Meet the football man at heart of Kilkenny's hurling dynasty
Published 03/07/2015 | 02:30
Mick Dempsey played hurling once. Milltown was an old amalgamated hurling club drawn from a handful of football clubs in south-east Laois.
Dempsey stuck up his hand to catch a ball. Some fella on the other team let fly and nearly took it off. That was the beginning and the end of Dempsey's hurling career as a player.
Dempsey's mother was a Spain from Offaly. His five uncles hurled for Offaly. One of them, Matt, refereed All-Ireland hurling finals in 1958 and 1972.
However, Ballyadams was football territory and football was always Mick Dempsey's game. He won a bag of club championships with St Joseph's. He played for the Laois seniors for nearly 20 years. His brothers Seán, Martin and PJ also played for the county.
One year, Mick, Seán and Martin played for the seniors, while PJ lined out for the minors on the same day. Their father didn't travel to Dublin; he was afraid he wouldn't be back in time to do the milking.
Football was Dempsey's whole life. He was club secretary at just 19. He won a League title in 1986. He was still playing senior when he managed the Laois U-21s to the '94 Leinster title.
He took over the seniors two years later but his tenure ended disastrously when Kildare, who were reduced to 13 men after only ten minutes, beat them by four points in the Leinster quarter-final.
Dempsey took to the club circuit afterwards. He managed St Joseph's to a county title in 2000. The same season, he managed Carlow club O'Hanrahan's to a historic Leinster title.
Three years earlier, they had been an intermediate team. They lost the 2001 All-Ireland semi-final to Nemo Rangers but by that stage, Dempsey's career path was changing direction.
After completing his Leaving Certificate in Athy CBS, Dempsey worked in insurance for years before expanding into business.
In the mid-90s, Dempsey and former Meath footballer Bernard Flynn bought the landmark pub and entertainment venue 'Pedigree Corner', on the road from Castlecomer to Athy. In 2000, Dempsey bought Shem Lawlor's, a pub in John Street, Kilkenny.
As soon as he landed in Kilkenny, clubs came calling. He got involved with Muckalee (football) and St Martin's. He coached the Kilkenny minor footballers. Martin Fogarty recruited him as physical trainer for the U-21 hurlers and they won All-Irelands in '03 and '04.
Brian Cody came calling at the end of '04. Dempsey once said he thought Cody was "off his rocker". Nobody is in any doubt now as to the impact Dempsey has had.
"Getting Mick Dempsey on board," said Kilkenny secretary Ned Quinn in 2010, "was one of the best pieces of business we ever did."
Dempsey's legacy continues to grow stronger all the time.
"I was taken aback by Kilkenny's physical conditioning against Wexford," says Eddie Brennan.
"Their power and speed was phenomenal but that is down to Mick Dempsey. He has been a common denominator in Kilkenny's success. Brian Cody has massive time for Mick because he has been such a hugely important cog in the wheel."
Dempsey now heads up the Sports Academy and Sport and Exercise programme at Carlow IT and his sporting life has been a perfect study in self-made career progression.
When Dempsey first began on the club coaching circuit, he recruited Noel Richardson, the former Irish international distance runner, who was the physical trainer for Kilkenny's four-in-a-row between 2006-09.
He absorbed a lot of knowledge from Richardson but Dempsey was still central to building and developing the strength and conditioning culture that took Kilkenny to another level.
Brennan recalls one team holiday in the US, which Dempsey joined late because he had been researching new methods with a professional outfit in New Zealand.
"He is always looking to learn, always looking for an edge," says Brennan. "He has poured his life and soul into this. There is nowhere he wouldn't go for information. He's articulate and is well educated now, he knows his stuff."
From an early age, Dempsey always had that hunger to learn.
"He was always an avid reader," says his brother Seán, former Laois manager and current Longford coach. "There was always a book close to Mick, something to do with sport or fitness or physical preparation. It would have been for himself first and then for his coaching.
"He was always meticulous. Before Mick ever did anything, he researched it. He was always the sort of fella in the dressing-room going around organising people, making sure things were done right."
That ability to connect to players, that desire to help make them better has always been a key personality trait.
Aidan 'Taggy' Fogarty was 32 when he decided to go back to college last year in IT Carlow. With Dempsey's presence, the college has now become a bridgeway for Kilkenny hurlers, a viable alternative to Waterford IT.
"He's very genuine," says Fogarty. "When I spoke to him about my education, Mick said he would help me out as much as he could. There was no talk about hurling. If you ever did want anything, he'd go through a wall to get it done for you.
"He has fierce respect amongst the players. He has a great method of getting the best out of players."
Dempsey is a reserved character but he can bare his claws when the need arises. On a training camp in Wexford in 2007, he lost the rag at team meeting. He accused the players of going soft.
"Initially the feeling was, 'Jeez, Dempsey lost the plot'," says Brennan. "It was a surprise to us all but what he said was very valuable. It was a big turning point in our season."
His impact on Kilkenny has been all-encompassing. Football concepts and tactics have long been imported into hurling but much of that modern process began with Kilkenny after Galway hit them for five goals in the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final.
One moment crystallised the team's disorder. When Niall Healy beat John Tennyson for the fifth goal, the nearest Kilkenny defender was out beyond the 45-metre line.
The whole experience opened Kilkenny's eyes in terms of tactics. Dempsey's mindset was central in altering Kilkenny's new world.
"Football aspects definitely have been integrated into Kilkenny's style," says Fogarty. "And a lot of it has possibly come from Mick's thinking.
"Cody really takes on board what Dempsey says. All the tailored and specialist stuff coming up to big matches, that all comes from Mick. He gets on very well with Cody but Mick wouldn't be afraid to challenge Cody too."
As a character, his brother Seán jokes that he is "dry", not as jovial or outgoing as he is. Over the years, the players have seen the different shades of his personality.
"Mick's not your ordinary type of fella but he's salt of the earth," says Fogarty. "He is so meticulous about sport, so driven, so one-track-minded that sometimes you'd find it hard to get a bit of craic out of him. Then other times, he's totally relaxed and you'd knock great craic out of him."
Dempsey was 56 last month and is still a single man.
"He never married," says Seán Dempsey. "He's just married to sport, especially hurling and football."
Seán Dempsey tells a story about the time his brother left O'Hanrahan's. The club presented him with a state-of-the-art bike. One evening, Dempsey's car was broken into at the back of his pub. The bike and a bag of footballs were stolen.
"He spent the whole night going around Kilkenny looking for the footballs," says Seán. "He didn't care about the bike."
It's remarkable that a football man has had such a big impact on the greatest hurling team of all time but nobody in Kilkenny underestimates Dempsey's massive contribution - he is the longest-serving member of Cody'sback-room team.
He and the manager ideally complement each other.
"I'd imagine some counties would have approached Mick to manage their senior team," says Seán Dempsey. "But I think he's at his strongest in his current role; let Cody do the hiring and firing and Mick just gets on with his job in the background.
"He is very similar to Cody. He would never rest up, nothing would ever be good enough. He would always want more. Even if it is good today, Mick would want it better tomorrow. That suits Cody and it suits Mick.
"It's a good fit for both of them. I'm sure if Cody resigned in the morning Mick would have to make a decision about what he was going to do. But I'd be fairly sure the two of them will come to an end together."
And there is no ending in sight any time soon.