This is an extract from John Harrington’s new book on Tipperary hurling legend John Doyle -
The bile rose from Doyle’s guts and tasted sour in the back of his throat. It was the same before ever big match, but it always reassured him. If he didn’t feel tense, he didn’t feel ready.
It was getting worse with every year though. Most people thought the weight of countless medals won must anchor any butterflies in his stomach, but the opposite was true.
19 years of Championship hurling, 8 All-Ireland titles, 10 Munster crowns, 11 National Leagues and God knows how many matches won had only served to raise the stakes every time he pulled on his beloved blue and gold.
He was the great John Doyle, the pride of Tipperary hurling, and the fear of falling heavily from the throne he’d created through countless acts of heroism twisted his insides into knots.
And they had never before been so tightly wound as they were right now. But then the stakes had never been higher.
Outside that dressing-room door destiny awaited at the end of a long, dark corridor that opened into a glaring, braying cauldron of light and noise.
His last match for Tipperary and an opportunity to go out on the most glorious high possible by winning his ninth All-Ireland medal and moving above his old friend and enemy Christy Ring at the top of the honours list.
That meant more to others than it did to him, but still, it would be a sweet final chapter.
None better to do it against than Kilkenny too. But no worse crowd to lose to either.
Jesus, the waiting was killing him. It always did. Stand up to swing the arms and roll the shoulders but then nothing to do only to sit back down again. Up and down. Up and down.
No room to stretch the legs with that gaggle of selectors, Priests and God knows what other hangers on cluttering up the place. Caged.
Tony Wall sat beside him looking anything but. Giving the few quiet words to the lads that needed them most and generally being his usual unflustered self. How the hell did he do it?
“Hey, Wall.” Tony moved closer to Doyle and cocked an ear. “Tell them we won’t go out on the field unless they give us a tenner a head.”
Wall cocked his eye now. Was Doyle serious or looking for a rise? You could never be sure with him.
It didn’t matter, the answer was the same. Short, to the point and agricultural. The sort of language Doyle appreciated best.
Team trainer Ossie Bennett was moving along the line now, the distinctive smell of wintergreen announcing his arrival as he administered last-minute rub-downs with those shovel-like hands whether they were requested or not.
Bennett was usually worth a playful dig for an easy laugh, but Doyle couldn’t summon one now.
As the minutes slid by with painful sloth his feet tapped more quickly and his knuckles whitened and coloured again with every squeeze of the hurley.
Getting closer at last because here come the speeches. None worth listening to though now that Leahy isn’t around anymore, God rest his soul.
He wouldn’t be sitting here if it wasn’t for Leahy. Wouldn’t have won all he had won. The ninth is for Leahy.
At last, the call to arms. With a volley of shouts players rise to their feet like dominos in reverse and none is quicker to spring from the bench than Doyle.
He knows it’s at times like this the others look to him, today more than ever. Not just because it’s his last game and the ninth is on the line, but because there are seeds of doubt sprinkled all over this dressing-room.
And when Doyle puts those shoulders back, darkens his brow and sets that jaw it has a way of convincing you that what’s outside that dressing-room door should be more afraid of you than you of it.
They draw strength from him and he can only see the same in them.
Kieran Carey’s ruthlessness, Tony Wall’s assurance, Theo English’s brawn, Jimmy Doyle’s class, Donie Nealon’s energy, Liam Devaney’s guile and Sean McLoughlin’s opportunism.
Men he’s campaigned with for 10 years or more, the spine of the greatest hurling team there has ever been.
All the wrong side of 30 now though, and down the corridor was a room full of Kilkenny men in their prime driven by a mixture of ambition and hate to finish Doyle and his fellow veterans once and for all and create their own legacy.
Let them try. For weeks Doyle had had his own doubts but they were gone now. They’d put manners on Kilkenny before and they would do it again.
Kilkenny could do the running and Tipp would do the hurling. He gripped his hurley hard and gave an involuntary roar.
The dressing-room door flew open.