CHAMPION jockey Tony McCoy will sport a yellow bib this Good Friday by taking part in the Team Limerick Cleanup. He tells Limerick Leader editor Alan English about his friendship with the man behind the initiative, JP McManus, and talks about his admiration for another great supporter of it, Paul O’Connell.
ON Easter Monday, at Fairyhouse, the great Tony McCoy will make his final appearance as a jockey on an Irish racetrack. He will, of course, be wearing the famous green-and-gold-hooped colours of JP McManus. Three days earlier, McCoy will join his boss – and friend – for Friday’s Team Limerick Clean-up, which has drawn more than 10,000 volunteers as the biggest initiative of its kind ever seen in Ireland.
More than most, Tony McCoy knows that “the boss” likes to aim big, whenever he puts his mind to something. For 11 years he has been the retained jockey to the biggest owner in National Hunt racing, a phenomenally driven sportsman creating records that will surely never be broken.
He spoke to the Leader because he wanted to show his support for Friday’s big clean-up, but he was also happy to give his insights into the two Limerickmen who have championed the initiative so enthusiastically since it was first announced last September.
Alan English: What was the first you heard about the clean-up idea?
Tony McCoy: I actually went to the launch of it, with Paul O’Connell. And with there being no racing on Good Friday, I thought it would be nice to show my face in Limerick for it, to put a yellow bib on and get myself a bag. I might even end up with a job for the future – that’s what I was thinking! I might get a job in the Limerick council.
AE: I’m sure you’d be very driven at that job as well. I was hoping to get some insight from you into JP. I’ve been reading your autobiography and he comes up very regularly. One of the most interesting parts was the day you agreed to work for him – April 15, 2004. It was at the Lygon Arms in Broadway, close enough to Cheltenham.
TM: Yes, Jonjo O’Neill (the trainer) and Frank Berry (JP’s racing manager) had asked me to go and see them. Obviously JP is the greatest supporter that National Hunt racing has, so I was honoured.
AE: At the time you were going great guns with Martin Pipe.
TM: I had a brilliant job. I was riding for the champion trainer in England. But JP is one of those people who, when he has an idea, you know that it’s going to be good. It’s like with the Team Limerick Clean-up. He doesn’t leave you in any doubt that it’s the right thing.
In a very short space of time he had me totally convinced that I should take the job. First and foremost, he’s the fairest man you could deal with – if you’re not happy or if things are not right, he would never want you do something that you’re not comfortable with. That was one of the first things he said to me – that we both had to be happy. He’s one of those people who, when he speaks, you listen. And I’m not sure I do that to everyone. As time has gone on, the more he speaks, the more I listen. I take what he has to say on board.
AE: In the course of 11 years you must have had times when you didn’t agree with what he was suggesting.
TM: Ah, we’ve had a few ups and downs, of course we have – but we never at any stage didn’t speak. There were maybe opinions that he or I didn’t agree with – but everyone has them. I mean, I’m his retained jockey, but I have no contract. It’s a gentleman’s agreement. There was never, ever going to be a contract. That’s just the way he works. We have great trust.
I started off working for him and he was my boss, but I’m actually very friendly with him now. He’s more of a friend than he is a boss. I spend a lot of time with him, a lot of evenings. I speak to him on the phone more regularly than most. My wife and his wife sometimes wonder what we’re up to – sure, we have discussions about what horse is going to run where, but it doesn’t always involve racing.
At first, I was probably a little bit on edge calling him, or speaking to him, because you always think that he’s a busy man and you don’t want to be a hindrance, but I feel very comfortable in his company.
AE: Has he ever criticised any of your performances?
TM: No, never, ever once. He knows how it is. I have never met a sports person who can go through their career doing everything perfectly. When things don’t go well, you try to make sure the mistakes don’t happen again. And he knows I’m very like that. If you don’t learn from your mistakes, you’ve no chance of surviving and I’ve found myself enjoying it more in the last number of years. In some ways it’s because of him.
AE: You feel less pressure?
TM: Ahm, in some ways I feel more comfortable in my own self. I’ve maybe let myself feel a sense of achievement and to enjoy it more in the last month of two, because there isn’t much of it left to look forward to. In any walk of life you have to enjoy what you do and enjoy the people you are doing it with. It makes it easier to be successful.
AE: You mentioned Paul O’Connell – had you met him before that clean-up launch?
TMC: I’d met him with JP. Look, he’s a great sportsman, an unbelievable rugby player, a gent of a man – but what he is most of all is a leader. He’s got it all going for him. When he looks at you, you are going to do what he’s wants you to do.
AE: So on Friday, if he tells you to pick up that bit of litter over there …
TM: I think I’ll be picking it up. It’s great to see someone like him getting behind it. All the young people who are into their sport look up to someone like Paul O’Connell. And because of that he will get a lot of young people out and about, helping to clean up their communities. They’ll be thinking, ‘If he’s doing it, we should be doing it too.’
AE: He has a decision to make on whether he’s going to retire after the Rugby World Cup later in the year. It’s something you obviously thought deeply about yourself before you announced you were calling it a day.
TM: The problem that Paul O’Connell has is that he’s Paul O’Connell. If Paul O’Connell could go out tomorrow and change his name – if he went out on the pitch and nobody thought he was the Paul O’Connell who has done so much – then he could carry on playing at the top level for as long as he wants.
AE: I read you saying something very similar about yourself. Just explain the thinking behind that.
TM: I think you live in fear every day of being not as good as you were. To get to where he has got, you are such a stubborn, strong person – and self-driven – that your biggest fear is letting yourself down. Sometimes the fear totally overrides the enjoyment, you know? I’m sure it’s not when Paul goes out and plays a game that he feels that. I don’t feel it when I am riding the horses – it’s the in-between. It’s when it’s over. And it’s not something that I developed six months or a year ago, it’s been there all my life. All my life. Sometimes it has been the ruination of my life.
So yes, if I could go and change my name tomorrow, I’d love to carry on riding. I’d try to be a normal person. But I might not be as successful.
AE: Changing your name and carrying on, it’s a fascinating concept.
TM: I’m not bigging myself up for one moment, but I think if I changed my name I could carry on riding for another two or three years, no problem.
But what I’m really saying is that when you get the stature that Paul O’Connell has, you’re so high up – in terms of the standards you have for yourself – that you don’t ever want to go down. And that is the biggest problem, for me and for him. The sad reality of sport is that at some point, if you carry on too long, there will be a dip. And you don’t want to be one of the people who had that dip, who carried on too long. That was always my fear. When you are at the level Paul O’Connell is at, the spotlight is always on you. Always. If you were five or eight years younger and you had a dip, people wouldn’t have noticed it, or spoken about it. But if you have a dip now, it’s the first thing they’ll say.
AE: Yes, some people were saying that about Paul after Munster lost to Saracens in January.
TM: I met him at the airport after that game, believe it or not. The whole team, at Heathrow. He was quiet. It was a short conversation ...
“So how did it go?”
And you just know – it’s not worth trying to have the conversation. I thought, ‘I know how you feel. We don’t need to speak any more about it.’ I knew the demons were at him. It’s easy to recognise them when you have them. I’ve never spoken to him about it, but it’s easy for me to spot. So I knew what he was thinking. Little did he know, I was thinking the same thing myself – I was asking myself the same questions. Asking myself if I wasn’t as good as I once was – if I should carry on or not. All that stuff. But when you are at that level, when you are as good as he is, you can’t always be that good, all the time.
Even Ronaldo, Messi, Rory McIlroy – you cannot be brilliant every day. The biggest problem of all that Paul has is that he’s after winning the Six Nations. He was at the top of his game, so where do you go from there? And yet six or eight weeks earlier, after the Saracens match, he was probably more demented than he’s ever been in his life.
Two months down the line, all of a sudden you’re one of the best rugby players in the world again. And maybe he’s thinking, ‘If I had retired two months ago, no one would even have noticed.’ So that would have been a waste – a great achievement in his career lost. And who’s to say he wouldn’t be playing just as well next year, or the year after?
For me, it’s just my own stubbornness and my own peace of mind that drove me to do what I’m doing, retiring. I’m not happy about doing it. It is probably the right thing, but what I’m hoping is that people will never be able to say I didn’t retire at the top.
AE: There was never a situation where you were hoping – when you told JP you were retiring – that he might try to change your mind?
TM: No. No one was going to change my mind. I don’t do changing my mind. I had thought about it for a long time. I first thought about it five years ago. I thought, ‘If I could win five more championships and get to 20, I should feel very lucky that I survived that long.’ JP gave me reasons why I could have carried on, but he knows what I’m like.
I don’t know if I’m doing this for my own peace of mind or for other people’s happiness. If I’m being totally honest, would I be happier to keep riding? I probably would. But I’d be so frightened that when the end did come people would say, “He’s retiring because he’s not as good as he was.” I worried that they might lose a bit of respect for me. At least now they can’t say I’m retiring because I’m s*** or I’ve lost it.
AE: It sounds like the decision was unbelievably difficult for you to make. Since you made it, there must have been times when you’ve thought, ‘God, maybe I should change my mind.’
TM: Every day. I’m not going to – but yes. Every day.
AE: You had a phenomenal ride yesterday, at Ascot.
TM: That’s what kills me. Because I know in my mind I’m still good. But if I thought I wasn’t as good any more, halfway during a season, I’d just be letting myself down. It was always going to be difficult. For nearly the last 20 years, I’ve lived in fear of not being champion. But you are very lucky if you can even survive 20 seasons as a jump jockey.
AE: The margins between the performance levels that have you where you are as 20-times champion jockey – and potentially – where you might be in two years’ time would be slight enough. If there was to be a diminishing of your powers, a lot of people wouldn’t even notice it.
TM: No, but I would. And Paul O’Connell will tell you the same. Those people on the sidelines – they don’t have to live with it. They think it’s all happy and it’s all great. The big games, the Six Nations championship – fantastic. They don’t have to live with what has driven you to that place. And you do. I’m probably speaking out of turn, but I would imagine that Paul has a lot of days when his head is fried, when he’s thinking about why it’s going wrong, or why it’s not as good as it should be. Why it wasn’t as good as it was last week.
It’s different if you’ve got the mentality of ‘Ah sure, we’ll worry about it next week.’ But people who have that attitude – I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s been that successful. All the ones that I have ever seen, I think they have that torment. And they get tormented by themselves more than anyone else.
AE: Obviously he’s not a sportsman, but JP comes across as extremely relaxed and easy-going. But for somebody to have reached his level of success …
TM: He is very relaxed but … I don’t know if you want to write this or not, but not long after the launch of the Team Limerick Clean-up last September, we had the Limerick hurling team for dinner in the house (at Martinstown). All the back-room team and everything. I was chatting away to a good few of them. They were telling me how generous and how nice he was. And I said, “Yeah, he is. He’s all of that. But do not lose sight of the fact that he’s a winner. He wants to win.”
That’s just the way he is – a very, very competitive man. So I said to the Limerick hurlers, “You’re going very well, lads. You made the All-Ireland semi-final. And he has invited you here because he wants to acknowledge the fact that you’ve done well and made progress. But believe you me, if you don’t do well next year, you won’t be back. But if you win an All-Ireland, then you will make him happier than any of us will ever make him.”
Because I know. That’s the one thing that he wants most of all. So I said, “Lads, if you do that – you’ll be treated like kings. But if you don’t … He’s the most generous man I’ve ever met, but he wants to win. Don’t be confused by him having you here after you made it to the semi-final. Don’t be thinking that he’s just a happy-go-lucky bloke, that he’s not a competitive man. He f****** is.”
I’ll tell you this much – he’s more competitive than me or Paul O’Connell. You can write that – and if he doesn’t like it, he can lump it. Because I’m just telling the truth. People mightn’t think it, but that’s the way it is.
If you are playing golf against him and you have a bet, if it’s for a pound then he wants that pound off you. He’ll have his hand out on the 18th green, waiting for the pound. And it’s not the pound that matters – well, it’s maybe the pound as well – but he’s got a smile on his face when he has beaten you.
AE: How would you have come to realise that Limerick winning an All-Ireland would mean that much to him?
TM: I just know. He’s a very, very proud Limerickman. And I know that from everything about him. The way he speaks about Limerick, his demeanour, the way he told me about his Good Friday clean-up. Limerick winning the All-Ireland? I’m telling you, it would be a big, big thing in his life. When was it – 1973, the last time they won it?
AE: Yeah that’s right.
TM: I mean I’m not even from Limerick – and I know that.
AE: OK. And finally – have things crystallised a bit more now you have made this decision. Do you know what you’ll be doing this time next year?
TM: I have no idea what I’ll be doing. That’s the reality of it – I do not know. But I’m going to stay involved with JP in some shape or form, having an interest in his horses. I would like to see if I can help the development of the horses, somehow. So if I could make any bit of a contribution to his team at all, then I’d like to stay involved. Because those colours ...
AE: The South Liberties colours.
TM: The South Liberties colours, yes. I had the greatest days of my life in those colours.
AE: And if you were to win another Grand National at Aintree wearing them, would you retire on the spot?
TM: I would, yeah. I think it would only be right. So let’s hope that happens.
AE: Let’s hope so. Big time.