May 08, 1992
Tipperary captain Michael Cleary waits for his team mates
TIPP'S MICHAEL CLEARY
A prince among royalty in Ireland's Hurling Heartland
To be the best around, to beat the rest, dedication is the common denominator shared by all top class artists, whatever the field. For Tipperary's bundle of energy, Michael Cleary, the field is covered in a lush green sward with H-shaped targets on opposite ends. His dedication to perfecting the art of splitting them with a sliothar propelled by a flick of his wrist is legendary. In recent seasons, Cleary has produced the sort of hurling brilliance legends are made of.
Behind the counter of the family-owned newsagency and adjoining restaurant, Cleary has all the time in the world to talk business… The business of hurling for arguably the best team in the land. Never mind the basic necessities on display in the Nenagh-based family enterprise, for the 25 year old Eire Og star, Ireland's most ancient and most skilful of games is his daily bread and butter. He feeds off it like Popeye and his spinach. Michael Cleary's hurling diet revolves around rare dishes made up of total dedication, commitment and innate ability. Physically he remains a mere 5 foot 8 inches high and a fighting fit 11 stone 4 pounds, but spiritually he exhibits all the inner strength and talent of hurling's very own High Priest.
Despite his acceptance among Tipperary followers as a veritable icon when in possession of the ball, Cleary still appears almost in awe of the whole new world he finds himself in these past two seasons. Three years ago, the only son of James and Peg Cleary of Nenagh, became yet another Tipperary All-Star winner. To this day one can detect a genuine disbelief in Cleary's mind that he's as good as hurling aficionados say he is. Like making time in his busy, friendly Nenagh shop, Michael Cleary isn't yet ready to acknowledge, in his own mind, that he can perform certain tasks with a cash register and a hurley stick which other mere mortals can only dream about. That's the kind of him. Pressed for an honest appraisal of his strengths, one receives only a terse assessment - "dedicated."
His modest demeanour permits him to get away with more than your average Cork, Kilkenny etc supporter would grant a thousand others. When other hurlers are quickly labelled showmen or selfish, it's a testimony to Cleary's popularity across the country that rival supporters have been known for their kindness to him even in the face of the renowned Cleary tyranny. He's a prince among royalty in Ireland's hurling heartland. Solely committed to the game of hurling, his perfection of the art has been acknowledged with not only an All-Star (as mentioned earlier) in 1990, but also one the following year as well. Yes, Cleary is well respected, well liked and a dab hand at cutting ham!
An automatic choice these days with the Hoops but it wasn't always that way. His debut against Dublin in a challenge back in February 1988 marked an inauspicious start to his inter-county career, he was a big fish in a wee pond on his native Eire Og patch, but things were different when he joined up alongside Bobby Ryan, Donie O'Connell and other established Tipperary stars of four years ago. Tipperary had won the Munster in 1987, it was the proverbial mana from Heaven but with Cleary on board the following year they succeeded in "disappointing" their legions of followers by merely winning the League title, although the Eire Og sharpshooter failed to get a game in that run. A run-out in the quarter-final of the Championship that year was of little consolation to the True Blue Tipperary youngster as his beloved county fell to the tribesmen in the Blue Ribbon September final.
"Sure I was competing for my place with a host of guys who were great forwards, but at that stage I was my own worst enemy. I just couldn't get my confidence together," he remembers of that debut year. A cracker of a goal in October of '88 against Offaly suggested that he was about to turn things around but it was a false hope. The emotion of it all, being part of a county panel who had retrieved Tipperary's soul two years previous after a gap of sixteen years clearly engulfed the turbo-charged attacker. A second Munster medal (as a sub) and a first All-Ireland in '89 helped him decide to stick with it, confidence or nay. It was to prove a wise and fully justified decision.
Still in awe of the prestige and pride involved in representing famed Tipperary, he's much more mature now, more self-assured with that extra ring of confidence hanging over his head as he steps out onto Pairc Un Caoimh, Nowlan Park or wherever. Three Munster Championship medals, two All-Irelands, one National League, an Oireachtas and the aforementioned All-Star - all tucked under the Cleary belt. Not bad for someone clearly expecting better things to come in the future, for Eire Og, for Tipperary and for himself. Oops!!! Nearly forgot the Railway Cup triumph on March 15th last!
Cleary shattered the Ulster dream that day in Nowlan Park. He said "No" to a first ever inter-provincial hurling title for the men from the North. Cleary, more than any other player, exemplified the difference between the potency of the crew representing the eventual winners and the gallant pretenders. His pace and guile and unerring accuracy in converting the half-chance left him cited as a class apart in the final. His side's top scorer, he could have doubled his personal tally had he decided to play to the cameras and go it alone on occasions. Such is not the man, however. In a spark of magic, Cleary turned on both engines without showing a hint of a fuse to his marker to score Munster's first goal. It was a case of poetry in motion in the second half as he made space beautifully for himself before setting up Kerry's Christy Walsh for the winner's third goal.
As to his present-day form, Tipperary's number one free-taker is bang on target for a 1993 All-Star, though another All-Ireland medal and a County Championship piece of silverware with his beloved Eire Og top the priority list. Just the tick one would imagine, to give the hurlers of neighbouring Toomevara, Kilruane and Borrisoleigh something to shout and whisper about at the same time.
There's no doubt, however, that Michael Cleary divides his loyalties clearly down the middle when talking in terms of club and county affections. A proud Eire Og clubman, he has seen the club win four Under 21 titles between 1979 and 1982, the last of which he played an integral part in dealing. Unfortunately, difficulties peculiar to town clubs have afflicted Eire Og largely since. Still, he has tasted success sufficiently often with his club to boast of Under 16 and Under 21 medals in '82 and '83 respectively, north Tipp and county Junior medals and Senior League Division One honours. As the club's regular midfielder, Eire Og supporters will once again pin their hopes on Michael and the likes of Conor O'Donovan, Paul Kennedy and John Heffernan to do the business in this Summer's domestic Championship. Manager Liam Heffernan and co-conspirators Billy Flannery, Tony Tiernan and Tony Tucker are certainly mindful of the value of Cleary and Co., but others like Tommy Mulcahy, Jimmy Minogue and Mickey Kearns are recognised as important cogs too.
A whole-hearted servant to his club, Michael is a keen football enthusiast and as his tips for the top at the Eire Og base, he suggests players such as Mark Sheehan, Robert Tomlinson and Kevin Coonan are heading for the very top and nothing would please him more than to be proven correct. Like a lot of clubs in the region, dual players are both a common breed and also a well-respected and protected species.
A noted defender in his Underage Days beating Roscrea by a handsome 18 points when trailing at the break by six is surprisingly one of Michael's declared all-time career highlights. "We had what we thought was a rubbish team but we played brilliantly to upset the odds and claim the Under 16 title," the then centre back recalls. That was many moons ago and despite the fact that he would dearly love to revert to a defensive role even now, he admits, somewhat jokingly, that he'd miss the pressure of life up at he front.
"I tend to try and take something positive out of all the pressure and hype that goes with playing top-class hurling. I try and alleviate the pressure by reminding myself that I need to enjoy the game in order to get the best out of myself," Michael mused. It's certainly a philosophy which has worked a treat in recent seasons and one which is needed in shrugging off the opposition in bidding for first team places on a team already tipped, by shrewd observers of the game, to come up trumps once again 'cum September.
A former county champion at Pitch and Putt and no mean performer snooker-player either, Michael is Tipp's established free-taker but he's quick to pass on a lot of the credit for this achievement to his sister Eileen - "my official ball-girl" and other sister Marion who provide great vocal support at all Michael's matches. Michael is the first to admit that free-taking is an art in itself, however. "I tend to treat it as something which demands extra work, extra practice. I've been taking them for a long time but sometimes when your confidence isn't what it should be, taking them can become an even more difficult task," Michael explains.
Practice makes perfect. An adage which Michael Cleary obviously swears by for he's never done practising, locals acknowledge. One source, particularly close to the Tipperary set-up, speaks of Cleary heading up to the Eire Og ground on a daily basis, swinging his caman against the sliotar and firing it against the wall of the well-used handball alley as a sharpening up exercise. "He goes up there practically every single day. That's where he gets his timing and speed of reaction perfected. Michael's very dedicated," our source confirmed.
A player's player. A joy to manage and a supreme sportsman to boot. Michael Cleary says he's no longer intimidated by the hoards of Tipperary supporters who demand excellence at every strike of the ball. He recalls Tipperary Winning their first Championship match for ten-odd years in 1983 when they emerged from the dumps to beat Clare. Tipperary were almost down and out but over 35,000 were there to cheer them on. "It's a privilege and an honour to play in front of that kind of loyal support." He looks like he's going to do just that for many more years to come.
Taken from Hogan Stand Magazine 08/05/92.
Written by Kevin Carney.
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