'He gave everything he possibly could to whatever he was doing. To be one point ahead at the end'

Sat, Jan 26, 2013, 00:00

Kevin Heffernan’s enduring legacy is a vibrant GAA in his own beloved city, writes SEAN MORAN,GAA correspondent

THE DEATH has taken place of Kevin Heffernan, one of the most important figures in the history of the GAA. The former Dublin All-Ireland winning player and manager passed away yesterday at the age of 83 after a long illness.

His legacy stretches beyond the simple re-emergence of Dublin as a force in GAA and the romance of the football rivalry with Kerry. The impact and status of Gaelic games in the city ever since has created an enthusiasm for both football and in recent years, hurling.

The popularity of the county footballers has also created a significant revenue stream for the GAA with vast crowds following the team even in those years when it wasn’t realistically challenging for highest honours. Would this have happened anyway without Heffernan?

It’s impossible to know and easier by far to make the connection between his achievements and the securing of the GAA’s presence in Dublin, which ensured that the association wouldn’t become a predominantly rural organisation.

Six titles

It was said that from Dublin’s 1942 All-Ireland until 1995 – 53 years and six titles later – Heffernan’s influence drove all of the county’s All-Ireland successes as player, selector and manager.

He might have stepped back in 1977 when his senior lieutenant Tony Hanahoe took over as player-manager during a memorable and successful campaign but no one would dispute his influence.

Even in 1995, manager Pat O’Neill and his selectors Jim Brogan, Bobby Doyle and Fran Ryder were all graduates of the 1970s team. Congratulated on being the first Dublin management to win an All-Ireland without Heffernan’s influence, Brogan politely rebuffed the compliment: “You couldn’t say he didn’t have an influence.”

And last year’s success is equally hard to detach from that influence. Manager Pat Gilroy is the son of one of Heffernan’s oldest friends whereas veteran coach Mickey Whelan is another and significantly both are Vincent’s men.

Heffernan became a central figure in establishing Gaelic games in the capital both through his activities with the St Vincent’s club and the county side. For nearly half of the GAA’s history the games in Dublin were played by large numbers of migrants from the country, who came to the city for work.

The composition of county teams frequently reflected this. In 1948 St Vincent’s, having received a plethora of applications from country-born players moving to the city, decided to adopt a home-grown policy and to restrict membership to “persons born in Dublin”, “eligible for juvenile or minor grades if not born in Dublin” or “non-Dubliners resident in Marino, Fairview or Clontarf”.

St Vincent’s template

In 1949 the club won its first senior county title and four years later, contributed all but one of the Dublin team, which beat Cavan in the 1953 NFL final, as the county followed the Vincent’s template and went native.

Heffernan was in the catchment, reared in Marino by his father John, a Garda from Offaly, and mother May, from Kilkenny. His seismic impact as a manager and coach tends to obscure the fact that he’d have been a GAA legend for his playing career alone even if the 1970s had never happened.

A talented dual player, he was an exceptional footballer. As one of the rising generation of Dublin’s first wholly indigenous team, Heffernan obsessively talked and thought football with his team-mates.

He delivered on of the great tactical displays of the era when devising the role of deep-lying full forward and implementing it to memorably destructive effect on the legendary Meath full back Paddy “Hands” O’Brien in the 1955 Leinster final in which Dublin annihilated the then All-Ireland champions.

The disappointment of that year’s All-Ireland final, the first instalment of what would become the defining rivalry of Gaelic games – Dublin-Kerry, shaped Heffernan’s football intellect and influenced him beyond the pitch.

“No defeat as a manager ever hit me like 1955,” he said in a 2004 interview in this newspaper. “That was the first time there. It was Kerry. I had great hopes and so on and so on. That formed a large part of what I became as a person.”

It was a seminal All-Ireland, built up as a summit between the masters of traditional catch-and-kick football and the new, scientific method pioneered by Dublin.

Extra boat trains to Holyhead were laid on in London to cater for the exiled interest in a decade of mass unemployment and emigration. A then record crowd of 87,102 attended and Kerry’s victory remains one of the – if not the – most treasured in the county’s vast portfolio of All-Ireland success.

After two shocking championship defeats by Wexford and then Louth, which prompted him to give up hurling and concentrate on football, Dublin’s time came in 1958 and Heffernan captained the county’s first home-grown All-Ireland winners against Derry in the final.

His influence remained even after a playing career that earned him a place on both the GAA’s Centenary Team in 1984 and the Team of the Millennium 16 years later.

Centrally involved

A selector of the All-Ireland- winning team of 1963, Heffernan would be even more centrally involved the next time Sam Maguire stayed in the city on All-Ireland final day.

So many of the stories of the 1970s Dubs are so well known that they scarcely bear repetition. Talked into taking over a mediocre and uninterested team, the new manager wanted two things: a tight-knit group of two selectors and a way to discipline and enhance the self-esteem of the players. In a way it was one thing: greater control.

“There were four fundamental points: the team had won nothing, it had done nothing, morale was at a low ebb and confidence just was not there,” he told Magill magazine in 1989.

“We wanted to create in the players a sense that they had an asset, which nobody else had. We were going to make them the fittest team in the country. Winning itself would be a boost but it was more important in justifying our emphasis on the fitness.”

The emphasis on fitness dovetailed with an undemanding league campaign to give the team time and space to practise the tactics made possible by their enhanced physical capacities and as Brian Mullins said in a 1994 interview in the Sunday Times, players began to believe in what the management was doing because the work he made them do was producing the outcomes he had predicted: what is familiar from modern terminology as “buy in”.

The run of success that followed – a record equalling six successive All-Ireland appearances and three titles – and the rivalry with Kerry helped to define the 1970s in Ireland.

Dublin brought something like the atmosphere of major cross-channel soccer games to bear on big match days.

Bright, zip-up tracksuit tops and a chanting, amorphous mass of supporters on Hill 16 and with it, occasional crowd misbehaviour contributed to the image of the Dubs as a different presence within Gaelic games. Around the country, people took their positions on Dublin-Kerry and they didn’t always side against the city team either.

Heffernan was laconic but incredibly high-profile, the icon of a great popular uprising in Dublin but the antithesis of a populist; focused and calculating. He was the incarnation of the soccer manager in Gaelic games, which up until then had tended to produce teams with collective management or low-key trainers.

The level of his intensity brooked no sentiment.

Interviews with former players – the heroes of the 1970s – are striking for the number that retain no warmth for the former manager. Some breezily dismiss the idea as being alien to Heffernan’s unrelenting ambition and clinical way of doing things.

Deemed obsolete

Others come across as more wounded by their treatment as players or the way their careers weren’t so much ended as deemed obsolete and ignored.

It’s no secret that some players would have preferred Tony Hanahoe’s one-year interregnum to extend beyond 1977.

Heffernan prioritised work ethic, loyalty and intellect – players who would think and speak their minds. Nothing else was relevant. One player was sufficiently unwise to try to explain poor form by saying he wasn’t “enjoying his football”. The manager was at once incredulous and withering: “you’re not here to enjoy it”.

Kerry was the alpha and omega of Heffernan’s football world. His All-Ireland career began against them with defeat in the 1946 All-Ireland minor final and ended similarly when he resigned as manager after the 1985 senior final defeat.

The disappointment of 1955, repeated 20 years later, taught him bitter lessons and victory at last in the 1976 All-Ireland was Dublin’s first against Kerry in a final for 50 years.

Even the manner of his walking away – albeit for what turned out to be just a year – in the aftermath suggested that destination of sorts had been reached.

His managerial career had a coda one year later when he was appointed as manager of Ireland’s International Rules team for the second series and the first to be played in Australia.

At the time, the appointment caused unhappiness in Kerry where it was felt Mick O’Dwyer – at that stage with seven All-Irelands to his name as a manager – had been unfairly overlooked.

The decision to overlook him, which was repeated on many other occasions, rankled with O’Dwyer.

Some Kerry players, most notably Eoin Liston, refused to travel but some did, including Pat Spillane and Jack O’Shea, who Heffernan appointed captain.

“I could see Bomber’s point,” was O’Shea’s recollection in Tom Humphries’ definitive history of the era Dublin v Kerry, “and he was closer than any of us, I suppose, to Dwyer. Not going wasn’t going to make any difference, though. It was a chance to play for Ireland and a chance to play for Heffernan. I found him extraordinary and when I look back at it that’s one of the privileges of my career. I was one of the few to have played for both men.”

Freeman of Dublin

Kevin Heffernan was made a Freeman of Dublin in 2004.

Interviewed in the Dublin-Kerry book the late Jackie Gilroy, father of Dublin’s All-Ireland winning manager Pat and a close friend of Heffernan, remembered one of his early appearances as a young player with St Vincent’s and a pep talk.

“He used to have this expression. A small thing. We were playing Seán McDermotts. He took me aside. I was feeling under pressure. He said to me: “remember, Giller, we just want to be one point ahead at the end”.

“I had to think about it but he gave the example. Him and his life. He gave everything he possibly could to whatever he was doing. To be one point ahead at the end.”

One point ahead. Kevin Heffernan would appreciate the understatement.

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