IN January 2007, Mick O'Dwyer's old-world charms lured an estimated 3,000 supporters to Aughrim for a down-at-heel O'Byrne Cup caper between Wicklow and Carlow, his first game in charge of the hosts.
Live television and a large battery of newspaper men reflected the fuss his latest and much unexpected dalliance had whipped up. He was 70 and while his long career had seen a great deal, taking a team of Wicklow's lowly stature represented a curious and risk-laden new departure.
The match ended with a junior footballer called Paul Phibbs scoring the winning goal in injury time and the bandwagon was up and rolling. When O'Dwyer left Wicklow five seasons later, they were in a better place and the mileage clock on his car had gone stratospheric. But could he go again and defy the modern trend of young radicals taking up these roles? His old friend Arthur French was in no doubt when interviewed soon after.
And so it has come to pass. Today in Miltown Malbay there may not be 3,000 in attendance or live television cameras but there will be an interest pitch entirely out of sync with the nature of the contest – a preliminary-round McGrath Cup game involving Clare and LIT. O'Dwyer has had a light touch so far and is happy to leave the physical preparations for the time being at least in the hands of Micheál Cahill, a third his age, with coaching back-up from Ger Keane and Michael Neylon, former Clare players.
He is as punctual as ever regarding training, always appearing an hour in advance and setting good example, but for now Clare players are mainly drawing from the enthusiasm and positive chi he invariably brings to the party – maybe just as well as today's venue is the scene of that massacre in 1979 when his Kerry team annihilated the hosts 9-21 to 1-9. Thirteen years later, Clare defeated Kerry to win the Munster championship but that did not create any lasting erosion of the old provincial edifice. Clare, even with a Munster final appearance last year, have long reverted to existing on scraps, rejoining the ranks of the forgotten.
Already there are positives in terms of the amount of players who have answered the call of duty, with six from the county champions and most successful club of recent times, Kilmurry-Ibrickane, twice the number of their delegation last season. Getting some of the better players to commit to the county team has been an issue and O'Dwyer's endorsement has helped alleviate this problem, at least for now. Even if he will be 77 when Clare open their Munster championship campaign next June against Limerick or Cork, O'Dwyer can still relate to players from a generation that would have no recollection of him or the great teams he prepared.
One of those players who has made himself available, Cathal O'Connor from Coolmeen, is based in Scotland and it is believed he would have been available last season but funds weren't made available to pay his way home. With Micko around, the county board is more inclined to loosen the purse strings. There has already been an obvious heightened interest in the team and their affairs with uncommonly high levels of interview requests and the presence at training of print and broadcasting concerns who regard Micko as a sure thing at the box office.
Marty Morrissey was down on New Year's Day to carry out interviews during training. In some counties this would be an unwelcome intrusion; in counties like Clare, it's all good. Clare will be in experimental mode today and without some of their key players, including forward Rory Donnelly who is on honeymoon, and they face a tough league campaign starting next month with a home tie against Waterford. Promotion rivals include Offaly, Limerick and Tipperary, leaving O'Dwyer with arguably the stiffest promotion challenge of any Clare manager of recent times.
Promotion to Division 3 would be a major fillip for Clare football but how this ties in with O'Dwyer's tendency to place reduced emphasis on the spring competition remains to be seen.
Wicklow failed to win promotion from Division 4 in his first year but he recorded a famous championship win over Kildare. He made his mark in the summer. Whether he can do the same for a county living in the shadow of two superpowers is the latest in a long series of challenges in which he has invested his time and reputation.