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'They don't do it for the glory of playing in an All-Ireland final...It's the most selfless job'

A reliable kit man is an indispensable asset and many serve their counties for decades.

INTER-COUNTY BACKROOM teams have swelled over the years, to the point that Mayo had a values and behaviours coach listed among their non-playing staff for last year’s All-Ireland final.

However, the kit man has long been a valuable member of management set-ups. A good one could be a permanent fixture around county squads for years, decades even.

kitmen

Selectors, strength and conditioning coaches, and analysts will move on every few seasons, but the kit man is the common denominator that can often outlast several managers.

Denis ‘Rackard’ Cody has been kit man with the Kilkenny hurlers since 1977. John ‘Hotpoint’ Hayes gave 30 unbroken years of service to the Tipperary hurling side before his departure in 2017. Roger Casey is in year 26 of his duties with the Waterford hurlers.

There’s nothing quite like the tension, euphoria or devastation that can wash over dressing rooms on big championship days.

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Imagine the scenes Rackard Cody has witnessed in the Kilkenny camp over his 45-year involvement with the county. Or the late Vincent Linnane, who sat in Kerry football’s inner sanctum during the Paidi Ó Sé, Jack O’Connor, Pat O’Shea and Eamonn Fitzmaurice regimes.

They were there for all of it.

The slagging at training, the electricity of the room after big wins, the rousing half-time speeches and the hear-a-pin-drop silence after the gut-wrenching losses. For the managers informing players they’re stepping down and the decorated All-Ireland winners announcing they’ve fought their last battle.

“Nothing would pass his lips,” Marc Ó Sé tells The42 about Kingdom favourite Linnane, who hailed from Mayo originally.

“Everything was sacred in the dressing room. He was so loyal. It was a great thing to have because that’s a very hard thing to do, to be in a dressing room and keep your counsel.”

It’s difficult to concisely sum up what a GAA kit man does. In essence, they’re the ones who lug around the gear and hang up the jerseys. But there’s a lot more to it than that.

They are a logistics man, confidant, jersey washer, hurley carrier, gear collector, morale booster and foil for pranks. They laugh and cry with the players.

“In 2009 when we lost (the All-Ireland final), Hotpoint was in tears,” recalls Brendan Cummins of his long-time Tipperary colleague.

“In absolute tears, I’ll never forget it. The dressing room was down and all that. When younger players looked across at him and saw him sitting in the corner crying, you realise it’s about more than you. He represented the supporters and the passion they have in our dressing room.”

The kit man is generally the first one at the training pitch and the last to leave. On gamedays, they’ll arrive at the grounds hours before the players.

ardee-st-marys-kit-man Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Whether it’s a February league game in a wet and windy Ballybofey or Croke Park on a glorious summer afternoon, they’ll make sure everything is in order to allow the players and management focus on the game. They do all the spade work without much acknowledgement.

As Premier legend Cummins puts it, “It’s stuff that you wouldn’t pay any heed to the damn things until something goes wrong and you go, ‘Oh Jesus, fair play to you for thinking about that.’”

An affable personality and reassuring presence seems to be a common trait among kit men countrywide. They’re usually up for a laugh and if a player wants for anything from a replacement stud to some wine gums, they’ll have them stashed nearby too.

They’ll offer an encouraging word here and there to younger players. A bark at older ones not pulling their weight. The kit man can often be there for the entirety of their careers. 

Take the lengthy senior inter-county careers of Cummins (20 years) and Ó Sé (15 years). Hayes and Linnane handed them their first jerseys as teenagers and their last as grizzled veterans. 

“He was with me my entire career,” Ó Sé says. “I remember the minors in ’98 he gave me my first minor jersey and then to be with me all the way till the very end…I was just lucky to be working with a great fella.

“Everybody would say the same thing. He was so kind and generous to everyone.”

Through his three-year involvement with the Kerry hurlers, Cummins recognises similar qualities in their kit man Tim Daly. Prior to last year’s Joe McDonagh Cup final, Daly printed out individual pictures of each player and put it above the spot where they togged out before the game. 

“Unbelievable attention to detail,” he reflects. “All their gear is laid out for them on match days, their drink is there, their programme is there, the Kerry flags are around the dressing room.

“Another fella doing it just for the good of his health. I don’t even know if these fellas ever get expenses or what happens.

“They don’t do it for the glory of playing in an All-Ireland final, they get the glory of watching their county win a match. That’s why they do it. It’s the most selfless job, it’s just amazing.”

henry-shefflin-and-martin-comerford Rackard Cody, Henry Shefflin and Martin Comerford at Kilkenny's 2007 All-Ireland homecoming. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

They also happen to possess some colourful nicknames. Rackard Cody once explained that when he was hurling he “used to get an odd score and Nicky Rackard was prominent at the time. The name stuck on me ever since.”

For Hotpoint Hayes, it was to do with the name printed on the company van he used to drive for Hotpoint, the home appliances brand.

Kit men are always held in high regard by players. It’s notable that Ó Sé and Cummins speak about Linnane and Hayes with the affection of former team-mates.

When Cats legend Tommy Walsh put out his retirement statement, the only backroom team member he name-checked was Rackard Cody.

Following Linnane’s death aged 82 in 2017, tributes poured in from Kerry GAA royalty.

Colm Cooper, Paul Galvin, the Ó Sé brothers, Fitzmaurice, Dara Ó Cinnéide, Aidan O’Mahony, Paul Geaney and David Moran were among those who publicly paid tribute to him.

“On top of that then as well, that’s just my story,” continues Ó Sé. “For all those lads that you mentioned, he meant everything to them as well because he was so thoughtful and he did that for everybody. 

“Ah it’s a different place now without him. It’s tough and it was very sad when he passed away so sudden.”

Cummins adds, “Players, I suppose, we all want to kill each other and sometimes the egos take over and we can’t let it go. But you take the kit men like this, if you talk about the spirit of the game and the spirit of GAA…’We want to win but when it’s over we forget about it.’  

“The Hotpoint and Rackard Codys of this world are absolute gems. When they’re in a dressing room they make players more rounded. They won’t take shit. If somebody leaves gear behind and you know that Hotpoint will have it for you the next night, you wouldn’t even have to ring him.”

****

Being a kit man isn’t for the faint hearted. It can even be a hazardous job at times. 

Before Waterford played Dublin in a 2012 National Hurling League game, John Mullane was in the dressing room getting the troops pumped up.

He let a roar: ’Fuck these jackeen c*nts! Come on now, let’s fucking tear into them’, before swinging his hurley onto the nearest table.

Waterford kit man Casey takes up the story. “You see John would be hyper before matches,” he says. “He was a great man in a dressing room to rare up fellas.

“The jerseys would be sitting up on the table and I just put my hand across to get one. At the same time Mullane was hitting the table with the hurley and he hit me straight on top of the hand.”

Casey’s wife and daughter were at the game. After appearing fine on the field minutes earlier during the warm-up, they were puzzled to see him returning from the dressing rooms with his arm tied up in a sling and the finger bandaged. 

“The wife was wondering what happened him in the last 10 minutes?” Casey smiles. “We often spoke about it, John and myself.”

john-mullane John Mullane leads out Waterford before they played Dublin in the 2012 league. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Then there was a run-in with his opposite number from Cork during the closing stages of the 2010 Munster final replay.

“We beat Cork under lights in Thurles. I’ll always remember the Cork kit man, I was down on my knees on the 21 yard line. At that time I was fit and I used to bring in their hurleys.

“But he passed me by and he said, ‘We have ye now.’ And he hit me with the fucking hurley, he actually hurted me.

“But I wouldn’t give into him and a few minutes after that Dan (Shanahan) had the ball in the net. Game over.

“So I made sure I made a beeline to meet him,” he laughs. 

Casey started out with the Deise in 1995 under manager Georgie Leahy. He hasn’t a bad word to say about the players he worked with over his lengthy involvement.

“All the players over the years I’d have to say there was never any fella shouting or barking at you. If they were looking for something, if the togs were too small or big, they’d come to you and ask you if there’s any chance you could sort it out for them. 

“They were never demanding like, ‘I want this or I want that’. That’s all of them over the years. There was a lot of players but they were never that way.

“They were the salt of the earth, big Dan, Mullane, Ken (McGrath) and fellas like that. The Brick (Michael Walsh) was a gentleman, still is. 

“Nice fellas to deal with I have to say. Even now the fact they’re gone as the fella says, we might meet in Waterford at training or matches and they’d always acknowledge you and talk to you.”

He suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and had planned to pack it in at the end of 2019, but a phonecall from Liam Cahill convinced him to stay on board.

“Liam is my ninth manager,” he says. “I’ll give it another year anyway. They tell me I keep saying that but if Liam wants me, which he does at the minute, then I’ll stick with them. I wouldn’t leave the ship as the saying goes.”

The job has become far more complicated as the game gets more ‘professional’.

“Big difference between then and now,” explains Casey. “That time you’d go to training with the hurling balls and cones. 

“It was a different type of training. It wasn’t as intense as it is now. It’s totally professional now, that’s the only word that’s missing out of it now – professional. You’ve to be ahead of the posse, you’ve to think ahead of what’s coming next next.”

Aside from the obvious stuff, Casey brings plenty of tape, hurling grips, towels, laces, assorted fruit, sweets, Jaffa cakes, four spare sets of jerseys and water to every game.

“I’ve a page up on the fridge and I go through it. When we finish training on a Thursday night before playing a match Sunday, I’ll be going through it on Friday at home. And I’ll double-check it on Saturday.”

brendan-cummins Two-time All-Ireland winner Brendan Cummins. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Cummins recalls how much more demanding Hotpoint’s job became in his latter years.

“When the transition was made from an ordinary GAA dressing room into a professional dressing room, that meant that your gear was left in your little locker for you.

“There was a drink and a Nutri Grain bar left there. Hotpoint actually knew what your favourite drink was, he always left the berry Lucozade sport for me under my locker. There would probably only six of us in the dressing room out of 35 that would drink the berry stuff.

“But on match day, on training nights, it’s that personal touch. All your gear would be ready. We had two sets of gear and Hotpoint would be the one who’d make sure the gear was set for each night and washed and brought back.

“He would have brought it to a dry cleaners and collected it in past times. In more modern times out of the GAA officers in Thurles. He’d have organised the wet gear if we needed it for training.

“If a fella fell down on the pitch ‘cos the studs weren’t in his boots, Hotpoint would have the wrench and the stud that was needed for particular boot to fix it back.”

mick-reid-prepares-refreshments-in-the-stands Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The night before Kerry games, Linnane would sleep with the team’s jerseys in his room in case of theft. 

“That just shows how much it meant to him,” says Ó Sé.

“He’d ring you before the game when he’d be ordering the jerseys and he’d say, ‘What size jersey are you? Are you long or short sleeve?’ He’d have your jersey and everything ready before every game. He was so meticulous, he was brilliant.

“He knew your sizes then after a while. I remember when the tight-fit jersey came out first I was slow to change from the loose-fitting jersey. You had 14 tight-fit jersey and one loose-fit jersey so he was able to sort all that type of thing. He was that detailed, thoughtful and measured.”

On the big days when tension is high, the kit man often takes it on himself to lighten up the mood with a wisecrack. Other times, it’s unintentional.

Fitting GPS systems into the back of jerseys was one job Linnane struggled with, much to the amusement of the Kerry players.

“Jesus Christ, the laugh I used get out of him trying to put the GPSes into the jerseys,” Ó Sé laughs.

“I’d be weak. I’d be sitting down in the dressing room reading the programme and then you’d see Vincent with a fork trying to put the GPSes into the jersey. I can still see him doing that.

“You’d actually do it yourself in two seconds but whatever way he was going at it with the fork. I’d say he’d still be at it. Pure character. 

“I was in tears laughing. I’d be winking at the fella next to me, ‘Watch Vincent over trying to get the GPS inside the jersey!’”

paul-galvin-returns-to-the-dressing-room Kerry's Paul Galvin returns to the dressing room after warming up before a 2011 league game. Source: James Crombie

The Kerry players knew Linnane was easily wound up. 

“You’d take a case of water out of the van and you’d just walk away with it. And he’d roar:

‘Hey, come back. Where are you going with that?’ 

‘Oh Jesus, sorry Vincent.’

“It was always just to get a rise out of him and you’d get a great kick from him. Especially before games and stuff when there would be nervous energy in the dressing room.

“He’d know it would be in jest, he’d take it well. It was mainly fellas pulling the piss out of him but he could handle a bit of craic too. He’d take it very well.”

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Linnane was also groundsman at Austin Stack Park, which he treated like his baby. 

During Páidí Ó Sé’s time in charge of Kerry, he had a close relationship with Linnane.

When he’d land in Tralee for training with a car full of players, he’d often ring him on loudspeaker before they reached the pitch just to hear the kit man’s booming greeting:

How’s Páidí?’

During Marc Ó Sé’s debut season in 2002, Kerry went on a winding run to the All-Ireland final through the back door. Manager Páidí would always get word on the team bus about their next opponents once the draw was done.

Linnane would be driving and some time later he’d ring the boss.

‘How’s Páidí? We got Fermanagh.’

‘Oh good man Vincent, thanks very much for that.’

“We would have known at this stage but Páidí didn’t want to break this spirits. Every game that year, up until the semi-final he’d ring Paidi and say, ‘How’s Páidí?

‘How’s Vincent?’

‘We got Galway.’ 

‘Oh Jesus, fair play Vincent.’  

“And the two of them would be shouting on the phone to each other. And off Vincent would go delighted thinking he’d done some great work.”

C9WvLVLVoAEgien The late Vincent Linnane.

After making his league debut for Tipperary in ’93, Cummins was dropped home by Hotpoint. The kit man took him under his wing. He drove him to league games and brought him home afterwards in his early days on the panel.

“My dad and family would have obviously said they’d bring me but Hotpoint would have said, ‘No, no I’ll bring the van down ye down’t worry about that.’ And the chats we’d have had in the car would have made me more comfortable with the set-up because he had a huge amount of experience.

“It’s only when I think back on what he was doing was he was doing everything he could to make sure I could succeed. He kept me on a level keel.”

Hotpoint added value to the group and wasn’t afraid to have a cut off Cummins if it was required.

“Sometimes if I needed someone to give out to me, Hotpoint would say it,” says the five-time All-Star.

‘You’d want to fucking buck up a small bit.’

“He wasn’t delivering good news all the time. We played a league game against Offaly in Nenagh one year. It’s very seldom Hotpoint would have given out to me, like. But I can remember I got blocked down twice for two goals.

“The Dooleys, of course, hanging around the edge of the square hooked me twice.

‘You fucking cost us today. Fucking careless.’

“He didn’t just say you cost us, he said you were careless. As if to say you weren’t concentrating today. And when he’d say that to you, I’d go, ‘Fuck it I can’t be like that again.’

“He wouldn’t say it out of being malicious or hurtful to you, he’d have said it out of this is what a supporter would have said to you, ‘You’re better than this, like. Don’t be taking this for granted a small bit.’”

On the Thursday night before they played Kilkenny in the ‘Drive for Five’ 2010 All-Ireland final, the Premier kit man stuck his head into the players huddle at the end of training. It’s a moment that is seared into Cummins’s mind.

“He just put his head under the arms of whoever it was,” he recalls.

‘Lads, I just have something to tell you there. Last year after the All-Ireland we were all crying but Eamon O’Shea was crying. He left the dressing room to go into the warm-up room because he didn’t want anybody to see it. Eamon won’t be crying this year, lads. Just fucking make sure of that.’

Cummins continues, “Everyone looked at each other and the hairs stood on the back of our necks and we went, ‘That’s not happening.’ So he knew what to say and when to say it.

“At the time we’d have killed or died for Eamon O’Shea, take your pick. And that whole set-up.”

dublin-v-tipperary-gaa-hurling-all-ireland-senior-championship-round-2 John 'Hotpoint' Hayes sets out the replacement hurleys before 2017 championship clash against Dublin. Source: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

At the same session, Eoin Kelly had his speech written out on a piece of paper and gave it to Hotpoint for safekeeping, ‘Mind this, I’m going to need it on Sunday.’

He didn’t think about it again until after the final whistle crowned Tipperary champions. On his way to accepting the Liam MacCarthy Cup on the steps of the Hogan Stand, an outstretched hand from the kit man returned the slip of paper to the captain. 

Around the same time, Rackard Cody sought out Cummins to offer his congratulations.

“He came over to me when they were all obviously heartbroken. ‘Well done, I’m delighted for ye,’ he said. ‘We’re heartbroken but fair play to ye, ye deserved it.’ And that’s the way he would be. Another solid, unbelievable hurling man.”

What stands out most for Cummins is the support Hotpoint gave them after the tough days, rather than the good ones. 

“Hotpoint was a cog in the wheel in good times when it was easier to be a cog in the wheel,” he explains.

“What I remember Hotpoint is from bad times when we got a hammering in a league game under different managements, say under Liam or Nicky (English). And he’d say something in the dressing room. That’s when you really have value for people like him and the character they bring to it.

“It’s when the shit hits the fan and nobody wants to talk and everyone wants to hide. They’ll make sure no-one hides and they’ll say the right thing. Without being intrusive on the management, that’s the key. Never said something that was over the management.

“I’m sure any time he spoke he would have asked permission to talk to the group. So he wasn’t some kind of a loose cannon floating around the dressing room taking over. 

“It’s like having a Tipperary supporter in the dressing room with the passion that he had.

“You couldn’t speak highly enough of him to be honest with you, he’s just an amazing man.”

Even after all these years, Casey remains as fanatical about Waterford hurling as ever.

The dream hasn’t changed.

“Just one All-Ireland.”

  • For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

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Kevin O'Brien

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