Armagh legend Benny Tierney: 'Count your blessings in life and I was very lucky'
SAT-NAV led me on a wild goose chase, so I’m a little late for my meeting with Benny Tierney but he meets me at the front door of St Peter’s Primary School, Cloughreagh with a cheerful hello.
On the way to his office we meet a P3 girl. She’s in tears.
“What happened you?” asks Benny, crouching down.
“I banged my head.”
“Aw poor you, come on and we’ll get you a new head. Will I get you a new head?” he says, sympathetically.
“It’s OK,” she says.
Sometimes a kind word and a smile will get the job done, sometimes not, but they’re never wasted on a child.
Benny is the headmaster at St Peter’s and his role is management now. He enjoyed teaching and he misses the craic in the classroom. He understands how crucially important the formative years are for any child.
It was a man called Charlie Grant who instilled the love for Gaelic Football and for his club and county into him when he was a wee buck with ginger hair, freckles and a cheeky grin growing up in Mullaghbawn, south Armagh.
Charlie was there at the start and he was there for the climax at Croke Park on that famous day in 2002 when Benny won the Sam Maguire with the Orchard County.
“Charlie passed away long before his time but for me and a few boys in our club he instilled a sense of belonging,” Benny explained.
“He would have come home from working in Dublin at 7 o’clock in the evening, his wife Margaret handed him a sandwich he jumped into the minibus and went around collecting the boys for a match and that was his life.
“I remember we won a Dalton Cup with St Colman’s and I came home and there was a sign on our gate that said: ‘Well done Whoops (I was called Whoops back then) but don’t forget where you’re from’ and there a Mullaghbawn jersey sitting there.
“I owe a debt of gratitude to a lot of people: Joe Kernan, Peter McDonnell, Jim McKeever in St Mary’s, Ray Morgan at St Colman’s, John Crawley and Joe McNulty in Mullaghbawn…
“But Charlie was somebody who instilled belonging in me regarding football and when I go to dinner dances (Tierney is a popular MC) I talk about him, I keep his memory alive. He only had the green and gold of Mullaghbawn in his head and that was always in me.
“In Mullaghbawn it was Charlie, in Silverbridge it was Peter Keeley, in Crossmaglen it was Tim Gregory… and it’s still going on in every club – Rory McDonnell is the man in our club today.
“When Geezer (Kieran McGeeney), Enda and Justin (McNulty) and myself won the All-Ireland with Armagh, Charlie said: ‘Don’t forget who put the nappies on yous lads…’
“I never forget who did it. Everybody has their part to play and it’s not the guy at the end, it’s the guy at the very start who sets the ball rolling and gives you that time and dedication so that you can move on.”
Through the window we can hear the carefree shouts of boys and girls in the schoolyard enjoying their break-time games. Over nearly three decades in teaching, Benny has set the ball rolling for so many kids and he still finds the job continually rewarding.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a great teacher but if you’re in my class you’re learning and you’ll have a bit of fun and I would have a bit of fun,” he says.
“I have great craic with the kids.
“There isn’t a day goes by when a child wouldn’t put a smile on your face somehow. It’s not what it was when I started but it’s still a rewarding job that I enjoy.”
Teaching is a good fit for him because he’s always had that knack of being able to relate to people - even when those people are trying to get under his skin. As the Armagh goalkeeper from 1989 to 2002 he was the often the target for hecklers in the stands but he almost turned it into a stand-up comedy routine.
“Tyrone supporters would have followed me from the goals in the first half to behind the goals in the second half just to get shouting at me,” he says.
“It didn’t bother me. My shape attracted quite a bit of attention but probably the funniest one was when we were playing Dublin in a League match and there was boy stood behind the goals and he just kept talking to me. It was a more unsettling experience.
‘Alright Brendan (not Benny)? Where you out last night Brendan? I was down in Coppers…’ He just went on and on.
“I found that more unsettling that somebody calling me… it rhymes with a ‘sat fastard’, or whatever.”
Opposition fans tried to put him off but as a goalkeeper Tierney had a safe pair of hands and he was a formidable shot-stopper. His natural flair for communication and sharp brain were also handy skills when it came to organizing the men in front of him.
“I could talk to people without roaring and shouting at them,” he explains.
“I always had a good relationship with my full-backs and defenders and it was vice-versa. “I remember in games, Geezer (Armagh’s centre half-back) would come back to me after 10 minutes and say: ‘What will I do? Will I follow him, or will I stay?’ Most of my defenders would listen to me because they’d respect my advice.
“It has grown to be a much more important position with the emergence of (Stephen) Cluxton and Rory Beggan and Niall Morgan who are top of their game but even back in my time there was aspects of it that it wasn’t just ‘stick the tube in goals’ anymore.”
Between those ‘stick-the-tube-in-goals’ days and the modern era of the free-scoring, sweeper-keeper, the goalie was expected to hammer kick-outs to the halfway line. That wasn’t Tierney’s game.
“The modern game would have suited me as regards kick-outs because, when I played, it was about how far you could kick it,” he says.
“The modern goalkeeper is only kicking the ball 20-30 yards because it’s all about possession. I was accurate like that but in my day it was a weakness if you couldn’t kick it out miles.”
He still gets an odd bit of flak for his kick-outs even now. It’s all harmless slagging of course but, typically, he has a readymade reply for anyone who brings it up.
It was his pin-point restart that set in motion the chain of events that led to Armagh’s crucial goal in the 2002 All-Ireland final.
“That kick-out wasn’t rehearsed, it was spur-of-the-moment,” he explains, after I bring it up.
“Diarmuid Marsden wasn’t on the ball as much as he had wanted and he made a run from right corner-forward to left half-back.
“I had already signaled to hit it to (Paul) McGrane, which was the safe option, when I saw him making the run.
“He was running into space and I hit it to him and goal came off it. A lot of stuff went on after the kick-out but if anybody slags me about kick-outs, I just go: ‘Tierney to Marsden, Marsden to McCann, McCann to Micaville, McConville to McGrane, McGrane to McConville – GOAAAALLL!
“Oisin got the goal but the big thing was Marsden’s run because his initiative led to it. He did something that wasn’t in the rule book or discussed. It came from him.
“Anybody who knows about football knows how good Mardsen was but we were blessed – John McEntee, Oisin, Ronan Clarke, Stevie McDonnell… They were exceptional players and driven players.”
He uses that word ‘blessed’ again when the conversations turns to his younger brother Paul, who passed away in 2013.
“There he is,” he says, pointing to a picture of Paul on the wall behind me. Throughout his 41 years Paul, who had Downs Syndrome, brought joy to everyone he met and the Tierney family celebrates his birthday on January 12th every year. They always will.
“Paul was a big part of our life and he moulded a lot of the character and personality in me and my other brother and sisters,” says Benny.
“If there was a row in the house, Paul sorted it out. My daughter Aoife has learning difficulties too and I find that children like her are a blessing and I don’t mean that with any religious connotations.
“Paul was great for all of us and Aoife is great in our house as well.
“Paul never had any aspirations to be a businessman, or to drive a fancy car, or to lead the high life. His currency was, and I said this at his funeral, a hug, a can of Diet Coke and a Daniel O’Donnell CD. People like Paul bring so much and don’t ask for too much back.
“He was a blessing to us. He was a great Armagh supporter and he laughed at every mistake I made and reminded me about them.
“I support Man United so he supported everybody except Man United. If United got beat he would ring our house and he’d be: ‘Well Benny, it’s very bad weather…’ but he wouldn’t mention the game.
“Some people think of me as a legend but Paul was a real legend, he was a character and he was some craic and he is sorely missed but all our memories are happy ones.
“The value of each child is inherent because I saw what he brought to our house and what Aoife brings to our house so when I see a child here whether they have learning difficulties or special needs I feel I have the ability to interact with them and to bring the best out of them.”
The knowledge that he got the best out of himself must help when it comes to inspiring others to do the same. Outside of school he has been coaching the Mullaghbawn U21 team to success in Armagh and his son Conor is showing promise now as a footballer at senior level.
“He’s a completely different animal to me, he’s six foot with muscles and he’s skinny and stuff…” Benny explains adding, with a laugh: “I say to him: ‘You’ll go nowhere with those attributes!’
“But he’s like every young fella now, he’s committed and I’m enjoying following his career now.”
Young Conor could do a lot worse than adopt his dad’s philosophy when it comes to football.
“I wasn’t a worrier about football – I might be in other aspects of my live – but not about football,” he says.
“I always thought I was grand at what I was doing - that’s not to say I didn’t have very bad days but I didn’t dwell on them too much.
“I think that’s the secret. In those days I went out and did what I could and I wanted to be a part of it. It was always my ambition to be as good as I could but I wasn’t brilliant and don’t come away from this thinking; ‘Ah Jaysus, Tierney was claaaass’ because I wasn’t.
“I made the best of what I had in every way including friendships and having a great time at it. Count your blessings in life and I was extremely lucky.”
He’s far too modest there and perhaps that’s his greatest skill: making you think it was luck, not graft, that won him all his medals. We haven’t even got to them yet…