Glowing tributes following the passing of Tipp’s greatest midfield general Theo English
By Shane Brophy
For many, when they associate the surname English with Tipperary hurling, Nicky English is the first that comes to mind, however, he is only in the halfpenny place to his namesake Theo who passed away last Sunday at the age of 90.
Tipperary has a long list of hurling greats and the Marlfield clubman is high among them having won 5 All Ireland senior hurling medals in an eighteen-year inter-county career in which he won almost every inter-county honour in the game.
He has been described by many as one of the greatest players to ever play for Tipperary and the best overhead hurler the game has ever seen in the midfield position.
In a glittering career which spanned eighteen years, Theo English was a member of one of the greatest Tipperary teams of all time his record speaks for itself, 5 All Ireland senior medals, 7 Munster medals, 8 National League medals, 4 Railway cup medals and 5 Oireachtas medals plus a junior hurling All Ireland medal in 1953. He was included at centre-field in Tipperary’s hurling team of the century.
Theo English first wore the blue and gold jersey in 1950 as a twenty-year-old and would play on the Tipperary junior team for four years, winning an All-Ireland title in 1953.
“That’s when I first saw Theo,” remembered his long time friend and colleague Donie Nealon.
“His confidence in his own ability was fantastic. There was no such thing as we might lose, he was very confident. He didn’t fear anybody he was going to play against, he felt he would be able to do the job on them.”
Not only was Theo a hurler of renown, he was also a talented footballer, winning county titles with Clonmel Commercials and the Old Bridge and a Munster junior football title with Tipperary in 1952 and would play senior football for Tipperary in 1954 in the same year he was called into the senior hurling panel by Paddy Leahy and instantly made the team at midfield, forging a great partnership with Toomevara’s John Hough.
At club level, he put Marlfield on the map with the club, located on the outskirts of Clonmel, rising from junior in the late fifties winning two South championships, to winning four South senior championships in 1960, 62, 64 & 70.
He also lined out with South divisional team Na Pairsaigh who reached the 1957 county senior hurling final where they fell to the all-conquering Thurles Sarsfields, where among his teammates was Donie Nealon during his brief period teaching in South Tipp where he hurled for Ballybacon/Grange.
“When you were from a club like Marlfield, a junior club, it was hard to get recognised for senior participation but as a centre field player he was as good as ever played for Tipperary there,” Donie Nealon added.
“He was only about 5foot 9inches tall but he was very very strong. He was very much into fitness. He worked an awful lot as a young man at timber which gave him the strength.”
That strength was something a young Len Gaynor had to deal with in one of his first training sessions with Tipperary in 1964.
“The power of him made him stand out,” Len said.
“I don’t think I ever saw Theo English on the ground, it was impossible to shift him.
“He was going strong right to the end. He was a very fit man always, he kept himself immaculate all the time, no smoking or drinking. He was a dedicated player.”
One of the facets of Theo’s play that made him stand our compared to great midfielders of his era was his proficiency of doubling on the ball in the air according to Donie.
“There was a lot of centre field play that time as against now where the puckouts are going over their heads. There were very few to compete with him when it came to the overhead pull, which was the utmost skill in hurling. It was easy to him.
“He was a tremendous striker of the ball on the ground as well. He was also a great sideline cut taker as well,” he said.
That ability as a great striker of a ball came from playing with a heavy hurley said Len Gaynor.
“He was a tremendously strong ground hurler, but he carried a very heavy hurley.
“I remember trying it and I was hardly able to lift it but with his strength, when he hit the ball it travelled.”
To both Donie and Len, Theo English was one of the elder statesmen of the Tipperary team, hurling senior until the age of 37 with his last game being the 1967 All Ireland final defeat to Kilkenny.
“Theo was a leader,” Len added.
“He was great in the dressing room. He would only say a few words, but they’d stir us up,” Len referenced of the 1964 Oireachtas final when Tipperary came from behind to defeat Kilkenny in Gaynor’s debut.
“It was his workrate on the field which was the most impressive thing. You would be inspired by it,” he added.
“He was always there at centre field. He wanted to win every game like we all did but he had a terrible desire altogether.
“It was easy to follow him. He led by example on the field and the same off the field. He would be disgusted at any defeat at all and would be planning on how to do it better the next day.”
Following a glittering playing career he continued to make a huge contribution to the GAA and was a senior hurling selector for Tipperary’s All Ireland successes in 1971 and 1989, in which Donie Nealon was coach to both winning teams, the second under Michael ‘Babs’ Keating whom he an Theo shared a similar interest in horse racing.
“He was a no nonsense kind of a fella,” Donie said of English’s selectorial style.
“He would be straight up and had an idea of what type player of player you needed and what kind of a blend you needed on a team. He always liked a strong bloke like himself, who was well able to mix it and take punishment.”
Following his time as an inter-county selector Theo went on to make a positive contribution to several club sides, including Cappawhite and Piltown in Kilkenny, and he brought something special to every club he was with and was described by many as the best judge of a hurler in his time.
He was also an excellent referee and refereed many important games around South Tipperary. He served on the Tipperary County Board for a time and was the county’s representative on the Munster Council for one-year. While these were the highlights, they were only the tip of the iceberg in terms of his outstanding contribution to the GAA.
Tipperary County Board Chairman Joe Kennedy paid tribute to Theo English by saying: “Theo English was an outstanding player for both club and county. He excelled as a player on Tipperary teams during a golden era for hurling in the county. He can truly be described as a legend of the GAA in Tipperary”.
Theo English’s funeral took place at St Mary’s Church, Irishtown, Clonmel on Wednesday 13th January, followed by burial in St. Patrick’s Cemetery.
Theo English is survived by his wife Maureen, daughter Siobhan, sons Theo (Jnr), John and Conor. grandchildren, great-grandchildren, relatives and his wide circle of friends. Ar dheis De go raibh a anam