Sport Gaelic Football

Sunday 25 February 2018

How a seven-year-old boy got Keaveney out of retirement

"The young fella in the back of the car said he went to all the Vincent's games with his dad and told me Jimmy Keaveney never missed a free."

Kevin Heffernan was not in the best of form. He was driving away from Croke Park. It was nearly tea-time, and traffic wasn't too bad. Dublin had beaten Wexford in the first round of the championship. The game was due to warm up the crowd for the National League final replay between Kerry and Roscommon. That was the main event of the afternoon.

A win for Kerry, with not many Kerry folk there to see it. There wasn't a whole lot of support from Roscommon or Wexford either. Hill 16 was quiet as a large mouse. The whole place was only a quarter full.

Heff was halfway home before he knew it. And he'd been grumbling for the previous five minutes. About how bad Dublin looked, and how good Kerry and Roscommon were, for sure.

Listening was his wife, Mary, in the seat next to him. In the back seats were Mary's friend Lily Jennings and her seven-year-old son, Terry.

Heff had formally announced to himself and his companions that Dublin had been poor, and that there's not much hope for a poor team unless it has a free-taker who can nail every single free the team gets.

"Why don't you get Jimmy Keaveney?" asked young Terry Jennings from over Heff's shoulder.

TWISTED

Bernard Brogan had played on the edge of the square against Wexford. He'd twisted his left knee just after Christmas but worked around the clock to get himself right for the first round of the championship.

Brogan was glad that he had listened to Heff. It was good being part of the Dublin squad, and even though there was nothing to show for it in the Monday newspapers for the first eight and half months of Heff's reign, he loved the sense of professionalism about the weekly training regime. He had done all right against Wexford.

But, in the second round of the Leinster championship against Louth, he was told that the team didn't need him in the full-forward line. Bernard Brogan was named amongst the big list of substitutes.

Jimmy Keaveney was No 14 instead.

It was a big change of mind. Bernard Brogan was tall, slim as a reed, and a complete athlete. Jimmy Keaveney was three or four inches shorter, and perhaps two or three stone heavier.

It simply didn't make sense to Brogan, or to most of the Dublin players. Eyes were shot up to heaven when Keaveney, and his Vincent's buddy Leslie Deegan, showed up for training on the Tuesday after the first-round win over Wexford. Hauling Jimmy Keaveney out of retirement was the last thing anybody who'd had a long winter, and an even longer spring, of brutally hard work in the gym and out on the training field wished to see.

Nobody was amused, not even the Vincent's boys who palled around with Keaveney, and loved knocking him, and loved even more being on the receiving end of Keaveney's cutting wit.

Against Louth, Keaveney slapped over four frees.

He got six points in total in his comeback game. When Dublin badly needed a point or two against Offaly, in the Leinster quarter-final, Keaveney slotted them over with hardly a care in the world. He scored four more frees, five points in total on the day. But it was Deegan who had made the world of difference against Offaly.

Again, Croker was a quarter full, at best. But Dublin burst into life from the very beginning, and grabbed Offaly by the throat. It was an Offaly team that had beaten Galway and Kerry in All-Ireland finals in 1971 and '72, and had just won three exquisite Leinster titles in a row. They'd played their part in the last five. Dublin hadn't even been anywhere near a Leinster final for eight years.

But David Hickey cracked a shot off the crossbar early on.

Hickey too had returned late. He'd been a minor for Dublin in 1968 and '69, and got to wear a senior jersey for the first time in '69. Heff was back as a selector in 1970 and picked Hickey for his first championship game. Heff liked his grittiness. Hickey was fast, like Des Ferguson. He could also forage like Ferguson, though unlike Ferguson he wasn't a natural fighter. But neither was Hickey one bit afraid. All told, he was just enough like Snitchie.

But in 1973, Hickey was playing more rugby than football. He had taken up the game during his medical studies in UCD, and had only played one game the entire year for Dublin.

Dublin lost in a Leinster championship replay to Louth. That meant that David Hickey had completed three short summers as a Dublin footballer, and had three losses in the first round to show for it. Laois, Westmeath and Louth. The evening that UCD were knocked out of the senior cup in Leinster by Bective Rangers, Heff phoned him. It did not need to be a very long conversation.

Twice more Dublin hit the woodwork.

In the first half, Offaly didn't look like a team that had come for a fight. Shortly before half-time, Paddy Reilly thundered a big kick towards the Offaly posts, but as he came to collect the high ball Offaly goalkeeper Martin Furlong didn't sense too much danger. He didn't even see Leslie Deegan. Before he knew it, Deegan had darted in and knocked the ball with his hand into the corner of the net.

PHYSICAL

Dublin were one point up at half-time.

When the teams re-emerged, Dublin's tails were still up. Offaly now had their sleeves rolled up, and they were not playing well, but they were seriously getting stuck into their opponents. Every possible way, but Dublin handled the physical stuff and, at the same time, it pleased Heff that they were also able to keep playing good football. The teams were level with 60 seconds remaining.

Offaly had possession.

Their centre-back, Sean Lowry, was about to unleash a long drive from defence when midfielder Stephen Rooney dived in and blocked the ball. Rooney collected the ball also, and passed it off to Brian Mullins.

He found Deegan, mainly because Deegan was the only man free, and Leslie Deegan's soaring kick took an age in defying gravity. Deegan had kicked the ball up as high as he could because four Offaly defenders were about to devour him and ball at any second. It went up and up.

The game was also pretty much up. The ball then started to descend. It was coming right down in the Offaly goalmouth. Nobody expected it to land on the far side of Martin Furlong's crossbar.

It did. Dublin 1-11, Offaly 0-13.

Heff now realised that Dublin had every chance of winning the Leinster final. But Bernard Brogan wouldn't play again in 1974. Late in the game against Offaly he had twisted his right knee, and messed up his cartilage completely. He faced a fortnight in hospital. Two months in plaster, and nine months of painful rehabilitation.

Irish Independent

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