Sport Gaelic Football

Saturday 17 March 2018

'He made it his mission to destroy the Kingdom'

Eoin Liston

Eoin Liston

He was the man who plotted many a Kingdom downfall, but I was immensely saddened by news of Kevin Heffernan's passing.

I knew from a conversation with Jimmy Keaveney and Paddy Cullen a number of weeks ago, Kevin was very ill. It was obvious from talking to the two old warriors how much love and respect they had for their former mentor.

Heffo was ahead of his time as a man-manager, a tactician and a fitness specialist. He revolutionised how the game was played and how teams approached their preparations. Fast-forward to today and football's evolution, and it was the Dublin icon that got the ball rolling all those years ago.

From the catch-and-kick era, when players held their position rigidly, Heffo introduced his own version of Total Football. He will be forever credited with introducing the third-man midfielder, attacking wing-backs and centre-forwards who pulled out on the wing to create space for the inside line.

He placed a massive emphasis on fitness and physicality, and his mantra that a good big man was better than any good small man served him well. A Dublin player who I faced on many occasions once told me that Heffo asked three questions when discussing a new player: "Is he big? Is he strong? Can he hit?"

They were always a big physical team, but there was no denying, however, that the Dublin teams of the 70s could also play. I often stayed awake at night worrying that Heffo had us figured out.

I knew from talking to John Dowling, who captained Kerry to the All-Ireland final win over the Dubs in 1955, how devastated Kevin was after that defeat. He made it his mission to bring down the Kingdom and he duly did that, beating us in '76 – and, in his absence, his team did it again in '77.

Heffo had huge leadership qualities and was meticulous in everything he did, and not just when it came to football. When in Tralee carrying out an audit for the ESB, I'm told he checked and double-checked everything down to the finest detail, where most others would have given a cursory glance.

Last Saturday, at Kieran and Hilary Donaghy's wedding, I was in the company of Sean Boylan and Mick O'Dwyer, and Heffo's contribution to the game came up in discussion. It was clear to me that Sean and Kevin were close friends, but Micko only made his peace with his great rival in the last decade, mainly because of their many outings together on the golf course.

Up to then, a nod of the head was as close as they got to any meaningful communication. They met on the line during the 1978 final and a shoulder charge took place. It was two immovable objects coming together, two men who didn't have a reverse gear.

They were both so obsessed and driven to succeed and were born winners. That rivalry helped to make the game incredibly popular, and captured the imagination of the public.

In 1986, Heffo was picked ahead of Micko to take charge of the International Rules team. He gave men from all over the land their opportunity to represent the country. He brought in men like Pat Byrne of Wicklow and Derry's Brian McGilligan to ensure the Australians wouldn't intimidate the team. It is one of my few regrets that I decided not to line out under Kevin out of loyalty to Micko.

But I would love to have been part of that dressing-room, watching Kevin in action, rallying his troops in the heat of battle. I often wondered what it would have been like to be a fly in the wall in the shed where Heffo and his selectors plotted how the Dubs would take down the Kingdom.

He also had a remarkable record with his beloved St Vincent's, winning 15 county football championships as a player, and he rightfully took his place on the Team of the Millennium.

He made the GAA sexy and made the Dubs the team to follow.

My thoughts and prayers, at this sad time, now lie with his family and close friends. A legend, whose name will be forever synonymous with the GAA. Ar dheis De go raibh a anam.

Irish Independent

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