Andy Comerford won three All-Irelands with Kilkenny, playing alongside his brother Martin for two of these. Born in London, Andy also hurled with the Exiles and is as proud of the B All-Ireland he won with London in 1995. Andy spoke to David Hennessy about hurling for London, his days wearing black and amber and some fatherly advice that made it possible
Hurling fans and particularly supporters of Kilkenny would remember Andy Comerford for his performances in midfield and captaining the Cats to their 2002 All-Ireland. They may not realise that he was born in London, hurled with Brothers Pearse and also won an All-Ireland with the Exiles.
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody has made history with ten All-Irelands in sixteen years in charge. He is now going for his eleventh and with Henry Shefflin after hanging up his boots, he is going for it with a completely different team to the one he started with. If Kilkenny come out on top in this year’s competition, it will be their eighth since 2006, making 2010’s defeat to Tipperary and 2013’s poor year for the Cats the only blips in a whole decade of dominance.
Andy Comerford was a member of the Kilkenny panel when Cody took over and won three All-Irelands under him, the first three of Cody’s haul. When Brian Cody took charge of Kilkenny for the 1999 season, the Cats had lost the 1998 final to Offaly. His first campaign ended in a one point defeat to Cork in the final. In 2000, after coming behind in a tough semi-final against Galway, the pressure was on to avoid losing a third final in a row, a tag no team wants.
Andy remembers: “Going into 2000, there was a lot of pressure on the team, there was a lot of pressure on the management but more so on the players I think because we were all after playing together from ‘95/’96 all the way up along and we hadn’t won an All-Ireland.
“Willie O’Connor was the captain that time. It was his last year. He was a good character in the dressing room and he was well looked up to. We all just said, ‘listen, we’re going to give it the extra 20% that’s needed’. And I don’t think any team would have beaten us that year.
“Galway would have beaten a less motivated Kilkenny that year, they would have won an All-Ireland. After losing ’99, we knew we left it behind. We were the best team, even though we met Offaly in the final and they threw everything at us, there was no way we were going to lose.”
First, Andy and Kilkenny had to negotiate a tough semi-final against Galway where they trailed by two points at half-time: “It could have been a disaster if we had gone out in the semi-final. Brian Cody might never have been heard of because two years of getting beaten in a row wouldn’t have been accepted in Kilkenny but we weathered the storm, he weathered the storm. He put his full faith in the players. We came through and we won and the rest is history.
“One thing about Brian Cody which I will say: If there’s a mistake made, he very seldom makes it the second time. He will go away, he’ll think about it. He’ll come up with the answer and he’ll never let it happen again and that’s what he has done.”
2002 was the year Andy led Kilkenny to All-Ireland glory as captain. The final was a comfortable victory for Kilkenny with an early DJ Carey goal setting them on their way to victory against Clare. But it is the semi-final win over Tipperary that stands out for Andy: “I’ll never forget the semi-final. It was a massive, massive game for us because we were playing Tipperary and Kilkenny hadn’t beaten Tipp in a major game in about 20 years or more. Tipp were favourites.
“I remember saying to Martin before the game, ‘we have to play out of our skin tomorrow if we’re going to beat Tipp because they’re All-Ireland champions’.”
Jimmy Coogan’s goal for Kilkenny sealed a 1-20 to 1-16 win for Kilkenny: “It was really an unbelievable game. It was up and down the field and it was only in the last ten minutes, I think DJ got a ball and he was going to hand pass it out to Charlie (Carter) and he hand passed it out to Jimmy Coogan and we got the goal and that was the clincher.
“I was nearly more proud of the boys that day beating Tipperary because looking at the supporters after the game, they were absolutely ecstatic. There were some old lads there who had never seen a Kilkenny team beating Tipp. It was unbelievable, they were all nearly crying and it was nearly as good as winning an All-Ireland that day, it was probably the best day I ever had in a Kilkenny jersey.”
Asked if the B All-Ireland he won with London in 1995 means as much as his All-Irelands with Kilkenny, Andy answers without hesitation: “Without a doubt, yeah.
“There’s not too many lads after winning an All-Ireland A and an All-Ireland B I don’t think down through the years.
“That was a time there were some good teams in the B hurling, very good teams.”
Andy and London beat New York in a tight Croke Park semi-final before coming out on top against Wicklow in the final. London went on to play Down in an All-Ireland quarter-final and were only narrowly beaten.
After playing in an All-Ireland Under-21 final in which Kilkenny were beaten by Galway, Andy came over to London for what would end up being a two and a half year stint in the UK’s capital. He joined Brothers Pearse hurling club: “It was a great experience, I ended up training the team one time when I was only 22 and we got to the final, unfortunately we were beaten in the final by St Gabriel’s but it was a fantastic time. I made great friends and we all meet up any time we go over to England or if they come over for the All-Ireland. We would all meet up, talk about what matches we won and what matches we were beaten in so it’s great.
“It was a very, very high level of hurling, there were some fantastic hurlers. I played with lads and they would hold their own in Kilkenny club hurling. I think we had a team that would really hold their own in Kilkenny club hurling. That’s not being biased towards the guys, I thought they had great talent and it was just unfortunate we were beaten in the final.”
Also London-born is Andy’s younger brother Martin who would win six All-Irelands in Kilkenny’s forward line. London also played a part in his hurling development: “Martin played his first matches over there, Martin didn’t picked up a hurl until he was 14 or 15. He didn’t play minor for Kilkenny, he only eventually got onto the Under-21 panel but he used to come over to us during the summers. He came over one summer and because we were all going off to play hurling, he started picking up a hurl, next thing he started playing and the next thing we had him in the team, we had him playing wing back. He was only 17 but he was about six foot ten so he looked like he was about 28. A bit skinny but we fed him up a bit.”
The third brother, Jimmy Comerford also hurled with the Pearses.
Andy grew up in London until the age of eight when the family moved back to Kilkenny: “I was over there for quite a while. My first recollection of hurling was my father, he got a flooring board and he cut out the shape of a hurl out of it and I was to go outside pucking around and lads were looking at me: ‘What is this? A new form of cricket bat or what?’”
Andy learned his trade in St Kieran’s College which he attended with future Kilkenny greats like DJ Carey, PJ Delaney, Brian McEvoy, Charlie Carter and Pat O’Neill: “When you’re in Kieran’s, it’s all hurling. You’re hurling with great players and everyone is carrying a hurl into school. It’s a great nursery for hurlers to be brought on in Kilkenny.
“People from lesser counties are trying to understand, why aren’t Carlow and Laois being competitive in All-Irelands? It’s all about when we’re 13, 14 and 15 years of age that they’re playing to a competitive level, these people in these counties aren’t playing to that level that you would be in St Kieran’s College. We would be marking the likes of Philip Larkin, Charlie Carter, DJ Carey and that’s the pace you have to get to. Unfortunately for the lesser counties, the Kildares and the Wicklows, they haven’t got the opportunity to play at that higher pace and that’s probably why Kilkenny are a step ahead of the rest of them at the moment.”
Since his retirement in 2003, Andy took charge of Kildare from 2007 to 2010. He also coached his club O’Loughlin Gaels to an All-Ireland club final in 2011. He tells The Irish World that managing London would be something he would be interested in if the opportunity came up.
On Ruislip’s planned redevelopment, Andy says: “It’s a testament to the GAA in London that they have such a great facility, it’s a great achievement and it would be great to see something done with it. It’s a great setting and it’s great being so close to London as well, you can pop out there and it’s great for the Irish community that they can all come together on a Sunday, watch a couple of matches, have a couple of drinks and go home. It’s lovely.
“I had great times with London hurling and I had great times with Kilkenny hurling and I was lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time.”
Andy might have never worn the black and amber had it not been for some words of advice from his father when he was considering moving far away from the Marble City: “I remember coming home from London and saying to my father, ‘I think I’m going to go to Australia, there’s a few boys that are going’. I was only 22 or 23 and my father said to me, ‘now that you’re getting a chance with Kilkenny, you’re better off staying because you could regret it’. I’ll never forget it. It was dead right what he said. Only for he said it to me, I probably would have gone to Australia and I wouldn’t have hurled for Kilkenny.
“It was great to have played with London, it was great to have played with Kilkenny and I never regretted one day.
“London was unbelievable and I often keep an eye on how they’re getting on.”