Originally published March 1, 2020
Stepping out of the DART station and heading up the Rock Road on Tuesday, something in the air said this wasn’t going to be your typical GAA event.
The big guns were rolled out to honour the winning teams from 1994, Meath and Tipperary, as the association celebrated a five-year extension to their 28-year partnership with the National League’s primary sponsor, Allianz.
The view from the seventh-floor office, overlooking Dublin bay stretching the whole way to Howth, on a bright February morning laughed in the face of recent storm benefactors, Ciara and Dennis. This was to be a good day, for not only would we be speaking to a childhood hero in Graham Geraghty, but having the opportunity to sit in the company of one Michael ‘Babs’ Keating feels like a once in a lifetime kind of moment.
There’s an air of nervousness, yet youthful excitement as members of the media gather round to discuss what lies ahead. It’s common knowledge that Babs speaks his mind which, for this young hack, plays perfectly into the anxieties and insecurities that come with these grouped interview sessions for you don’t want to be the one that asks the silly questions.
The event starts with a Q&A alongside Geraghty, Babs, Donal Keogan and Bubbles O’Dwyer. As the conversation turns to the Tipperary legend, he gets going almost immediately. He starts by congratulating Allianz on their continued partnership with the GAA before ending his monologue talking about the War of Independence. Don’t ask why because we don’t know.
Later, he turns his attentions to Uachtarán Cumann Lúthchleas Gael, John Horan, telling the sitting president that more needs to be done to curtail the threat to the lifeblood of the GAA, the club game. Not your typical media day musings by any stretch of the imagination and we haven’t even sat down for a chat yet.
Finally, we get our chance to sit down with the man who played an All-Ireland final barefooted in 1971. As he takes his seat an earlier comment from the Q&A springs to mind, that notion that the league doesn’t really matter.
Having experienced both sides of the coin, not many are better placed to give an answer. So Babs, does it?
“Look, every situation is a different situation. The first League I played in was hugely important because there was a trip to New York in those days. For somebody like me who was never on an aeroplane before to get a trip to New York, I had friends over there so I knew it would be a special holiday.
“That made that League and all of the Leagues we played in, there was huge emphasis in Tipperary because the money was dished out to the counties. You had to be responsible enough to know that a bird doesn’t fly on one wing, so you needed the money. We were conditioned to that in those days. That is why all of the Leagues we were involved in, there was a determination to win them.
“At the same time in terms of management, you still have an eye on the Championship. That is number one. In terms of preparation the best way I can describe it is when we lost the first year when I was manager of Tipperary. In the second year, I brought Kevin Heffernan in to talk to the team.
“His terms of reference was that you’d have your team at 60 per cent on March 17 fitness-wise. Your League final would normally come in the first week of May, if you could get to the League final at that stage between March 1 and the first week of May you were up to 85 or 90 per cent fitness.
“There was a levelling off then. That is still the target by most of the teams with one eye on the League. Most teams are like that today now at the top level. They are still getting the feel of four or five players.
“When I was manager I used to meet the selectors and their wives for a meal towards the end of January every year. I gave my two colleagues the job of picking the team assuming we were going to play in the All Ireland.
“So pick the team today that we would play in the All Ireland. For the two All Irelands I won as manager I think we had 14 of the 15 places named. Then your next response will be picking a sub for every position on the field. That is the job you’ve to do during the League.
“It would be unfair to put fellas in without having them in with experienced players, giving them that opportunity with 80 per cent of the team or 70 per cent of the team. To me, that is the ideal scenario.”
The conversation soon turns to the unpredictable weather we’ve been experiencing and the impact that’s having on the Allianz Leagues.
Only Babs has no intention of talking about the weather.
It’s now that we get to experience that explosive speaking off the mind that Babs Keating is so famous for.
“You can’t legislate for the weather, but what I am saying to you is that I still think the schedule we had as players, this idea of the club scene closed down from May to August, I think it will finish the GAA. We mightn’t see it now or in a year or two, but in five years time, we will see it.
“I think it is a crazy thing. I played in All Irelands in ’61, ’64, and ’65 (he actually played in five consecutive finals between 1960-1965 three minor, two U21), I played football for Tipperary, I played football and hurling for Munster, I played in 10 county senior football championships with the club at home, our hurling club was going well and the sky didn’t fall in.
“Everything about what is happening at inter-county level is a money scene. We know Tipperary can’t sustain spending two million on the hurling team, Dublin can. It is unfair.
“This is where it all started with Jim Gavin. Sheedy copied Jim Gavin. To me this idea of 40 players in the dressing, some of them have three goalkeepers. What the fuck do you do with three goalkeepers can you tell me? Every one of you is involved in the GAA, you’d find it hard to name the sub goalkeeper on winning All Ireland teams. How do you pick two sub goalkeepers?”
The conversation continues as Babs shares some strong opinions on the abuse of amateurism as well as some anecdotes around his relationships with sporting greats such as Christy Ring and Jack Kyle.
Before the interview draws to a close, however, the final question that needs asking is his opinion on the introduction of a black card into hurling.
Babs’ response was every bit the animation you imagined it would be.
“Do I believe in black cards? I managed Tipperary for eight years, I had one player sent off. I don’t believe in any cards.
“And managers who don’t preach my gospel, they should be crossed off. Players that don’t preach my gospel… It would infuriate you. Happens more in football, I see a sub going in and he runs straight into the player, if I had the whistle, I’d teach him a lesson and the umpire and linesman should say, ‘Babs give that man a red card’.
“Teach him a lesson and teach management a lesson. If I was manager, and I saw that, he wouldn’t play hurling for Tipperary again, simple as that, it’s utter stupidity…”
Babs attention soon turns to the rule makers in Croke Park as well as the officials, who it would seem have struggled as far back as his own playing days.
“I question who’s making the rules, I question who’s refereeing. Joe Kernan and myself were on a committee 30 years ago, we suggested bringing former players in that understood the game to referee. Let the venue appoint the umpires. If I asked Tommy Maher, county secretary in my time, ‘pick four fellas as sharp as razors to be umpires in Thurles’, they make no mistake.
“I see an umpire looking for HawkEye in Croke Park and the ball only a yard wide or a yard inside so what this fella do if he was down in Portlaoise or Limerick, what would he do?
“It happened to me in a Munster Final as a player, I hit a ball, the match was level, I hit a ball three feet inside and it was waved and the only satisfaction I got with the umpire, I said ‘that was a point’, ‘see tomorrow’s paper and you’ll see what it was’, he said, that’s all he said to me.
“Cork beat us in the replay and won the All-Ireland.”
And with that, the interview was over. However, the conversation picks up again moments later as we head towards the exit.
“Where are you from?” Babs quizzed, sensing the northern brogue.
“Armagh… Lurgan,” came my response, wondering why I felt the need to name an obscure town he’d probably never heard of.
“Lurgan, what a brilliant place. For a town that size to have four GAA clubs, it’s brilliant.”
“There’s actually five Babs, but we don’t count St. Peter’s.”
This really wasn’t your typical GAA event.