He was looked upon as the joker in the pack, the messer, pulling stunts, never shy cracking a joke, that was until he pulled that white jersey over his head.
It was then the joking stopped, the messing, the stunts were left in the dressing room, there was a job of work to be done and there were few better than carrying out that job than Willie McCreery.
And while Mick O'Dwyer use to tell Willie to carry the ball as close as possible to the opposition goal before he took a shot (finishing was never his strongest point) Willie was the best man, bar none, to get from his own area to the opposite end; his engine, his willingness to put his head on the line, made him stand out from the pack.
These days Willie McCreery trains horses on the Curragh plains.
Not just any auld horses.
Willie's reputation has certainly grown and grown since he first took out his licence, now 11 years ago.
Willie was born into horses. His dad, Peter, trained Hilly Way to win two consecutive Champion Chases at Cheltenham, while Daring Run won a brace of Irish Champion Hurdles. Willie's brother, Peter Jnr, took over from his dad, and bagged an Irish Grand National with Son Of War; Pat Taffe, of Arkle fame, is Willie's uncle so the bloodline would certainly be of the blue variety.
Anyone who knows Willie McCreery will smile when they hear that as a young lad he had one ambition, and that was to be a jockey.
“I didn't start to really grown until I was 13 or 14 and then I just shot up; I grew and grew, and there went my early ambitions.”
While the weigh room never knew what it was like to have Willie ‘togging out’ Mick O'Dwyer knew he had in the Clane man, a player, as he (Micko) described himself, “a man that gave you everything, a man with a pair of shovels for hands, and a man with an engine that simply refused to switch off.”
Having attended Scoil Mhuire National School, in Clane, where the principal at the time was one Pat Lynch, dad of the great Martin, Willie admitted that he was more interested in athletics as young lad than football.
“My mother used to put the five of us (another brother, Tom, had no interest in sport) into the car every Sunday and off we would go to a sports day, or anywhere there was athletic action.”
Willie lived in Capdoo in Clane close to the Lyons family; the Connolly's , the and the Mitchell's.
He played football with the Lyons' and Mark Muffet in the evenings while it was “Jack Mitchell who trained me to win the U10 100m All-Ireland final at the Community Games in Mosney” he says with no small hint of satisfaction, so that competitive edge was with young McCreery from an early age.
When finished school it was off to the Agricultural College in Multyfarnham, a place Willie remembers with much joy and satisfaction.
“A great place, really enjoyed that, and you know we should have won a college's (football) title there; we had a good team and one of the best managers I ever played under; John Daly, a Clare man who loved football and was really ahead of his time.”
Next stop for a man that had some CV, before he took out a training licence, was to complete a National Stud course in Kildare and then, at the tender age of just 19 years, headed to Australia.
“I worked Down Under on a stud farm initially before linking up with Bart Cummings, one of the most successful trainers of all time in Australia.”
So you were really gathering up a lot of experience despite your tender age?
“I certainly was” he replied “but without knowing it or realising it at the time.”
Next stop for the Clane man was Japan, where he spent time as a riding instructor before heading to America to work in upstate New York in Sugar Maple Farm.
“There was a horse there that I looked after by the name of Sir Harry Lewis, owned by Howard Kaskel, he went on to win the Irish Derby in 1987 (the year of the bomb scare).
Next up was home, where he took up a job as Assistant Trainer to Charles O'Brien.
“A gentleman was Charles, I worked for him for eight years and I think we had only one row in all of that time; very relaxed man who had some top class horses.”
It was during that time that Willie was at the top of his game, football-wise and while the hours were long (with Charles O'Brien) he loved training under Mick O'Dywer; loved every minute of it.
After eight years with O'Brien Willie took up a position as pre-trainer to Shiek Mohammad, breaking yearlings; following that he went to Maynooth to run Huma Stud Farm for Hughie de Burgh and Mark de Chambourg.
So a lot of travelling, a lot of experienced gained, all at a very young age?
“Ye, but sure at the horses you would get a job anywhere in the world” he enthused, adding “there's always shite to be shoveled.”
Horses are a passport to get you around the world he says. “That's the great thing about Irish people, they are looked upon the world over as great horsey people; Irish people have an affinity with horses, an affinity that no other nation on the earth has.”
It was in 2009, football career well over (will come back to that presently) Willie decided, along with his wife Amanda, to take out a training licence.
Was that a big gamble?
“It was, and it wasn’t” he replies.
“Amanda was working full-time; she had a house with the job, now if she had not had a house, along with a very good job, it would certainly have been a big gamble but we sat down together, worked out a business plan; decided we'd give it five years; put twenty grand into it and a promise if it didn't work out we would not put any more money into it; so it either worked or it didn't; thankfully we made it work but you must remem-
ber a lot of people in horses can be blinded by horses but we stuck to it and it worked out.”
Willie started out with just fourteen horses but when he tells you that eight of that fourteen he owned himself, then one begins to think that it was a major gamble.
Two months on he trained his first winner, Toasted Special, ridden by Willie Supple (had a few quid on it) and that worked out well; we sold him and the owner kept him with us, so a great week all around.
A lot of horses these days are owned by syndicates but back then Willie started an all-in syndicate, in other words there were no hidden costs; you came in with a share, the horse is sold at the end of the year; if the horse won a few races you made a few pound, if it didn't you were screwed but we had a bit of luck, one horse we bought for €3,000 we ended up selling for €100,000; another we bought won six races and around €50,000; but they were not all good luck stories; if the horses were no good you simply got rid of them; no point spending good money after bad.
Willie equates horses to football when describing how you might know how good, or otherwise, a purchase might be.
“I always equate horses to football; two-year-olds are like minors; three and four-year olds are the U21s, heading into a senior team but you must remember some lads are good minors but might never play senior and some poor minors can grow into good seniors, just the same as footballers and like footballers, no horse is the same but you have to make a call; you have to decided if one of the poorish ‘minors’ might come good in a year or two; that's one of the big decisions you have to make.”
Willie has sixty horses in his yard presently so no doubt is one busy man.
“We kept going during the coronavirus, social distancing and all that but I have to say the government has done a great job during this crisis while HRI and IHRB are doing everything possible to ensure racing continues to function; difficult to say when punters will be back racing though despite 95 per cent of the public doing everything right — the other five per cent are simply gobshites.”
Long hours in the racing game, what would your normal day entail?
“Up at 5.40; in the yard at 6.20, finish about 1 pm and then back again around 3 until 6 unless there is no racing to go to that is.”
The day we talked to Willie he was heading to a Killarney evening meeting so not home until 10 or 11 that night and then back up for an early start in the yard first thing the next day, seven days a week.
So not much time to go to football these days?
“No, absolutely not; now and again I might pop down to look at Clane playing but it depends what's on.”
Willie, of course was a big cog in the Clane club during the ’90s, where he won senior championships but, on his own admission “we should have won a lot more; we really under-performed, it was difficult with so many on the county team, at one stage we had seven but went down in the league, something which was really very unfair I have to say.”
A member of the Kildare minor team that lost to Meath, The Royals went on to win the All-Ireland and while he did not play U21 (away for some of it but no real interest when he came back initially) before joining up with the Kildare seniors, initially under Dermot Earley.
“I was a sub for three or four years, more or less understudy to Dale Hynan and then Dale got injured one day and I was called up and played midfield from there on for a fair few years.
“We had a very special bunch of players from ’96/’97 onwards and I believe the day we beat Laois, after two of our lads were sent off and we won with 13, that was the day I felt we had something going for us; that gave us the belief.”
Remember though, adds Willie, “we had in Glenn Ryan a special player, a real leader who put his head on the block, no shouting or roaring, all by example, he was simply exceptional and a really good player and an example to one and all.”
What about Micko?
“Some man” came the instant reply; remember before Micko came Kildare had won nothing for years, and they go on about this manager and that manager today but sure we have won nothing since 200o and I wish to God they would win; we can't just keep going on talking about ’98 and 2000, it is time to go out and win again, more than time.”
There was a bond, or something about that team of ’97-2000 I enquire.
“Absolutely, great bond, we had a few messers we got rid of but even when the lads still meet up, it is great, you can feel the bond that's there; all down to Micko” and he adds, “I will tell you something else, in those years, there was no fitter team in the land than Kildare, bar none, superbly fit team.”
While admitting that he felt Kildare should have gone all the way in ’97, “sure Offaly beat Meath because they (Meath) were b---xed after the three games against us and for ’98, sure that was special, really special.
“Winning Leinster was incredible but we left the All-Ireland behind” he laments.
What went wrong?
“They knew more about us than we knew about them; did you know that Galway spent a weekend in the Glenroyal in Maynooth; fully rehearsing the All Ireland final Sunday, replicating exactly everything they would do on All-Ireland final day; then drove through Kildare with all the bunting and flags, John O'Mahoney used it as a motivating factor, but that should never have been allowed to happen.
“O'Mahoney was a great manager, they had in Padraig Joyce a great player; they had your man, the postman (Ja Fallon) and young Michael Donnellan; we got our line up wrong; Ken Doyle at corner forward; Sos at wing back, he was always a corner man, and we failed to take action during the game, neverthe-
less they were great times; two Leinsters an All Ireland final ... but a terrible pity we did not finish it off.”
2000 another great final against Dublin but then Galway caught us again.
Willie retired after that, a knee injury finally catching up on him and while he was a selector, along with manager Pauric Nolan, in 2001, in hindsight he says maybe it was a year too quick; knew too many players but we went so close again that year.
And what of the football of today, and Dublin?
“Dublin are a great side and they are one of the few teams I would go to look at these days; they play lovely attacking football while others are going backwards, and even more annoying at times, sideways, but it us up to the other counties to step up; a bit like racing, dominated by the likes of Aidan (O’Brien) and Willie (Mullins) and others, it us up to us trainers to step up to the mark.”
Adding, “and the same can be said of Kildare.
“It's time to step up, with a Leinster title, at least, we can't still be dining out on the ’98 and 2000 Leinster wins, and one All-Ireland final appearance.
“It's time for Kildare to come forward, stand up and take the plaudits again!