independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

A life defined by more than just football

Kevin Heffernan

A brilliant player and manager, Heffernan was an astute negotiator, says Jerome Reilly

Kevin Heffernan will be remembered as the talismanic manager of the Dublin football team whose rivalry with Mick O'Dwyer's Kerry breathed new life into Gaelic games and became one of the most tempestuous and arguably most fascinating duels of the modern era.

But he was much more than that. He was also an outstanding footballer in his own right – the only Dublin footballer to make it on to the Team of the Millennium, and a winner of 15 county senior football titles and six senior hurling county titles.

He was also one of the most astute and tactically brilliant Gaelic football managers who developed new ideas in tactics and team preparation as well as being an acknowledged expert in the mind games that are part and parcel of team sport at the highest level.

"I loved that part of the game. Getting into the other guy's head. How will we upset him. How will we make him play the way we want him to play. That's the buzz," he said in later years.

During a special function to mark Kevin Heffernan's contribution to the ESB, where he had a successful and personally fulfilling career, Mick O'Dwyer gave an honest and frank assessment of their rivalry.

"He defined my life. I wanted to beat him as much as I ever wanted Kerry to beat Dublin. We were never what you would call bosom pals and we never exchanged hugs after the games but in Kerry we always knew we were facing the brainiest football man in the game when we opposed Heffo. He and I were not in the business of patronising each other, but mutual respect was always the paramount factor and that's why I am here tonight."

Away from sport, Heffernan emerged as one of the country's foremost industrial relations executives. He spent 36 years working for the ESB in the personnel department, rising to Manager of Industrial Relations during a career spent working in Dublin, Sligo and the Middle East.

He was a noted negotiator at a time when industrial relations at the semi-State agency were sometimes fractious. His brand of tough but even-handed diplomacy was credited with resolving a number of seemingly intractable disputes.

He was appointed as an officer of the Labour Court and later became its chairman. During his tenure, the Labour Court greatly streamlined its work in the resolution of disputes about industrial relations, equality, organisation of working time, national minimum wage, part-time work, fixed-term work, safety, health and welfare at work.

He was also seconded to chair a special committee which made wide-ranging and fruitful proposals to radically alter the way the sport of greyhound racing is administered in this country, especially in relation to drugs testing.

Heffernan became the 72nd Freeman of the City of Dublin and also received an Honorary Doctorate from UCD.

He was the beating heart of St Vincent's club in the north of the city when they were the undisputed kingpins of Dublin football and hurling. Decades after his own stellar playing career had ended he remained a senior figure at the club. Long past his retirement – he was 73 – he was still involved in coaching under 15 hurlers to county honours.

Born on August 20, 1929 he did not have a rich heritage in Gaelic games – his father preferred country pursuits like fishing and hunting – but when his family moved to Marino he became immersed in hurling and football during schooldays spent at Scoil Mhuire and St Joseph's CBS.

His first major success was a Leinster schools hurling title in 1945.

He played minor football and hurling with Dublin in the early '40s with provincial honours in both and made his senior debut for Dublin the same year he sat his Leaving Certificate – breaking his jaw in a game just days before his first examination.

His club career was incredibly successful and included seven county football titles in a row, up to 1955, and later, six in a row ending in 1962. There were also six senior hurling titles – the last in 1962.

In the blue of Dublin, he played in the 1955 All-Ireland final against Kerry. It was a clash of styles that fascinated – the brio and flair of an all born-and-bred Dublin team with their new ideas about the way the game should be played, versus the traditional catch-and-kick orthodoxy of Kerry espoused by legendary coach Dr Eamonn O Sullivan who was on the sideline for the Kingdom

Dublin lost, a defeat which Heffernan said disappointed him more than any loss he experienced as a manager, but it was also a watershed moment in Gaelic football in terms of the way the game would subsequently be played and laid the seeds of the intense rivalry between the Dubs and the Kingdom that still burns today.

He won his senior All-Ireland as captain of Dublin in 1958 against Derry, the team displaying a high-speed handpassing game that changed Gaelic football.

Yet despite his consummate skills as a player, perfecting the art of dropping off his marker and then running at his opponent with dazzling speed and balance, it was as a manager that Heffernan became one of the great figures in Gaelic games.

His tenure led to the resurrection of football in the capital and captured the national imagination. The tough, gruff occasionally taciturn demeanour of Heffernan was a fascinating counterpoint to his flashy and mercurial charges.

He was in many ways a ruthless manager, willing to cull former favourites in favour of an overall team performance. When he first became manager in 1973 he set about making Dublin the fittest team in the country. After that came the subtle and lengthy process of building a style and approach that would pay dividends.

He was also blessed with great players emerging from the club scene – David Hickey, Tony Hanahoe, Anton O'Toole, Paddy Cullen and Jimmy Keaveney, who he coaxed back to county football at the age of 29 to brilliant effect, formed the backbone of a team that as well as a potent attack boasted a backline of conviction and some ruthlessness.

When a Kerry forward suggested at a team meeting that there might be dividends by "getting in on top of Paddy Cullen" in the square, the late Páidí ó Sé agreed but added tartly: "But the big problem is getting out again."

Heffernan won his first All-Ireland with the Dubs in 1974 – their first title in 11 years. In 1975, Dublin captured the Leinster title again but Mick O'Dwyer's team of bachelors caught them on the hop in a memorable final.

Dublin bounced back the following year to win the league as well as a third Leinster in a row before going on to gain revenge over Kerry in the All-Ireland final.

Following this win Heffernan resigned – a move which shocked both supporters and players – but he returned and led them to a sixth consecutive Leinster title in 1979. Dublin lost out to Kerry in the All-Ireland final.

Heffernan rebuilt and utilising the talents of midfielder Brian Mullins, he again tasted All-Ireland glory when the '12 apostles' beat 14-man Galway in the unedifying 1983 final. Later he led Ireland to victory against Australia in the Compromise Rules series.

He remained a steadfast St Vincent's man and an important touchstone for subsequent Dublin managers, including most recently his his clubmate Pat Gilroy.

Kevin Heffernan was a formidable man who will be remembered as the beating heart of Dublin GAA over more than half a century, a brilliant footballer and a brilliant manager.

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