City fathers on enduring, evolving legacy of Dublin football
Tony Hanahoe and Pat O’Neill chat about the past, the present and the future of the Dubs
Pat O’Neill and Tony Hanahoe: both won All-Ireland titles as players for Dublin and also managed the county to Sam Maguire success – Hanahoe as player-manager in 1976, O’Neill in 1995. Photograph: Tom Honan
In among all of the yarns and anecdotes about the Decade of the Dubs, oft-heard to the point that it will take archaeologists to uncover ones that aren’t out of copyright, one of the most intriguing elements was The Shed, where the Dublin footballers gathered after training in Parnell Park to contemplate their individual and collective failings.
Tony Hanahoe: “It was just a metal roof on a kind of lean-to with a wooden floor.”
Pat O’Neill: “Kevin [Heffernan] used to get Tiernan McBride [the late film maker] to film these wide-angle shots of the pitch, which would show where everyone was when we were defending. It wasn’t high-tech by today’s standards and all you could really see were these blue dots. Sometimes when it got heated, fellas would just try and deny that they were to blame for what had gone wrong.”
Hanahoe: “And then it would be produced. A blue dot would be identified. ‘So what’s that?’”
Hanahoe’s arm sweeps upwards, as he points with courtroom flourish at the imaginary but damningly-isolated blue dot, shimmering decades later in mute reproach at some loose defender, anonymous now maybe but he knew who he was.
The two men meet in the Trinity City Hotel the week before the All-Ireland final. Dublin will attempt something that could have been dreamed of only under hallucinogenic influence back when they started out on the trail not just of personal and collective achievement but along the way of restoring Gaelic games to the city and the city to the GAA.
Neither wants to labour the past but it is intrinsically bound up with the present and future.
Kevin Heffernan emerged in the 1950s as an innovator on the field and a leadership figure off it. A new, locally reared Dublin team won the 1958 All-Ireland but the one they lost to Kerry three years previously haunted him.
For nearly all of that time Dublin have been a presence and when they weren’t in the mid-1960s and early ’70s he stepped in and drove the restoration.
Kerry were the great rivals but time is the enemy. Of course the two former players would like to be out there playing even with their reservations about the modern game but more tantalisingly, what might have been had they all been just a bit younger?
Their chapter in the great 1970s chronicles was ending, as Mick O’Dwyer’s team was still on its opening pages.
Anniversaries. Milestones. Days past. Both Tony Hanahoe and Pat O’Neill check every now and then, baffled at the pace of passage: 40 years since Kerry brought down the curtain, 44 since the All-Ireland that changed everything for Dublin. Where does it go?
The team’s personality filled the city. They were recognised in the streets and about their everyday business. Their adapted playing gear, deepening the sky blue of the jersey and adopting navy blue shorts, became the city colours. They were stars but accessible.
O’Neill: “I was working in the hospitals at the time and a fella would be admitted who had come off his Honda 50 the night before and might be hanging up in all of this traction gear in the ward and you’d be getting him organised and then you’d catch him mumbling at you, ‘Jaysus Pat, you were rubbish on Sunday’.”
They look well. Hanahoe is 73 and O’Neill will be 68 later this year. Both were close to Kevin Heffernan and of his 1970s team; they are the only ones to have managed Dublin to All-Ireland titles even though a host of their contemporaries did their bit in management over the years.
Hanahoe stepped into the breach when Heffernan unexpectedly announced that he was stepping down just after the 1976 All-Ireland win. For 18 months, with the assistance of the selectors Lorcan Redmond and Donal Colfer, he led Dublin to their most fabled season, the immortal semi-final win over Kerry and back-to-back titles for the first time in five decades.
Time has taken them through distinguished careers in law and medicine, adding to the gravitas of their football achievements, leading lights in the team that rearranged the city’s landscape for the GAA.
Former Fine Gael minister and Kerry All-Ireland winner Jimmy Deenihan summarised the novelty of it all in his memoir, My Sporting Life.
“While Heffernan was the tactician. Tony Hanahoe soon established himself as a formidable team leader on the field and an able spokesman off it. He was articulate and polished and enhanced the image of the GAA in media circles. He popularised the game and broadened its appeal in parts of Dublin hitherto associated with rugby.”
I want to steer away from is comparison with today’s players and the 1970s
Time cautions them as well. Neither want to be seen as stereotypes of a faded generation, giving out about the modern age. They have their views on how football is played, of which more later, but are full of praise for what Jim Gavin has achieved and the capabilities of their successors.
Hanahoe takes care on a couple of occasions to preface remarks with a disclaimer.
“First thing I want to steer away from is comparison with today’s players and the 1970s,” he says.
Except it’s not a matter of comparison. Without the 1970s, there would be no today – on a weekend when Dublin attempt to do what the county has never done before – win a fourth successive All-Ireland.
Pre-history and Killiney
The game in Dublin died at intercounty level remarkably quickly. As a player Kevin Heffernan spearheaded the first revival in the 1950s from the seismic All-Ireland final against Kerry in 1955 to winning the title in 1958 and serving as a selector when Sam Maguire was regained in 1963.
A year later Hanahoe made his debut but it wasn’t great timing and after a Leinster title in 1965 in which he wasn’t involved, Dublin hit hard times and public interest drifted.
Hanahoe: “I can go back to the bad old days. There’s a picture of the Dublin team around 1972 being photographed in Croke Park before a league match and there are four people standing on Hill 16. The joke was that two of them may have been selectors so coming from that point it’s hard to realise – and many just don’t – how tough it was to get up to where we got in 1974.
“Now that Dublin have arrived and are there, there are two or three generations who won’t ever understand how far down we had gone at that stage. For one who remembers these things, the rise in the interest in the game and the success rate has been astounding.
“The greatest example of that is Cuala. If 30 or 40 years ago, you had attempted to convince me that there would be an All-Ireland winning club from around Killiney, I’d have laughed in your face.”
O’Neill: “I always remember a friend of ours – deceased now – about 10 or 15 years ago coming in towards town through Killiney village on the day of an All-Ireland semi-final.
“He said, ‘I never saw what I saw this morning’. On his way he saw six teenagers at a bus stop in Killiney – all wearing Dublin jerseys. ‘Not alone that,’ he said, ‘but three of them were girls’!
“There has been a change in the numbers but has there also been a shift? Is it quite as dominant in the north county, as it used to be – of course they mightn’t like to hear me saying that?”
The age of Heffernan
Kevin Heffernan’s influence and the team he built and guided would all have been in vain had he not found county administrators to facilitate the revolution. County secretary Jim King and county chair Jimmy Grey, who had kept goal for Dublin’s hurlers in what remains their last All-Ireland final, in 1961, were both keen to let him at it and the modern manager was born.
The emergence of the team from years of under-achievement was driven by new levels of fitness training and ruthless internal focus at meetings where players weren’t encouraged – they were obliged – to criticise and discuss team performance.
“He not only thought deeply about the game but he insisted that his players did as well,” according to O’Neill.
Heffernan himself was driven by the 1955 defeat to Kerry, later going so far as to say that it had “formed a large part of what I became as a person”.
When he passed away five years ago, Pat O’Neill said in a tribute: “Kevin didn’t set out to make football popular in Dublin; he set out to win. Popularity followed but that wasn’t by design.”
O’Neill: “He was promoting Dublin as a football force. The legacy is there but there are others who have to come into the equation. Jim Gavin has referred to that legacy. Kevin identified the need for it as a player and then when he said, ‘right, I can’t play any more but my passion is with this’ and he took it from there.
Hanahoe: “In the 1970s he was the creator of that era but, as Pat said, were it not for Jimmy Grey as county chair who used his power to do what he wanted and Jim King who was a players’ man, it mightn’t have happened. He believed in it and the transfer of that belief, influence
“Did he have an issue with Kerry? He had and also one about Meath but that only made him more determined and made him more gratified when the 1970s achieved what it did.
“He could walk away and say, ‘I’ve delivered’. He was a very subjective man in some ways and he decided that this was what he wanted to achieve – and he did achieve it.”
Succession, interregnum and history’s blind eye
Within a couple of weeks of beating Kerry in the 1976 All-Ireland final, the first time Dublin had done so since the 1920s, Heffernan announced that he was to step down. The news was unexpected and Hanahoe was pressed to take over, as player-manager of the All-Ireland champions.
Under exceptional pressure, in the dual role and maintaining a busy career, he led Dublin to new heights, admitting to being exhausted after the comeback against Kerry and retaining the All-Ireland.
In the spring of 1978 Heffernan returned and the era resumed, almost seamlessly, for another seven years but the three-in-a-row never happened, as the graph lines of the teams’ fortunes had crossed.
Does Hanahoe ever feel annoyance over a sense of his achievement being airbrushed out of the 1970s story?
Hanahoe: “That’s a very searching question! And I’m going to give a very honest answer: yes! On occasions I do but as I said to Pat earlier on, I’m more interested in looking forward than I am in looking back. Kevin definitely left and didn’t have anything to do with the team for 18 months afterwards.
“I couldn’t have done that had I not got the support of the team and of Lorcan Redmond and Donal Colfer. It was a tightly-knit group and that wouldn’t have facilitated any outsider in coming in and trying to take over.
“Kevin made his decision for personal reasons, which I understood, and there wasn’t much I could do because I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it so I took on the role.
“I do sometimes feel to answer your question specifically that yes, my role was airbrushed to an extent but I don’t dwell on it. Life is too short for harbouring those kinds of notions.”
O’Neill: “There were actually three roles: player, which is hard enough to do at the best of times, captain, which is a serious role on any team – and then to couple all of that with management is just amazing. That was a bigger job than Kevin Heffernan had.
“Having said all of that, luckily there was a group there that did buy into that. The only thing they had no control over was their age and I think that was the ultimate obstacle.
“I have an abiding memory of the interval between the ’77 semi-final and the All-Ireland final against Armagh, which was meant to be a foregone conclusion. I felt for you at the time because I could feel the pressure you were under trying to keep the team on the proper level and focused rather than let them run away with it and it was no surprise for me to hear you say 41 years later that you were exhausted. I’m not surprised.”
Hanahoe: “Pat has achieved his own success as a manger and he knows what it’s all about. Kevin came back and tempus fugit had full rein. The one thing I often wonder about is what if the two teams [Kerry and Dublin] were the same age and that is not to exclude other teams but I wonder what would have happened.”
Tyrone and the Ulster question
O’Neill took over as manager of Dublin for the 1992-93 season, having been a selector with 1970s stalwart goalkeeper Paddy Cullen during a time that encompassed the four-match saga with Meath in 1991 and the unexpected defeat by Donegal in the 1992 All-Ireland final.
Successive disappointments against Derry in the 1993 semi-final and Down in the ’94 final led to a further showdown with a fourth Ulster county, Tyrone in the 1995 All-Ireland, the last time the counties met in September until this weekend.
It was a controversial match. Charlie Redmond, Dublin’s free-taker was sent off but didn’t leave the field immediately – remaining for another 28 seconds of play – and at the end Tyrone had an equaliser disallowed because Peter Canavan had touched the ball on the ground in providing an assist for Seán McLaughlin.
O’Neill: “Dublin probably had reached their peak. They were going a lot of years at that stage and had been through a lot of disappointment, down two finals and a semi-final at that stage so it was their fourth shot at it – fifth if you include the Meath matches.
“I have no doubt that if Charlie had remained on the field – we were three ahead by then and the game was swinging our way at that stage – we would have stayed in control. His sending-off meant that the rest had to work so hard – Jason [Sherlock] had to work back; sometimes a sending-off doesn’t have a major effect but that did.
“My own recollection is that at the time when the whistle went I thought it had ended in a draw. There was so much commotion on the sideline with subs having gone in and players come off. I couldn’t really see or at least I was so distracted that all I was aware of was the [McLaughlin] ball going over the bar. I didn’t really take in the aftermath.
“I was beginning to walk off and thought, ‘how are we going to get ready for a replay without Charlie Redmond, who had been such an influence on the team getting there’.”
Football’s existential crisis
In a summer bedazzled by hurling, its monumental contests, sheer competitiveness and the romance of Limerick finally reaching the Promised Land, football has suffered by contrast.
Anxieties about Dublin’s domination, the defensive strategies deemed necessary to thwart them and alarming indications that the public are switching off have all fed into a discontent with big-ball game.
Hanahoe: “I don’t accept all of that. Dublin are doing well at the moment and they have a good team and are very competitive. Jim Gavin has done an absolutely excellent job. The only way to turn that around is for other teams to be as excellent again.
“The availability of that achievement in every county is questionable. Dublin have great resources but so have they in other counties. That’s one aspect.
“The other aspect is the game itself. You can’t blame Dublin for being on top. They’re just doing what they’re doing. The situation is that if it’s boring at the top of the game, what is it down in junior football where they’re aping what’s going on at the elite level?
“You could ask what the requirements of modern football are – and I’m not making any inter-generational comparisons between players but the game itself? If I am a good athlete, who can hand-pass the ball and move around, are there any other credentials required in today’s game?
“I’m saying today’s players are great but the game itself has descended into a boring spectacle. If you knew nothing about it you would assume that it has an offside rule.
I think the hand-pass needs to be limited and that will have implications for strategies
“It’s not for me or Pat O’Neill to say what the rules should be but there should be an emergency committee set up to review football rules and where it’s going.
“There’s an alleged drop in attendances of 25 per cent [crowds at this year’s All-Ireland football semi-finals were down 29 per cent on 2017, not counting last year’s Mayo-Kerry replay]. When it drops below 60 per cent will something be done?”
O’Neill: “I’m inclined to agree with Tony that football is a problem. We’re seeing that the strategy and technique of the game is going away from football, the primacy of the kick and it’s not entertaining. In general, people are talking about it. You hear it at work and in the street.
“Part of it is the strategy and part of it is the hand-pass but they’re working together. Personally I think the hand-pass needs to be limited and that will have implications for strategies.
“Having said all of that and having been involved in various committees in Croke Park in recent years, I would say there is no appetite for any kind of intervention of that nature from coaches, trainers, managers and players because that is now what they understand. Politically there has to be a hard decision made.
“Of course coming from our generation that will be met with: ‘That day is gone; it’s a different game now.’”
Epilogue: All-Ireland final
Hanahoe: “They were great days for us because we were involved. All I can say is that there were great players I played with and against, who never got there for one reason or another. Maybe they played with teams that weren’t good enough or lucky enough to get there.
“The way I looked at it was that we were just lucky to be there. It was a moment in history and sometimes you just look back and – in case people would underestimate what’s going on this Sunday – to go out there and stand up in front of 82,000 people, it tests all the traits of character and everything else.
“It’s a great experience and it was a great achievement and you move on.”