T.J. Reid and other Kilkenny players are very generous with their time
Of all the myriad effects of the Meath/Dublin football saga in the summer of 1991, here’s perhaps the most unlikely spinoff.
Lester Ryan from Clara got a job with the Leinster Council (they now had bags of money to spend, of course).
For the next 26 years he operated under a variety of titles - Field officer, hurling officer, coaching director.
But he was always seeking to spread the hurling gospel and always finding willing ears.
Nowhere, in any county, did he ever take out a class that didn’t enjoy it.
One day in Meath, in the county’s hurling heartland in a school with a teacher from Galway, he abandoned the programme he’d intended.
The children were that well coached and as good as you’d see anywhere else in the province.
Another interesting discovery was the hardiness of the volunteer ethos.
“I couldn’t get my head around the work that people are prepared to do on a voluntary basis, over and over again, on behalf of the GAA.”
Diehard hurling folk
Needless to say, the most unlikely areas provided some of the most diehard hurling folk.
Take John Finucane in Longford.
You never heard of him? I never heard of him, and Lester Ryan had never heard of him.
But he was always on the phone, always full of enthusiasm. One of those silent heroes who constitute hurling’s lifeblood.
The most common mistake Lester found in the early days was the emphasis on the physical side of things to the detriment of the skills.
“Laps of the field for ten-year-olds? Ridiculous.”
As for overbearing team officials, the sight of a coach “running up and down the line like a lunatic” is a gratifyingly rare one these days, he reports.
The other no-nos included not giving players enough games and going out to win every match.
“Once you’re giving games to each player, and you’re letting them enjoy themselves and express themselves, and teaching them the skills and allowing them the opportunity to use those skills – then you’re doing a hell of a lot of good as a coach.”
Things might at one stage have been swinging too far “towards the cones and the coaches”, he acknowledges. Not any more.
Today the operative phrase is spot and fix. Identify the problem, correct it and let the children play.
And the importance of holding the hurley correctly?
“If they play enough hurling they’ll be good, but to reach your potential the correct grip is essential. Having said that, if a lad is good but has the wrong grip and finds it difficult to change, well…
“Sometimes an unorthodox hurler is harder to play against. Des Heffernan from Glenmore during my playing days, for instance.
“He had a very unorthodox style and was a very difficult opponent. You were left wondering what side to stand against him.”
A few years back when Kilkenny were in their pomp, Martin Comerford was due to be the star guest at the D.J. Carey School of Hurling one day.
At 9am he rang Lester to say that something had come up in work and he wouldn’t be able to make it.
But he’d got Tommy Walsh and Derek Lyng lined up to attend in his place. Crisis averted.
“Martin went the extra mile. What a man. But that’s something you find with a lot of the top stars.
“Seán Óg Ó hAilpín, Joe Canning: they couldn’t do enough for you. Any time I hear lads knocking inter-county hurlers, that’s the side of them I think of.”
There are now 128 GAA coaches of various kinds in Leinster.
Lester Ryan is no longer one of them, having taken early retirement.
He has no idea what the next adventure will bring. But if it’s even half as fun and interesting as his quarter of a century with the Leinster Council it’ll be quite some ride.