Tuesday 23 January 2018

Páidí: It was a wonderful life

Eamonn Sweeney

Let's talk about football. Because more than anything else he was a footballer, first, last and always.

It's 1980 and the All-Ireland football final is poised on a knife edge. Roscommon have Kerry rocking and reeling on the ropes. All the challengers need is a KO punch.

The ball falls to Roscommon left half-forward Aidan Dooley around ten yards out. Charlie Nelligan is stranded so all Dooley has to do is stroke the ball into the empty net. And as he hits it you can practically see the net bulging already.

But here, coming from nowhere and diving full length across the goal-line is Páidí ó Sé and he gets his hands on the ball. Yet this is only the half of it; he also holds on to it and makes sure he keeps his arms off the ground so he doesn't concede a penalty. Páidí gets up, Kerry clear their lines and go on to make it three in a row by three points.

Aidan Dooley, a good player from the Pádraig Pearses club who could have ended up becoming the most famous man in Roscommon, never seems to recover from that moment and his inter-county career fizzles out. His nemesis, on the other hand, continues his voyage into legend.

Everything which made Páidí great was in that little cameo: his speed, his anticipation, his courage, his strength, his intelligence. Those qualities were perhaps most spectacularly demonstrated at that moment but it was the accumulation of hundreds of similar episodes of excellence which made him perhaps the greatest back in the history of Gaelic football. His only real rival is his nephew Tomás who exhibits the same virtues as his uncle.

The figure of one point from play conceded to direct opponents in ten All-Ireland finals is the famous one and says everything about Páidí's ability as a man marker. But even that incredible statistic doesn't capture quite how thoroughly the Ventry man dominated his opponents. Being put in on Páidí ó Sé was the football equivalent of being posted to the Russian Front. Nothing good was going to happen to you there.

It's ironic that a man who in his autobiography said he parted company with the Gardaí after being found asleep on a security duty turned out to be the most diligent bodyguard in the country. If Páidí was assigned to mind you, he'd always have your back, and your front, and any other convenient bits of you.

He played on the greatest team of all time and was as integral to its success as Jack O'Shea or Mikey Sheehy. When we think of O'Dwyer's Kerry, we think of great flowing moves cutting defences apart and Sheehy, Egan, Spillane, Liston and Power coming in at the end to finish. But the back-line on that team was every bit as great as the attack.

While winning four All-Ireland finals in a row between 1978 and 1981, Kerry conceded a scarcely believable average of barely over nine points a game. In the 1981 championship, they allowed a total of 1-23 in four games. Eight losing All-Ireland finalists in the last 40 years have failed to reach double figures, four of those teams were up against that Kerry defence between 1978 and 1984. The unit was a steel trap. It was full of truly great players, John O'Keeffe, Tim Kennelly, Paudie Lynch, Jimmy Deenihan, Charlie Nelligan, but Páidí was the greatest of them all.

Yet if Páidí's greatness as a player is inarguable, his achievements as a manager have been undervalued. We've become so used to Kerry winning All-Irelands that it doesn't seem all that difficult to steer the county to a Sam Maguire. How quickly we forget. Because when Páidí ó Sé took over as manager in 1996, Kerry hadn't won an All-Ireland title in a decade and were a distinct second best in Munster behind Cork who had won seven of the previous nine provincial titles. Kerry and Clare were at level pegging on one title apiece in the same period.

Manager after manager had tried to lift this malaise. And manager after manager had failed. Páidí didn't fail. In 1996, Kerry dethroned Cork in Munster and the year after they beat Mayo in the All-Ireland final to end the drought. Hindsight, and the resumption of normal service in the Kingdom, have tended to diminish the significance of Páidí's achievement but it was he who put the swagger back into Kerry. The job only looked routine after he'd done it. It's been said that his legacy is tarnished by the dropping of Maurice Fitzgerald in 2000. Yet at the end of that year Kerry were All-Ireland champions again and you can't second-guess a manager who's won the ultimate prize. That's the nature of the game – winning puts you in the right. Páidí's name was above the door, the buck stopped with him.

The tendency to under-rate Páidí as a manager may derive from the attitude he inherited from his mentor Mick O'Dwyer. Páidí, like Micko, didn't tend to shout the odds or play up his achievements. He preferred what we might scientifically term the Cute Kerry Hoor approach, the 'ah sure there's not much to this, we're just plodding along, don't mind us' number which masked the razor-sharp intelligence both men brought to bear on the game. But there is nothing more dangerous than a modest Kerryman. He's plotting something.

Páidí followed O'Dwyer's example as well when picking his next job after Kerry showed him the door in 2003. Except this time the pupil was trying to go one better than the master. Earlier that year, Micko had brought Laois their first Leinster title in 57 years. Páidí would be trying to win a provincial title with one of only three counties which had never managed the feat. If it wasn't quite Mission Impossible, it was Mission Not Fierce Likely.

Westmeath were far from a bad team when he took them over. But for all the improvements wrought by the excellent Luke Dempsey they still hadn't reached a provincial final since 1949 and had exited the previous year's championship after a first-round qualifier defeat to Monaghan.

Initially, the appointment looked like a match made in Hell. Westmeath struggled in the league, winning just one of seven games. Longford beat them in Mullingar, Tyrone stuck an 11-point trouncing on them, there were rumours of internal dissension and a loss of faith in the new boss.

They began the championship as underdogs against Offaly. Westmeath won that one by a point, a result which most observers agreed would do Páidí fine in his first year in the job. Then they played the Dubs in the provincial quarter-final and went several points down early on, looking severely out of their depth as they did so. Yet they rallied to win an extraordinary 0-14 to 0-12 victory which had Westmeath people beginning to dream all kinds of impossible things.

All the same, Micko's Laois in the Leinster final looked a bridge too far. At the time Laois were being spoken of as potential All-Ireland champions yet they were lucky to get out of the first game with a draw, a late Chris Conway point denying Westmeath at the death. The chance, one presumed, had gone. Yet just six days later Westmeath won on a 0-12 to 0-10 scoreline which hugely flattered the losers and set off celebrations whose joyousness I've never seen equalled in the GAA. It was one of the greatest emotional moments in football history and one of the finest managerial achievements.

The week after that win I visited Ballinagore, the tiny club where Westmeath had trained through the winter and spring, and where Páidí had asked for a sand track to be put down. Club manager Liam McDaniel told me at the time, "The first time we met Páidí, he came along, ran up and down the track four or five times and said 'it's fucking brilliant' . . . Lads would go down four inches into it when they were running. The state of the lads coming off the pitch some nights, Jesus."

In its chutzpah, the notion of importing sand dunes to the Midlands was typical Páidí. He laid the foundation on the track in Ballinagore and built from there. A fly-on-the-wall documentary covering that campaign, Marooned, may capture the spirit of the man better than anything else.

The director, Pat Collins, was best known for films on the writers John McGahern and Michael Hartnett, but this made him an inspired choice, not least because Páidí, like McGahern and Hartnett, was a complex character from a rural background who was very much rooted in his locality while being somehow set apart from it by virtue of his gifts. Whatever you say about Páidí, you can't describe him as an average guy. He always seemed larger than the setting he inhabited, whether that setting was at home or away.

Two things, Pat Collins recalled, stood out that year. One, the inspirational nature of Páidí's team talks which made not just the team but everyone else within earshot believe that anything was possible and, two, his absolute faith that whatever happened in the league everything would be right come the championship. I'm sure RTE are working on a tribute programme to Páidí but it would be hard to beat Marooned, which Setanta Ireland screened again on Friday night. It captures the essence of the man during what may well have been his finest hour.

As a character, Páidí had more than a little in common with a couple of famous West Kerry publicans of an earlier vintage. Kruger Kavanagh, whose charisma caused people to flock from far and wide to his pub in Dún Chaoin, is an obvious spiritual ancestor. Tom Crean, who ran a pub in Annascaul after retiring from polar exploration, may not seem as immediately analogous. But reading Ernest Shackleton's descriptions of Crean's tough and dogged nature, and his willingness to keep up the spirits of his companions at the toughest of times, brings Páidí to my mind at least.

He came from a mythic territory, something best captured in the famous photo of him walking alongside another West Kerry football hero, Paddy Bawn Brosnan, with the Atlantic Ocean beside them. They look like two stony emanations from the wild landscape around them. There was something in Páidí too of the roguish high spirits described in Tomás ó Criomthain and Muiris ó Súilleabháin's great books about the Blaskets. And he could be a bit Peig Sayers when he felt the ref was doing him wrong.

There's no denying that there was a hell-raising element to Páidí's character and that sometimes this hell-raising is more fun for people to talk about or watch than it is for the man involved. Yet I recall, a few months back, talking to a former Cork footballer about the time he and his brother met Páidí on a train to Dublin and they shared a bottle of whiskey. "Such stories he had, such laughs as we had with him, you wouldn't believe what crack he was," said your man and beamed and shook with laughter at the memory of it all 20-odd years later. Páidí was a family man too. I remember meeting him in Dublin once when all he wanted to tell people about were the good exam results his daughter had achieved that day.

Do you know what he was above all? He was alive. And it was that vitality which made his funeral such an extraordinary occasion. The sense of loss and tragedy which had attended the funerals of his great peers, Dermot Earley and John Egan, was nowhere present.

Instead the memory of Páidí's indomitable spirit had turned the day into one of celebration. As if Death was one more opponent he'd held scoreless. As if this was one more scheme to get a crowd down to the pub and he'd pop up at the end of the evening and say, 'alright lads, same time next year'. But it is not so and we must face the fact that in the words of Walter Scott, that great chronicler of swashbuckling heroes from an earlier age, "He is gone on the mountain, he is lost to the forest."

It was a wonderful life.


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