Sunday 15 September 2019

The Jacks are back: How Kevin Heffernan's second coming set the tone for the 70s

Heffo's Army dragged the Dubs out of the doldrums in the 1970s and made them a GAA powerhouse


Seán Potts

The famous American sportswriter Henry Grantland Rice once remarked that "fanatical memory is brief and fickle ... heroes can be made and wrecked in a single series".

For those tempted to feel sated by Dublin's current dominance, it is worth heeding the words of Grantland Rice along with the lessons of history.

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To understand the growth of modern Gaelic football in the capital prior to the great battles with Kerry in the 1970s you have to step back over half a century. The 1963 All-Ireland final, played in front of a crowd of 87,000, was a tightly fought affair with Dublin - a team including Mickey Whelan and Lar Foley in their ranks - denying an emerging Galway side by two points, Gerry Davey's fisted goal proving decisive.

Rather than heralding a period of dominance, however, it proved the precursor to a slump which essentially brought the game to its knees in Dublin, where soccer was the dominant sport, one growing rapidly in popularity due to the emerging influence of the English game.

In the early '70s every new television set brought Match of the Day, Sportsnight, Grandstand and The Big Match into our living rooms , coverage of the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal, Leeds Utd and Liverpool strengthened the already powerful grasp of soccer in the city. Irish heroes performed across the water, inspiring young players back home.

Gaelic football and hurling were, for the most part, identified with those from the country and their families. Many Christian Brothers schools continued essentially to discriminate in favour of Gaelic games while the influence of the few strong GAA clubs, primarily on Dublin's northside and in particular St Vincent's in Marino, proved vital to the rebirth of the game.

Dublin's success in '63 was quickly eclipsed by Galway's subsequent three-in-a-row, completed in 1966 with Meath, Down, Kerry (twice), Offaly (twice) and Cork following in their footsteps.

Paddy Cullen Empty Hill.JPG
Dublin v Offaly, Croke Park in 1972. Dublin goalkeeper Paddy Cullen gathers the ball in front of an empty Hill 16. (Part of the NPA/Independent Newspapers Collection)

Dublin, meanwhile, drifted into oblivion. Even within Leinster they were reduced to makeweights; in 1970 and '71 they exited at the first-round stage after losing to Longford and Laois respectively.

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What is extraordinary in hindsight is that many of the players who were to become household names in Irish sport were part of the struggling Dublin set-up in the late '60s and early 1970s, including Jimmy Keaveney, Tony Hanahoe, Seán Doherty, David Hickey, Paddy Cullen, Gay O'Driscoll, Pat O'Neill, Alan Larkin and John McCarthy.

O'Driscoll, an All Star defender and three-time All-Ireland medal winner, famously remarked that in the early 1970s he refused to even let his work colleagues know that he was playing for Dublin; it was an inconvenient truth.

Yet a few short years later, the ironic strains of 'You'll Never Walk Alone', the acquired anthem of Liverpool and Celtic, echoed around Croke Park following Dublin's All-Ireland success in 1974.

Success in management requires learning on your feet, as quickly as things are changing all around you.

In 1973, Na Fianna legend Jimmy Gray was county chairman and he took the very bold step to appoint one man at the helm of the county team along with selectors, essentially applying the structures which pertained in professional soccer.

Kevin Heffernan's reputation as an innovator dated back to his playing days in the 1950s but even though Gray remains adamant to this day that he knew he was the right man for the job, even he couldn't have predicted the profound influence Heffernan was to wield on Dublin.

But the first steps were remarkably tentative, losing to Limerick and Kildare in Division 2 of the National League before being cast in a sub-group for the Leinster championship.

On May 26, in front of a sparse attendance in Croke Park, two goals from Bobby Doyle and another from Hanahoe steered Dublin to victory over Wexford. It heralded the championship arrival of a 19-year-old Brian Mullins, a prodigious talent who was to become the beating heart of the Sky Blues' revival. Other significant championship debutants included Anton O'Toole and Bernard Brogan.

After this game, the absence of a regular accurate free-taker was noted through the judicious intervention of a seven-year-old St Vincent's player named Terry Jennings, who pointed out that the recently retired Jimmy Keaveney had lost none of his dead-ball accuracy with the club. Keaveney was reinstated and scored 1-8 in the Leinster decider after Dublin had scraped past Offaly in the semi-final.

What had become evident during this short period was how Dublin were finishing games and closing out their victories. Heffernan, acutely aware of their low standing on his arrival, ensured that, at the very least, his Dublin team would be fitter than any of their opponents.

Circuit training was introduced for the first time (Keaveney questioned why on earth 'circus' training was required!) and the Dublin machine began to motor.

Paddy Cullen penalty save.JPG
1974. Dublin's Paddy Cullen saves Galway's penalty during the 1974 All Ireland Football Final. Picture Credit: Sportsfile

The closing stages of the 1974 final against Galway were testimony to Heffernan's assertion; buoyed by Paddy Cullen's second-half penalty save, Dublin, led by Keaveney, rattled off a series of late points, finishing on the front foot to win their first All-Ireland in 11 years.

What made the story of the 1970s all the more compelling, however, was the emergence of the young Kerry team a year later. The enduring ability of the Kingdom to find a way of countering successful change saw them replicate the appointment of a head honcho, placing ambitious veteran player Mick O'Dwyer in charge as the new recruits to Heffo's Army were still celebrating their All-Ireland triumph.

There's nothing new about the current belly-aching about Dublin; success for the capital has never sat easily with an essentially rural organisation.

Kerry's victory over Dublin with a team of bachelors in the 1975 final drew the battle lines clearly between the urban pretenders and the traditional aristocrats of the game; culchies and Dubs would lock horns for the next four years and their struggle would captivate the nation.

A double over Kerry in 1976 final and the famous semi-final of 1977 (when Dublin were player-managed by adroit captain Tony Hanahoe) saw the city side win back-to-back All-Irelands and cast them as enemy No1 in the eyes of an increasingly covetous GAA public. The indignant Dubs revelled in the division.

Heffo returned to the helm in 1978 but no one could have foreseen the enormity of the blow delivered to his all-conquering regime in that final. Leading by five points, a hugely controversial decision by Kildare referee Séamus Aldridge, where he penalised Paddy Cullen, and a moment of impromptu genius by Mikey Sheehy turned the tables irreparably and Kerry went on to outscore Dublin 5-10 to three points in the remainder of the game.

While Dublin reached the 1979 final, Kerry had secured their measure and even the sending off of mercurial defender Páidí Ó Sé couldn't halt their march to an 11-point victory.

While it didn't close the chapter on Heffernan's extraordinary contribution to Gaelic football in the county - he was to mastermind another All-Ireland in 1983 and steer his county to two more subsequent finals - it marked the end of a remarkable decade where Dublin emerged from the rags of obscurity to enjoy the riches of three All-Ireland titles, two National Leagues and six Leinster Championship titles.

Barren years have followed at county level for sure, but never again would Gaelic games inhabit the backwaters of the capital.

The 1970s spearheaded the widespread growth of GAA clubs in Dublin - a trend that continues to this day.

Fanatical memory should never be brief or fickle.

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