of red wine." To him it is no big deal and he doesn't try to hide the routine. Sometimes, he admits, he missed training because of drink but "90 per cent" of the time he behaved himself impeccably.
Last year be pushed it to the limits, however, before the championship game against Wexford. He had a wedding on the preceding Friday, and the boozing carried over into the next day. He finally turned in, he reckons, at around two o'clock on the morning of the match. "I was alright but I knew that Adrian Fenlon could hurl me up a stick. We won easily and I was taken off with about 10 minutes to go."
Did he not feel this was excessive behaviour? "Looking back I should have been more responsible," he accepts. Two days before the 1994 All-Ireland he attended another wedding and was off alcohol but a guest kept reminding him to stay sober and he couldn't stick him any longer. "I got tired of him and people like that telling me (what to do), so I had seven or eight pints. I think I played fairly well in '94."
League matches, of course, were much more relaxed affairs where you could have a few pints and no one would think anything much of it. The Offaly players were on first name terms with the bouncers in a nightclub near Newry where they stayed before matches against Antrim. They won the league only once, with Horan in '91, but it wasn't a prized possession.
The most bristly episode in his career came in 1998 with the fall-out over Babs Keating's Leinster final comments on the team's performance. "I would absolutely give him no credit at all for the 1998 All-Ireland," states Pilkington firmly. Is he bitter? "No, and I am tired of the jibes, the jibes at Offaly. It seems to be a constant barrage whenever Offaly are playing."
Pilkington's retaliatory strike in the press led to Keating's departure and the arrival of Bond. "I was disgusted because he put the full blame on the players. It was their fault, they did this, they did that. There's no manager in the world that would do that, or should do that."
The players he came up against included the sort of men you needed to be in the whole of your health facing: Pat Malone, Michael Phelan, Bill Hennessy, Ollie Baker, Mike Houlihan and Ciaran Carey. But Adrian Fenlon was his pick of the crop and he recounts their '90s rivalry with obvious fondness.
"I think my greatest battles would have been with Adrian Fenlon. A fabulous hurler. Whenever he played well Wexford lost and whenever I played well Offaly lost. But he was the one I'd admire the most because he had the hurling and he produced a great ball into Wexford."
The withdrawal of his brother Declan from the Offaly panel almost led to his own boycott in 1997 but he stayed put after talking to his brother about the affair. Declan Pilkington had been substituted and put back on the field against Wexford in 1995 which caused serious grievance with the player, while there was also a resistance by the county board to meet the cost of his farm relief expenses.
"Here we had a young farmer, married, two kids at the time, playing with Offaly. They wouldn't pay the farm relief while he was off on a Sunday. It can be expensive but the county board made no effort to pay that. He was the lad that should have all this, the media, the things that I got because he lived for hurling. Still does," Johnny recalls.
"And another thing that Eamonn Cregan did and it's an awful thing to do to any man was that he started him, took him off and put him back on again. That shattered his confidence. He wasn't the greatest scoring forward but he did the donkey work and you don't get credit for the donkey work."
IN tandem with Offaly there was Birr's emergence which many people overlook while wagging the finger at Offaly's disregard for the league. Several were involved in both camps when Birr won county titles in 1992, '95, '98 and 2000, stretching the season all-year round. The 1998 title win over Sarsfields is his most treasured memory.
"I've been very, very lucky. I had a very simple job to do in the '90s, a workmanlike job," he says with a hefty degree of modesty. "Pop up now and then for a score. I never hurled the shite out of anybody, I don't think anybody outhurled me. They done well.
"But you come to a stage too where the lads ... they're beginning to think about work. You have those responsibilities, marriage, the kids ... and they have their All-Ireland medals. And their legs go simple as that."
He will be 31 next month, hardly ancient but too old for the running and grafting role which he feels he did best. Many of the social set have faded into marriages and family commitments, so that people like him had increasingly begun to feel like relics of the past. It was a good time to say goodbye.
So, will the real Johnny please stand up? "That's where ye get it wrong," he offers, alluding to the clownish image. "Ye have me down as happy-go-lucky. I would like to think that my performances in my best years were ones of determination and that I never gave up that's where I excelled. I never gave up, I tried all the time, no matter how badly things were."
Goodbye Johnny. It was fun.