Heffernan would always give you confidence – Gill
St Vincent's stalwart lauds club legend as crunch Portlaoise tie looms
IT IS almost a year since he passed away, but the giant spirit and memory of Kevin Heffernan will loom large over St Vincent's in the Leinster SFC club final against Portlaoise in Tullamore on Sunday.
Corner-back Hugh Gill is the quintessential St Vincent's kid, born and reared down the road on his mum's native Griffith Avenue.
His dad is from Raheny and even though neither of his parents had a GAA background, they enrolled him in the mini-leagues at the famous Marino nursery when he was just six.
"My dad chucked me down on Saturday mornings and that was it, really. I'm so lucky to have had a few great mentors," the team's vice-captain says.
That's a bit of an understatement.
Ageless football student and sage Mickey Whelan was in charge when Gill was a teenage corner-back on the last St Vincent's team that won the All-Ireland club title in 2007-'08.
And when he was in his early teens an even larger character shaped him as a footballer – Heffo himself.
"He was in charge of our U-15/U-16 team for two years and even by talking to him, you knew how much knowledge he had," Gill says.
"Well, he didn't put up with anything," he recalls with a grin. "If someone wasn't playing well, he'd be off after 10 minutes. He made those calls very quickly, but he'd always give you confidence in his own way too."
Heffernan's death last January resonated with everyone in the club and his memory has undoubtedly powered Tommy Conroy's team through some sticky situations this year.
"We probably didn't talk about it too much, but it would have been in the lads' heads, so it was fitting we went on and won it (Dublin) this year," Gill says.
"We lost to Ballymun, by a point, in the quarter-finals last year and felt that we were near enough, so we just had to come back this year and do more of the same. Thankfully, we've won Dublin, but there's more to do."
Beating Leinster champions Ballymun in a Dublin final replay (despite having Diarmuid Connolly sent off), losing Ger Brennan during their defeat of St Loman's and surviving against Summerhill without their two high- profile suspensions has only added to their rollercoaster season.
But they are still standing and have their two marquee Dubs back now and are facing Portlaoise, whom they beat when they last met in the provincial semi-finals on their last glory run in 2007-'08.
What is surprising is that Gill, who has only turned 25, almost counts as a veteran now.
"The average age is only 23 or 24, we've a good few U-21s and they create a great atmosphere and have no hang-ups. Jarlath Curley beside me at full-back, he's still U-21 and it's just amazing how easy he takes it in his stride. He just goes out and enjoys his football," he says.
Vins may have retained marquee veterans like the in-form Mossie Quinn and gained Eamon Fennell, but they are certainly a substantially different model from '07.
Hugh Coghlan was one of their key defenders then and subsequently joined Portlaoise, but has now moved back to his native Tipp. Gill's corner-back partner in '07 was Paul Conlon, who is now living in New Zealand.
But he got a text from him recently saying he is flying in on Sunday morning and hopes to make it to Tullamore in time for the throw-in.
This club competition embodies the unbreakable life bonds made by sport.
Gill won a Sigerson Cup with DCU in 2010 and got a Dublin senior call-up during Pat Gilroy's reign.
But he has been dogged with injuries, including a bad leg break in training when he got his chance with Dublin and his hand bears the scar of a bad break from earlier this year.
The famous dual club continues to provide some of his best days and memories. He recalls how their management, including Heffo, promised that if they pulled off the county U-15 hurling and football double they would bring them to Chicago.
"They probably didn't think we'd do it – but we did," he says. "True to their words they did a fundraiser and took us. There's still a few more lads on the panel from then, like Shane Byrne and Neil Billings."
Few clubs would have had similar ambitions or resources at the time, but the landscape of Dublin football has dramatically changed since and St Vincent's title this year was only their second in the past 29 years.
Dublin's club scene has become so competitive that their champions – as the recent record bears out – immediately become Leinster favourites, but Gill cautions against that mindset.
"Everyone thinks: 'Oh, you get out of Dublin, that's the hardest thing to do,' but you're then playing against 15 men from another county that have won their championship, so we'd never look at it that way," he says.
"Any team that wins seven county championships in a row is not to be messed with. Portlaoise have a good few county players, so we're just taking it a step at a time."