O’Leary, John

24 July 1992

John O’Leary
John O’Leary
The longest serving and most experienced member of the Dublin football squad

A blood brother of American football’s contract kicker, a country cousin of soccer’s penalty king, gaelic football’s custodian of the nets knows all about being under the punter’s microscope.

Atmosphere, full forward and even pressure from the dug-out can all combine to make life very difficult on the football field for the man retaining the position nobody else wants. Granted, when the ball rolls kindly, life between the sticks can be very positive and rewarding but when gloves, defenders and Saint Jude are nowhere to be found ... well ... life’s simply not worth living. Others see to that.

Nobody knows better than Dublin’s John O’Leary that goalkeepers are only one mistake away from ridicule and splendid isolation. Too wise to believe anything else and too honest to deny it, Dublin gaelic football team’s number one citizen is made enough to do his job and manly enough to deal with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that go with it. Some may accuse him of being mad to put up with the lonely life but they’ll never accuse him of being insane, not as long as he hangs in there with the Dubs, that is!

Currently the longest serving and easily the most experienced member of the Dublin senior football squad bidding to win the county’s first Leinster senior title in three years, the Balbriggan native continues to enjoy life as the Metropolitan’s number one choice goalie. On a couple of occasion in the past, however, John O’Leary was demoted from the position. Under Gerry McCaul’s management, the 31 year old Skerries resident found himself out of favour for two leagues games and then again sensationally after Dublin’s defeat in the National League this season to Tyrone at Croke Park. Despite some of his saves being out of this world, John O’Leary is definitely human and he candidly admits that being dropped did effect his confidence, the raw material from which all good keepers are manufactured.

Looking back on that day against Tyrone, O’Leary blames himself for three of the four goals that whizzed by him. He reckons the mistakes were possibly in the pipeline anyway, his form was, he felt, dipping before the Tyrone match. What he doesn’t comment on is the synopsis by many scribes in the aftermath of that game which suggested that over half of the Dubs side were below par also that day. Hardly something to boost a goalkeepers confidence. A recall for the League play off against Galway though restored the equilibrium and that’s the way it has stood since.

A perfectionist whose self-analysis can sometimes go overboard, blank sheet are his personal goal but letting in goals and winning matches represent for him a better deal. “A blank sheets is probably a fair yardstick when judging a goalkeeper’s performance but cutting down on mistakes has to be his main objective. In my particular position I can’t afford to have too many, especially with Mick Pender (Dublin’s reserve goalie) on the bench,” the Swords-based Irish Permanent Building Society manager explained.

Son of Corkonian Denis O’Leary, himself an O’Byrne Cup medal winner in the late ’fifties, John O’Leary has always been, literally, one of the first names written in on successive team sheets. As an under 13 enthusiast, he was slotted in at number one by O’Dwyer’s juvenile mentor Tom Clarke and in between brief spells as an attacker with O’Dwyers, there he has remained ever since. He prefers being there although maintaining that a goalkeeper’s lack of control over affairs going on in front of him can be frustrating to say the least.

In that sense, he’s been devoid of a certain degree of control at the highest level since coming to prominence with Dublin minors. As a member of the county under eighteen side in 1978 and 1979, O’Leary starred alongside Ciaran Duff, Barney Rock and Vincent Conroy on a campaign which eventually saw the Dubs beat a Tom Spillane-led Kerry side in the All-Ireland minor final of 1979. A Leinster under 21 medal would follow also in 1980, the forerunner of several medals in the near future.

It was clear that the six foot plus, twelve and a half stone netminder was in the business to stay. A newly acquired position as a bank clerk and the surprisingly early retirement of Paddy Cullen in 1979, formed the catalyst for a decided change in lifestyle. To everyone else it was a natural progression in O’Leary’s rise and rise but it was a whirlwind elevation for the ’keeper whose exploits were now being carefully monitored by Shamrock Rovers soccer club and local rugby clubs. The GAA was to emerge as O’Leary’s chosen code, however, and haven’t the Dubs been glad too!

One of the most popular players among the Hill 16 faithful, three years after making his senior championship debut he succeeded in adding an All-Ireland medal to his earlier acquired first ever provincial senior medal. The 1983 Dublin team was a good one with messrs. Mullins, O’Toole, Rock, Drumm and McNally on board. There, too, was O’Leary and directly in front of him, Gerry Hargan of Ballymun Kickhams. Having the county’s best known fireman still there in front of him at full back nine years on, is very important to the O’Dwyers stalwart.

“Familiarity between a goalkeeper and his full back line, particularly the team’s full back, is extremely important. Myself and Gerry have built up a good understanding over the years and the rapport we enjoy definitely helps my game.”

A Division Two League winner with O’Dwyers in 1979, O’Leary and his club colleagues have been ploughing a difficult furrow in intermediate ranks since 1983 but their county star firmly believes that better things lie ahead for his beloved club. Equally ambitious in an O’Dwyer’s shirt as he is in the sky blue of his county outfit, the ’oft times centre half forward would dearly like to add to his intermediate league medal, divisional medal and St. Vincent de Paul Tournament honours. He’d also rather like a second All-Ireland senior championship medal.

To be this year’s championship winners on the All-Ireland front, Dublin need to be as strong and as potent as the county’s ’83 squad, but are they? “The team this year aren’t as good yet but the lads have the potential though to be better. Experienced players like Brian Mullins, Anton O’Toole and Tommy Drumm make a big difference to the team of ’83,” the Leinster Railway Cup captain of 1985 replied.

Married to Niamh (nee Ladd) from Blackrock (the couple have one child, baby Aisling), John O’Leary has, arguably been the most consistent inter county goalkeeper in the country for the last ten years. His most recent form has been as good as it has ever been and his sure footed, commanding presence on the edge of the square has played no small part in shaping some of the best defensive displays seen from a Dublin rearguard in modern times. No defence creaks and stumbles like the one in front of a timid, unsure and inexperienced goalkeeper desperately short of confidence. In Dublin’s march to this year’s Leinster Final, O’Leary’s solidity, notably in the cliffhanger against Louth, has been instrumental in providing the necessary platform to the Dubs defence to support their frontmen, sure in the knowledge that their goalkeeper is calling the right shots from behind them.

As far back as 1983 when the Dubs won their last All-Ireland title, supporters on Hill 16 and elsewhere at Croke Park have been anxiously awaiting the appearance of O’Leary and Co. on national finals day. Supporters, according to the Dublin stopper, “have every right to be losing patience with us after three years without a Leinster title and the fact that we have gone nearly ten years now without winning an All-Ireland senior title has added to everyone’s sense of disappointment and frustration.”

The Building Society boss is conscious that the county’s pride has taken a bit of a bashing in recent times and that such a scenario needs to be changed, and quickly. Surprised to be selected by Eugene McGee as Ireland’s captain in the Australian Compromise Rules test in 1987, he feels that Mick O’Dwyer’s Kildare outfit have long since lost their surprise element name-plate. He rates them very highly, especially those players with whom he will have eyeball to eyeball contact with on Sunday next.

“I’ve been very impressed by the Kildare team as a whole this year but especially the marksmanship of their attack. They’re a clinical bunch of players but having said that, I definitely believe that our defence will prove themselves equal to the task. Overall though, Kildare must be probably the fittest team in the country at the present time,” mused the netminder. O’Leary’s performances in this year’s campaign have been what one might have expected from a stylish goalkeeper. No more and no less.

A player who insists on doing his own specific exercises to aid his specific goalkeeping training, the former All Star has had enough experience over the years to gauge the respective attributes needed by those who man the last line of defence. Dubs apart, the O’Dwyers star player rates Meath pair Mick Lyons and Robbie O’Malley and Cork’s Niall Cahalane as his ideal full back line. It’s no coincidence that all three, plus O’Leary himself played vital parts in orchestrating defeat for the Australian tourists on two occasions.

Unassuming and a journalist’s delight, Dublin’s most experienced campaigner is on the scent of a second All-Ireland senior medal. First he must help negotiate his county past a hungry Kildare side most definitely on a roll. A blank sheet will be a bonus this coming Sunday but if shots happen to bypass the glue-like hands of the Balbriggan native and Dublin still steal home to outright victory, then there’ll be no one happier at Jones Road than John O’Leary.



Taken from Hogan Stand magazine
24th July 1992