Ex-GAA star on drugs, booze and his wild nights with the Dubs

Former Dublin keeper John Leonard downs a bottle of Blue WKD
Former Dublin keeper John Leonard downs a bottle of Blue WKD

A former GAA star has lifted the lid on his days – and boozy nights – with the Dubs.

In an extraordinary new book John Leonard gives an insight into the pressures on young men living in the bubble of a top county team.

Leonard’s memoir reveals how he went from a drug-and-drink addicted mess to become the number two keeper to Hill 16 legend Stephen Cluxton.

In Dub Sub Confidential – serialised in today’s Sunday World – he describes his crazy nights in Coppers with the Boys in Blue.

“The All-Ireland slipped away. Three months to my next dope test... so the object was get as much gargle and drugs as possible”

As the spring of 2006 turned to summer, life was peachy. I was part of the team of my childhood dreams, I had a nice girlfriend, a car, a decent job.

I was hitting the gym and eating well. I was spending quality time with my family.

Sometimes I’d have a few drinks with friends, but my addictive madness had been quelled.

I had lost my dad and found the Dubs. I was going to take the deep pain and turn it into energy for the All-Ireland crusade. We were all here for one reason and one reason only – to bring Sam Maguire home. Five times a week, 50 men got together to plot and plan.

In this world I imagined taking to the field in Croke Park. Where was Clucko? Sometimes, in my mind, he got suspended, other times injured.

I heard the roar of the crowd and the chants of the Hill. I heard the crowd chanting my name. In this world, I was ready.

I closed my eyes and gave thanks. I felt my whole being surge with happiness and pride. Six months ago I was in a drug-fuelled mess. Now I was on the panel for a Championship game.

Our opening match in the Leinster Championship was away to Longford. It was a scrappy and tough game, but we managed to grind them down and squeeze out a narrow win.

There were three weeks before our next game, and we assumed this meant we could hit the town and have a few drinks back in Dublin.

Before we left the bus Pillar announced there was a recovery and training session in DCU at 9am the following morning. I had a serious hankering to hit the piss hard, but I would have to curtail myself. I wouldn’t be able to stop if I got going properly. Ringing in sick for the Dubs wasn’t an option.

The day of the Laois match – Sunday, June 8 – was another glorious summer’s day. The sun shone and the wind was minimal. It was a fine feeling to be involved in my first Championship game in Croke Park.

The world slowed down and I could hear my breath exhaling, molecule by molecule. I was there. I was on a Dublin senior inter-county squad, being driven by Garda escort into the fortress of Croke Park.

Our bus pulled out of Parnell Park and on to the streets of Dublin. There were flags draped from windows. Emotions were bursting inside me. Croke Park loomed ahead. There was white noise in my mind. My breaths were deeper now, my eyelids tougher to open. I knew I was where I had always wanted to be.

As we turned in under the giant Cusack Stand, the Garda escort slowly whirled away. Now it was real. Now I existed. I felt the love of Dublin. I felt the power of being a Dub. I felt the responsibility that was on my shoulders.

We destroyed Laois. I felt relief after finishing my first Championship shift in Croke Park. My family and friends had all been there to see me jog along that sideline. It had been a long road to get here. I was now 29. I had wasted so many years with drunken, drugged-up debauchery that these moments seemed infinitely precious to me.

After our meal we got back on the bus and headed up towards the Sunnybank, a real Dubs boozer in Glasnevin. By the time we got there, most of the patrons had been drinking for seven or eight hours. We had a little room out the back where we were safe from the drunken fans.

I got right into the drinking. It was a free bar and Pillar had told us to enjoy ourselves responsibly. I didn’t need to be asked twice. I had missed the gargle. It had been a long few weeks of sobriety: not a drop had touched my lips since beating Longford and I had a serious goo on me.

As evening settled in the drunkenness began to kick in and, mixed with the euphoria of winning, I felt fucking good. Some lads headed into town and some back to their clubhouses and locals. I stuck with the lads who were going on the rampage.

We made our way into the Arlington Hotel along Bachelors Walk in the city. I met some friends who had been at the game and were still out on the piss. In the excitement of it all I ordered a bottle of champagne for my group. As I stood up to go for a piss Alan Brogan was doing some kind of moonwalk along the dance floor. Then he spied the champagne and saddled up beside me.

“What’s the story with the champagne, Lenny?” he asked me.

“Just celebrating today and seeing my friends, Brogie.” 

He stopped me and looked dead-eyed at me.

“Well, Len, we have won f**k-all. Don’t be getting carried away with yourself.”

Quick as you like, he pirouetted away and slid back across the dance floor, doing some kind of jig to the cheers of the lads. I was quietened as I headed in for a piss. What the fuck, I thought to myself. Couldn’t I order a bottle of champagne and share it with some friends? I could, but Brogie thought it needed to be said.

It took the wind out of my sails a little, but in my heart I knew I was not celebrating beating Laois. I was celebrating being alive, being with friends and being part of the Dubs. That was winning enough for me. I was celebrating life. For the first time since getting the call from the Dubs, I pressed the ‘f**k it’ button.

The night dissolved around me. I ordered Jagerbombs. I ordered shots. I ordered more pints and bought a pack of cigarettes. My friends and I left in a haze and then spent a few hours in Eamonn Doran’s, getting even more hammered.

The night blended on into disco music, flashing lights and a fizzy, boozy blur. I found my way to Copper Face Jacks, where the party always ended. I was not sure how I got there, but I met a few team-mates on the street going in. We had a free pass in Coppers and were always looked after, no matter how boozed-up or obnoxious.

The security knew who we were and allowed us do our thing. That thing involved drinking furiously and acting the maggot.

Clucko was prone to blow-ups during matches. I was hoping that his temper would fray in a big game and he would get himself sent off. I didn’t mind admitting that to myself; every substitute felt the same.

I wanted to play, no matter what. If that required Clucko having a rush of blood, then so be it. It was a fact of my life – one that became clearer to me as that season went on – that Clucko would not be getting dropped for bad form. He was like a robot.

Clucko was also the first man I ever saw drinking Blue WKDs. I was blown away on our first session together in the Sunnybank Hotel. Behind the bar was a case of Blue WKD chilling in some ice. Who the f**k drinks that shite, I thought to myself. I turned to see Clucko slugging one down.

He was oblivious to slagging. His single-mindedness meant that in a room full of macho drinkers of stout, lager and cider, he could gulp back the weirdest-tasting alcopop of them all, simply because he liked the taste.

Five minutes before half-time of the Leinster final against Offaly, I thought my chance had finally come. Clucko had committed a cynical professional foul, preventing a certain goal for Offaly. In soccer it would have been a straight red card, no questions asked.

I sat there and watched as the referee marched over in slow motion Send him off Marty, and give me my chance. I am the second coming. I opened my eyes and saw a flash of yellow in Marty’s hand.

It was a yellow card. It was a f**king poxy yellow card.

When the final whistle blew, fans streamed on to the pitch and mobbed some of the players. We had retained our Leinster title and now there was a real reason to celebrate.

I placed one hand on either side of the cup and brought it up to my lips, gave it a kiss and screamed, “you little f**king dancer!” and raised the cup above my head.

There was a reason to get hammered now, and I was in full throttle. By the time we got to the Sunnybank the drink was flowing and I was in my element. It had been such a big part of my life, and I missed it. It was great to have a few drinks with my family and share the celebration with them.

Most of the squad ended up in Coppers, where the session went on late and long. The beauty of Coppers was that there was no hassle getting a lock-in.

They really looked after us and at five in the morning there was a good spread of us still standing, with a heap of women and friends around us.

I began to struggle as the hours went on, and I ended up stumbling out on to the streets at seven in the morning. I was a blurry mess. I hailed a taxi and made my way home.

I was woken by the sound of my phone. There were a few missed calls and I managed to get in touch with Mossy and Shane Ryan, who lived close by.

We got a taxi out to Hollystown Golf Club, where some of the lads had been playing a round. I sat in the beer garden with the lads and we got right into it again, topping up where we left off a few hours earlier.

Jayo finished his round and held court for a while, telling stories about the past. We made our way in to Temple Bar, carrying on in the Quays pub before making our way to Club M and then, no surprise, Coppers again.

I thought that women were looking at me a little differently now. Whatever it was about being even slightly famous, it appealed to a certain type of girl.

The women flocked around the main men, but ended up only being confident enough to talk to the peripheral lads like myself. It was the perfect scenario, really.

For my part, I was in beast drinking mode. Beast mode entailed drinking until I could no longer speak. Beast mode meant drinking until I was oblivious to my bodily functions.

This was when I would black out.

The night would whirl away from me, only to be regurgitated through the various tastes I belched up the next day – Jagermeister, Sambuca and Red Bull. I had some vague flashes of skulling alcopops in honour of Clucko, who never made the lock-in on day two.

[After losing the semi-final to Mayo] Pillar asked me if we could go to the pub that I ran instead of our usual Sunnybank routine. I arranged it, and we made our way into town and proceeded to get absolutely demented drunk on the premises of The Church, a bar and restaurant in a converted church on Mary Street in the city centre. It was a complete contrast from the usual GAA pubs we frequented and it was a relief to be far away from it.

I don’t remember anything that happened at The Church. I woke up at home in bed. There was a girl beside me. I didn’t know who she was. She was sleeping and I was semi-clothed. My head was pounding and my mouth was dry. I made my way downstairs to get a drink. I sat down on the couch and shook my head. The memory of defeat flashed up in my mind. It was the first thing I thought about.

I sifted through my jeans and found my phone. There were a number of texts and missed calls. One of the texts said there was a session on in The Strawberry Hall, a great little pub near the Phoenix Park. I got a drink of juice and poured a glass for the mystery girl upstairs in bed.

I went back upstairs and the girl opened her eyes ever so slowly. She had black hair and pale-blue eyes. She was not Irish – she spoke with some kind of East European accent.

“Mmmmm,” she moaned. “You are awake now, Mr Sports Star?”

I was awake and ready all right. The misery session with the lads would have to wait a few hours.

The All-Ireland, like an animal long used to handling by country men, had slipped away again. Three months at least until a drug test. I had studied drugs for years. The one which lingered the longest in your urine was my old pal, Mr Cannabis. The rest were far more sport-friendly. Cocaine, speed and ecstasy all left the urine in less than a week. The object of the next few months would be intoxication. Get the drugs and gargle in as much as possible. For in December it began again.

John Leonard’s book is available now from Penguin Ireland priced at €13.99.