Sheehan was the ultimate iron fist in a velvet glove

Paul Brennan

Bryan Sheehan - who announced his retirement from inter-county football last Sunday has been described as "one of the most elegant fielders and kickers in the game" with Eamonn Fitzmaurice calling him "the ultimate stylist".

Both tributes capture much of what Sheehan was - and remains - as a football. Honing his kicking style - from open play and off the ground for free kicks - on his club mate, neighbour, mentor and hero, Maurice Fitzgerald, Sheehan couldn't have been anything but elegant and a stylist.

The amount of free kicks Sheehan can successfully converted for St Marys, South Kerry and Kerry over the years cannot be counted, but this much is certain: he has missed far fewer than he has scored.

Starting out as a goalkeeper - he was tall and strong as a young teenager - Sheehan's place kicking, and dependability under the high, dropping ball was tested early and often in his career, which started in Con Keating Park and continued to adapt and improve all the way to Croke Park, where he won All-Ireland titles with club and county.

Making his Kerry senior team debut in 2005 under fellow South Kerry man, Jack O'Connor, it could be easy to overlook the fact that Sheehan played a part in that year's All-Ireland Final and featured in the next three All-Ireland Finals also, starting the 2007 and 2008 finals (under manager Pat O'Shea), scoring two points from play in each of those finals.

The following year, 2009, with O'Connor back in the manager's bib, Sheehan made five Championship appearances but didn't see action in the All-Ireland Final win over Cork.

In the 2007 Final against Cork Sheehan started at left corner forward, a year later against Tyrone he started at left half forward. Plenty of other days he has operated at centre forward and at his preferred position of midfield. Fact is, Sheehan has donned pretty much every number from 9 to 15 on a Kerry team over the years. Indeed, it's often been that versatility that has come against him when it came to getting on the county team.

Good enough to play support to Darragh Ó Sé in the engine-room, but having to compete with Kirby, Scanlon, Brosnan, Quirke and latterly Moran, Maher and Buckley for the jersey.

Good enough to quarterback a game from no.11 but having to compete with his South Kerry colleague, Declan O'Sullivan, and then Colm Cooper, among others, for that jersey.

Good enough to operate on either wing or in either corner, but often, especially in the later years, having to deal with the charge of lacking the pace or mobility for those jobs.

And yet Sheehan seldom, if ever, let the side down. Whether he was on the team 'just' to kick the frees or sent on late in the day to get his hands on the ball and settle things down, Sheehan's capacity to do the right thing at the right time was one of his real assets.

Another was his ferocious strength - of body and mind. Blessed with broad shoulders and a big chest, Sheehan was never one to be messed with on the pitch, and all that inherent style and elegance was backed up by a bloody-mindedness and fearlessness.

Few players shipped heavy hits better than Bryan Sheehan and fewer still dished out harder ones. He wasn't adverse to throwing a stray dig and picking up the occasional card - yellow and red - but Sheehan was a baller first and foremost.

In some respects Sheehan always brought to mind - for this observer - Kieran McGeeney's mantra to an opponent in one particular International Rules game: "If you want to play football say you want to play football and we'll play football; if you want to box say you want to box and we'll box."

Sheehan always wanted to play football but was never one to shirk a challenge of any sort on the football field.

Of course, it will be his exquisite free taking that Sheehan will be best remembered for. Be they from now mythical distances out the field, from the sideline or near the corner flags, or perfectly executed kicks against headwinds or crosswinds, Sheehan had the full array of skills to get the ball over the bar from a dead ball situation.

Of course, we should realise, and appreciate, that Sheehan has only retired from inter-county football. Kerry's loss will be St Marys and South Kerry's gain, and at just 32 years of age and relatively free from major injury, there should be plenty of football left in him yet.

Always approachable off the field for a post-match quote, and comfortable to chat to the media before Kerry games, Sheehan will be missed for many reasons, but he leaves a notable legacy and his honours won in the game can rival any of the great footballers to have come out of South Kerry before him.