“I’ll tell you a story that probably best sums me up.”
Padraig Clancy is looking out the window of the boardroom at the car dealership where he works, and there is a smile spreading across his face.
He has been reflecting on his career as a Laois intercounty footballer, all 14 years of it, so there are plenty of stories he could pick from. This one should be good.
It’s a little over a week since he announced his retirement, as months of thought finally gave life to two words he knew he had to say, but struggled to get out - it’s over. It hasn’t been an easy decision, but he knew it was coming. His body has been sending him reminders all year.
It took him a week to get over the tiredness after the Carlow game. He had been lagging well behind in the sprints in training. His body can’t take any more.
Having started life as a Laois senior footballer in the winter of 1999, there have been plenty of peaks and troughs. He won a Leinster title in 2003, played for Leinster in the interprovincials, and has been to places like Hong Kong, Boston and South Africa because of what he can do on a football field. However, somewhat surprisingly, the moment he chooses to best sum himself up comes from this year.
Picture the scene. Laois are preparing to play Wexford in a crucial All-Ireland qualifier, making the trip down to a sweltering Wexford Park on a Saturday night. The permutations are fairly simple - win and you’re in the next round, lose and you’re finished for the year.
The Laois players file off the bus and head for the dressing room. It’s all part of the routine for the panel at this stage. Laois have faced plenty of qualifiers over the last couple of years, so there’s no need to be nervous. Unless you’re Evan O’Carroll.
The Crettyard youngster has only recently joined the panel, and now he’s going to be thrust into the white-hot heat of the All-Ireland championship. It’s a tough place to make a debut. He’s doing his best to look calm, but not really succeeding.
Padraig Clancy has been in enough dressing rooms to know when a team mate is battling with himself, so he makes a point of sitting beside the debutant in the dressing room. His presence hasn’t made much impact on O’Carroll, so when he gets up to go to the bathroom, Clancy does what he feels is the best thing in the circumstances - he takes one of O’Carroll’s football boots, and hides it in his own gearbag.
When O’Carroll returns from the toilet, Clancy keeps his poker-face intact, and urges his young team mate to hurry up and get togged out, because they’re heading out for the warm up. Socks and togs go on quickly, before quiet panic consumes the youngster as he desperately rummages in his bag looking for his second football boot. It’s the stuff of nightmares.
Clancy sits back and allows the scene to unfold for a few minutes, as every sort of scenario races through O’Carroll’s head. Eventually, he taps him on the shoulder and reunites him with the boot.
So why does this best sum up Padraig Clancy? We’ll let him explain. “The chap went from being really nervous about the game, to just being happy that he had his boot.”
It may have been unorthodox, but it helped settle the nerves of a team mate who needed help. It distracted him from the thoughts which were filling his head, and, eventually, made him laugh. O’Carroll got Laois’ first point of the game, and went on to have an excellent debut.
Padraig Clancy always did what he thought was best for the Laois senior footballers. Sometimes, that meant he had to hide a teenager’s football boot.
When it was announced two weeks ago that Padraig Clancy was retiring, the response was huge.
Players, supporters, officials, and everyone with an interest in Laois GAA bade their farewell to one of the fixtures of the Laois team. Part of the reaction seemed to be because supporters had gotten so used to seeing him in a Laois jersey, they took it for granted.
The man himself felt likewise. “I probably took it for granted myself that I was going to be there, but look, I have been very, very lucky. Tom Cribben brought me in back in the winter of 1999. I look at it now, and if you take Jack McCaffrey (the Dublin wing-back) who is 19 years of age and he’s flying it, and there’s no problems putting in a 19 year old.
“When I started I was 19 years old and I was moving fairly well, I remember we played Westmeath over in Tullamore, and they beat us. I felt going into the game I was in with a shout of playing, but the selectors took me to one side and told me I was a little bit young. Now it’s the other way around, it’s the young lad that’s going to get the start.”
So, now that he has made it public, are there any regrets? “Now that it’s done, I’m 100% happy with my decision, especially when you see a good few lads walking away at the minute, the likes of the Cork boys, Redmond Barry in Wexford, and Murphy, their centre-back. Now was the time for me to go. The support that I have been given, ever since I said it, on social media and other places, has been overwhelming.”
In terms of success, his most rewarding spell was during the tenure of Mick O’Dwyer, as he played a key role in helping Laois end a 57 year wait for a Leinster championship.
It was a success no one saw coming. Clancy enjoyed his time under Micko, and he made a big first impression on the Timahoe man. “My first experience of Micko was in 2002. There was a panel named out, and I was after playing well against Meath (in Colm Browne’s final game). Even though we were well beaten, I dominated in the air that day.
“When he came to the meeting, we were all looking at him, he was the great Mick O’Dwyer, and he was introduced to me.
“He asked ‘Are you the big red-headed midfielder? You’ll dominate for me next year’. That’s the very first thing he said to me, and I swear to God, I left that meeting thinking, ‘God, I can’t wait to drive it on’”.
O’Dwyer’s support was unwavering, and it helped to set Laois on the right path after a shaky start to his tenure. “We lost our very first match, Longford beat us up here in the O’Byrne Cup, and you should have seen the disappointment in that dressing room. Every player looked around and was thinking, ‘what’s this lad doing with us shower of eijits?’ That was the start of it, and for that month, he picked us up.
“If you were playing bad, he’d back you to the hilt. He’d tell you that you were flying it, he’d drum that into me - ‘you’re flying it, you’re flying it’. A few lads didn’t get on with him, you’re always going to get that, but I can only speak from my experience of him, and I felt he was outstanding.”
In spite of the progress Laois made in O’Dwyer’s spell, many felt it was failure overall. There were other missed opportunities, some more painful than others. Clancy is quick to point out that he loved every minute of his intercounty career, but he still has one regret from his time in blue and white. “Of all the games I have come away from, the one big regret I would have was the Dublin game in 2005.
“I know we drew with Westmeath (in 2004), but I have only one regret and that was losing to Dublin. There was 68 minutes gone, it was a packed house, we were two points up, and to lose by a point was gut-wrenching.”
Laois are probably still in the shadow of that success in 2003. Results in the Leinster championship in recent years offer no reason to be expectant of silverware, but the pressure is still there. For Clancy, Leinster success has to be the focus every year. “You have to set a bar for yourself, and every year you put on the Laois jersey you should be looking to get to a Leinster final.
“The All-Ireland is a little bit tougher too, but success in the Leinster championship is what we should be trying to achieve, and when you go into the next competition you can focus on that.”
The sacrifices that need to be made at intercounty level are huge. It takes a different kind of player to commit to the lifestyle, and a different one again to thoroughly enjoy it.
While many are quick to point out what the GAA has taken from them, Clancy has always been grateful for what it gave back. “I went to Hong Kong, I went to Boston, and I went to South Africa, for nothing. I’ve been very lucky. The job I’m in now, it was offered to me, I didn’t go looking for it, they asked me to come in.
“The GAA has been good to me. What really burns me is players not being allowed do interviews, and being told you can’t do interviews, because I think it’s a load of rubbish.
“You should be able to have a rapport with everyone. In our most successful times under Mick O’Dwyer, you could pick up any paper and there would be a Laois player in it. I got to open shops and was given a few bob for it, but what about it? I was training five nights a week.
“It just boils me, whether it’s management’s decisions or players decisions to not do interviews, because everyone has a job to do. It takes the characters out of the game. People love reading about their own people, so why stop them? You should be allowed express yourself and say what you want. If you say something controversial, what about it?”
Being a car salesman, he has always had an easy nature around people. He was approachable and outgoing, but there was method to his manner too. “The way I am, if the team are going well, I want the whole county to enjoy the ride.
“I would try to change people’s perception of what an intercounty footballer was. I would talk to anyone about football, and I wanted the supporters and everyone else to enjoy it as much as I was enjoying it, and I would want people to think ‘this is great craic’ and that ‘those boys were dead-on’”.
Eventually, it’s time to being up the F word - the Future. His life has been built around football for so long, it’ll take him time to adjust to a more relaxed pace. He admits to having some nerves about what lies ahead, but is looking forward to spending more time with his daughter, Anna, and wife Grainne.
Then on the agenda will be dipping his toe into management, where he hopes to garner some experience in the not too distant future. As he allows his mind to wander to the future, however, he can’t help but be appreciative of the people who got him to where he is now As he admits himself, he has a lot of people to thank. “I have to be very grateful to the Laois people. I’m working locally here in Portlaoise and people have always been very good to me.
“I have to thank every man, woman and child that came to support us on good days and bad, and I would say to them to keep supporting the current bunch of footballers and hurlers, because they are dedicating a massive amount of time.
“It might not always work out, and you might not see what you want to see, but stay bringing your children to the games, because they could be next Laois footballers and hurlers. I went through it all and I loved every minute of it.”
Closer to home, his club career has been as eventful as his intercounty one. County finals, relegations, championship wins, they have all been crammed in, and he is aware of the role the club played in his development. “Everyone in the village knows I have great time for them. Even if things are going well, they’ll bring you back to earth! They’ll tell you that you played brutal, but when things are going bad, they’ll be the first to pick you back up again. I think I come from a very special community if I’m honest.”
He also thanks his family and his wife, but special mention goes to his grandmother, Sheila Clancy. “I have a grandmother there that game me holy water before every Laois game and every Timahoe game, and she was saying prayers that things would go well. She kept me going as much as anyone, and even retiring, you feel like you’re letting people like that and your family down, but there’s only so long you can stay going.”