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Saturday 19 April 2014

Where Heffo led the rest followed

Kevin Heffernan's feat in steering Dublin to the 1974 All-Ireland football title remains probably the finest single season managerial achievement in GAA history. No other championship-winning team has looked like such a bunch of no-hopers at the start of the campaign. That season alone justifies the mystique which always clung to Heffernan's name as a manager.

The Dubs he inherited near the end of 1973 were a sorry bunch and the county hadn't reached a Leinster final since winning the title in 1965.

In 1973, Dublin had been knocked out of the Leinster championship in the first round by Louth and relegated to Division 2 of the league. There seemed to be little of note coming through at underage level, Dublin hadn't won an All-Ireland minor title since 1959 and had never won an All-Ireland under 21 title. When people saw Heffernan bringing an overweight veteran named Jimmy Keaveney out of retirement they probably felt the bottom of the barrel was being scraped.

Yet Keaveney was brilliant in 1974. They beat both Offaly and Meath en route to the Leinster title and created one of the great upsets of the era when trouncing a supposedly invincible Cork side in the All-Ireland semi-final before closing out the deal with a 0-14 to 1-6 final triumph over Galway, Keaveney scoring eight points.

Heffernan's miracle stemmed from his introduction of modern training methods to Gaelic football. He was the first celebrity manager and his revolutionary effect on the game stemmed less from his specific tactical innovations, the extra man and later the third midfielder, than from the very idea that tactical innovation could be part of a GAA manager's job. All the great bosses of the modern era are in his debt.

People who saw him play tell me he was one of the great forwards. But I only witnessed him as the managerial Heffo who followed that 1974 victory by bringing Dublin a first All-Ireland final victory over Kerry since 1923 two years later.

Then he handed over the reins to Tony Hanahoe who took them on admirably as Dublin won their third All-Ireland in four years. Heffernan, however, wasn't finished and his 1983 campaign was another remarkable triumph. Reigning champions Offaly looked a superior outfit to Dublin but once more fell to a Heffernan side exhibiting trademark tactical nous. And if that year's final was no adornment to the game, it took a manager of special stripe to organise victory for a team which played most of the second half with 12 players.

His most enduring legacy, however, may be the healthy state of Dublin GAA today. The adventures of Heffo's Army gave the capital a renewed love of Gaelic games which it has never lost.

That probably pleased him more than anything.

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