'His legacy redefined aspirations for players and teams for decades to come'


Dr Pat O’Neill, who played left wing back in Dublin’s All-Ireland victories in 1976 and ’77 and went on to manage the team that won the 1995 title, shares his memories of Kevin Heffernan

I missed most of Kevin Heffernan’s first year in 1974 with a kidney condition aggravated by a playing injury so I was sitting in the stands watching it evolve. The first realisation for me was the match against Offaly because they were the kingpins in Leinster at the time and had won two All-Irelands. Leslie Deegan got an amazing point to beat them.

That’s when I began to feel anxiety at not being involved but I had to be pragmatic because of the illness. At one of the other Leinster matches Kevin was going in a parallel stile outside the old Hogan Stand. He came over for a brief chat – they were always brief – and asked: “Are you anywhere near coming back?”

I said I was interested and he said “see you on Tuesday” and walked off in the stile. I re-joined before the Cork match but I was very far behind and training was as much about rehabilitation.

Mater intern

One of the aspects of my relationship with Kevin was that I was working as an intern down in the Mater emergency room – or “casualty” as it was known then – and orthopaedic section. I remember Brian Mullins got injured before the All-Ireland and I had to get my superiors in the hospital to arrange for him to be seen and assessed and then get him back because although he was only 19 he was critical to the whole thing.

From then on I used to have a good bit of interaction with Kevin on the medical side away from strictly the training ground and the playing field.

It did cross my mind that September that I might have missed the boat but there was nothing I could have done and I was also doing my finals at UCD.

I’m not sure I was expecting a significant breakthrough in ’74 but I knew he was very organised and sensible and although he upped the ante on what we were doing he was very careful to keep it structured and tolerable for players.

He largely stuck with a regime of training twice a week on Tuesday and Thursday and practising on a Saturday so people knew where they were in terms of time commitment and diary.

Tactical strategy was kept very simple for individuals. From my point of view, it was based on a very rigid six-man defence. Two things stick out for me: you play in front of your man (“the speed of your feet doesn’t allow you to stay behind” – a fair comment and subtly put!) and if you stop your man getting a score, we only need a point to win the match.

“It mightn’t work out like that,” he’d say, “but that’s where you start”. That stuck in my mind.

My experience of team talks up until then was that you were talked to rather than talked with. His discussions were never formatted. He might ask a sub to start or he might begin with a defender and come back to people as well. It was like a classroom situation and kept everyone on their toes.

If you were going to say something, though, it had to be succinct and accurate.

Only very occasionally would he let someone ramble on and then he’d take them down. I’ve one recollection of him saying, “that’s the greatest load of waffle I’ve ever heard” – which was sobering for the individual but also for everybody else!

There could be differences of opinion over incidents in matches. I can remember him saying, “well that’s not my recollection” and there might be a row. So he’d say, “we’ll have a look at that on Saturday”.

That was when the wide-angle films were brought out, which was also innovative and far harder to do without today’s technology. “Is that not you?” he’d say to whoever it was.

But on match days very little was said, just a few words of encouragement. People were to get on with it, basically.

I knew him from a variety of perspectives and he was a very private person and kept a lot of his thought processes to himself apart from what he felt players needed individually or as a group. Was he ruthless with people as individuals? Only if he considered it in the collective interest.

Well-oiled machine

It’s important to remember when the team functioned as a unit, it ran like a well-oiled machine and you had an easy job. When that broke down that’s when it became laboured for the individual and ultimately the team. I believe that’s what happened in the ’78 final. Things were going very well as a unit until individuals began to take liberties.

If we’d won that final I think a number of players would have called a halt but instead everyone stayed around in the hope of winning another one. But Kerry were younger and hungrier.

He didn’t set out to make football popular in Dublin; he set out to win. Popularity followed but that wasn’t by design. Yet his legacy redefined aspirations for players and teams for decades to come.

I wouldn’t have said that we were close friends but we had a good relationship. I was away for most of the 1980s but always came back when Dublin reached the All-Ireland final (1983-85) and he invited me to sit in the dug-out so we remained in touch.

At times during the 70s there were tensions over how he allowed Vincent’s players to train with the club while the rest of us had to go to county sessions. UCD were on to me to ask why I didn’t do the same but I said that I wasn’t going to do that, simply as a reaction to what was happening in Vincent’s.

I felt that I owed Dublin the loyalty that had been shown to me when Kevin came back for me after my illness. Otherwise I could easily have ended up concentrating on medicine and maybe playing a little club football.

In recent times I knew him as a patient and remember dropping over to the hospital to say hello and ending up talking for a couple of hours, mostly reminiscence, and even though he was quite ill he was very clear about everything.

He still followed football closely. A few months back I visited him and he said at one stage: “We’ll talk about that again when the All-Ireland’s won.” That was before the Mayo semi-final and he was anticipating Dublin defending the title.

Good enough

I remember walking down the corridor and thinking if that’s what he believes, it’s good enough for me!

For a number of years I was involved in setting up both a trauma hospital and sports clinic in Saudi Arabia. Kevin used to travel out on industrial relations and HR business for the ESB projects there. He contacted me about securing access to the best hospitals for ex-pat staff out there, which we were able to do.

One night in the Hyatt in Riyadh I spent four or five hours with him drinking Arabic coffee and sweet tea – there was nothing else! He talked about the 1980s team, which was emerging then. Kevin was able to talk for hours about football and tactics – and none of it padding.

We ended up the only ones left in the lobby, talking away. It crossed my mind that anyone looking on and wondering, “what are that pair up to?” would never have guessed.

But Kevin would talk football anywhere. I’ll miss him.

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