Monday 25 September 2017

Hunger for victory still burning in Micko after 180 games

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

HE managed Kerry to eight All-Ireland titles, steered Kildare and Laois to provincial crowns after decades in the wilderness and led Wicklow to their first victory in a Leinster championship game in Croke Park and their best-ever qualifier run.

Thus, it's understandable that the Clare football public are looking to their visiting Messiah to preside over something special on Sunday.

But, as Mick O'Dwyer, who celebrated his 77th birthday last Sunday, prepares for what will be his 181st senior championship game as player and manager, realism drips from his every word ahead of a Munster semi-final clash with Cork in Ennis, for which Clare are readily available at 14/1.

"One of the best around and have been for a good few years," is Micko's description of Cork.

However, having paid due deference to a county his Kerry squad tormented in the 1975-86 period, the competitive twinkle returns.

"I never once went out as a player or manager with any team thinking we had no chance. You have to believe you can win – there's no point even bothering otherwise," he said.

With the exception of his early years as Kerry manager, when Dublin matched them 2-2 in four championship clashes, his Kingdom forces started most games as overwhelming favourites, but he had to deal with a different environment in Kildare, Laois and Wicklow, where convincing players that they could win was as challenging as getting them fit and putting the tactical structures in place.

He achieved it with all three, leading Kildare to their first Leinster title for 42 years (followed by a second two years later) in 1998 and Laois to their first provincial crown in 57 years in 2003.

SIGNIFICANT

Wicklow's achievements under O'Dwyer were more modest, but, nonetheless, hugely significant as they won a first-ever Leinster championship game in Croke Park when beating Kildare in 2008 and enjoyed a three-match winning run in the 2009 All-Ireland qualifiers, beating Fermanagh, Cavan and Down.

For all that, it would represent possibly his greatest achievement if he was to mastermind a Clare win over Cork on Sunday. After all, Clare have beaten Cork only five times in championship history and only once in the last 70 years.

O'Dwyer is less hands-on these days, acting more in an advisory role than as the man at whose door every buck stops.

Michael Cahill, who worked with previous manager Micheal McDermott, continued as the squad's physical trainer, while O'Dwyer's co-selectors, Ger Keane and Michael Neylon do much of the coaching.

It all happens under the shrewd and watchful eye of a man whose senior championship career began 56 years ago and who patrolled the Kerry sideline as a manager for the first time in the Munster championship 38 years ago.

O'Dwyer is fully aware of the extent of the challenge facing Clare, who lost to Cork by 12 points in the Munster final last year. With the gap between Division 1 counties and the rest appearing to have widened this year, it will take a really well-organised effort by Clare to offer a sustained challenge to the fourth favourites for the All-Ireland title.

"The first thing you have to do is believe in yourself. Look at how Donegal turned things around in a few years. They have always had good footballers, but they were getting some bad results for a few years. Once they started believing in themselves, the rest followed.

"It's not as easy in a county like Clare, where you're dealing with smaller numbers and where hurling is No 1, but it's the same principle. They have to believe they can do it. That's the point I've been trying to make to them from day one," said O'Dwyer.

Having dealt with Wicklow and Clare players, it annoys him when he hears suggestions that so-called weaker counties should not participate in the All-Ireland qualifiers and instead play in a secondary competition.

"Players from the less successful counties put in just as much hard work as the strong counties," O'Dwyer continued. "They deserve even more credit because they know that they are unlikely to be in Croke Park in August or September, but they still work on.

"They should be encouraged in every way possible. In the first two years I was with Wicklow we weren't even allowed compete in the All-Ireland qualifiers (Division 4 teams were excluded in 2007 and 2008), but the first year we got a chance, we beat three teams from higher up and reached Round 4 where we were unlucky to lose to Kildare. I still regret that we didn't get a chance in the qualifiers for two years," he said.

Clare will be having their first outing in the championship against a Cork team that hit Limerick for 3-17 in the first round.

It was one of a series of one-sided games so far in this championship, but O'Dwyer does not believe that an unhealthy pattern has developed.

"This sort of thing happens from time to time. Too much shouldn't be read into it," he added.

"You can't go tampering with a system just because of a few results. There's no doubt that it's getting harder for the smaller counties to compete with the big counties, but they will keep on doing it because the dream of winning is the same for everyone – big and small."

Similarly, the thrill of competing is as real for him as it is for younger rivals who are starting out on the managerial road.

"I'm still getting the same enjoyment out of it as I always did," he said. "Lots of things have changed, but working with a team preparing for the championship never loses its appeal.

Sure what else would I be doing at this time of year?"

Irish Independent

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