“Paul Flynn showed touches on Sunday, and I’m not saying this lightly, only Christy Ring would have got some of the scores.” – Then ‘Cork Examiner’ columnist Justin McCarthy after Waterford’s National League semi-final win against Limerick in 1998.
If Carslberg did happy endings to hurling careers, Paul Flynn would have sauntered onto the pitch last September 7th with Waterford a couple of points in arrears. Then in the dying minutes he’d have stood over a ‘21′ and scorched the sliotar past PJ Ryan for the winning goal in an All-Ireland final.
Alas, it was not to be. So near but yet so very, very far. As he says himself, it’d have taken eight Flynn specials to close the chasm Kilkenny’s class and Waterford’s collapse created that sayonara Sunday in Croke Park; an afternoon that brought the curtain down on an inter-county career that was a combination of stellar highs and crushing lows, but ultimately fulfilling enough to treasure the good times and forget the worst.
Above all else, Flynn, a fantasy hurler, has always been a realist. Hence his admission that Waterford were lucky to reach the All-Ireland final this year and their true form was found out in the finish. His apparent insouciance is the reason some people have misinterpreted ‘the shrug’ for a couldn’t-care-less-ness. Truth is Flynn cared as much as anyone, but his grand gestures were always with hurl’ in hand and radar right on range.
In deciding to say so long, farewell, it may not be the only factor but the injuries definitely took their toll. There was the knee in ’05, then the groin last year, followed by an ankle that required invasive surgery and a slow recovery. However, he’s admitted to first feeling the inclination to quit as far back as early 2002, aged just 27, but already a decade on senior frontline duty. Ballygunner had just lost an All-Ireland semi to Clarinbridge, and the desire to go back pre-season training with the county, by then under Justin, just wasn’t there.
The previous summer’s championship had been the whole ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ Waterford experience in microcosm. His lustrous goal against Limerick exemplified Waterford’s capacity to mix fire and ice. Then go into meltdown. Gerald McCarthy, who he credits with introducing Waterford to proper training, decided he’d taken the team as far as he considered he could. Flynn felt something similar. The off-field hassles, the slog of training, the unknown sacrifices, the know-it-all knockers: it didn’t seem worth it anymore.
He went for a short break in the States, thought it through, and decided to stick at it. As his and our luck would have it. He wouldn’t have won three Munster medals and a National League otherwise. And be sure Waterford wouldn’t have won all of those titles without him.
Though they grew apart, inexplicably in Flynn’s view, he retains great respect for Justin, and hopes the feeling is mutual – though he wished Gerald, who’d instilled such purpose and self-belief in the side, had been around when they finally ended the famine.
The most recent manager McCarthy reiterated his Ring comparison after Flynn’s masterclass in the 2003 Munster semi-final replay with Limerick. He scored 1-7 to add to his 3-3 in the drawn tie and appeared at the peak of his powers; even if Paul regards the 1999-2001 period as his most productive.
That said, having “never played for medals or awards or glory”, but a love of the game his father Pat passed down, he’s pretty relaxed about stats, but privately he’ll be proud to boast the seventh-best scoring record in championship history, second only to DJ Carey and Henry Shefflin (who received the odd assist) in modern times. As a championship goalscorer he’d few equals: 28 at the last and final count. Some going. For a fella who allegedly didn’t do it on the big day.
That claim, quite frankly, is based in good old-fashioned blind begrudgery. Go back to the breakthrough summer of ’98. His 10 points against Tipperary in the Munster semi-final won him man-of-the-match. Had he not hit form, Waterford were out and the breakthrough would have been delayed, if not dead before it began. There are countless other occasions where he carried Waterford. Listening to some people over the years you’d swear he was a passenger, not the driver. In later years his team-mates returned the compliment.
He “hates negativity” but got used to the bitching. You can’t please all of the people all of the time. Or in Waterford’s case, you can’t please any Waterford people all of the time. With Flynn it was always a case of much wants more. No matter how well he played, they’d talk about the ones he missed. Like when he nailed 12 points from a dozen shots in the 2002 Munster semi-final victory over Cork. His 13th effort, from a free, missed the target, and the hurlers on the ditch groaned. Like they’d have scored it. In their dreams.
Often mistaken for cockiness, he’s comfortable in his own skin. He always gave his best, never went out with the intention of having an off-day. Some Sundays he played like a God; on others they seemed to conspire against him.
Deceptively agile and quick with dexterous hands and wrists (possibly explaining how the one-time Aston Villa trainee was such a good goalie for his relatively modest height) Flynn in his prime, and even in twilight flashes, was a hurling maestro.
Like many I’m sure, I’ll never forget a point he pulled off in the ’99 County Final against Mount Sion at Walsh Park – a quick flick up and an over-the-shoulder shot from around the ‘65′ alongside the bank. It was one of the best I’ve ever seen, or can imagine.
Imagination was second nature to Paul. The “dipper” against Cork that effectively won the greatest Munster final of them all in his sole All Star season of 2004 is remembered as his Roy Keane v Juventus ’99 moment. “My Goodness me, only Paul Flynn could think of it,” roared Ger Canning. In like Flynn, eh.
Audacious and precocious, it encapsulated Flynn’s genius and nerve. However, he’ll know that had that spectacular topspin speculator not deceived Dónal Óg Cusack and Diarmuid O’Sullivan they’d have been damning his greed on the terraces. You win some, you lose some. But he who dares…
Flynn went for it more often than not. Take the 2003 Munster final, when John Mullane stole the headlines with his hat-trick: his third goal the result of Flynn’s instinctively-intelligent tapped free. “Typical Flynn: if he sees any light he’ll go for it”, Mullane reflected. “That’s what makes the man so special. He must have seen me turning and said, ‘Right we’ll go for it.'”
Why all reasonable Waterford supporters, and like-minded colleagues such as Eoin Kelly, loved ‘Flynner’ was because he was brilliant but imperfect. He had his off-days for sure, at times he wound opponents up, but he was only giving as good as he got; often thanks to unsympathetic referees and umpires.
I remember watching with sneaking admiration the day above in Thurles back in ’95 when in a fit of pique, and part-provoked no doubt, he caught Frank Lohan’s loose boot and fecked it over the fence. The Banner backline were unimpressed, naturally, but you sense that when Flynn rang their Anthony Daly a few days later to apologise and wish them well in the League final the Clare captain would have secretly envied his cheek. Just as he’d have known what was coming when Flynn fired that exocet to tie the drawn Munster final a couple of years later.
He’d a reputation as a lacklustre trainer, literally cutting corners. He prefers to see his attitude to practice as a case of quality over quantity. Endless laps didn’t interest him. But for all his natural ability (mirrored in his golf game) he didn’t get that good without putting in the hard hours, and a few fast yards.
Indeed, his critics might be surprised to hear that it was the unglamorous side of the game that he’s found hardest to let go of. “Training is good fun and that’s what brings you back rather than that ultimate All-Ireland medal that people talk about,” he said a few months ago when asked why he’d stuck around when his body was screaming stop.
Though an increasingly bit-part presence in a team for whom he was once an automatic choice, something that he’d have found hard to handle, his 2007 cameos were still vital against Limerick in the Munster final and in overcoming Cork in the quarters. Though past his best, he still had that buzz about him, the crowd reacting to memories of his menace.
With a young family as well as his job and a near-scratch golf handicap to hone, he won’t lack for things to kill the time so much hurling took up. But the game he graced will always remain close to his heart. And him to ours.
As is evident from the carry-on in Cork, winning All-Irelands is no guarantee of happiness. It’s how you pursue it that matters. And Paul’s pursuit was a pleasure to watch.
Click below to view Jamie’s interview with Paul Flynn as featured in our All Ireland 2008 supplement