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Vincent Hogan: ‘Why should age enter into anything? You’re capable of running and organising a team or you’re not’

After decades of neglect, the old boat is at last getting to stretch its legs out of Derrynane Harbour, to the growing unease of the local lobster and crayfish community.

Mick O'Dwyer says he adores the tranquility of the ocean. "I suppose that would be the real love of my life," he smiles. "The sea."

It is a sentence that flies in the face of everything we presume to know about the man. For football has flooded his life with such colour, there has never seemed much reason to peer beyond it.

Our view of him is narrow and strictly one-dimensional. The wise old sideline fox with a rolled-up match programme clasped behind his back. That vulpine grin. The sense of someone born to stand in the belly of a great football crowd, directing sounds like a conductor in an orchestra pit.

For half a century, that's been the only Micko we have seen. The face of an Irish summer.

Football has pretty much owned him all the way back to a golden youth. "Fifty four," he chuckles, recording the year he made the Kerry minors. He played junior in '55 and was a senior by '56. And since then, with the sole exception of 1995 when he stepped out of the Kildare job before returning for the autumn of '96, he has been in the business either of playing football or building football teams.

So it seems odd, as the dark veil of winter slips down, to hear him talk of a life beyond the stark, stone grounds of the GAA.

For Micko isn't a football manager now. He is back in control of his days, playing golf every rain-free morning, taking to the sea with his lifelong friend, Sean O'Shea, as recreational fishermen.

Does he feel a void, maybe? "Amazingly enough, no!" he declares emphatically. "I thought I would, I thought I'd have itchy feet. But I didn't get much use of the boat over the years (laughing). I go out in it with Sean now -- it's like getting away from everything for three or four hours.

"We love it out there. And there'd be plenty of football talked about when we're out there."

He will be 76 next June and a few old war wounds have been tugging at his attention. The back is creaking a little and one of his ankles is visibly swollen. Both need tending to.

Recently, he visited Gerry McEntee and the advice was to go get an MRI. Micko reckons the ankle, at least, conceals few secrets. "A compound fracture from years ago," he shrugs. "I'm told there's a lot of foreign matter in it. Chipped bones and all that I suppose.

"I think it's gone a little arthritic".

The pain he's endured became a compelling reason to step down as Wicklow manager after four breathless seasons. He says four other counties made informal soundings about his availability, but he'd decided it was time to get the body right.

Perhaps, I suggest, he might find himself pining come March or April as the days begin to brighten. "Maybe so," he shrugs. "But sure we can have a look at it again next year!" And, again, the laughter explodes.

His age clouds every conversation now and that gently needles him. Every dressing-room Micko ever entered as manager dramatically benefited from his presence, yet the fashion now is for young, earnest men surrounding themselves with small armies of specialist coaches.

Micko can sense people look at him as some kind of gentle throwback. An old-fashioned man siding with old-fashioned ways. It irks him.

"I know a lot of people would be saying I'm too old for the job now," he acknowledges. "But your age should have nothing in the wide earthly world to do with it. Why should age enter into anything? I mean you're either capable of running and organising a team or you're not.

"I'd like to think my track record suggests I'm capable.

"So I get frustrated with this focus on my age. I think it's crazy. At the end of the day, how many games did you win? That should be the only consideration. How did you compete? You can't beat experience, in my book.

"I would admit that maybe the thing to do now is stand back from the training aspect a bit. All my life in management, I did the whole lot -- managed, trained and coached. I took total control. But if I was going back in now, I'd bring a physical trainer. I mean there's no managers training teams anymore. They all have gurus in with them now. Gurus for everything.

"But the football side is the most important side. It's up to other people to get them fit. Your job is to get them to play the way you want them to play."

His record in the game elevates O'Dwyer above all others. Quite apart from the great Kerry side he guided to eight All-Ireland titles between 1975 and '86, he took Kildare to their first Leinster title in 42 years and an All-Ireland final appearance in '98. They were provincial champions again in 2000 and, three years later, Micko was at the helm in Laois as they claimed a first Leinster title since 1946.

His time in Wicklow produced incremental Championship progress too (albeit they remain a Division 4 National League team) highlighted by victories against the likes of Kildare, Sligo and Down as well as a draw away to Armagh in this year's All-Ireland qualifiers.

His fondness for the people he shared that journey with remains undimmed.

"Marvellous people," he says of those who helped him in Wicklow. "In a way, t'was nearly the most enjoyable of all the jobs I did. When I went in, they'd been hammered by Carlow in the previous year's Leinster Championship. I met some people in the county who told me 'you've come at the wrong time!'

"But we got fellas training and enjoying it. Remember, we beat Down in the 2009 qualifiers and, one year later, they were playing in an All-Ireland final."

What he has done in football, he has done with a system that, he says, "lasted me over 50 years."

Micko is vaguely saddened by the almost militaristic emphasis on bulk and power now at the obvious expense of skill. Much of the gym work being undertaken is, he suspects, counter-productive for a Gaelic footballer.

"A lot of what you see in the game today is, in my opinion, coming from rugby," he suggests. "A lot of gaelic teams are bringing in rugby coaches. But rugby is a completely different game. In gaelic, you want fellas to be flexible, to be free to move left or right.

"There's nothing wrong with doing light weights. Look at 'Gooch'. I mean he's developed physically, but in the right proportion. The trouble starts when fellas get into the heavier weights. They become obsessed with bulk. But if you bulk them too much, players are going to slow down.

"Fellas go into a gym and start getting competitive with one another unfortunately. The football gets thrown in a corner and they just tighten up with all this muscle. At the end of the day, when you go on the pitch you have to play with a ball.

"I believe a fella should have the ball in his hand every single evening. Even if he's just going to the end of the road to buy a paper, he should take a ball with him, soloing it up.

"You look at some teams now and they'd run all day for you, but they mightn't be able to kick. If you want to be a weight-lifter, okay. That's a different kettle of fish."

O'Dwyer's maverick views have always created a degree of tension between him and the GAA authorities. The fact that he has never been invited to serve as manager of the Ireland International Rules team has always looked a glaring omission in his CV. And it is hard not to see that gap as a petty consequence of his endless advocacy of progression in the association.

Before the famous Bendix ad, featuring Kerry players around a washing machine, appeared in a Sunday newspaper in '85, O'Dwyer's men had already infuriated Croke Park by wearing Adidas gear. Around the same time, a group of prominent businessmen were setting up a Kerry Supporters' Club.

There would have been an official view that certain people in the county were, maybe, keen to challenge authority. But Kerry's success under the Waterville man made him a formidable voice for change.

He admits there was "absolute uproar" when the Bendix ad appeared, yet argues: "Maybe we were ahead of our time, but we were also 100pc right in what we were doing."

Typically, O'Dwyer now takes a provocative view on the subject of International Rules.

"Straight up, I never even thought about being manager of the Irish team," he stresses unconvincingly. "Like, if I'd got it, I'd have done it. But it wouldn't have been a priority of mine, good, bad or indifferent.

"The game doesn't impress me. We toured Australia in the '70s with Kerry and I remember playing against them one night in Adelaide. We played with the round ball one half and an oval ball the second. Well, we beat them sick with the round ball and drew with the oval.

"I don't know, it just seems a pity to me that the two associations couldn't come together, draw up rules and actually play the same game for a whole season. We just seem to be tied up with tradition in every walk of life.

"I mean we have a good game but if the two countries came together and started playing the same rules, then you'd have a meaningful competition. Then you'd have a proper International Rules series. This year, the Australians only played a handful of the players that won last year in Croke Park. You wonder are they trying to make a joke of the thing.

"What we have at the moment, let's be fair, is a Mickey Mouse international."

That said, he supports the retention of the existing series, if only because "it's great for the players."

O'Dwyer believes Gaelic football itself is in a healthy place just now, despite the controversy over Jim McGuinness' Donegal team deploying 14 players to defend against Dublin in this year's All-Ireland semi-final.

"In fairness to McGuinness, he had to go with what he had," argues O'Dwyer. "I'd say he reckoned it was the only way he'd have a chance of winning the All-Ireland, so I wouldn't blame him.

"But to go at that stuff if you were from Cork or Kerry? I don't think so."

Though Kerry were their final victims, he was happy to see Dublin claim Sam Maguire. "Dublin need to be strong," he argues. "Just let them win an All-Ireland every 10 years!" (laughing).


For now, O'Dwyer himself is happy to embrace a more sedentary life. He still pops his head into the Waterville dressing-room and recently drove the 40 miles to Killorglin to watch them play a challenge against Laune Rangers.

Football still draws him, moth-like, to the flame, but he is getting better at finding distractions.

After the golf and the fishing, he walks the length of Waterville strand at least five times a week and retains a voracious appetite for TV sport, watching everything from American football to rugby and golf.

"The one thing I can't handle at all is the cricket," he laughs. "You know, when I was growing up in Waterville it was played by all the people working in the Commercial Cable Company factory. They were English and every one played cricket, but I could never get into it, even though I played rounders."

Back and ankle permitting, he may well return to management in 2012. "If I feel good, I wouldn't have any hesitation giving it another go" he grins.

And his greatest football memory? The coltish win of '75? The four-in-a-row? The subsequent three-in-a-row? The blinding white light of Kildare's revival? The renaissance of Laois? The simple romance of his time with Wicklow?

"You might find this hard to believe," smiles the man with over half a century of treasures in his head.

"But winning a South Divisional Championship with Waterville in '56 was probably my favourite day. We beat St Mary's in the final in Cahirciveen and it meant so much to the small community. Up to then, we couldn't even compete in the division, let alone win it. I actually went on to win eight of them in the end!"

Forever his destiny to stockpile.

Irish Independent