Saturday 24 February 2018

'The Don of Dublin football' - architect of modern game

Sean Boylan tells a story from 1983 to ventilate the level of respect Kevin Heffernan could command.

Dublin had won a stormy All-Ireland final against Galway that September and one of their first league matches as champions took them down to Pairc Tailteann in Navan a few weeks later.

The fallout from the All-Ireland final was still resonating with suspensions handed down to three Dublin players sent off that day, Brian Mullins, Ray Hazley and Kieran Duff and Heffernan himself for pitch encroachment.

It left the Meath officials in a dilemma that afternoon as the Dublin bus pulled in with the suspended quartet all on board. Where were they going to go?

"Normally when you are suspended you are put up in the stand, away from the sideline," recalled Boylan.

"But when it came to the day of the match Brian Smyth (the then Meath chairman and the county's first recipient of the Sam Maguire in 1949) had four chairs in a row inside the wire, not a place for them up in the stand.

"There is no way," said Brian, "I'm putting Kevin Heffernan up there!"

Smyth had been a rival and a Railway Cup colleague of Heffernan 30 years earlier and wasn't, according to Boylan, going to let the responsibility of office consume him on this matter.

Boylan enjoyed a very close friendship with Heffernan established during his early days as Meath manager, a friendship that extended to consultation that went beyond the rivalry between the counties.

When Meath reached the All-Ireland final in 1987 Boylan recalled himself being drawn to Heffernan for guidance, not about opponents Cork who he knew Heffernan had ties with through the St Vincent's/ Nemo Rangers club axis, but for the knowledge of the day itself.

"I just wanted to talk to somebody about Croke Park and everything that goes on on the day of an All-Ireland final. It had changed so dramatically from when Meath had won it 20 years earlier.

"I knew he was very close with Nemo but I lifted the phone and he said 'call out'. We never spoke about Cork, but we spoke about the day.

"'You will be told lots of things,' he told me, 'what you can do and lots of things that you can't do.'

"'Respect the officials and respect what they tell you because they have to guide what has to go on' he told me. 'The most important thing is that anything you're told, agree with it. But heed your instinct after that do what you think is right and you won't go far wrong.' He didn't tell me to break any rule!

"Nobody would give it to you truer. He wouldn't tell you what you would like to hear. He would tell you exactly as it was. He had incredible negotiating skills. A driven man. When he went into ESB industrial relations there was something like 19 different unions. When he came out there were just four."

Boylan said it is "not wrong" to describe him as "the architect of modern football."

"It's not wrong to do that at all. Everyone bought into what he did afterwards," he said.

Mickey Whelan would agree with that sentiment. For Whelan, Heffernan was the greatest influence on his sporting career and the most persuasive man he ever came across.

When Whelan went to step down as St Vincent's coach after the 2006 Dublin final defeat to UCD he had Heffo at the door early the following year blocking his path.

"I had figured maybe a younger guy might have a better chance. He sat in with me, smoked his few cigarettes and we chatted. He got around me in that way of his, just said 'no it needs one more year from you and then you can do what you like'. He had great foresight. I would have said no to everybody else but to him, I couldn't.

"He used all the tricks in the book, his ability and nous to talk me into one more year."

He could be ruthless in his decision making – he once told Robbie Kelleher that he'd drop his mother if he thought it would improve the team – but that was down to what he took to the sports field from his business environment, according to Whelan.

"It was incredible how he was able to think his way through things."


In every sense Whelan believes Heffernan was a visionary. He was one of the first forwards to shift from convention and rove outfield, a tactic that completely unnerved Meath in the 1955 Leinster final.

Whelan also credits him, in his playing days, with encouraging the shift towards a Dublin team made up of Dublin footballers in the early 1950s.

"It wasn't anything to do with a bias against country people. He understood that they needed to have Dublin footballers to get Dublin people supporting it. He gave leadership to that. His father was from Offaly so he had no prejudice that way. He was very much a parish person. He wanted to develop the sport that way in the city."

His subsequent management of the team in the 1970s enshrined that desire to develop.

"In my view, he is the architect of modern football, certainly the architect of anything Dublin did.

"His approach was the start of the greater movement, greater strategy and movement of players around the field."

Whelan revealed that up to a few weeks ago he was still making the journey down to St Vincent's in Marino on a Thursday to meet up with his old colleagues and on a Saturday morning when he'd sit in the car and watch the club's juveniles in action.

"He'd be watching everything, asking who this player was or who that player was. He was the Don of the club, he was the Don of Dublin football."

Irish Independent

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