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