Kevin Moran's fairytale journey from Croke Park to Old Trafford
Published 17/12/2015 | 02:30
His is a story torn from the pages of make-believe, something epic and far-fetched, a fairytale Hans Christian Andersen might have spiked on the grounds of being implausible.
Kevin Moran's double-life returns to us almost as a trick of the memory now.
Did he really play championship football for Dublin between seasons with Manchester United? Were his famous employers actually under the impression that being a part of 'Heffo's Army' fell into the category of engaging in some kind of grandiose summer five-a-side?
It couldn't happen today, of course. Social media (not to mention Sky) would have scuttled Moran's and Dublin's plans instantaneously.
Imagine the manager at Old Trafford having instant video access to the supposedly genteel business of a Dublin-Kerry All-Ireland final?
In 1978, Dave Sexton's only concept of a September Sunday in Croke Park was the idea of a young Irishman flying home in the off-season to play some obscure, native sport with friends.
He couldn't have understood that Dublin-Kerry was primal as a bullfight. So, Moran became a kind of comic-book hero.
He first joined the Dublin panel in January of '76 and was an All-Star by late autumn.
The late Kevin Heffernan found himself instantly enchanted by this tousle-haired accountancy student who would sweep into training on a motorbike (variously reported as a Honda 50, 90 and 125) and take to querying previously unchallenged managerial diktats in the rickety old Nissen hut that operated as the Dubs' boardroom.
Where others compliantly accepted Heffo's word as gospel, Moran sought explanation.
His fearlessness as an attacking half-back gave Dublin a dynamism and unpredictability they had lacked when falling to Mick O'Dwyer's young Kerry team in the final of '75.
But this young maverick had broader interests too.
Son of a Leitrim man and Monaghan woman, soccer was Moran's game during his early years at UCD.
He was full-back on a Bohemians team that won the League of Ireland 'B' Championship and, by his third year at Belfield, his weekends were an endless juggle between the college soccer team and GAA commitments with Good Counsel.
And it was his form with the latter brought him to the attention of perhaps Gaelic football's most storied triumvirate, Heffernan, Lorcan Redmond and Donal Colfer.
It was after Dublin had retained the All-Ireland in '77 that Manchester United, having previously been rebuffed, decided conclusively to recruit him. And, to begin with, a part of Kevin Moran recoiled from the idea.
He recalls his heart actually sinking at Sexton's announcement that they were offering him a two-and-a-half-year professional deal on £100 a week because, emotionally, he was "still living in Parnell Park."
But a glorious career now loomed for Moran who would play 231 games for United, 33 for Sporting Gijon in the North of Spain, 147 for Blackburn Rovers and 71 for the Republic of Ireland.
He was, thus, central to the narrative of Ireland's most romantic football journey, the breakthrough adventure of Euro '88.
Moran and Mick McCarthy weren't exactly the quickest central defenders in European football, nor did they come armed with the silkiest of skills.
But they were honest and obdurate and selflessly heroic in how they protected Jack Charlton's team and, with Paul McGrath patrolling the corridors in front of them, they became a revered partnership.
At Italia '90, Moran and McCarthy were ever-presents as Ireland reached the World Cup quarter-finals, a whole nation disbelieving and spellbound.
Yet, there has always been a sense with Moran that his most treasured days were those in the blue of Dublin. The story of his involvement in that '78 championship almost beggars belief now.
Without United's knowledge, he played in that year's Leinster Championship before Heffernan and Tony Hanahoe then flew to Manchester seeking to formalise the arrangement for autumn.
Sexton wasn't simply agreeable to the idea, he was positively helpful. When Moran returned unscathed from Dublin's All-Ireland semi-final defeat of Roscommon, his manager even suggested going home a week before the final so that he could train with his "friends".
As it happened, Moran would pull a hamstring during that week of training, the injury greatly impeding him in the final against Kerry. He then received an accidental knock to the head that would require eight stitches.
Sexton had actually planned on travelling over to the game, but didn't make it because of a flight cancellation.
The Dubs had reason to be relieved at his absence, because the player they were sending back to Manchester was now bandaged up to look like a survivor from Gallipoli.
Incredibly, Moran did play for Dublin again, a 1980 Leinster Championship game against Meath in Navan and he remembers even playing summer football in New York.
But his life in soccer found subsequent momentum that would make him an invaluable asset in the north-west of England, in Asturia above the Bay of Biscay and, maybe most memorably, in the old Lansdowne Road.
Because Kevin Moran had a resilience about him that was founded, essentially, in humility. Everything he applied himself to, he did so unequivocally. He left nothing behind.
Is there better expression of greatness?