Wednesday 22 November 2017

A great manager, a great competitor, a great friend

Mick O’Dwyer with former Kerry players Jimmy Deenihan (left) and Eoin ‘Bomber’ Liston on O’Dwyer’s 70th birthday Picture: Don MacMonagle
Mick O’Dwyer with former Kerry players Jimmy Deenihan (left) and Eoin ‘Bomber’ Liston on O’Dwyer’s 70th birthday Picture: Don MacMonagle
Eoin Liston

Eoin Liston

There isn't a hope in hell that I would've had the same football career without the torturous training regime from my great friend Micko.

I remember seeing him on television playing against Galway in the '60s, and we first met in a dressing-room in Ballylongford with the Kerry U-21s in 1977.

I started corner-forward against Clare, before being moved out to midfield alongside Jacko. I obviously did something right because Micko had me on his senior panel ever since and we shared many special memories together.

My football days changed forever when I got my first teaching post in Waterville in September 1978. Micko arranged digs and thankfully took me under his wing. I was the teacher's pet project.

He saw me walking up and down every morning without a car so he said 'look, take away a car', but I couldn't drive, so he taught me how to, gave me a car and said to pay him back whenever I had it.

Micko and his late wife Mary Carmel were like second parents to me. I used to go golfing after school with him and I remember my ball was always being plugged. It was Donal Brosnan and myself against Peter Huggard and Micko in a four-ball, and I knew for sure it wasn't Peter acting the maggot.

It was a real introduction to the school of hard knocks and I realised just how competitive he was. Micko loved to win and I eventually figured out why my golf balls were 'mysteriously' being plugged.

Competition

We also had our own 'Superstars' competition against each other. He'd compete with me in high fielding, free-taking, badminton, squash, volleyball, golf, snooker, cards and handball. And he hated to lose, it wasn't in his DNA.

We'd have lads kicking balls out between us and he'd be keeping track of how many he got. He was well able to compete with me, he was 41 when I was 20 but he was still supremely fit for his age.

Often you'd be getting the elbow into the side of the head and a finger into the eye, there was no level he wouldn't stoop to in an effort to show who was king.

It was unheard of for Gaelic footballers to have personal trainers back then but he took a special interest in my fitness, getting me to levels which would have been impossible without his drive, and we spent so many happy hours together every day.

When we'd finish school, he was over on the first tee waiting for us to play nine holes. Then it was down to the football field or for a game of squash. Even when we'd play cards he badly wanted to win.

We had a six-man card school and one night we said we'd catch him out. He nipped out to the loo and I fixed the deck to make sure I'd get a house of aces and he'd get kings.

We were always going to pay it back but you could see the roguery in him straight away. Everyone knew what he had but all he wanted to do was talk football. There was a huge pot there and he was letting on he had no interest in the game.

He produced his house of kings and was just going to grab the pot when I showed the aces. I was afraid to give him back the money until the hard training was over that year, knowing full well he would have taken it out on me.

I was there from '78 to '86 and we were lucky enough to win seven All-Irelands together.

He'd often come to the digs and I tried to evade him but he knew all my tricks. You could do nothing in Waterville without him knowing, and he arrived one morning after the school staff had a few 'late' drinks the previous night.

I was conked out in bed. My landlady, God bless her, took my side and said I was out for a run so I ran out the back door and entered through the front door in my gear. He wasn't fooled and brought me out for a run knowing I was dying.

This was a month before the Munster final, which was a knock-out game at the time, but we hit the golf club, where there was a white fence you'd touch as the finish line of the run, just up past the first hole.

Agony

I took off with the finishing post in sight and pulled away. Next thing I twisted my ankle and went down roaring. On he comes, passes me out, and I in agony, and touched the fence to show he was the champ.

Then he came back down, put me up on his back and had me walking up and down in the sea for an hour to get the swelling down. I wouldn't have lasted in a fit without him, my conditioning was so far behind.

In my first wire-to-wire run Ger O'Keeffe had been over to the wire and back when I was turning the other side. I was so far behind when I went in first but he set up a 'Keep Fit' class in the evenings.

When Kerry weren't training we'd have 100 people running around Waterville hall and doing all of the Kerry exercises inside. They were my extra sessions and if I didn't turn up I'd get flogged in Killarney the next night.

Micko was a visionary and had different training methods for each player. There was no way the likes of 'Ogie' Moran would be doing the same as me and he spotted that very early. If Kevin Heffernan raised the fitness bar in '76/77 with the Dubs then Micko certainly re-raised it. He knew how far ahead lads should be of each other in drills.

There was a bunch of us, the 'heavies', who trained four or five times more than the rest of them because we needed it. You had the late Tim Kennelly, John Egan, Seanie Walsh and myself and one night he was giving us hell over the cat shape we were in.

Páidí Sé says to him "Micko, you can give out all you want but you know and I know, you'll win nothing without getting the heavies fit". And he knew that better than anyone, that's why we did extra.

But once a fella got to peak fitness he was able to keep him there, it was like horse training really. Mick O'Connell and Micko would have trained like professional footballers back in the '60s/70s and he knew what was required to win.

Some players stepped out of line with him but no matter what happened everything was forgotten when it came to team selection because all that mattered was putting the best Kerry team out.

There was massive respect for him among the players and for him to keep that team together. . . I don't think anyone else could have kept us as fit and hungry as Micko. He was obsessed with Kerry winning.

He could talk football 24 hours a day but he was always great company. There was, and still is, great fun in him and you could give him a right slagging and he'd fire back at you, even to this day.

Before my first All-Ireland in '78 I was willing to run at a wall head first to win, we were so motivated and had so much hard work done. I was saying 'Jaysus they must be a right good Dublin team if they can beat us with the work we've put in'.

The first half went totally against us, however, and we were 0-6 to 0-1 down. I hadn't felt the weight of it. Then, I jumped for this ball and got a dart in my knee, damaging the ligament. I knew Kerry would win but I knew they'd need 15 fit men.

I went over to Micko and told him I was in bother. My brother Sean was in the stand and said to my father 'I hope they take him off, he'll shame us'. Micko says 'go back in, you'll run it off'. Next thing I caught a ball that led to the first goal, and the rest is history. But I never let my brother forget it.

You always feel better after coming off the phone with Micko and it's great that the people of Waterville are having a big celebration for him. He deserves it all and I'm delighted to be counted as a friend to him.

I helped organise his 70th birthday where we brought all the players down to Waterville to play golf and he beat me, taking a tenner off me. To this day, he produces that tenner at the most opportune time to show that he is the champ.

And he always will be.

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