Tommy Conroy has been a stalwart of Portlaoise GAA throughout his life. He played senior football for the town for 17 years, winning six county championships as well as a Leinster title in 1987. He made his name when he broke onto the great town team of the 80’s with Colm and Gerry Browne, Curly and co still setting the standard. He soldiered through the barren years of the ‘90s and then a golden generation of new stars arrived like Ian Fitzgerald, Martin Delaney, Woolly, Fitzy etc and gave an an ageing sportsman a new lease of life. Here are some of his personal memories of the club.
Earliest memories: I remember training where the apartments (Parkside) are now beside O Moore Park, there was a bit of a hedge just at the corner where the steps are now and we just to stand in there and tog off and train there. Ollie Byrne was training us in the hurling I remember and Bill in the football. I also remember going to see the Leinster Final in 1976 against Cooley Kickhams and that was a great occasion. We sang on the bus to it and we sang on the way home. I was only ten then. That definitely made an impression on me and I could see how much the club meant to people and I felt proud to be from the town. You hurled?! Ah yeah up to about 17 years of age. Ah I was no use at it. We won a hurling Division 2 Feile down in Galway with lads like Paul Bergin, Rocky O Connell, Liam Duggan. We didn’t win much else. There was no feile football at the time.
Underage football: I can’t remember winning a whole pile underage in football but we eventually won a minor in 1984 when we beat Graiguecullen in a replay. That was the first football medal I can remember. We had lost to Portarlington in the final the year before. They had a very strong team.
Heroes: When I was playing on my own or kicking around with other fellas Atch was a player that you’d always think of – beautiful skill, he could field, he could kick, do everything and then he played in a whole load of positions and he was such a stylish player so he was one, for sure. When I got older I often said it to him. I remember one time, I was on the senior team at this stage, Colm (Browne) collected me from the train station in Port, I was in college in Galway at the time, to bring me training and we were talking about the great Kerry team of that time and Colm said ‘sure Atch would get on that team, he’s as good as any of them’. For Colm to say that kind of stood out for me. You came on to a great Portlaoise team in 1986. Daunting? I couldn’t play in 1985 as I was in Galway and didn’t really have transport. My big goal was to get onto the senior team. I was about the only one myself and Liam Duggan. Not too many of lads our age pushed, had the drive, really wanted to make the senior team. I know there was good team there at the time and maybe some lads felt they wouldn’t get in there so they just backed away from it. I used to have a good laugh with John Bohane when I came onto that team for the first time and sure Critchley was late for everything. I remember a Leinster Final and he was late for it. I remember looking at fellas and saying this is unbelievable, he’s late for a Leinster Final. And they were all saying ah no it’s ok he’ll be here, he’ll be here. Colm Browne would always have given encouragement but at the same time on the field he’d keep you on your toes. He’d shout something at you and you’d shout something.You’d get used to it. It was the heat of the moment and it was so important. Sometimes fellas take the hump and mightn’t talk to each other afterwards but for us that’s the way it was and it was healthy.
Greatest memories: 1999 I suppose. Also beating Parnells in 87 stands out as a great memory.
Biggest disappointments: Losing to Ferbane in a Leinster Club final with a last minute goal and also losing a couple of All-Ireland semi-finals. But the biggest one was losing the 05 final against Ballina. The game passed me by to some extent. It’s like all of these games. You know you’re in charge and you think to yourself I should have done this, I should have done that. Shoulda coulda woulda. That was a big downer for sure.
Toughest Opponent: At county level I marked Bernard Flynn. He was a livewire and had beautiful balance. If he got half a step on you forget about it he was really fast. He was dynamite. At club level Eamon Strong was always a good solid player, PJ Dempsey in other years became a really effective player, Mick Dempsey was another tough one I came up against.
Regrets: At the time when I was playing I felt I was trying to do things right. I always travelled to training from Galway and Dublin. It would have been great to know about nutrition and the science of training but we hadn’t a clue about things like that then and they didn’t come into the equation. Funnily enough I sometimes regret that I gave it so much in that other things suffered like I would love to have gone to America for a couple of years or gone away somewhere. I always liked travelling but I never travelled like the way young lads do now. Sometimes you think there is more to life.
Did you always want to coach: I’d say to some extent I always felt, without having a real plan or anything that I might go into management. I have seen since how wrong I was (hearty laugh!).
Most enjoyable aspect of coaching: Putting plans in place and working on them in training and you see it working out in a match.
What do you admire in a player: Honesty and attitude. I couldn’t care less about anything else. You see lads that just go through the motions and you just say to yourself ‘why are you involved here’.
What does the club mean to you: Outside of family it has been the main passion throughout my whole life. Sometimes you go through periods where you question the time you give to it and particularly at times when people have gripes with you over teams but it’s a very important part of my life. And yet I’m not so blind as to not see that club has issues. I was at a recent juvenile meeting and an issue that has never really been addressed is the whole dual problem. The people involved in the hurling want the hurling to do well, the people involved in the football want the football to do well. There’s some crossover of course but generally people end up in one camp or other and I suppose it’s a big negative in ways around the club.
Should we aspire to be a dual club: I don’t think there’s any doubt that we should be a dual club. There has to be a level of acceptance on both sides that we aspire to be a dual club. If there is a really good 16 year old of course I will want him for football and somebody else will want him for hurling but that we work together and ultimately let the player make up their own mind. There are so many people who are interested in both codes. At my stage now, and I may have been different in the past, I say let the young people make up their own minds what they want to play.
Aspirations for the club: I would love to see loads of new people getting involved on a regular basis in the club at all levels. Committee level, coaching level, playing level. We could be better in this aspect. I don’t like the attitude that people in the club must be from the town etc. I think we should be reaching out more into the community. It’s all about people and the more good people we can get into our club the better.