It's a long way from there to Clare
Still willing to hit the road, Mick O’Dwyer returns full of enthusiasm for the game, writes KEITH DUGGAN
What possesses him? Why on this most wicked of January nights is one of the most storied faces in Irish life sitting in front of a gas fire in the club room of Corofin GAA club? On the wall behind him, the bearded figure of Michael Cusack dominates a montage of local GAA figures and at the kitchen counter Tom Downes is handing out cups of steaming tea and coffee.
It is terrible out: relentless drizzle illuminated by floodlights and invidious cold. One of the first training sessions of the year is just ending for the Clare footballers. This is Burren country: overwhelmingly beautiful on clear days but tonight, the countryside seems bleak.
Mick O’Dwyer is 76 now but there are ex-supermodels and fading actresses getting millions for endorsing face creams which fail to bottle the vitality of the Waterville man’s complexion. After six decades as a household name, O’Dwyer remains curiously outside the orbit of category. “The biggest rogue,” as the late, lamented Páidí Ó Sé put it, yes.
And in November, Eugene McGee penned a column reinforcing his belief that O’Dwyer remains “without equal as a manager”. Both timing and author were significant – the All-Ireland championship had deepened the view that football had undergone a paradigm shift. And McGee, was, of course, the young manager with Offaly masterminded one of the greatest ever coups against O’Dwyer’s seeming invincible Kerry team in 1982 .
Don’t discount the knowledge, McGee was saying. Don’t discount that peerless record. In an age when All-Irelands have become notoriously difficult to retain, O’Dwyer’s bare list – four All-Ireland medals and eight national league medals as a player, eight All-Ireland final victories as a manager – seems literally fabulous.
And yet he has always remained slightly outside the establishment, always a bit too maverick and unpredictable in his views, an attitude which has probably contributed to the strange fact that he was never appointed manager of an Irish International Rules team.
He is at once talkative and elusive and even though it was often said that “Micko will never retire” there was general surprise when the Clare County Board secured his services for the season ahead. This year, Mick O’Dwyer, the most famous football coach ever, will pit his wits in Division Four football. And this night is like so many other bitter January nights he has spent in football stadiums – it is a night for the fire. So why?
“The bloody thing is like a drug,” Mick O’Dwyer says, almost as an admission that serves as the counterpoint to this week’s Lance Armstrong confession . “It is in my blood and I can’t get it out. Some people take drugs and more people take alcohol. Football is my drug.”
It is no secret that the man loves to drive, preferably at night, when there is less traffic to slow him. “I listen to the radio and have a few tapes with me as well. Clears the head.”
Valentia . . . Glenbeigh . . . Castleisland . . . Newcastle . . . Limerick . . . Sixmilebridge: he will cruise through these places at odd hours over the coming season. Turning the key in the door of the house in Waterville well after midnight is nothing new.
Home of the underdog
Decades ago, when he was immersed in Kerry teams, Clare would appear on some summer Sunday and were duly knocked out of the championship. It was just the order of things although O’Dwyer noticed that there was always several excellent football players sprinkled through average teams. And this is where he finds himself now, in the home of the underdog and preparing for the might of Cork or Kerry in the summer championship and for the twilight glamour of Division Four.
This is the conversation among the men who have gathered around Tom Downes. Because it gets such poor exposure, nobody can understand how much of a dogfight the division is. It is a hard station to leave. O’Dwyer speaks low and easily about his plans for Clare.
“Well, the most important thing is to get them to improve their game here. But Clare have always had reasonably good players along the west coast here. Hurling is still the big game in Clare as everyone knows. But the satisfaction I get out of this is getting players together and working with them and when the days will get longer, I will work on the football side of it myself and then I will know whether they are improving or not.
“But the most important thing is generating interest here in Clare . . . To get the young fellas playing the game. We hope to have a good minor and under-21 teams coming through – that may be more important than the senior team at the moment. I hope we can leave a mark here because there are big numbers turning up at underage now in all the panels.”