'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.
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.