Martin Kiely Column - Eamon Cregan, the greatest of them all

Eamon Cregan was inducted into the GAA’s Hall of Fame recently. Martin Kiely sat down with him recently to get his thoughts.

Eamon Cregan was inducted into the GAA’s Hall of Fame recently. Martin Kiely sat down with him recently to get his thoughts.

The term ‘legend’ is often over used and frequently bestowed far too lightly – over many years Limerick has produced great players but few will object giving the status of legend to former Limerick hurler and footballer Eamon Cregan.

Many generations will have missed seeing the Claughaun man display his honed and natural talents at the highest level but mere mention of his name in hurling circles will see people recall his undoubted skills, passion and massive desire to win. For more than 50 years Eamon Cregan has been involved in hurling - first through his club Claughaun and then with his beloved Limerick. The vast majority of players who play at the highest level leave the stage and never return but not so Cregan who has never stopped giving in the case of Limerick hurling.

During his long association with Limerick I’m pretty sure he has made hard calls, wrong calls but deep down those calls were made in the best interest of Limerick because few that I know love hurling as much as Eamon Cregan. People will tell you that Cregan can be intense when it comes to hurling but the love of Limerick and hurling runs deep into every vein.

Those of a certain age in Limerick will remember “Blondie”, as he was known, producing magic in so many games. He left his calling card on so many big days in hurling and throughout Ireland is held in such high respect amongst hurling people.

He served Limerick at all levels and in the early years played senior hurling and football – he did likewise with his club and it’s ironic that he holds eight senior football medals while winning three in hurling. In recent weeks he has been very much in the national stage, Croke Park honoured him with inclusion in the Hall of Fame, and also with Mary Immaculate College which he has guided to a place in the Fitzgibbon Cup semi final this week.

Most men of his age have earned the right to take it easy but Eamon Cregan was never one for following the majority. From early morning to late at night hurling is on his mind and he is happiest imparting his knowledge to those who are prepared to listen. Trying to find a window in his busy schedule to have a chat for this interview was not easy between coaching Mary I and also his coaching duties with the Limerick minors. We met last Thursday – his day began with a ten o clock session with Mary I and finished that night at ten o clock after a challenge game with the Limerick minors.

MK: What did it mean to you to be honoured by Croke Park?

EC: It felt slightly uncomfortable, to be honest, but nonetheless it was a great honour for my family, my club and also Limerick. I was lucky to have had a good career and I was greatly helped by having some great players around me. I had long since thought our time for picking up awards was over but it was a very pleasant day in Croke Park and one I will always remember.

MK: Forty years have passed since Limerick last won the All Ireland, did you think then that so many years would pass without success?

EC: Never in my wildest dreams did I think we would still be waiting for another success. We have come close and it’s so sad because young people need to see Limerick winning an All Ireland. We had some great players who had come through the schools and that was a big part of our success and huge work will have to be continued in our schools if we are to have any hope of success.

MK: What part, if any, did the various County Boards play over the years in the lack of success?

EC: They never looked to the future after winning in ’73. We had a chance to have lads playing in every school and that was lost and we are paying the price ever since. They missed a great opportunity to promote the games but instead they took the short term view and never built on what was achieved. The focus has changed now but we need to expand the games and make sure players develop the skills at a young age.

MK: You are now coaching the Limerick minor team, how is that going?

EC: We have a very good set up and the manager Brian Ryan is leaving nothing to chance. We have some great people working with us and Jerry Wallis is doing a great job. I have been involved with the underage process for the past few years and I am really enjoying working with these lads. Winning would be great but our focus is to arm them with the skills to serve Limerick in the future. It would be great to get a break with the minors but many of the team are young and it might take another year. Hurling is a simple game often complicated by coaches who forget the basics of the game.

MK: Your views on the standards of hurling in Limerick?

EC: Our skills standards are poor and if we are to achieve success we will have to work very hard to match what is going on in the likes of Kilkenny and Tipperary. Too many of our players are slicing the ball, in other words they are not meeting the ball on the flat of the hurley. To become a great hurler you need patience but most of all you need to listen. Some coaches don’t understand the concept of coaching while many players think they know it all and are not prepared to take instruction.

MK: What style of hurling should Limerick be playing?

EC: Limerick always played a quick style of hurling, direct to the forwards and it disappoints me to see too much hand passing in the game. Good forwards need a fast ball and when Limerick deliver the ball fast they can match many teams. I think some players are over coached and every coach wants to win but all too often they forget the most important skills in the game. We must have our own style and that needs to be the case in all Limerick teams.

MK: Limerick hurling has played a key role in your life.

EC: In so many ways it’s been a key part of my life. I have enjoyed every minute of it and when I am with hurling people I feel at home. I first got involved in Claughaun when my brother Michael heard about a training session. I was ten and in the field that evening were Dermot Kelly and Tom Nealon. I was the youngest and last picked and they put me in goal. The following year aged 11 I won a County U-16 medal in goal and I never looked back.

MK: What was the best Limerick team you were part of?

EC: That’s difficult but I thought the 1966 team was special. We ended the spell of the great Tipperary team. People talk of the great Tipperary full back line but we had McDonagh, Rea and Bresnan and by god it was not easy pass them. That team should have won more but we had some outstanding players on that team.

MK: Winning an All Ireland medal must have been very special?

EC: I always thought I would win one even from a young age. It was very special and there was a great bond between that team. We had lost a lot but we learned to win games and it will always hold a special place in my heart and mind. We won a great Munster Final and Richie had nerves of steel that day. I call it ‘the day of the moving goal post’. No matter what happens and no matter what Tipperary say, it was a point!

MK: You were able to play in defence and attack?

EC: I played at centre back in the final of ’73 and my first thought when they broke the news to me was for Jim O’Donnell. I had played centre back for the club and it was no great surprise to me to play in that position. Players need to be able to play a few positions and it’s important that we coach that from an early age.

MK: Beating Limerick in the ’94 final?

EC: That was my hardest day in hurling. That morning I dropped my daughter Ciara to the station and she was wearing the Limerick colours and I cried watching her walk up the steps. I had a job to do but it haunts me still. I think the game changed when Limerick took Ger Hegarty out of centre back and the finish was unreal. Limerick were well up but they had lost focus and their minds were in the stand collecting the cup, Offaly just kept hurling.

Growing up we all wanted to be Eamon Cregan, we wore the black Cooper helmet with the chin strap. We stood over frees and of course it was always the last puck of the game to win the match.

That time we had heroes to look up to. We saw Limerick winning cups and we saw players play with great honesty. I have known and been friends with Eamon Cregan for many years.

I admire his love of Limerick hurling and his honesty which, by the way, some people find hard to accept. Cregan is our legend, the greatest of them all, a man who could have hurled in any era. Thanks for the memories. And keep making many more of them.