Sunday 8 December 2019

Protecting a valuable legacy

Mick O'Dwyer's departure presents a new set of problems for Wicklow football, writes Dermot Crowe

DARKNESS had started to fall on Aughrim last weekend when the first Wicklow players began leaving their seats after the post-match meal and made their way towards Mick O'Dwyer. One by one they shook his hand in a gesture of warm and simple appreciation. The evening had been a sway of emotion. They were out of the championship, beaten before a sell-out crowd in a replay by Armagh. And now they and the man who had led them for the last five years were sharing their last supper.

In a neat loop, this happened to be the place where, back in January 2007, it all began so dramatically: a wildly curious audience and media platoon converging on the town for an O'Byrne Cup game against Carlow, O'Dwyer's first in charge. There were league ties and O'Byrne Cups, and even Murphy Cups, played in disparate venues over the five years that followed, but O'Dwyer was really only motivated by the championship.

He obsessed over making Wicklow an opposition no team would relish facing and one that could capture people's hearts with the football they played. He achieved that much. He placed stacks of positive affirmation on the previously unloved Wicklow jersey by going there in the first place and exposing his own reputation to the risks of a drastically underachieving county. But it had to end sometime.

"You will learn more from defeat than victory," he is reputed to have told them in the dressing room after the Armagh defeat, knowing it would be his last time to talk to them in this environment. "I am proud to have been involved with Wicklow football, we had great times; you did wonderful things. You saw a side of yourselves you couldn't imagine seeing. And wherever you are playing again I want you to know that I will be there with you, in spirit."

In response, the team captain Leighton Glynn told O'Dwyer he had united the county like nobody before. Wicklow must now ensure that the gains achieved in O'Dwyer's time are not squandered and that they protect and nourish his valuable legacy. All his work will have been futile unless they can improve across the board and not lapse into old habits.

When O'Dwyer took over, the current Wicklow minors were not long into their teens and about to embark on a series of development squads. Their 4-14 to 0-4 defeat by Longford in this year's Leinster minor championship was startling. The under 21s lost to Carlow by eight points. Wicklow must recognise that it can't expect a magician like O'Dwyer to be there to rescue them in an emergency; the county has to keep building from the bottom up -- ultimately, it must go its own way.

Minor form can be a crank and its messages misleading -- the previous year Wicklow defeated Wexford and almost caught Laois -- but there is no escaping the shame of a 22-point defeat by Longford. In Wicklow, soccer and rugby remain strong temptations and yet they can't be held accountable for those limitations. The county chairman Michael Hagan says this year's minor and under 21 results were serious enough to prompt the formation of a review committee to examine the causes, patently illustrating their concern.

So the question isn't so much about what Mick O'Dwyer's legacy is -- few will question its positive impact -- but what Wicklow can do with it now that he's gone. Peter Keogh, the veteran reporter now in his eighties, waited a long time to see the kind of performances Wicklow produced over the last five years. "We all feel, the great majority of people feel, that he is a big loss," says Keogh. "There wouldn't be a sense of huge disappointment because most people were expecting it. It was a feeling of sadness that he didn't manage to achieve more rewards for the effort -- he put in a huge effort."

Keogh was at the majority of the training sessions O'Dwyer conducted and marvelled at the time he devoted and the sacrifices he made. "How many men would you get to do a thing like that, particularly at 70 years of age? He was always the first man at training, and I don't know how many times I saw him undertake that colossal drive back to Waterville maybe at 10 at night. The work he put in went a long way towards curing one of Wicklow's greatest ills; that was a lack of self-confidence."

A committee featuring the county chairman Hagan, secretary Michael Murphy and development officer Victor O'Shaughnessy has been established to find a successor. Hagan said he is confident of having a recommendation by the end of August. Wicklow is now a more attractive option for prospective managers but there is also an increased level of expectation. While they had some wonderful wins in the championship -- 2008 against Kildare and a treble over northern opposition, including Down, in the 2009 qualifiers -- they failed to win a major trophy or reach a Leinster final.

Last year's failure in Leinster when presented with a favourable draw was followed by a horrendous second-half collapse and exit to 13-man Cavan in the qualifiers. O'Dwyer's long-time confidant and former selector Arthur Ffrench left at that stage. "My heart was telling me it was over, to tell you the truth," says Ffrench. "We had the draw from heaven. It didn't happen. I thought it was wonderful to get where we were."

Ffrench, a native of Claremorris and former Mayo player, had other plans, seeing O'Dwyer as the perfect fit for his own county. There were behind-the-scenes talks and he feels O'Dwyer was willing to take it on but Mayo didn't go for it. Ffrench does not hide his disappointment and bemoans the various cliques and politics that stymied his efforts. Instead, O'Dwyer pledged himself to Wicklow for another year.

O'Dwyer's last year was similar to most of the others. They missed out on league promotion, fell short in Leinster, then rescued some honour in the qualifiers. Ffrench rates the display against Kildare this year as their worst day under O'Dwyer in the championship. But O'Dwyer "had them going again" and Ffrench believes they'd have beaten Tyrone if they had managed to overcome Armagh, which they missed by a whisker. He also feels they were not far off winning a Leinster championship in the last few years.

"Their best performance was the one they lost, against Kildare in 2009, they were really good that night. Five clear goal chances. I remember one of them, I was at the back of the goal, and Paul Earls had come through with a blistering run and it hit the corner-back's legs and he knew nothing about it."

But even during O'Dwyer's time in Wicklow there were some things beyond his control. A supporters' club started off with great promise, lasted a couple of years and petered out. Eugene Dooley, an early chairman, says it was more focused on branding and creating a strong army of supporters than raising major finance. At an early stage Seanie FitzPatrick, the former Anglo Irish Bank chairman and Wicklow resident, became involved. There is no active club there now despite the enormous sales value O'Dwyer carried. Sean Mulryan's Ballymore Properties came on board as a lucrative sponsor but this was also lost.

While delighted to have secured Brennan Hotels last year as their main sponsor, Wicklow GAA has less commercial potential and appeal to sponsors now with O'Dwyer gone. Dooley, the former supporters' club chairman, is keen to stress the countless hours O'Dwyer spent in schools and clubs and how generous he was with his time in helping the supporters' club in the early stages.

Ongoing challenges exist on the local circuit too where there has been recurring concern over discipline. Last year's secretary's report to the county convention noted an increase in disciplinary cases in 2010, most worryingly at juvenile level. "Players at under 21 and under 14 receiving red cards should not be happening," the secretary Michael Murphy reported. Wicklow's football image has been stained in the past by disciplinary issues and it is an area the board is keen to monitor and contain. According to Hagan, discipline has been less of a problem this year.

As for the senior inter-county players who have lost a manager, they believe they can maintain the standard they've set themselves. Leighton Glynn was captain the day they were crushed by Carlow in the 2007 championship when Hugh Kenny stepped down afterwards as manager ahead of the qualifiers.

"It's something to build on. We want someone new coming in maybe with fresh ideas. Certainly the same commitment will be there. It

was a great appointment for Wicklow, it was the right thing to do at the time. Gaelic football in Wicklow now is massive."

Will the next man be able to draw the same amount from them though? Arthur Ffrench remembers how well they were prepared for the win over Kildare in 2008 and the response O'Dwyer got from the players. "I knew they were stone cold certainties to beat them in '08; they were chasing balls up into the stand practically, they were fighting when the ball was gone out over the line. He had them going at such intensity."

A new manager may take a different course and apply greater emphasis on the league than O'Dwyer did. Wicklow is one of only two counties without a senior provincial title and that remains a viable aspiration. But promotion from Division 4 would represent a good season's work next year and ensure a higher level of competition the following spring. There is surely no reason why they cannot seriously entertain both objectives.

Whatever about Wicklow's fate, Ffrench is sure of one thing: O'Dwyer, even at 75, is not finished with inter-county management. "The most extraordinary man I have ever met and I have met kings, queens, presidents -- you name it," says Ffrench of the Kerryman. "And I think that the best quality he has is his niceness, that he is genuinely such a nice guy. Micko is a very happy man in himself; if the world was full of Mick O'Dwyers it would be an incredibly happy place. He is so happy in himself and so at peace with himself that I think that is were his success comes from.

"He is the most humble guy you ever met in life. Managers develop fierce egos. He would always gravitate towards the weak and the humble."

Which made Micko and Wicklow such a good fit? "Absolutely," says Ffrench. "I think he got more enjoyment out of Wicklow than anywhere else."

Who is your sportstar of the year?

Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.

Prizes include, tickets to Ireland's against Scotland in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.

Simply click here to register your vote

Sunday Indo Sport

The Left Wing: The problem with the Champions Cup, the Stephen Larkham effect and trouble in Welsh rugby

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport