Monday 23 September 2019

An audience with 'The Pope': God's gift to Dublin football

Jimmy Keaveney recalls his amazing career with the Dubs, that comeback call from Heffo and how he became a hero on the Hill

Jimmy Keavney Dublin Football 1981. Photograph Ray McManus SPORTSFILE
Jimmy Keavney Dublin Football 1981. Photograph Ray McManus SPORTSFILE

Niall Scully

Kavanagh's on the Malahide Road. A Monday afternoon. In comes 'The Pope'. Pictures of Dublin teams decorate the walls. Jimmy Keaveney is in many of them.

He smiles when he recalls when the Pope last visited Ireland. 1979.

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"I got put off in the Leinster final against Offaly. I was suspended for eight weeks," explains Jimmy.

"And because the Pope was coming, they brought forward the All-Ireland final by a week. If it wasn't for the Pope, I would have played in the All-Ireland final!"

The incident became part of Gaelic games folklore. The Wolfe Tones brought out a song about it, The Fourteen Men, which includes the immortal opening two verses:

"And there was fourteen on, fourteen was off

"Jimmy on the sideline havin' a gawk

"Heffo and the boys were working out a plan

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"How to beat the Offaly lads without the extra man

"On Hill 16 they never gave up hope

"Without Jimmy Keaveney the man they call 'The Pope'

"The last three minutes the Hill was going mad

"While Offaly in the Hogan, they were looking very sad."

And on this summer's day, Jimmy glances up at the telly in the corner. There's a soccer match on.

His uncle, Paddy Dyer, played with Drumcondra. Jimmy played with Stella Maris.

He followed Drums. And Liverpool. He still goes over to Anfield. One of his great pals is the Shamrock Rovers legend Mick Leech.

Jimmy and his boyhood friends were always in Tolka Park.

"I remember one time four of us mitched from school. Drums were playing Rovers in a FAI Cup replay. It was a Wednesday afternoon. We didn't have the money, so we went down by the river and slipped in past the corrugated sheets. Tolka was packed. Absolutely packed."

Jimmy grew up in Whitehall and he went to school in Larkhill. Everything changed when he went to Scoil Mhuire, Marino.

"The lads there were saying 'why don't you join St Vincent's?' And that's what I did."

He played football and hurling for Vincent's.

"But hurling was my first love. Still is. I was very lucky at Vincent's. We had great years."

Jimmy won 13 Dublin Senior Championship titles - ten for football and three for hurling. And he captained the first St Vincent's team to win the All-Ireland Club Championship.

He played hurling for Dublin at every grade, but it was his comeback with the footballers that shaped his life.

"I was playing football for Dublin. We won the Leinster Championship in 1965. Little did I realise we'd have to wait till 1974 to win the next one!"

He retired from the county in 1972. He continued to play hurling and football at Vincent's. In 1974 he was on the Hill as Dublin beat Wexford in the first round of the Leinster Championship.

"I then got a phone-call from Kevin Heffernan asking me to come back. It came as a big surprise to me, but I didn't argue with Kevin. I knew him too well for that. Once he set his mind on something, that was it!"

And so Jimmy was back in Parnell Park. The training was punishing.

"We were the first team in the GAA to train as hard, and everybody then copied us.

"We trained on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And then Kevin introduced Saturday mornings. We didn't know what to make of that. Training on a Saturday with a match the following day!

"I think that Kevin got some of his ideas from Mickey Whelan. Mickey was in an American university studying sports science at the time.

"Kevin called a spade a spade. You knew where you were with him. He was an exceptional man. When he took over that Dublin team, he saw something that nobody else did.

"He was a shy person. People don't believe that, but it's true. We were a very close group. People had their problems. Different problems. They went to Kevin and he'd sort it out. And not a word was said."

The Heff had plenty to say before the 1974 All-Ireland semi-final against Cork.

"Cork were the holders. They were captained by a great friend of mine, Billy Morgan.

"Nobody gave us a chance. But on the Saturday before the match, Kevin had us leaving Parnell Park feeling ten foot tall. We were saying to ourselves that we could win this.

"And we did win. It was a big shock. Then it was Galway in the final. They were the big favourites. They were runners-up the year before. But we were very determined. Many of us were in our late 20s. We were thinking this could be the only chance we'd get of playing in an All-Ireland final.

"I'd never thought we'd ever win an All-Ireland. We never imagined we'd achieve what we did in those years. It signalled the revival of Gaelic football in Dublin."

24 June 2018; Jim Bolger, Leinster GAA Chairman, presents Dublin's Jimmy Keaveney with the Leinster GAA Hall of Fame Award at half-time during the Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Laois at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Jimmy's free-taking played a central part. He was an immaculate striker of the ball.

"I don't remember my uncle Paddy playing for Drums, but people say he was handy with the feet, so maybe it's in the family.

"I didn't spend much time practising the frees. Maybe after training, I'd hit five or six balls, but that would be it. I wouldn't be nervous in games. If I missed a free in a big match, so what?"

Heffo also asked Jimmy to take the penalties. They played Kerry in the 1976 All-Ireland final.

"A friend of mine had been at the Kerry training sessions. He told me that the Kerry goalkeeper, Paudie O'Mahony, always dived to his left in the penalty practice sessions.

"That's the side I hit my penalties to, so I decided if we got a penalty in the final, I'd go the other way. But didn't Paudie get injured in the final and was replaced by Charlie Nelligan.

"Then lo and behold, we got a penalty. So I decided to stick to my normal routine. It was daunting taking a penalty in an All-Ireland final, but thankfully I managed to score it."

But there was far more to Jimmy's game than just place kicking. His team-mates say he could read the play better than anyone. And he had electric pace over ten yards.

"So they tell me," he grins.

There's hardly a day goes by without somebody stopping him for a chat and recalling times past.

"They were great days. But it's not what you win; it's the friends you make. That's the most important thing. And that's one of the great gifts of sport."

God's gift to Dublin was the man they call 'The Pope'.

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