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Pearse brother

Andy has coached O’Loughlin Gaels to an All-Ireland final and been in charge of Kildare.

Andy Comerford won three All-Irelands with Kilkenny, playing alongside his brother Martin for two of these. Born in St. Alban’s, Andy also hurled with Brothers Pearse and the Exiles and is as proud of the B All-Ireland he won with London in 1995. Andy spoke to David Hennessy about hurling in London, his days wearing black and amber and some fatherly advice that made it possible

Andy Comerford told The Irish World last week that he would manage London hurlers if the offer ever came his way.
Andy Comerford won three All-Irelands with Brian Cody’s Kilkenny team and has also managed Kildare and his club, O’Loughlin Gaels who he guided to an All-Ireland club final in 2011.

Comerford has also hurled in London with Brothers Pearse and with the London county team who he won a B All-Ireland with.

His brother Martin has also won many All-Irelands with Kilkenny and lined out for Pearses.

Andy told The Irish World: “Without a doubt, if the offer came to manage London, I would have no problem training them because they have good players at the end of the day. They’re in the Christy Ring and they have a great chance of winning it.”

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 St. Alban’s, hurled with Brothers Pearse and also won an All-Ireland with the Exiles.

Remembering his time hurling with the Pearses, Andy says, “We hurled away over there. We didn’t win a championship but it was a good experience, made loads of friends.

“The GAA in England was seriously strong those times, there was some great games and lads that were after playing over there could come back and hurl senior with Kilkenny, Tipperary or Wexford and hold their own.

The Brothers Pearse team that played in the 1997 London county final.

“I think it’s after dipping a bit recent years, there’s not as many lads going over.”

Although he didn’t win a London championship, Andy did take Pearses to the 1995 and 1997 finals where they were defeated by St. Gabriel’s on both occasions, only by a point on the second occasion.

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“As the fella says, ‘So near, so very far’. When you get your chance in big games, county finals or All-Irelands, you have to take them. We were fierce unlucky that day, it just didn’t work out for us on the day. You win some, you lose some. That’s the way I look at life.”

Andy tells us a stalwart still involved with club piqued his interest in playing hurling over here.

“I just ended up getting talking to Bill Reilly one day. I was working for a company he was subcontracted into. Then I just ended up playing with them.

“To tell you the truth, I had no intention of playing hurling at all. I was after playing Minor and Under-21 with Kilkenny, I was after playing with St. Kieran’s College. I was hurling highly competitively from around 14 years of age and I wanted just a year or two off.

“Bill Reilly did (convince me to get involved). Then there were a few Kilkenny lads involved as well. The Nortons. Johnny Norton from Tullaroan was involved. Johnny was a big instigator. I just got chatting to Johnny and he said, ‘Sure you might as well come up and play’. And I said, ‘Grand’.

“I went up to a few training sessions. Then you’re in the middle of it and you’re nearly training as hard as you would with a club in Ireland.

“We got to meet Jerry Rea. All the Reas were big hurling people. Jerry was training the team and I was helping him out. He’s an icon over in England. He’s a great man for the young lads coming over. He helps them out, got them jobs and looked after them and the wife as well was very good to us. That was the start of it.

Andy and his brother Martin have nine Liam McCarthys between them. Both have also hurled in London with Brothers Pearse.

“Hurling is in your blood and once you get involved in a team, you want to win. That’s what’s in your DNA, you want to be able to win the championship. Any games that you play, any training session, you’re giving it 200 per cent.

“We got really serious about it then. It was only kind of a lassez-faire set-up before that but then we got on a run, we got to the final. Unfortunately we didn’t win it but I’d be fairly serious about the hurling, probably too serious.

“When I was going over, I didn’t really want to get involved. I was delighted after it. The GAA is more than just matches, it’s more than just hurling. You make great friends out of it and you learn a lot about life.

“Speaking to the lads the last few years, there’s not as many lads going over. I suppose lads who are going over are architects and engineers, working 60-70 hours a week and they find it hard to commit. With modern travel, they’re able to come home play with Galway, play with Kilkenny, play with these teams even if they are abroad.

“It’s all different, probably for the worse because it is a great outlet for Irish in England and Irish in London. They were matches at a high level those times. I don’t think they are now so it’s bad in one sense that lads are not getting involved but life is very fast now.

“The Irish community would have looked after each other, they would have been in social clubs, social gatherings but there’s none of that anymore. You’re kind of on your own and it’s a lonely set-up, you can’t really get into communities, into the GAA, into social activities. It’s very, very lonesome. I wouldn’t like to be going over now at 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 years of age.

Andy has since taken charge of Kildare and O’Loughlin Gaels in Kilkenny but long before either of these he helped Jerry Rea with some coaching at Brothers Pearse.

“But Jerry doesn’t need much help. He knows everything about hurling. I was doing a bit with them and trying to get them fit. We just brought the fitness levels up a bit and got us to a higher standard and introduced more drills that we would have been using in Ireland, brought it up a notch or two.

“Commitment was never an issue because they were all seriously committed but it was just the training aspect and I just helped out Jerry.

“Jerry was a good, hurled with London for years and would have held his own on the Limerick team if he had have come home. I was just helping him out is all.”

Andy Comerford was a member of the Kilkenny panel when Brian 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 going 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 because we were all after playing together from ‘95/’96 all the way up along and we hadn’t wonvan 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: “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 answersvwithout hesitation: “Without a doubt, yeah.

“There’s not too many lads after winning anAll-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 English 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. We would all meet up, talk about what matches we won and what matches we were beaten in so it’s great.

Andy led Kilkenny to the 2002 All-Ireland and other honours such as the National League.

“It was a very, very high level of hurling, there were some fantastic hurlers. 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 and Brothers Pearse also played a part in his hurling development with the younger Comerford brother also playing in a London county final for the Pearses.

“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.”

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.”

Former Cody proteges like Eddie Brennan and Michael Fennelly have taken over county teams such as Laois and Offaly.

“Invariably if you’re going to be asked to manage a team with no experience, they’re going to be a team that are not high up the pecking order. They’re a starter off team and they’re trying to get success. Obviously Tipperary, Cork, and Kilkenny would not be jobs that lads would walk into straight away because there’s great players, there’s a great set-up and they have the production line of players coming.

“But if you go down to the likes of the Kildares, the Wicklows, unfortunately Offaly are now in that bracket, Laois, all these teams have great players but unfortunately they haven’t got enough great players. Management positions are going to come up in there and it’s probably a great starter off for some of the Kilkenny lads. it’s a good starting point for those players and it’s probably good for the counties these lads are involved with as well to see a voice from outside, from a successful county and somebody expressing the way you have to play, train, hold yourself and look after yourself to be successful.

“That’s the great thing about hurling and Gaelic football. There is no money involved to buy a great player. You just have to deal with the players that you have. Best of luck to any of them involved and I’ll probably get into it myself in a couple of years. It’s great training a team and managing a team. Playing it is best obviously but managing is every bit as good just that you’re not involved in the cut and thrust of it.”

After his retirement in 2003, Andy moved into management and took charge of Kildare from 2007 to 2010. Eddie Brennan has voiced his own frustration with the availability of players. Although players answer when Kilkenny calls, the phone can ring out when Laois are on the line.

“When you’re involved with a county that’s predominantly football, you have great players and I’ve seen it before. You have a player who is a brilliant Gaelic footballer, it is actually the probability that he is a great hurler as well because he’s essentially a very good sports man. He would be the vital link that you need to make the winning of a Christy Ring or the losing of it. Invariably what happens is he’s tied into the footballers and he can’t go.”

Would Andy has ambitions of taking over from Cody in charge of the Cats? “Everyone would like to manage Kilkenny but the man who is in there at the moment is very good. I would have no ambition to manage Kilkenny because there are a lot better lads along the line than me. I tip away with O’Loughlin’s. I would like to try and win a county championship with O’Loughlin’s. I think we have good players and at the moment we’re building new dressing rooms up there. My ambition would be to try and get O’Loughlin’s to win another county championship. We have won four so I want to get them up to ten please god before I die.”

Andy has coached his club O’Loughlin Gaels to an All-Ireland club final in 2011 when they lost to Clarinbridge.
“That was abit of a disappointment. I’m young. Hopefully I get back into the management again. You learn more from your mistakes. You learn more from losing matches than you do from winning.”

On Ruislip’s redevelopment, Andy says: “It’s a testament to the GAA in London that they have such a great facility. 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.”

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