Micko's farewell to Rainbow warrior
AROUND 1.45 today, Mick O'Dwyer will emerge from the dressing-room in St Conleth's Park, Newbridge, stroll slowly down the pitch, match programme clutched tightly in hand.
Accompanied by his Rest of Ireland selectors, Willie McCreery and Mick 'Gippo' Hyland, he will have a word for everybody, friend and opposition alike, as his star-studded line-up, comprised mainly of ex-county players, prepares to take on Kildare in Anthony Rainbow's farewell game.
Rainbow will captain Kildare from centre-forward where he will be marked by former colleague, Glenn Ryan, who anchors a defence, also populated by Marc O Se, Seamus Moynihan, Aidan O'Rourke, Graham Geraghty and Kieran McGeeney.
However, it's when Micko looks to his attack that he will see faces from a county that haunted him most as a player and manager. For alongside Brian Dooher, Eamonn O'Hara, Steven McDonnell and Peter Canavan will be Michael Donnellan and Ja Fallon, two men who did so much to steer Galway to their All-Ireland final win over Kildare in 1998.
It was a heart-breaking occasion for Kildare and O'Dwyer who, as a Kerry player, had endured consistent pain against Galway in the 1960s, losing in three successive championships, plus a League final.
Yet when Micko retreats to the sideline in front of the basic, but homely, stand he will feel a warm glow from the many happy days he spent there -- and elsewhere -- as Kildare manager.
"Some of the best years of my life -- no question. What happened in Kildare from '97 on was unbelievable. I'd come from Kerry where they were used to winning All-Irelands, but in Kildare they hadn't even won a Leinster since the 50s. When they won it, the place went wild. There wasn't a house or a shop or a fence that wasn't painted white. Even black cows were painted. I never saw anything like it," he said.
Unfortunately for Kildare, Galway had sketched their own picture, one which they neatly coloured in on All-Ireland final day.
"No complaints in the world about it, Galway deserved to win, but I often wonder how it would have gone if we didn't have so many injury problems," reflected O'Dwyer.
They were without Ronan Quinn; Glenn Ryan tweaked his back on the Friday before the game, while Niall Buckley hadn't played any football since the Leinster final.
"They were all serious setbacks which came against us in the end. We had a great team around then. We beat Dublin, Meath and Kerry -- the All-Ireland champions from the previous three years -- but came up against a fresh and very good Galway team in the final. They got everything right on the day," he said.
Kildare's No 7 was Anthony Rainbow, a player whom O'Dwyer had brought into the Kildare squad during his first stint as manager (1991-94) and watched him develop from a skinny teenager into a wiry adult who knew no fear.
"He was built more like a jockey than a footballer. When he came in first, he looked like a lad you could blow away, but once he got on the field, you could see the fire and determination in his game. He was totally fearless and had a great attitude. If you asked him to train or play three times a day, all he'd say was: 'what time'?
"I can never remember him playing a bad game for Kildare -- he was unbelievably consistent. The only time I was ever worried about him was above in Derry at a league match. He was so cold after coming off that we had to wrap him in tin foil. I thought he was going to die of hypothermia," said O'Dwyer.
Kildare got a second chance at All-Ireland glory under O'Dwyer in 2000, but Galway were again waiting for them in the semi-final, winning by three points.
Still, after so long in the shadows, it was a glorious period for Kildare, one which O'Dwyer remains convinced would have yielded an All-Ireland title had that squad been at its peak some years later.
"The standard was very high when we were winning Leinster finals. It's not often that you'd beat the three previous All-Ireland winners in one season and still not win the final. I'm convinced we'd have won an All-Ireland if we arrived some years later."
So, are standards lower now than they were a decade ago?
"You can never be sure of judging one period against another, but when I look at players man-for-man, I'd be confident that the Kildare team that won the two Leinsters would have won an All-Ireland if they were at their peak later," said O'Dwyer.
He believes that standards have evened out, which is good in terms of opening up opportunities for more counties. That includes the likes of Wicklow who enjoyed their best ever championship run in 2009, when they beat Fermanagh, Cavan and Down to reach Round 4 of the qualifiers where they lost to Kildare.
"Thirteen of the Down team that lost to us played in the All-Ireland final this year. If Down could do it, why not Wicklow or, indeed, others? It's about belief and hard work and just when you think you've done enough, go and do some more.
"I was very disappointed at the way Wicklow -- and all the other counties in Division 4 -- were kept out of the qualifiers for two years. I have no doubt we'd be a far better team if we were in the qualifiers in 2007 and 2008. People accused me of being anti-Tommy Murphy Cup (Wicklow won it in 2007), which wasn't the case at all.
"It was a great idea, but should not have come at the expense of Division 4 teams playing in the qualifiers. That was one of the worst decisions for a long time," he said.
Micko is back with Wicklow for a fifth season, which he says will be his last with them. Mind you, we've heard that before, so it's best parked for now. Kildare have a tough Leinster championship draw where, to reach the semi-final, they would have to beat Kildare and Meath.
"We beat Kildare before, so that's all we'll be thinking of once we get down to training for the championship. I'm looking forward to it already. Nothing stirs the spirit like the championship. It what's keep us going once the year starts. I'm looking forward to next year as much as I did when I first started playing football all those years ago.
"There are great people in Wicklow, people who love their football as much as anywhere in the country. My job -- together with Jimmy Whittle, Martin Coleman and the rest of the people behind the team -- is to make sure that we have everything in the best possible shape when we take on Kildare," he said. It's Newbridge today and Newry on Monday night where O'Dwyer will be launching James McCartan's autobiography.
"It was great to be asked. James was a fantastic footballer in that wonderful Down team of the early 60s. Himself, Sean O'Neill and Paddy Doherty made up some half-forward line. They would have been outstanding in any era."
Down twice beat Kerry and, of course, the Mournemen maintained their superiority over the Kingdom this year. And with Cork finally winning the All-Ireland, it's a challenging time for Kerry, although O'Dwyer remains optimistic for his home county.
"Forget about the lads who had retired and the ones who were in Australia, if Kerry had Tomas O Se and Paul Galvin (both were suspended), it might have been a very different story. Kerry aren't dead yet. They need to improve in the backs and midfield, but they still have some great forwards, which always gives them a chance," he said.