Sunday 22 April 2018

A man for all seasons who drove Kerry back to football's summit

Páidí could be stubborn but he never let his county down as player or manager, writes Seán Kelly

The genuine outpouring of grief from all sections of society reflected the stature of popularity of Páidí ó Sé way beyond the realms of football. As one man said to me in Brussels last week, "I knew Páidí, or at least I felt as if I knew him, even though I never actually met him."

Páidí would have been pleased with the compliment, thrilled with the spirit and nature of the turnout and profile of his funeral.

He rose to fame as a footballer, a legendary Kerry footballer. Boy was he proud of those Kerry roots. And how he achieved great success. The only defender in the history of the game to win eight Celtic Crosses. He won five All Stars in a row, but he deserved a lot more. He had to wait until he had five All-Ireland medals before he was honoured with an All Star. Hard to believe, even harder to justify.

When I was chairman of Kerry County Board, I travelled extensively throughout the country with then Kerry manager Mick O'Dwyer, Páidí's idol. Our conversations were long and probing. We would often discuss the Kerry team and I was particularly interested in O'Dwyer's ideas concerning the managerial potential of his mighty charges.

We would go through the lot, and in the end O'Dwyer would say, as he rubbed his brow, you know Sé wouldn't be bad, once we get him focused. An understatement, but an endorsement exemplar from the man who knew.

But when Dwyer did retire and a new manager was needed, we didn't select Páidí; he wasn't well pleased. He was crosta dána for a while, but when I explained to him that as he had just retired I felt it was too soon for him to make the step up. I felt he was too close to the players. I added that his time would come. He accepted the decision, although he clearly didn't agree.

Páidí was a big-hearted, determined man, and when he put his mind to something, he overcame all the obstacles to achieve it. The building of his pub, despite all sorts of obstacles, is testimony to the vision, determination, courage and will to succeed. Nobody else but Páidí would have acquired a licence, gone through the bureaucratic mill of acquiring planning permission, raising the capital and building a pub, literally brick by brick from the ground up. And then turn it into one of the most iconic pubs in Ireland.

When the chance came to manage the Kerry under 21s, Páidí jumped at it, no doubt seeing it as a challenge and a stepping stone to his ultimate target, to achieve for Kerry as a manager what he had done as a player: 'Bring back Sam.'

Kerry qualified for the All-Ireland under 21 final in 1995, just as Ogie Moran's tenure as manager came to an end. It was speculated that if Kerry won the under 21 final the job would be Páidí's.

Before the final, I approached him and said: "Páidí, win or lose, where I'm concerned you have enough done. I will be proposing you as next Kerry manager."

"I won't let you down," was his reply.

I felt it was important that he'd know that, because he had well and truly proven himself as far as I was concerned.

He never forgot it, and often mentioned it to me afterwards. In fact, that was one of the amazing things about Páidí. His extraordinary memory or, as he'd say himself as he tapped his head, "Seán, it's all in the auld computer in there."

Generosity was another of his great characteristics. He would give you the shirt off his back. If you were buying a drink and he wanted to pay, he'd wrap his big hand around your fist with the money in it, and squeeze it to smithereens almost, while he paid the bill with the other hand.

Páidí, with fellow Gaeltacht man and good friend Séamus MacGearailt alongside him at the helm, set about the great challenge of restoring Kerry's fortunes. The famine – the longest since Kerry first won an All-Ireland in 1903 – needed to be brought to an end. In his managerial role, Páidí had the power to appoint his own selectors. While Páidí may have been stubborn in some respects, he was also very wise. When he asked me to meet him, to discuss his appointees, I found his suggestions were enlightening. Páidí had the vision to bring on board Jack O'Connor, who later became an outstanding Kerry manager too.

Páidí had been impressed by Jack's work at schools level, and therefore it was Páidí, rather than myself, as many thought, who suggested that Jack be approached to become a selector.

Kerry's fortunes almost turned immediately for the better, as Páidí's distinctive and effective motivational skill brought the best out in the players. Cork were finally subdued in Munster in '96. The feat was repeated in '97 as Kerry went on to win their first All-Ireland in 11 years and for a good measure win the National League for the first time in 14 years.

Páidí didn't let me down as he promised. He didn't let Kerry down either.

They were a couple of great years as the exuberant Páidí was in his element. He had his own way of doing things and handling different situations. For instance, one person close to the team was always arguing with him about little tittle-tattle things. When Páidí discovered that this person loved to go to bed early, he started ringing him late at night, pretending to be concerned about some other tittle-tattle affair.

That was the cure for him. The only problem, was that after ringing his advisor late at night, Páidí would ring me up then to tell me what had happened as he laughed to his heart's content, waking up me and the household in the process.

The last time I met Páidí was at the Kerry county final. He was invited out to be guest of honour at the European GAA finals. I told him that 'Banna cheoil an Bhruiséil' were in training to welcome him out.

He got a big fit of laughing. "Chífidh me thú," were my parting words, sadly the next time I saw him was in a coffin in the company of his wonderful wife, Máire, his children and the great ó Sé footballers.

Páidí ó Sé – A man for all seasons. A man for all. A real legend of and beyond the GAA.

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