Páidí Ó Sé typified the defiant streak of Kerry's greatest team, writes John O'Brien
There was a poignancy about his passing, far beyond the tragic event itself. He'd been one of those who'd sprung from nowhere, led by his hero Mick O'Dwyer, to shock Heffo's Dubs in the 1975 All-Ireland final and inspire a rivalry that kept us warm for the guts of a decade. How bracing it is to think that one-fifth of that great team has left us now, two-thirds of a brilliant half-back line. Few of them much beyond 60.
So it is when we are faced with the mortality of one of the greatest teams to have played the game, any game. It seems contrary to the natural order to see them taken from us before their time: Tim Kennelly at the age of 51 in 2005, John Egan earlier this year at 59. And now Páidí. Páidí? Think of the spirit and the sense of devilment that coursed through him and it seems scarcely credible that it could all be laid low.
There's a famous story told about Páidí of the day the Kerry players were gathered in a dressing room, O'Dwyer engaged in a particularly intense team-talk when an incensed Páidí grabbed a football and bounced it so hard off the ground it flew up in the air and shattered the light bulb hanging from the ceiling. It was an illustration of the intensity he brought to everything he did in life: manic and sometimes a little bit scary.
He idolised O'Dwyer. That much was always clear. It's very likely that the wonderful array of talent that came together in Kerry in the mid-'70s would have won a selection of titles under any manager or, indeed, without one. But without O'Dwyer it's plausible to assume too that ó Sé's haul wouldn't have been as bounteous as it was: eight All-Irelands, 11 Munsters, four National Leagues and five consecutive All Stars.
O'Dwyer set the tone for their greatness and the hunger that drove them. They had grown up with the stories: how Micko had once brushed off a shattered toe to face Down in a League final, how he'd scored 1-5 for Waterville in a Towns Cup final despite a broken finger, how he'd broken both legs and returned within six months to play in an All-Ireland final. No matter how much any of them ever wanted it, O'Dwyer wanted it more.
Not that Ó Sé's fierce appetite for football lagged far behind. In ways he typified the defiant streak of that Kerry team, its utter revulsion at the thought of giving best to the townies nearly 200 miles north. From the tip of Ventry, looking out over the Atlantic Ocean, Páidí would have considered himself remote even in Kerry terms. The classic city-country rivalry stoked up by their bouts with Dublin was made for him.
His manic will to win as a player, though, had a tendency to disguise just how ambitious he was to be successful, how he had always kept an eye on a future in football beyond playing, again inspired by the feats achieved by O'Dwyer. In the mid-1990s when Kerry football had fallen into the doldrums, Seán Kelly, then Kerry county chairman, saw a rich vein of potential from which to draw. Under Ó Sé's guidance, Kerry would win another two All-Ireland titles.
"He had massive determination," Kelly recalled yesterday. "He wanted to play for Kerry, captain them, win All-Irelands and manage them to All-Irelands. He wanted to build a pub in Ventry and he did. Anything he set his mind to, he did. His determination knew no bounds."
It's tempting to remember all Ó Sé put into the game, the passion he invested both as a player and a manager, and wonder if there wasn't a price to be paid somewhere down the line. As a manager, O'Dwyer was always known as a supreme motivator while his ideas about physical preparation belonged, many felt, to a time when scientific knowledge wasn't in such great supply.
For their lustrous dominance in the 1970s and 1980s, a sad subtext of the great story was the heavy physical toll it had wreaked on several of the Kerry players. Sheehy, we were told, had almost been crippled by injuries. Pat Spillane seemed to do his cruciate – even before the term was invented – every day of the week. Go through the Kerry teams of that era now and the number of joint replacements would probably constitute some kind of record for an Irish sports team.
And yet, if that was the cost of becoming the most storied team to play the game, then it's one they always seemed happy to pay. And that was the thing about Páidí. He played harder than most and, off the field, he tended to live harder too. When you came from a remote place in a corner of Ireland that's simply what you had to do to get noticed. And he wasn't a man for idle compromises or looking back with regrets.
So he played it the only way he knew and if, down the line, there would be a price to pay for it, well that's how it would be. And yet the shock will take some time to subside. A memory lingers of the drawn 2000 All-Ireland final, the Galway supporters gathering that night in Paddy Morrissey's bar on Leeson Street, the Kerry contingent filtering back to the Burlington Hotel around the corner.
And being Páidí, he had to take the chance to slip out of the Burlington late on and make his way down to Morrissey's for a spell, eager to sup a pint with his friends from the west and join in on a bit of banter if it was going. That indefatigable spirit and sense of mischief: still hard to grasp that it's gone.