Heffo was a reluctant general but his Army dragged Dublin out of the Dark Ages, writes Dermot Crowe
ON May 26, 1974, Dublin defeated Wexford 3-9 to 0-6 in the first round of the Leinster championship, Kevin Heffernan's first championship match in charge. No mad run on the bookies ensued to avail of the generous odds on Dublin conquering province or nation. They had suffered losses to Clare, Limerick and Kildare in the league. They hadn't won, or contested, a provincial final in nine years. In a neat summary of their low status their opening championship match served as a curtain-raiser to the league final replay between Roscommon and Kerry.
Dublin won, which in itself was progress, but the performance didn't convince. They scored 1-4 in the final seven minutes, benefiting from a new fitness regime that would become a fundamental asset. The football, as Heffernan would later confess, was miles off what was seen in the day's main attraction. He went home a worried man.
The story goes that John Quigley, a Wexford dual player, turned to his opponents at the end and predicted that Dublin wouldn't last much longer. A newspaper reporter cited howls of derision from some among the Kerry and Roscommon gathering, gasping at the poverty of some of the play. Already though there were signs of Heffernan's and destiny's hand. Anton O'Toole had a roving role, Heffernan striving, in a throwback to the 1955 Leinster final against Meath, to create space for a supremely fit Dublin side to thrive on. Wexford, not in the same physical galaxy, duly waned.
Another glimpse of the future lay in the choreography for Dublin's second goal: a sweeping counter-attack involving O'Toole, Tony Hanahoe and David Hickey who would all become household names. Hanahoe finished the move by punching the ball into the net. By default, the game also brought back Jimmy Keaveney, another hidden signpost to a better future. He watched from the stands, two years retired, overweight and aged 29. On the way home, allegedly on the chance comment of a seven-year-old in his car, it dawned on Heffernan that Keaveney could be the solution to their free-taking problems. A week later against Louth, he was in the team.
Louth were marginal favourites to defeat Dublin at Navan in 1974. Dublin won comfortably, more than their five-point cushion suggested. A year earlier they had lost to Louth and Heffernan is said to have entered the dressing room and vowed that their fortunes would be resurrected. A bureaucratic selection structure of three county board men and two from the county champions was dispensed with and Jimmy Gray, the chairman of the county board since 1970, went after Heffernan to head a tighter three-man unit.
"I knew him for 60 years," said Gray yesterday. "I was anxious to get him to manage the team, but he had given his commitment to (St) Vincent's and said he would not do it." Then a story appeared in the Evening Press claiming that Heffernan was taking the job. After giving Gray a piece of his mind for being the likely source, Heffernan took on the responsibility.
The Dublin football world he entered was, according to Gray, "pretty grim" and utterly unrecognisable from today. He admits they did not expect the results to come as soon as they did. The win over Louth saw them face Offaly in the quarter-final two weeks later. Offaly were provincial lords at the time, champions in the previous three seasons and twice All-Ireland winners. But they toppled Offaly, beat Kildare by six and then won the title against Meath, 1-14 to 1-9, their first Leinster championship in nine years.
Critically, Heffernan knew the kind of players he wanted or the kind of characters. Speaking in 2004 to Tom Humphries, he said: "We went after certain guys. We had a style of play and demands on those who wanted to play it. Certainly character would have been an issue. We would have looked for guys who showed that, fellas who would make the commitment and be able to stand it. We wanted guys who could adapt. It wasn't everything though; the guys we ended up with were exceptional people."
That they were, and many of the Dublin team went on to achieve distinction in their own career fields. They were, like any team, a complex mix of personalities but there was a streak of self-confidence and ambition running through the team of the 1970s that brought Dublin out of the Dark Ages – and usurped Kerry – that set them apart. They also possessed a keen intelligence which
Heffernan craved. Smarter teams did better in his view, made better choices. He also favoured power and physical strength. But that also meant some were quite capable of criticising Heffernan when they saw fit and were not afraid to do so. Heffernan, in an entirely unexpected move, left after the 1976 victory over Kerry. He returned, equally surprisingly, ahead of the '78 championship. In a team of strong personalities that did not sit well with all.
Speaking some years later, David Hickey said: "I think the way Kevin walked away was bad and even worse was when he just came back after 1977. We had won a league and a championship under Tony Hanahoe and suddenly as if he'd hopped over the wire in Parnell Park he was back again and everyone moved over to accommodate him. I believe that having him back undermined us a little and that some of the brittleness we showed in the 1978 final came from that."
Hickey said he would give Heffernan credit where due but did not buy into the "cult" created around him. Heffernan, to be fair, didn't seem to either. In rare moments of revelation with Humphries in 2004, he stated: "I wouldn't like to believe that I ruled by fear. I wouldn't like to believe that I treated any player with disrespect. I wouldn't like them to have the impression that I was constantly scheming. There was a group discipline there. The enforcement of it would be a group thing. That would be my belief. We created the circumstances for that group discipline and its enforcement. We all wanted the same objective."