THE BIG INTERVIEW

From Glanworth to Newbridge, John Courtney in conversation

Success all the way, on, and off, the field of play

Tommy Callaghan

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Tommy Callaghan

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editor@kildarenow.ie

From Glanworth to Newbridge, John Courtney in conversation

John Courtney

It's a long way from the small rural village of Glanworth in North Cork, to various trouble spots around the world such as Lebanon, the Middle East, Bosnia, East Timor, the Balkans, to name just a few far flung locations.
And when a young lad left his village, some 40km, north of Cork city, heading to the Curragh of Kildare, to become an army cadet back in 1972, little did he know, or realise, the life he would have in the armed forces, not to mention an incredible and impressive sporting career, amongst many other stop overs, that included him playing a pivotal role in Jim Gavin's Dublin All-Ireland winning six-in-a-row successes.
John Courtney, aka JC; aka The Colonel, aka simply, Courtney.
It has been an incredible journey that saw him capture two senior football championship titles with his adopted club Sarsfields of Kildare; manage the same club to no less than three senior football titles; Éire Óg of Carlow to Leinster Club success; Gracefield and Edenderry to Offaly senior success; not forgetting Daingean at intermediate level and a junior title with Straffan in Kildare.
Throw in stints as senior manager at Wicklow, Offaly and his adopted county of Kildare, you can get an idea of how much this popular Corkonian has travelled since first heading to the Curragh all those years ago.
Before he vacated the comforts of Glanworth to literally travel the world, John Courtney had one very important medal in his armoury, a junior football medal won in 1971 with Glanworth, a few years later to be joined with an intermediate medal, while travelling at the time from The Shortgrass County to his native village in Co. Cork.
Only last year John was honoured by Glanworth when presented with one of their annual awards in recognition of his contribution.
With no army family background, it was a suggestion that came from his dad, who was friendly with another Cork army exile who also made his home in Newbridge, Pat O'Riordan, that drew Courtney to the armed forces.
With the exception of his many overseas trips and stints in Dublin and Kilkenny, the bulk of John Courtney's career was based in the Curragh.
It was there he first met Dermot Earley, who was to become not just a close army colleague but a very close friend and to this very day just mention the name Dermot Earley to John Courtney and it brings a quiver to his voice; an affection that is clearly to be seen and a great sense of pride that he is able to say he was guided, from his early days as a young army officer, to playing and managing with the great Roscommon man, both at Sarsfields and in the Defence Forces.
Two senior titles won with Sarsfields, was decent according to John Courtney and while others will say it should have been a lot more, the Glanworth man is quick to point out that with the likes of Raheens and Carbury so strong in Kildare at that time, it was a major achievement to even have the two.
Those two sides, particularly Raheens, were big, powerful and very talented outfits.
“When you were hit from either you knew you were hit, but back in those times, regardless of how hard or tough a knock you received you did not show any weakness, you hit the deck but equally as quickly you were back on your feet, anything else was a sign of weakness.
While Gaelic football was not just the main sport that John Courtney enjoyed, it was the only sport — never saw a rugby match or indeed a rugby ball until I arrived in the Curragh — yet lined out for the Curragh army team for many's the year.
When I began playing rugby with the Curragh, one of the first things I was told was there was nothing to worry about on the field as ‘The Bruiser’ would look after me.
“And he certainly did” said John, adding “ Sean ‘Bruiser’ Brennan lived up to his name I can assure you of that and with the likes of Dan Rea, Peter Gleeson of Rathangan and Paddy Gore, just to mention a few, a young, inexperienced player like me at the time, certainly did not have to look too far if I required some assistance.”
A member of the successful Cork minor football team of 1971 (Munster champions) Courtney went on to represent his county at U21, junior and senior level for some five years but as he explains himself, things were so busy, and different, at the Curragh at that time, even getting a weekend free was very difficulty.
“There was a lot going on in the country, protests, riots, prison duties; we were practically either on week-
end duty or weekend stand-by so it wasn't easy to get away and while you would only be informed of team selection for Cork, by letter on a Tuesday, there was no guarantee you would be able to make the trip, but they were great times and very enjoyable times I have to say.”
It was however a huge honour not just for the Glanworth club to have one of their own associated with Cork seniors but it was a huge thing for the parish.
“I was the first, and to this day, the only Glanworth player to have played senior championship football for Cork; it was not, and still is not, a place the county came looking for players; so at the time it was very big for both club and the parish.”
Following an overseas trip to Cyprus in 1980, John threw in his lot with Sarsfields (and Dermot Earley) and two years later they defeated St Laurence's in the senior championship final and repeated that feat four years later, while also winning two back-to-back All-Ireland 7s, which was no mean achievement.
Even before he took over as manager of Sarsfields for the first time in 1993, John Courtney had enjoyed success with Gracefield, Edenderry and Daingean of Offaly while he also managed at senior level, Wicklow, Offaly and of course, Kildare (we'll return to that later).
Taking over Sarsfields John Courtney won back-to-back titles in ’93 and ’94 before leading them again in a second stint to the Holy Grail of senior championship success in 2001.
That was the year Sarsfields, and their manager, felt was the year the club would finally fulfil a lifetime ambition of being crowned Kings of Leinster.
Standing in their way of a final place were Dublin champions, Na Fianna, a side packed with county stars, not just Dubs but two Armagh stars, Kieran McGeeney and Des Mackin.
The opening game was a thriller and ended in deadlock, Na Fianna 2-10 Sarsfields 1-13.
The replay saw the Dublin champions, hand out a bit of a hiding and when the final whistle arrived there were no less than nine points separating the sides.
Have to say I remember that day very well. As Sarsfields manager and players made their way into the dressingrooms, this reported called John Courtney to one side.
“They played six subs John” I informed him.
“What does that mean came his reply.”
The rule says play six and you lose the game.
Suddenly the word spread, consternation in the Na Fianna camp, while Sarsfields, initially at any rate, were not overly bothered after a comprehensive defeat.
But slowly it dawned on everyone, regardless of what position Sarsfields were taking, a major blunder had been made; a vital rule had been broken and there would have to be repercussions.
After some brief discussion and now fully versed in what the miss demeanour meant, Sarsfields were in no mood to take the game from their conquerors in the committee room.
The following Tuesday evening a Leinster Council meeting threw out Na Fianna under the relevant rule but, on the insistence of John Courtney and Sarsfields, a replay was fixed for Newbridge the following Sunday.
Over 7,000 packed into St Conleth's Park and it turned out to be a cracker; went to extra time before Na Fianna edged out Sarsfields, and John Courtney, in a game described as one of the best seen at the venue for many a day.
Na Fianna went on to lose the Leinster Club final to Rathnew of Wicklow while Sarsfields are still awaiting their first Leinster Club title.
That three game saga was something very special, John Courtney told us last week; great games to be involved in; probably the best games I was ever involved in as a manager.
Prior to taking on his stints as manager of Sarsfields John Courtney managed Kildare 1986-87.
“I was sorry I was ever asked” was how he described that particular experience.
“There were a lot of things that concerned us and while the players were brilliant; some very decent players at the time; there were issues concerning travel; players issues that were not resolved and following a defeat by Wexford in the Leinster Championship I walked away.”
Kildare, and John Crofton, not a happy experience is the way the Cork man summed it up.
Some seven years ago, the then Dublin manager Jim Gavin, a former army colleague, stationed at the Curragh, and a good friend of John Courtney invited him (Courtney) “to become part of the structure” with Dublin.
And for the next seven years — and remains there still under Dessie Farrell — John Courtney travelled the length and breadth of the country building up dossiers of teams, practically every team, or at least every county team that had any realistic chance come championship time.
It is a role that he has really enjoyed, and a role Jim Gavin readily admits was a vital cog in his set-up during his incredibly successful time in charge.
“It was Jim's idea; travel around and produce reports on teams and individuals; we did not have to go to training sessions if we did not want to; did not have to go to see Dublin playing (usually at other games anyway) and while we ever only saw Dublin play at the final stages of the All Ireland, rarely missed training sessions.
Not surprisingly John Courtney got on extremely well with the Dublin players who addressed him no other way but ‘Colonel.’
John Courtney puts Jim Gavin up there with the likes of Brian Coady, Mick O'Dywer and Sean Boylan.
“He's up there with the best of them and Dublin's success would not have been achieved without him” he insists.
An avid golfer, and a former captain of the Curragh, John Courtney, along with Martin Millar (RIP) was responsible for banishing the sheep off the Curragh golf course; while he fondly remembers his early Saturday morning 18 holes of golf with his friend and colleague, the late Dermot Earley.
Married to Nuala, they have two sons (both followed their dad into the Defence Forces) and one daughter.
These days, apart from playing golf with the Army Society most weeks at the Royal Curragh; and looking forward to getting back into attending inter-county games once the lockdown and, hopefully, the coronavirus leaves these, and all other shores, John Courtney is also very much involved in charity work, initially with the Hospice movement and these days with St Anne's and the Curragh Lourdes Fund, an organisation that fund raises and brings young children to Lourdes every two years or so.
“I love being involved with the Lourdes Fund, great people and with the help of the military we bring kids away every two years” he says enthusiastically.
It's a long time now since a young lad, still wet behind the ears, left his native Glanworth in North Cork, headed to the Curragh to begin a lifetime journey with the Defence Forces, rising to the rank of colonel, that involved many, many overseas trips on various and varied assignments.
Mixing all that with playing sport at the top level and managing successfully both at club and inter-county level, it has certainly been a whirlwind of a journey.
Sure John Courtney is so long around these parts at this stage, we could nearly call him one of our own.
Nearly!