By common consent John Taylor was one of the finest hurlers in the history of Portlaoise or Laois GAA. No question. He made the number 7 jersey his own and wore it with great distinction for the town for two decades, winning eight senior championships in the process – a record. For Laois he was an all-time great. Twice he should have had an All-Star and that he didn’t receive one is a well-known travesty of justice.
Anybody privileged enough to have seen him play will recall his speed, style, tenacity, stubbornness, courage. He was lightning-quick to the breaking ball. He’d zip out to an oncoming ball, one flick and into his hand, and we were on the attack again. He was the type of player that always got the crowd to its feet. It’s hard to remember him ever having a poor game – in his prime John Taylor was generally the best hurler on any field – any day. The Sunday Game nowadays shows many matches but back in the 1980’s the coverage wasn’t as widespread and they’d show only the highlights of the really big games. The cameras were there in 1984 when a strong Laois team went toe to toe with All-Ireland champions Kilkenny in the Leinster championship in Carlow. These were the days of knock-out championship. No back doors or qualifiers. Kilkenny beat a gallant Laois. But John Taylor was the Sunday Games first ever man of the match. And picked from a losing team.
In the beginning: Brother Somers and Brother Tony Kelly were the two men who had us playing hurling and football in the CBS and for Portlaoise. Brother Kelly was from Clare and he hurled with Portlaoise. I played under 12 at 10 years of age and that was the start. I remember there was an U11 league and we used to go down to Kilkenny to play that. We won U12 hurling and football with Portlaoise under Brother Somers. I went on to play U14 – played with Laois U14 at half-forward. I remember Wexford hammered us in a first round in that. I didn’t play much under 16. An urban myth has grown in Portlaoise that Taylor stopped after U14 and then arrived at senior. The story goes he was standing at the back of the goals at senior training years after and he was asked to fill in to make up numbers at a training session: Not true. Ah I went away from it for a few years. We were building a house on the back of the Ballyfin Road and I went away from the hurling. I was working with Pat Miller too and Saturdays were gone. I do have a minor football medal though so I wasn’t fully gone away. But I got back playing Junior at 18 or so, I remember playing against Slieve Bloom. Then when the Juniors were knocked out I actually went into the senior team.
Big Step Up? I played a match against Borris in Ossory in the quarter final in 1980. Played alright. Ballacolla in the semi-final – played well in that, played on Canice Hyland. And I played in the county final in 1980. Straight after that I was called into the county panel. So in 1980 I played junior and senior club and was on county panel.
Early inspirations: Portlaoise weren’t so strong in hurling when I was growing up. I don’t remember that many lads. I remember going up to watch Noel Tynan, Georgie Buggy, Liam Harney and those lads in 1977 – that was a county final I think. It was more football at that time really. I used to go with Paddy Bracken to all the matches. And Larry (Dunne). I remember going to watch a Leinster club game and we were a few minutes late and by the time we got in George (Plunkett) was sent off.
Characters: I suppose the two characters from when I was hurling that everyone would agree on were Jimmy Keenan and Mickey Bohane. Jimmy could be singing in the dressing room before a match. I think it probably relaxed lads and took a bit of tension away.
Was it in place of the team talk?! We didn’t need a team talk – we knew what we had to do.
Funny Moments: Mickey Bohane took the bus on the Doc one night (Mick Fitzpatrick). The Doc was driving buses for Martleys at the time and he used to bring us to matches during the week. I showed Mickey how to start the bus with a screwdriver. The bus stopped on the way home from a match. Mickey went out when everyone else was in the pub. Doc came out and there was no bus. The Doc was going mad he was doing a dance in the main street. I think it was in Ballinakill. Sure Mickey had it around a corner not too far away. It was funny at the time. There’s a good few stories and Mickey’s connected to a lot of them! I remember training and Lukey McCarthy used to come along with us. He used to stay in the caravan beside the GAA centre. Billy Dargan – Billy never missed a match, always on the bus with his flag and his green and white rabbit and the lads were always good to him and included him in the thing. Ah sure we had our own friends, Joe Conroy, Cookie (Conroy) – we used to hang around together and they’d be at all the games.
Pick a game: Obviously the first county final in 1981 was the best one. Then we won in 82, 83, 84 – we were getting used to winning them. We won a couple we shouldn’t have probably won and we lost ones we shouldn’t have lost.
A bad one: I was captain in ‘92 when we lost to Clonad. We thought we had nothing to do only go out on the field and it didn’t work out that way. Clonad paraded down through the town with the cup. (small chuckle when he realises Clonad friends might enjoy this particular memory)
The worst one: I was only talking to Pat Critchley lately in Rathleague and we were talking about the Leinster Football Final loss to Ballyboden and that it would remind you of ‘87 in the hurling against Rathnure. ‘Twas a draw match with time just up and I got a point to put us ahead and then Paul or Liam Bergin got a point and we were two ahead – the game looked won. But they came down the field and got a goal. We won the football the following week and that would have meant the Leinster double – never done before. I played football that year too. We did most of the hurling but they got three goals that kept them in the game. Now that was a memory – a bad memory.
County Final day memories: Pascal Delaney used to come into the dressing and sit down beside me.
Jimmy Doyle/Tom Lalor: Jimmy showed us how to win I suppose. The way we delivered the ball into the forwards – this type of ball, that type of ball. Jimmy was great and was there for a few great years. Tom Lalor was our trainer and Jimmy was coach. Tom was there from the start and was still there after Jimmy left too I think. Tom was a great man to tell stories – a great character and I got on well with Tom. Billy Bohan (Snr), Bill Murphy, Paddy Critchley and John Keenan were the men that were there with them at the start. Ned (Murphy) was always there as physio and Peter Ryan used to come in too for county finals.
Players: I always admired the Bohanes, John and Billy. John was very reliable and strong and Billy was a skilful forward and was always one that you would look out for when you had the ball at half back. A good free-taker too. Pat Critchley, Jimmy Harding, Cheddar – I honestly don’t like naming players because I’m leaving so many out and there were a lot of good hurlers. The Bergins – Liam got us out of jail against Errill in ‘82 and again against the Harps in ‘84. I hurled Leinster with John (Bohane) and Pat (Critchley). Later on Niall Rigney obviously and Cyril Duggan. And up to the present day the likes of Joe Phelan, Tommy Fitzgerald and Cahir. Good players.
Unsung Heroes: Jimmy Harding and John Joe Ging. Jimmy Harding held Tony Doran scoreless against Buffers Alley over in Borris in Ossory in the Leinster Club. We were eleven points down and came back to draw. Jimmy was always reliable. If you wanted someone to mark a forward out of a game Jimmy was your man. And then he played in the forwards the odd time too. He was quiet but he’d do his job. He did his talking on the field. John Joe was there the whole time – right from the start till ’84. Captained the four in a row. Never missed a training session. He was a very good full back. I remember running beside him one time and you’d hear both his knees crackling. He used to wear this knee bandage. A tough good player.
Opponents: In Laois PJ Cuddy I’d have to say was a difficult opponent. I hurled against him a good few times. He’d come out on you – could win his own ball – a handful. And his brother Martin was overall the toughest hurler around. Inter-county I’d say probably English (Nicky) was the best. Paddy Corrigan scored four points in the Leinster Final off me – that was the most scored off me – but I wouldn’t say he was better than English. All those number 10s – Richie Power, Teddy McCarthy, Paddy Corrigan, Paddy Kelly from Limerick. But English was very fast – he was classy enough.
Laois: We had a great team. We got to the Centenary Cup Final in 1984 and beat Tipperary, Galway and Limerick along the way. Cork gave us a bit of a beating but Cork beat everyone well that year, even Offaly in the Centenary All Ireland in Thurles. I thought we could have given Offaly a better run in Leinster Final in ‘85. The goals killed us. In the early 80s Kilkenny and Offaly were winning All-Irelands and we were coming up against them in first rounds of championship. We came very close but unfortunately .. that little bit of luck was needed.
Georgie Leahy: I got on very well with Georgie Leahy. He was straight-forward. No bull. At that time there was just a manager and two selectors. That was it. No psychologists or nutritionists or skills coaches back then!
Honours: Travelling out with the All Stars in 85 – I was sent off so I couldn’t get the All Star. In 87 Bobby Ryan, Gerry McInerney and I were nominated. McInerney never showed up – just the two of us were sitting at the table.
Did he get wind that he wasn’t going to be winning? I dunno, you’re not supposed to know anyway! I was picked to play with the Rest of Ireland a few times. I played against Cork before the Australian Rules in Cork. I was also picked to play against Galway. I was picked another time for the Rest of Ireland in Dublin for the Millennium in 1988. Ah there were a few teams I was picked on. Playing with Leinster too was a great honour. I was 21 or 22 when I was first picked.
All-Stars: I wouldn’t be mad about the selectors/selection process. There’s probably favouritism in it – there’s always somebody disappointed with the All Stars of course, always some player hard done by. Brian Whelehan was picked full forward one year after playing not even a full game there. Another year he was hurler of the year and wasn’t picked at all. Not too long ago there was a team picked of players who never won an All Star and I still didn’t get on that. There was a fella from Antrim picked in front of me and that fella was actually a forward! So I think it’s only a farce to tell you the truth.
What makes a good hurler: I’d say the biggest thing is hunger for the game. If you really want to do well, if you want to drive yourself on, you just have to have that. You want to do your best – to let nobody get the better of you.
Would you prepare for different games in different way: No. Every game was the same. Practice matches, the whole lot. You had your training done. You’re fit enough. When you had that done you were confident enough that you were fit enough. Fair enough, everyone is going to be a bit nervous but I always went out to never ever give up. If I lost the ball I’d go back after it. No one can fault you for trying your best but just probably I didn’t want to see anyone getting the better of me. For matches I’d never go out on the field with an attitude that I hate going out here. I was always looking forward to it and looking forward to playing well. Win or lose once you gave it your best.
Training teams: The most enjoyable win was the U21 I’d say. It was my third year involved and Cian was playing. Sean Luke was part of the thing too – always at training with young Brochan. It was Cian’s last year and I was delighted he got an U21 medal.
Future of Portlaoise hurling: I think it’ll be a couple of years. If they can stay up in the league this year, and if they can stay up and make a quarter final in the championship – you never know maybe a semi-final. But I think it’ll be a couple of years before they win a championship. I think there’s a group coming. You’ve a gap from the age of 22 up to nearly 30 but the young lads have got a lot of experience over the past couple of years. Even going down the year but bouncing straight back and winning the U21 too. Portlaoise should have decent minor and U21 teams this year too. It’s just to keep them all together is the challenge.
Another thing at the moment in the hurling is not so many goalies seem to be coming through. That’s an unusual thing. An important position. Back in my day Goggie (Delaney) made a big difference when he came in to us from Stradbally. The other challenge that Portlaoise always has on both sides is the dual club thing. Hurlers have probably lost out more in that and even in recent years there are a good few footballers who gave up the hurling and they might have made a difference. But as we know some on the football side think the hurling is a nuisance, and vice versa. Look I accept both and it’s important to have lads who play just the hurling the same as lads who play just the football. It’s possible to do both at club level as long as managements are agreeable and play ball.