Friday 26 December 2014

Billy Keane: 'One year on and you still want to ring Páidí'

Published 14/12/2013 | 23:32

'One year on and you still want to ring Páidí'
'One year on and you still want to ring Páidí'
Páidí O Se congratulates Sean Stack after the 1997 All-Ireland final

The Kerry team were young and very nervous. It was 1997 and we hadn't won an All-Ireland since 1986. It was the morning of the final against Mayo.

He called the players to one side in the grounds of Blackrock College where the kickabout took place. I snuck over. He spotted me. Said nothing. It was just PO and the players. Maybe he knew, some day, I'd write about it.

At the time, I was a minor functionary in his back-room team. The talk is secret. That is the rule. All I can say is there was no shouting or roaring. It was a calm talk, but after that last few words there was no player in the group who didn't know exactly what his job was. There was no player who didn't know exactly what it meant to wear the green and gold.

"Are you alright?" he asked. "I'm fine," I said. The tears were coming down my face. "Was it alright?" he asked. I couldn't answer. Kerry won the most important All-Ireland ever. Páidí ó Sé saved Kerry football. He had great men with him as selectors and the planner Seamus MacGearailt kept us all grounded, but only Páidí could have won that All-Ireland.

This was Páidí at his best -- in control and beating the demons. There was a chaotic side to him too. Usually when there was drink involved.

It was the snowy January of '97 and I was at Cork Airport without a ticket. Páidí asked me to come on a trip with the Kerry team to the Canaries. I'm not sure what my job was -- and I'm still not sure. Páidí forgot all about asking me to go. Eventually, I travelled under the name of Bernie O'Callaghan. No one bothered to check my passport in the pre-9/11 times.

I blamed PO for two days, then one night he sent me over a drink and a note, it said we're going for walk tomorrow "to discuss tactics". There wasn't a word about tactics, but along with éamonn Breen we had the funniest day ever. He knew all the Africans selling sunglasses by name. Their life stories. They knew him. And he invited them all to Ventry. Jobs and beds for everyone. They sold him a pair of sunglasses the size of saucepans. We told him they were lovely.

You could never fall out with PO. Never. No matter what, because he'd always make it up to you. If you had a puncture outside his front door, it would be very hard to get him to take an interest -- but if your heart was breaking, he'd do all he could to fix it. My old friend was a mind doctor and he had a lovely counter-side manner.

In the end, his own heart broke down because it was too souped up to fit in a human frame and he drove himself too hard.

There were times when I used to feel awful for him. To be Páidí 24 hours a day -- especially in the summer -- was impossible and exacting. Everyone wanted a piece of him.

He was shy, you know. It was his first day in St Michael's in Listowel. PO was 18 and nervous. There wasn't a word out of him. Three months later, we'd have died for him. Our tiny school won all around us that year. Didn't lose a game. We won the Kerry Colleges for the first time ever. Our trainer John O'Flaherty was a football genius and he said some day Páidí would manage Kerry. I was 16 and I knew some day Páidí would win loads of All-Irelands.

Tommy O'Connell and myself walked home with Páidí every evening. There were so many yarns. They were the best days I had with him. When people left him alone, before he was famous, and he didn't have to be Páidí.

I remember bursting into the old man's study one evening, firing the schoolbag in the corner and telling him "I have no life". That was after the walk home, listening to Páidí's outrageous yarns, after a trip to London with the Kerry team.

He could be a meticulous planner and there was never a better fundraiser. His lovely family are keeping up the tradition. They raised thousands for heart equipment and the Páidí ó Sé Tournament, now in its 25th year, takes place next February. The nephews are behind it too and I'd say PO is fierce proud. There's no better weekend anywhere. He was mad about Maire and the kids. PO wasn't your conventional father. There were times when he was put in the bold corner by his girls. Classic role reversal it was. He never chastised his kids. It was all love, funny one-liners, wisdom, holidays, walks, cycles and a soft-spoken gentleness you'd never think he had in him if you watched him playing football.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in bad form. I started to dial 066 915... then it dawned on me. Now, when you'd go ringing PO there wouldn't be a response like "I'll share your pain, man" or "I love you, bro". He wasn't exactly your modern man.

He hated bad news. So the best thing to do was just call him. He'd know from the tone of your voice if the treatment was needed. Then he'd get it going. There would be enough laughter to cure any pain.

He's dead a year tomorrow. Most of all I miss watching that brilliant mind thinking. You could see him winding up. Just to give a bit of himself. It was as if there was an empty thought bubble, like they have in the comics, waiting to be filled up and you would never quite know what he'd come out with.

I see him now in his new going-away-from-home suit with a tie knot as a big as an apple. There's a shine off him and he's as fit as a trout. I can still hear his legacy podcasts in my head.

And I always will.

Irish Independent

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