Intellect the weapon of choice for Heffernan in his many contests
On Gaelic Games:Listen, Meg, God made the angels to show Him splendour, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind. If He suffers us to come to such a case that there is no escaping, then we may stand to our tackle as best we can, and, yes, Meg, then we can clamour like champions, if we have the spittle for it, – Sir Thomas More from A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt.
Deathly serious as he took football the late Kevin Heffernan was never quite in the position of Thomas More for whom failure to think a way out of his most pressing dilemma meant being beheaded.
But he would have felt the same concentration of the mind.
Yet for all the justified acknowledgement of his role as an innovator in football since his passing last Friday, the former Dublin manager also made one perhaps overlooked contribution to Gaelic games in the manner in which he prioritised intellect as his weapon of choice in the many contests throughout his career.
The GAA rightly proclaims the fire and passion of football and hurling but it should also celebrate those who do the games the honour of engaging cerebrally with their demands and challenges.
At the funeral yesterday there were appreciations from two men who followed in his steps as All-Ireland- winning managers from St Vincent’s, Tony Hanahoe and Pat Gilroy. Their reminiscences were warm and amusing.
Hanahoe spoke about Kevin Heffernan’s great passion for the club, which was evidenced by all of the teams at all levels and age grades that he took out in Vincent’s during a lifetime’s involvement.
Nonetheless, although with Dublin passion might have been the driving force – how could he have volunteered four decades of service to county teams without his heart being in it? – the mind was the means of engagement.
He once spoke about the thrill and satisfaction he felt as Ireland manager at breaking down the game of International Rules in 1986. After a first Test that went badly wrong, he worked out what had happened and what needed to change – and as importantly from his own perspective, how the game worked – before devising the plan that delivered a series victory.
Hanahoe yesterday illustrated what he called the ability “to look around the corners” by referring to the now legendary first championship match of 1974 when Dublin and Wexford met in a poor curtain-raiser to that season’s NFL final between Kerry and Roscommon.
Heffernan was steaming by half-time and thundered about how slow an opposing corner back was and how his lack of pace would be Dublin’s path to victory. Suddenly he stopped and reconsidered, instructing that the targeted defender be given a few handy balls to start with in case the opposing mentors took him off too early.
He wasn’t by any means the first innovator in football or the first to be fascinated by the possibilities of the game.
Kerry have their own. Even before Heffernan’s great nemesis Mick O’Dwyer the county produced Dick Fitzgerald and Eamonn O’Sullivan, who wrote seminal coaching manuals – as did Down’s Joe Lennon, the pioneer of Ulster football’s scientific advance in the 1960s.
He was however unusual in what he demanded of his players: not so much that they obey instructions – but that they also debate the problems and find solutions.
Tactics and ideas
As Dr Pat O’Neill, one of the team and later an All-Ireland-winning manager himself, put it: “He not only thought deeply about the game but he insisted that his players did as well.” This was surely rooted in the 1950s when the Dublin team, on which he was a key influence and many of whom were also club-mates, talked incessantly about football and tactics and ideas for innovative strategy.
Writing yesterday in this newspaper, O’Neill added of his former mentor: “He didn’t set out to make football popular in Dublin; he set out to win. Popularity followed but that wasn’t by design.”
Unlike other innovators, Heffernan wasn’t interested in talking about it much let alone preaching on the subject. A determinedly private individual, he never seemed comfortable elaborating on his past achievements to the world at large.
The next challenge – whether it was how to prise open the defence in a junior hurling match or what tactics to disguise the weakness of an under-16 footballer – was always uppermost.
In the swirl of GAA tributes the scale of his contributions in other walks of life was underplayed. Clontarf golf club pointed out how he nonchalantly turned up the morning of the 1974 All-Ireland final against Galway and walked off with the captain’s prize.
Liam Cahill, the writer and political consultant, paid tribute on Twitter to the man who had charge of human resources in the ESB and chaired the Labour Court: “A great GAA man, but remember Kevin Heffernan too as an innovative and humane practitioner of industrial relations over many years.”
Pat Gilroy said at the funeral that he freely dispensed valuable advice about HR problems to other members of St Vincent’s involved in business.
It’s possible to imagine him forever behind a great chess board, chain-smoking Major and impassively sizing up the challenges and devising strategies in response: a contending world of black and white – and above all, blue.