Wednesday 20 September 2017

Hail Heffo, King of the Dubs

Before Kevin Heffernan took the reins, Dublin GAA was a busted flush. Afterwards, the Hill - and the city - was alive with the sound of music. John Meagher on a new exhibition that celebrates those heady days

Fans on Hill 16 in 1975 have a warning for Mick O'Dwyer's Kerry
Fans on Hill 16 in 1975 have a warning for Mick O'Dwyer's Kerry
Members of Heffo's Army celebrate another victory long into the night.
The highlight of Kevin Heffernan's inter-county career was captaining Dublin to the 1958 All-Ireland title.
The Dublin County Board programme from 1975.
Kevin Heffernan.
Dublin's cheerleader-in-chief Charlie Rice marshalls his Hill 16 troops in 1976.
The 1975 All-Ireland Football Final programme.
The programme from the 1976 All-Ireland Football Final.
The 1985 Dublin County Board publication featuring Kevin Moran on the cover.
A Dublin County Board publication from '84.
The programme from the 1974 All-Ireland Football Final between Dublin and Galway.
A Dublin County Board publication from 1983.
Dublin and Kerry players in action during the 1978 All-Ireland Football Final.
The RTE Guide featured the Dublin and Kerry teams in this 1976 cover.
Heffo with the Sam Maguire and local firemen in Dublin in 1974
John Meagher

John Meagher

Young Dublin GAA fans, well used to seeing their team win All-Ireland football titles and dominate the Leinster Championship, may be surprised to learn that it wasn't always that way.

At the start of the 1970s, Dublin's football team was a busted flush, a pedestrian side that nobody thought were good enough to win an All-Ireland and whose series of ignoble defeats included a beating at the hands of perennial minnows Longford.

In 1973, Kevin Heffernan was appointed manager and Gaelic football would never be the same again. And not just in the capital.

Under Heffo's tenure, Dublin would beat Kerry in the 1974 All-Ireland Final - their first time to lift the Sam Maguire Cup in 11 years - and the sky-blue hordes would get to watch their team play in six consecutive finals in the 1970s.

Members of Heffo's Army celebrate another victory long into the night.
Members of Heffo's Army celebrate another victory long into the night.

Four of those matches were against Kerry and one of the great Irish sporting rivalries of them all was born. The GAA, which had been suffering years of declining attendances, was suddenly relevant to a whole new audience.

But Heffernan didn't just change the course of the GAA. The exploits of his team would come to be seen as one of the defining phenomena of the 1970s - a decade that the historian Diarmaid Ferriter has described as "Ireland's 1960s".

There was a touch of glamour about that Dublin side and their winning ways helped open the GAA up to swathes of the population who had hitherto ignored the games.

Now the exploits of today's reigning All-Ireland champions are refracted through a prism that was burnished more than 40 years ago. Heffernan, who died aged 83 in 2013, is in the news again thanks to a new exhibition of his time in charge of the Dubs which is being held at the Little Museum of Dublin on St Stephen's Green.

And the exhibition, which features match footage courtesy of RTÉ Archives, is not just looking at the achievements of this celebrated manager and a great generation of Dublin players - it also explores the impact it had on the wider culture and on those legions of fans who liked to call themselves 'Heffo's Army'.

Historian Mark Duncan, co-author of the authoritative GAA history book, A People's History, pulled together the material - photos, match programmes and other paraphernalia - that will be seen in the exhibition. It was something of a labour of love for him, not least because his boyhood coincided with the Heffo era.

Dublin's cheerleader-in-chief Charlie Rice marshalls his Hill 16 troops in 1976.
Dublin's cheerleader-in-chief Charlie Rice marshalls his Hill 16 troops in 1976.

"Kevin Heffernan was among a great generation of managers who ushered in the cult of the manager notion," Duncan says. "Up to that point, GAA managers were not really known by the wider populace but from the mid-70s on, the manager was seen as key. Heffernan was one, so too was Mick O'Dwyer [manager of the great Kerry teams of the 1970s and 1980s], and Eugene McGee, who did wonders with Offaly.

"He arrived at a time when there were significant shifts in Ireland. There was a new urbanisation, and an expansion in the suburbs of Dublin. And there was greater consumer spending power, too, with colour television becoming a feature for many."

For a generation of TV viewers, the sight of Hill 16 in a blaze of blue and Michael O'Hehir's commentary have burned themselves into the collective memory.

Heffernan was Dublin through and through. He grew up in Marino, close to Croke Park, and played with distinction for his local side, St Vincent's, the most successful club in Dublin football. Considered one of the all-time great footballers, the highlight of his inter-county career was captaining Dublin to the 1958 All-Ireland title.

Heffernan's coaching style quickly became the stuff of legend as he put players through their paces like never before. He re-energised older players and blooded young talent like Kevin Moran, who would win two All-Ireland titles before embarking on a professional football career with Manchester United.

Another totemic Dublin figure from the time, Jimmy Keaveney, tells a story about Moran taking part in Dublin training sessions during the summer break while at Man United and being stunned by how intense the drills were.

Heffo helped galvanise support for Dublin and attendances grew rapidly. Although Hill 16 had long been a favoured place in Croke Park for the team's supporters to stand, it truly became a blues stronghold in the 1970s, especially as young supporters flooded to the games in huge numbers. The atmosphere was such that frequent comparisons were drawn to cross-channel football.

A contemporary report from a Dubs match in Longford in 1977 captured the atmosphere generated by the fans.

It was like being in the Kop or at Old Trafford. "Give me a D, give me a U, give me a B, give me an L, give me an I, give me an N!" roared the conductor perched high up in the steel girders on the roof of the stand and the sound reverberated all around the ground. 'Molly Malone', 'The Likes of Heffo's Army' and 'You'll Never Walk Alone' were followed by 'Go home ye bums, go home.' And then there was provocative chants about the Dubs being the only football team in the land, and 'The rest are no f***ing good.'

"Dublin in the early 1970s was ripe for a big-spectator phenomenon, a team to get behind," Duncan says, noting that the League of Ireland and such protagonists as Shamrock Rovers were experiencing declining crowds. Rugby was a long way from where it's at today and for the majority of Irish people, it only impacted around the time of the Five Nations.

"And," he adds, "the fans really got into it - it helped that there was such rivalry with Kerry and also because they brought success to Dublin, winning three All-Irelands out of four in the mid-1970s." (The 1977 victory, against Armagh, was overseen by player-manager Tony Hanahoe.)

If the 1970s felt like a golden age for the GAA, it mirrored what for many at the time was a great decade.

"There was huge fun to be had," Diarmaid Ferriter, author of Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s, said in one interview. "There was festival fever, people had more money at certain times, there was a very young population - 50pc were under 26 - you've got the beginnings of Hot Press, which reflects that burgeoning youth culture, you've got Bob Geldof being really lippy and going on The Late Late Show saying this country is a shit-hole.

"The Irish music scene was really impressive. People were mobilising around environmental issues, such as Carnsore Point, which was dealing with a very serious issue - nuclear power - but that didn't mean the 1970s couldn't be great fun. Christy Moore talks about these festivals that were supposed to last for a day or two but could go on for a week.

"There was a great social scene. Even looking at the music listings and the cinema listings, you get the real sense that there was a hell of a lot going on."

The Heffernan era continued until 1985: he had replaced Hanahoe for a second spell in 1979. Much of his 1970s team had retired and he built a formidable new force around veteran midfielder Brian Mullins. They won an ill-tempered All-Ireland Final against Galway in 1983 - a game that saw three Dublin players sent off - but Kerry, and Mick O'Dwyer, had the last laugh by beating Dublin in Heffernan's last two finals in 1984 and 1985.

But while those defeats at the hands of their arch-rivals were hard for Dublin fans to take, Heffo's legacy was secured. Few were surprised when he was awarded the Freedom of Dublin in 2005.

"His achievements are still being felt today," Duncan says, "and the achievements of the team now are still measured against him. He's thought of very fondly today - and not just by Dublin fans. His impact was felt by many."

Heffo's Army - The Rise of Dublin GAA is on at the Little Museum of Dublin until May 28

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