independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Still carried along by the sheer improbability of it all

Leeside legend Miah Dennehy is on the mend after an assault that left him for dead, writes John O'Brien

Miah Dennehy sits in the living room of his home in Mayfield on the north side of Cork, images and relics from his past scattered on the table in front of him, reminders of a time when he was one of his native city's most cherished sons. The blond locks of his youth have receded and his dashing feet aren't as nimble as they once were, but the passing years haven't quenched his spirit or diminished the sense of fulfilment sport has given him.

He's sorry there isn't more. He wasn't a hoarder, you see. As a professional footballer he unashamedly lived for the moment, savouring every second without a mind for the bracing reality that there would be a lifetime to live after the game had churned him out. Yet there is enough. He reaches for a black-and-white photograph from the sideboard, points to himself kneeling and, unerringly, lists the names of those alongside him:

Wiggington, Herrick, Bacuzzi, Finnegan, Sweeney, Lawson, Sheehan, O'Grady, Marsden, Mahony, Wallace

And so he is instantly transported back to a magical week in May 1972. It is the last league game of the season, an all-or-nothing affair between Miah's Cork Hibs, the defending champions, and their great rivals, Waterford. A raucous 26,000 crowd is jammed into Flower Lodge to witness a breathless climax that ebbs one way when Hibs charge into a two-goal lead before dramatically swinging the other when Waterford smash three past them in the final 11 minutes.

To add to the sense of theatre they were billed for an encore a week later in the FAI Cup final at Dalymount Park. Joe O'Grady, Hibs' goalkeeper, has one abiding memory of the build-up. "The thing I remember most clearly is that we never talked about the league game once. We met the following day and just got on with business. No one mentioned it. Not a single word. It was a very professional set-up."

They remember the Cup final as 'Miah's day'. A dour game compared to its dynamic first act, it was Dennehy who lit it up 30 minutes from time when he pounced on a ball from Dave Bacuzzi, sprinted into the Waterford penalty area before beating Peter Thomas with a fierce drive at his near post. Five minutes later, he added a second and then fashioned history by claiming his third seven minutes from the end.

Odd thing, though. Nearly 40 years on it isn't the goals that remain foremost in his mind's eye. He remembers being chaired from the field, the songs they sung in the dressing room afterwards, the party that extended long into the night in the team hotel in Finglas. The club official who embraced him in the corridor, pushing a ten-pound note into his fist, a tasty gift for a player who had to augment his wages by working in a shoe factory.

Most of all, though, he recalls the sheer improbability of it all. The working-class kid growing up off Blarney Street, enthralled and captivated by sport, never imagining for a second that it would bless him with a career or earn him a privileged place among the likes of Ring and Jimmy Barry as local legends. Making history in a Cup final. Eight blissful years in England. Eleven caps for his country. None of it was the stuff of childhood dreams.

"I never thought any of it would happen," he says. "My first love was always the GAA. I played Gaelic football and hurling with St Vincent's and I loved it. But I loved playing all sport. I had an uncle who was involved with Northvilla so I played a bit for them too. He had a van and would bring us everywhere to play games. They were great days."

His destiny was shaped one evening in 1968 when he wandered up to the Lodge to watch a Hibs reserve game and got conscripted when the numbers didn't add up. Amby Fogarty, the Hibs manager, was mesmerised by his pace and raw talent and saw a future for him. Five years later, Dave Mackay approached him after a game at Flower Lodge and told him he was signing him for Nottingham Forest for £20,000. Two days later, he arrived in England.

He spent two full seasons at Forest, scoring four goals in 41 appearances, but the figures don't fully express the joy he found there. They paid him nearly £50 a week and, with it, he bought a nice house and a car and was never short when it came to enjoying himself in the Irish club in the centre of town, determined to savour every joyous moment of being a professional footballer. "I never saved a penny anyway," he smiles.

He could have been more single-minded about his career, he supposes, more diligent on the training ground, more ruthless in the application of his talent, but he harbours no regrets. He was true to himself and his nature. Remember: he hadn't foreseen a single minute of it. Every week he would pop into a phone box near his home, load coins into the slot and dial his father's number back home in Cork.

"Every Sunday evening without fail I called my father," he says. "We didn't have a phone at home but he always knew what time I'd call. He'd go to the Top of the Hill pub near his home and I'd ring him there and we'd talk for half an hour. All his buddies would be there with him, asking questions about the games and when I'd be coming home next."

A year after he signed for Forest, Tony Macken joined Derby County from Waterford and, just 14 miles apart, they became best friends. What Macken remembers is Miah's indefatigable spirit. He loved playing and despised inactivity. Golf, squash, cricket; away from the football field he filled in the hours. When Brian Clough arrived at Forest, he soon heard of Dennehy's prowess at squash and laid a marker down. The contest, says Miah ruefully, never happened.

The GAA never left him. His favourite story is of the time he concocted a family crisis so that Clough would give him permission to travel home where St Vincent's were facing a do-or-die championship match. Then there was the time he won a British interprovincial title for Warwickshire, beating a London team in the final that had Tony Grealish among its number.

Everywhere he went the GAA followed him. From Nottingham to Walsall to Bristol Rovers where he enrolled in a GAA club in nearby Cheltenham. Saturdays were for soccer, Sundays for GAA and socialising. "I never said anything to the clubs," he says. "They didn't know so it made no difference to them. The only problem was if we played away and stayed overnight in a hotel, but you'd still always try to make it."

Of his 11 caps, the highlight came against Poland at Dalymount Park in 1973 when he nabbed the winner, just four days after Clough had, famously, labelled their 'keeper, Jan Tomaszewski, a "clown" and they'd responded by booting England out of the 1974 World Cup at Wembley. But for Terry Conroy, he says, he'd have won twice as many caps. But Johnny Giles invariably preferred the Stoke player on the right flank and that was fair enough. An honest football decision.

His time in England wound down gently and, when it finished, he returned to Ireland and happily resumed the thread of his old life. He played a few seasons in the League of Ireland before settling back into the Cork junior scene that had bred him.

Remarkably, he was coaching Village United, a local Mayfield club, in his fifties and, occasionally, still togging out. The love of playing was his constant, devilishly hard to let go.

And still is, he says. Despite the advancing years and what he casually refers to as the "knock on the head." Four years ago, he was viciously assaulted outside a local pub and left for dead. He has no memory of the attack or of the weeks he spent in a coma in the Cork Regional Hospital, just the long months in the National Rehabilitation Centre in Dublin, learning how to speak again, gradually piecing together the broken fragments of his memory.

That he survived at all was a little miracle in itself. The first time Macken visited him in Dun Laoghaire he remembers thinking the situation didn't look too promising. But he has marvelled at his friend's powers of recovery and his unbreakable spirit. He wonders too how he'd have coped without a loving family behind him and football's unerring ability to bring joy to his world.

What cheers Miah is the fact that people haven't forgotten. He picks a piece of paper from the pile, a letter from Walsall enquiring after his well-being and inviting him across any time he pleased. A week ago, Plunkett Carter, an eminent Cork football historian, received an email from one of Dennehy's former Bristol Rovers colleagues, curious to know what he was up to, asking to pass on his best wishes.

And last month the FAI treated him and his wife Caroline to dinner at the Rochestown Park Hotel before bringing them as guests to Turner's Cross for Cork City's home league game against Derry. At dinner he spoke to John Delaney and Fran Gavin about the prospect of staging a benefit game and, even if that doesn't transpire, well they accept that it was a nice gesture anyway.

So football keeps him going. He produces a recent match report from the Cork Echo, extolling his son Kristian's performance while representing the Munster Senior League. Kristian is 19 and, like his father, an old-fashioned winger with an inbuilt instinct to express himself on the field. "Faster even than I was," Miah says proudly, still hopeful that, like him, Kristian might make a living from the game.

He thinks of Kristian and it reminds him what Sunday will bring. In the morning he'll watch his son play for Mayfield United before settling down in the afternoon to watch Sligo Rovers take on Shelbourne in the FAI Cup final, the happy memories washing over him. Sometimes when his famous hat-trick is mentioned, it will be pointed out that Bray's John Ryan subsequently repeated the feat in 1990 and, quick as a flash, Miah will shoot back: "Yes, but two of them were penalties, weren't they?"

He has a handle on history, you see, none too keen to let go.

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