Thursday 22 March 2018

Marathon man

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

MICK O'DWYER will get an extra hour's sleep tonight. Normally awake around 7.0, it will be at least 8.0 before he climbs out of bed tomorrow.

It's Leinster championship launch day, a landmark for which he has been planning since the deep snows of winter, but it won't have interfered with his sleep. On the contrary, he always takes an extra hour in bed on big match days. It's different, but then Micko isn't exactly conventional.

"I was always the same, even as a player. I'd sleep like a baby the night before a big game. No point in worrying about it at that stage. Much better to get as sound a rest as possible. That's what I'll be doing on Saturday night," he says.

Come 4.0 in Portlaoise tomorrow, when referee Marty Duffy throws in the ball to start the Wicklow-Kildare game, O'Dwyer will be the essence of calmness too. The preparations have been completed and now it's up to the players to deliver. The manager can tweak things over the next 85 minutes, but it's essentially all about how individuals perform.

Not that Micko won't show the occasional animated flash during the game. His heart won't be racing wildly, though, which is just as well because after 55 years in senior football as a player and manager (he made his debut with Kerry in 1956), it could hardly stand the strain if its owner wasn't capable of keeping the beat close to normal levels. He manages that quite easily.


None of Micko's medical advisers even suggested retiring from management after he had stents fitted a few years ago because they didn't deem it necessary. They were happy to see him continue and, obviously, he was delighted to oblige.

And so he powered on, setting records for longevity while striving to plot Wicklow's path to a higher level.

This is his last season with them, so it's important for him that they do well. However, the Leinster draw has been unkind, pitting Wicklow on the same side as 2009 All-Ireland semi-finalists Kildare and Dublin, Leinster champions Meath. Laois, whom Wicklow have only beaten twice in championship history, are there too.

"Not exactly easy, now is it," chuckles O'Dwyer.

"We certainly had a better draw last year, but didn't avail of it, which was a great pity. We lost by a point to Westmeath after beating Carlow and then lost by another point to Cavan in the All-Ireland qualifiers.

"We've had an awful lot of close calls since I came here and unfortunately, too many of them went against us."

Not all though. Wicklow beat Down in 2009 when they enjoyed their best ever run in the qualifiers and while sceptics claimed that was a reflection of the standard around Mourneland, subsequent events proved otherwise.

Last September, 11 of the Down panel that lost to Wicklow in 2009 came within a point of Cork in the All-Ireland final.

"Whatever happens this year -- and I'd be confident that with a bit of luck, Wicklow will do damn well -- I'll be leaving things in good shape. There's a squad there now who can compete with anybody on a given day," says O'Dwyer.

"The challenge for a county like Wicklow is to broaden the base of players because that's where the main difference is between the successful counties and the rest.

"The top counties have layers of strength; others don't. That can't be corrected over a few years.

"It takes hard work over maybe a decade or so and, even then, that's only a start."

Prior to O'Dwyer's arrival for the 2007 season, Wicklow hadn't won a Leinster championship game for seven years, losing several by big margins, but over the last four seasons they have won two and drawn one of their first-round games.

Their victims included Kildare, whom they beat in 2008, in what was Wicklow's first ever championship win in Croke Park.

However, it was Wicklow's three-match winning run in the 2009 qualifiers which gave the county one of its biggest ever thrills as three Ulster teams -- Fermanagh, Cavan and Down -- were all beaten in Fortress Aughrim.

Somewhat surprisingly, Wicklow's capacity to match -- and occasionally beat -- supposedly more powerful armies didn't produce a corresponding uplift in the league, where they have remained in Division 4.

But then O'Dwyer has usually targeted the championship as a priority, even for a county like Wicklow.

He changed the approach somewhat this year and hoped that the new impetus would be enough to steer Wicklow into Division 3.

"They came close, but were headed by Roscommon and Longford. They lost just one of eight games, but four draws cost them crucial points which left them behind the top two.

"We had no luck at all. The only game we lost was against the Connacht champions (Roscommon) and even then it was only by a point. We should have won because we were well up at one stage in the second half and we should have won a few of the four drawn games too," says Micko.

"We've had an awful lot of close calls over the past few years, but too many of them have gone against us. That's disappointing, but the only way to solve that is to make sure we're on the right side of the next one."

Nothing excites him more than the beat of the championship drum, a sound he has been hearing since 1954 when he made his debut with Kerry minors.

"I love the buzz that goes with building up to the championship. I'd feel the same about it now as I did 40 or 50 years ago.

"You can see the road opening up early in the year and spot destinations along the way. The hope every year is to reach as many of them as you can," he says.

As ever, he's not afraid to offer his views on various topical issues, reserving special attention for the November-December training ban, plus what he regards as the GAA's obsession with outside managers.

"The blanket training ban is pure daft. It might be okay for underage players, but what about lads who are not attending college?

"They should be allowed to train any time they like. It's their game, for God's sake, so why stop them playing it?," he asks.


As for the GAA's ongoing suspicions over outside managers, O'Dwyer describes it as ridiculous.

"If an outside manager is helping bring up standards in a club or county, where's the problem? The GAA should be encouraging it, not wasting time looking into it year after year and coming up with nothing," he says.

"Take Dublin hurlers as the latest example. Anthony Daly has done a great job with them, but if some people in authority had their way, he probably wouldn't be allowed manage them.

"It's daft. I wish people in power would concentrate on real issues.

"Wouldn't they be better off looking into how it cost up to €27 to get into the Donegal-Antrim game last Sunday? That's far too much. Tickets for any of these first-round games shouldn't cost any more than €15."

Still, he believes that the GAA is in a healthier state than ever, although it is being hit by emigration caused by the recession.

"I'd like to see more current and former players being employed as coaches. That wouldn't solve the drain on clubs and counties through emigration, but it would be some small help," says O'Dwyer.

"Overall, though, the GAA is in good shape. Croke Park is paid for; there are lots of fabulous grounds around the country, so there's no shortage of facilities. It's how we use them that's important."

O'Moore Park will rock to the sound of the Leinster championship launch tomorrow, with Micko having a foot in all four camps as Wicklow manager, and former Kildare and Laois manager -- and he coached Longford boss Glenn Ryan for 10 seasons.

"There's a fair old connection alright, but Wicklow are all that counts for me at this stage. We're outsiders but sure when was it any different?"

It's the way he likes it.

Irish Independent

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