Sport Gaelic Football

Sunday 17 December 2017

The man who changed the face of Gaelic football

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

AS the ultimate personification of Dublin's football culture, the confident embodiment of its status and the enduring expression of its hugely significant role in GAA history, nobody has – or is ever likely to – come close to Kevin Heffernan.

He was more than just one of their greatest players, more than their most successful manager and, very definitely, more than the sum of the many parts that made him an icon in his beloved Dublin and a figure who commanded huge respect throughout the rest of the country.

There was something utterly compelling about the powerful force of his personality – from his playing days with St Vincent's and Dublin; to his crucial role in assembling 'Heffo's Army' and reviving the county's fortunes at a time in the 1970s when there were fears that Sam Maguire might never again winter in the capital; to his dozen seasons jousting with Mick O'Dwyer and the might of Kerry; to his buccaneering leadership of the Irish International Rules team as they beat Australia Down Under in 1986.

It continued long after he left the front line. Indeed, there are many Dublin supporters who believe that he has always had an influence in the appointment of team managers. And even if that wasn't always the case, there was a feeling that it should have been, on the basis that nobody knew Dublin football or team management better than Heffo.


Most of all, nobody was more devoted to the Dublin cause than the man who rewired the county's philosophy after being appointed team manager in late 1973. It came at a time when Dublin football was, quite literally, Division 2 standard, having been ejected from the top flight in the previous league campaign.

Worse still, the championship was very much the property of others. For, while Dublin had won the All-Ireland title in 1963, the decline over the following decade had been calamitous.

Without a Leinster title win since 1965 (they hadn't even reached the final), the landscape after the 1973 championship looked especially barren. Frankly, the top contenders all over the country no longer regarded Dublin as serious opposition.

The then Dublin county chairman Jimmy Gray reckoned it was time for a new approach, which involved putting one man at the centre of the management structure, accompanied by two talented assistants. Heffernan was Gray's target and, combining enduring persuasion with skilful diplomacy over a period of weeks, he finally landed his man. Donal Colfer and Lorcan Redmond, knowledgeable football men, who were equally motivated by the desire to restore Dublin's seat at the top table, were appointed as selectors.

It was to be the start of a new phenomenon in the GAA where everything revolved around the manager; rather than the previous system, which usually included several selectors, a trainer and/or a coach. In effect, Dublin had moved towards the structure that applied in soccer.

Heffernan's appointment as the main man worked so well for Dublin in a very short space of time that it was inevitable others would follow the lead. Kerry were first up, giving O'Dwyer wide-ranging powers when he was appointed manager in late 1974, just after Heffo had led Dublin to a remarkable All-Ireland triumph.

From a Division 2 spring campaign that included defeats to Limerick, Clare and Kildare and an embarrassing trip to Nowlan Park – where the ground emptied before Dublin's clash with Kilkenny as disinterested locals left after a club hurling game – to a summer when the Leinster title was won for the first time in nine years and on to autumn and the explosion of interest in the capital as Heffo led his side to All-Ireland wins over Cork (semi-final) and Galway (final).

It was one of the most important successes in Dublin's illustrious history. Gaelic football was back as a real force in the capital at a time when there were fears that soccer was set to expand – and possibly dominate – traditional GAA areas.

People who had been utterly uninterested in Dublin's fortunes during the disappointing years re-engaged in a special way, happily enlisting in 'Heffo's Army' and marching to a new beat behind a leader whose fresh approach to training, tactics and general squad preparation changed attitudes throughout the game.

It elicited a quick response in Kerry, who didn't take long (one year actually) to not only catch up, but overtake Dublin. A fascinating rivalry had emerged: Dublin v Kerry; Heffo v Micko; city v county. Even more importantly for the GAA, it was huge box-office.

Dublin's All-Ireland double in 1976 and '77 (Heffo stood down for the 1977 season and was replaced as player-manager by Tony Hanahoe) further boosted the county's currency. Heffernan was back in charge in 1978, a year that saw the advancement of Kerry at a rate nobody had envisaged after defeat by Dublin in the previous two seasons.

After trailing Dublin by five points in the first half of the '78 All-Ireland final, Kerry outscored their great rivals by 5-10 to 0-3 over the remainder of the game to win by a remarkable 17 points. They easily beat Dublin again in 1979 and repeated the double dose in the 1984 and '85 All-Ireland finals.

In between, Heffo had masterminded another All-Ireland success, presiding over the famous win in 1983 when 12-man Dublin beat 14-man Galway in a fractious final. Successive defeats by Kerry in finals over the next two years in no way dented Heffernan's obsession and all seemed in place for another interesting season in 1986.

However, for reasons that were never fully explained, he resigned as Dublin manager early in 1986. His departure was a massive story, laden with intrigue and theories, but, whatever the background, it marked the end of a special era. It would be another nine years before Dublin won their next All-Ireland title.

While Heffernan's stature as a mould-breaking manager guarantees him a place in GAA folklore, it should not overshadow the unquestioned reality that he was one of the greatest forwards in Gaelic football history.

That reputation was carved out in a superb career that spanned three decades (1940s, 50s and 60s) and which was later given a historical permanency when he was chosen at left full-forward on both the Team of the Century (1984) and the Team of the Millennium (2000). He was the only Dublin player on either selection.

The high point of his playing career came in 1958 when he captained Dublin to All-Ireland senior glory, beating Derry in the final.

Even then, his tactical nous was in evidence as he would later recall how he felt Dublin weren't set up correctly in 1957, a season that ended with a defeat by Louth in the Leinster final. Dublin were an altogether different proposition a year later, marching to a triumph in which Heffernan played a significant role.

While he did Dublin an enormous service as player and manager, probably nothing could match his devotion to St Vincent's. As boy and man, it was the ultimate expression of pride in his local area and club.


His title haul as a player was quite remarkable, including no fewer than 15 Dublin senior football and six senior hurling medals, all won between 1949 and 1967.

While football and hurling were undoubtedly his sporting obsessions, he also had a big interest in greyhound racing, indulging his passion as an owner before making a big contribution to the developmental side of the sport as chairman of the Irish Greyhound Board in the 1990s.

In 2004, Heffernan joined an exclusive club when he was made a Freeman of Dublin in recognition of his massive input to the sporting life of the city. It was altogether fitting that he should be granted such a prestigious honour in a lifetime when his devotion to the heritage of Dublin GAA was fuelled by an unrelenting determination to do the best for both.

It was the ultimate definition of Kevin Heffernan's remarkable life.

Irish Independent

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