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Friday 25 April 2014

Hurler, footballer, joker: and above all, decent

WHEN I heard that Mick Holden had left this mortal world, a fragment from Elizabethan poetry sprang into my mind.

Brightness falls from the air.

Kings have died young and fair.

I had a little story for Mick but even though we often met, I never told him. He was a great joker and he might think that I was winding him up.

The story goes back to 1979 and it concerned a little group of us who used to meet now and then, mainly in public houses, to discuss the affairs of the nation and the world.

We were all aficionados of Kerry football and therein hangs the tale.

We had beaten Dublin by 17 points in the previous year's All- Ireland. The result did not reflect the merits of the teams. The game had been stood on its head by Mikey Sheehy's immortal goal. And we feared a backlash and a midfield lash and a forward lash.

As August gave way to September our discussions became localised. Seán Doherty, the great full-back, had abdicated. There was a new man in his place. We knew very little about him but rumour told us that Mick Holden was a young giant who could inspire any team.

The great day came. Mick played well but could do little about the tide that was running for Kerry.

Offaly dominated Leinster for the next four years and Mick didn't appear again in a final until 1983. Now Dublin had a new full-back called Gerry Hargan. Mick was his right hand man. This was one of the most remarkable games ever seen in Croke Park -- or any park.

In a very turbulent match, we saw Dublin play heroically as they prevailed against Galway with 12 men against 14. That was the greatest day in Mick's football career. He became a Dublin folk hero. He was already a folk hero in Dun Laoghaire and in Dalkey as a good hurler and a good footballer and a very decent young man.

A few nights after that All-Ireland final, I spoke to Mick for the first time ever. I was in Pat Hourican's landmark pub in Leeson Street. The bar was crowded but Mick and I came together as naturally as two streams in the same catchment.

He thought of himself as primarily a hurler. This was hardly surprising: his parents, Tom and Josie, had deep roots in Kilkenny.

Mick said to me that night how easy he had found it to go from hurling to Gaelic football. He said the ball was much bigger and that it didn't travel nearly as fast and because the game was comparatively slow you could see things about to happen. I understood.

He was so direct and brave that some people under-rated his skills as a footballer. Kevin Heffernan didn't. He thought very highly of him.

Because Mick was such a joker, there are many stories told about him. Some are makey-ups but I know one that is absolutely true.

When the Sam Maguire was taken around to a local school in Dalkey, a teacher asked the assembled pupils did they know the man who was holding up the cup. One little girl put up her hand and said: "I do. He's the man who comes to our house every Saturday to collect my granny's insurance money."

Mick and his brothers PJ and Vinny hurled on the Dublin U21 team in 1972. They did not reach that final again until a month ago.

In the meantime, Mick had done great work with the young hurlers in his club Cuala. Of course he was delighted with the resurgence of hurling in Dublin this year. It owed much to him and to the other coaches who were doing their work quietly and diligently.

There is an old Roman proverb that has a sad aptness for Mick Holden. "The good peasant plants and tends the vine even though he may not live to drink the wine."

I never told Mick how much the little group of aficionados had feared him in the prelude to that final in 1979. God rest him.

Con Houlihan

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