Ó Sé's great achievements a fitting legacy
Páidí Ó Sé May 16th, 1955 - December 15th, 2012He was a 'rogue' and a warrior and one of the finest players to ever play for Kerry
It was Pat Spillane – Páidí Ó Sé’s oldest friend amongst the now legendary generation of Kerry players – who spontaneously coined the most resonant phrase: “He was,” said Spillane on RTÉ Radio One on Saturday as the shocking news settled on the country, “a rogue in the nicest possible sense of the word and a warrior”.
Nowhere in the country are the connotations of ‘rogue’ more positively nuanced than in Kerry. It was partly Páidí Ó Sé’s self-projection but it did a disservice to his seriousness as a football man.
He enjoyed one of the greatest playing careers in the game’s history, winding up with a joint-record eight All-Ireland senior medals but because of his team’s legend, it’s sometimes forgotten he was an outstanding talent as a youngster.
He won a fistful of schools medals and, on the county senior panel by the age of 18, he won three All-Ireland under-21 medals, playing in both attack and defence, and was well on the team by the time Mick O’Dwyer’s young side upset Dublin in 1975 and wrote the first chapter in football’s most fabled story.
Born in 1955 his background, in the west Kerry Gaeltacht, had its share of football. Although his father wasn’t a notable player, 1958 All Ireland medallist Tom Long was a cousin and brother, Tom, won a minor All-Ireland in 1963 and another brother, the late Mike, father of Darragh, Tomás and Marc, played junior for Kerry.
Amongst the plethora of stories and achievements two things stand out about his career: the peerless record for a defender of conceding just one point from play to a direct opponent and the extent to which he pushed himself in training.
His mentor, in all senses, Mick O’Dwyer always commended Ó Sé’s drive and determination in training sessions. Everything on the field was for keeps regardless of context.
For the process of what he called “getting yourself arranged for O’Dwyer” he would every New Year head over the hills from Ventry into Dunquin and Slea Head for nearly three hours of stamina running.
Former team-mates observed that with his fondness for wintering well, the punishing efforts to get “himself arranged” took a toll on Páidí over the years but during his time at the top of the game he was formidable.
For someone with his competitive drive and blazing intensity the end was never going to come easily but he allowed fear of failure to motivate him.
Intimations of the end hadn’t been far from his thoughts in the closing years: “One thing used go through my mind,” he once said. “Is this going to be the day a fella gets 2-6 off me, takes me on a tour of Croke Park? It helped me keep that extra bit ahead of the posse.”
Eventually in 1989 he reached the stage of a sort of acceptance and walked away: “I could feel in there that Kerry weren’t going to win any more – and that my race was run as well,” he later recalled.
“Dwyer’s record speaks for itself but when I was first left out, I was thinking 25 reasons why I shouldn’t be. But as Brian Lenihan said, on mature recollection things weren’t going well in training.”
He was never going to leave football behind him entirely and in time would become the most successful management graduate of O’Dwyer’s golden generation. There had been intimations of this progression when he brought success to his division West Kerry in the form of county titles, both playing and coaching the side.
The move to management was something he had long anticipated. Mickey Ned O’Sullivan, his former team-mate and one of his predecessors as Kerry manager, remembered being on a team holiday during the 1970s. “I discussed it with him in the Canaries and he was adamant that this was the road he was going.”
Passed over for the Kerry job, once if not twice, he became a critical voice in the county, ironically for someone who was deeply uncomfortable being interviewed once he was in charge.
“He said a few, things,” according to former GAA president and former Kerry county chair Seán Kelly speaking years later, “that possibly reflected his disappointment at not getting the job and at Kerry being beaten and even the type of football being played.”
His commitment to football was however unshakeable. In the mid-1980s he had left the Garda Síochána to open his subsequently famous pub at home – because he needed the time to concentrate on his game.
He volunteered to take the UCC Sigerson team and for two seasons motored backwards and forwards to Cork city – a round trip of 240 miles along awful roads. He was never late for training and refused to take a shilling for his efforts.
Eventually he was brought aboard the Kerry under-21s as manager with Séamus MacGearailt in tandem. They brought home the All-Ireland in 1995 just as Ogie Moran’s tenure with the seniors was coming to an end, good timing that saw them promoted to the biggest job in the county.
At the time, the widespread perception was that Ó Sé would be the driven, passionate motivator and MacGearailt the analytical strategist (a characterisation of the partnership that irritated Ó Sé).
“They were,” said then county chair Kelly, “a very good double act. MacGearailt’s contribution was enormous. He had a different style, but was responsible for a lot of organisation behind the scenes.”
When Kerry won the 1997 All-Ireland a gap of 11 years – unprecedented since the county began winning titles – was bridged. It was a considerable achievement and although MacGearailt departed at the end of that year, a further title would be landed in 2000.
Given his personality and love for the job, Páidí Ó Sé was never going to give up the position easily and despite the disappointments of the big defeat by Meath in 2001 and the narrow loss to Armagh a year later it was the iconic smothering of his team by Tyrone that eventually rang time on the appointment in 2003. It was a year that had started with a messy controversy over a casual reference to Kerry supporters as “the roughest sort of animals”.
There was a surprising coda to his career when he went to Westmeath immediately as manager and led the county to its first Leinster senior title, defeating his old mentor O’Dwyer, then in charge of Laois, in the 2004 provincial final.
There was no doubt that his aura as an All-Ireland winner both as player and manager gave the players a belief that they hadn’t previously possessed and, although not the highlight of his career, it’s certainly the highlight of Westmeath’s history and is an achievement that stands comparison with any football breakthrough.
There was a brief involvement with Clare but recent years had been more about punditry and his newspaper column in the Sunday Independent. To the outsider it always appeared as if he missed the involvement. Still ‘larger than life’ and with the rambunctious lifestyle but the adrenalin rush of being involved was gone.
The one abiding image I have of him is a famous photograph from the old Irish Press. It was actually taken in 1986 in the lead-up to the All-Ireland final but featured the Sam Maguire that he had lifted as captain a year previously.
Taken by Colman Doyle it shows Páidí Ó Sé holding the trophy aloft and behind him lies the panoramic sweep of his West Kerry home. He stands almost as sentinel, defiant in the landscape that this week mourns his untimely passing.
He is survived by his wife, Máire, daughters Neasa and Siún, son Pádraig Óg, brother Tomás, brother-in-law, nieces, nephews, relatives and friends. Requiem Mass is tomorrow at noon and funeral afterwards to Reilig Caitlíona.
Páidí Ó Sé
As Kerry footballer
All Ireland Senior Championships: 8 – 1975, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1984, 1985, 1986
Munster Senior Championship: 11 – 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1984, 1985, 1986
National League: 4 – 1974, 1977, 1982, 1984
Railway Cup: 4 – 1976, 1978, 1981, 1982
All Stars: 5 – 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985
County Senior Championship: 2 - 1984, 1985
As Kerry manager
All Ireland Senior Championship: 2 – 1997, 2000
Munster Senior Championship: 6 – 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2003
All Ireland U21 Championship: 1 – 1995
Munster U21 Championship: 2 – 1993,1995
National League: 1 – 1997
As Westmeath manager
Leinster Senior Championship: 1 – 2004