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