Sunday 22 September 2019

'When I started playing, Dublin guys didn't count in the GAA. It was a country game'

Decades of the Dubs - The 50s/60s: The Dubs legend reflects on his playing career, his biggest games and the unbreakable bonds he forged with his team-mates

Mickey Whelan with Bobby Kennedy in 1968
Mickey Whelan with Bobby Kennedy in 1968

Conor McKeon

On the first night Mickey Whelan came in to train with Dublin in October of 1958, himself and Paddy Holden were bestowed with two jewels of wisdom.

"Jim Crowley said to us, 'Boys, do you mind if I give you a bit of advice?'"

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Even as a 19-year-old, Whelan was a sponge for knowledge.

"Dublin had just won the All-Ireland," he recalls. "You dream about that kind of stuff. We were lapping it up."

"So he said, 'You guys are going to be around here for a long time. Don't forget your friends. Your friends that you're palling around with now, stay in touch with them. Because this thing can take you over.'

"Jesus," smiles Whelan, still a voracious learner at 78, "That was great. It was phenomenal.

"And then Mossy Whelan comes over and says 'do you mind if I give you another bit of advice?'"

Sixty years later, Mickey is still being credited with his namesake's first All-Ireland despite having gone so far as to write to those who have mistaken him over the years for the 'M Whelan' who came on for Seán 'Yank' Murray in the '58 decider.

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As it happened, Mossy (Maurice) Whelan worked for Mickey's father, Frank, in the Pigeon House power station in Ringsend but now, they were sharing a dressing-room and Whelan was wide-eyed and willing to learn.

"He says to us, 'Norman Allen and I have a system. If Norman gets into a problem on the pitch, he has to handle himself - I just have to watch the back door. The guy coming in from the side is the fella who does the damage; he's the one who breaks your jaw, because you're not expecting it. So don't let that happen. If he's in a row, he has to take care of that row. That's his problem. But you just watch the back door.'

"Phenomenal advice!"

Pertinent too, as Whelan would soon discover.

The Clanna Gael team, winners of the 1968 Dublin Senior Football Championship. Valentia's Pat O'Connell is seventh from the left in the back row. In the front row Thady O'Donoghue of Firies is first on the left, James McGill of Ardcost is fourth from the left and sixth from left is Mossie O'Discoll of Valentia. Seventh is former Dublin footballer and manager Mickey Whelan and eighth from left is Mick Byrne, former Irish International soccer physio.

"When I started, they were milling us," he recalls, having made his senior Championship debut in 1959.

"Dublin guys? We didn't count in the GAA.

"It was a country game really, until Vincent's started to dominate football and hurling in the county."

That resonated with Whelan's father, Frank, earlier than it did with Mickey himself.

Frank had been a good soccer player but was attracted to the way St Vincent's played their Gaelic football at the time.

"It was a semi movement-based game, like soccer," Whelan recalls. "Short passing and movement."

He and his father were there as spectators in '57, when Vincent's lost a county final by a point to a St Patrick's College team containing such luminaries as Galway's Mattie McDonagh, Tom Long of Kerry, Fintan Walsh of Laois and Fintan Conefrey of Leitrim.

At that stage, Whelan was playing for Clanna Gael and did so right up until when he moved to America in 1969.

When he came back, the club were playing on a bad pitch in Ringsend nicknamed 'Iodine Park', so-called after the healing chemical required to dress the wounds of those who played there.

Whelan 63 final.JPG
Mickey Whelan carries the ball in the 1963 All-Ireland football final

In between, he became the mainstay of the Dublin team, winning an All-Ireland in 1963, a season in which he started every match at centre-forward and finished in midfield en route to being the Championship's top scorer.

"You went out and ran the s**t out of yourself," Whelan recollects of the training the team underwent at that time.

"But Kerry did a lot more with the ball than we did. They could win a game off much less possession.

"We lost three [All-Ireland] semi-finals to Kerry.

"But the guys of the '50s, the '60s, the '70s - all the stars then would be stars today. Because they would be doing the same training.

"Offaly had a tough team at that time," he adds.

"Their full-back line was tough. Paddy McCormack, the corner back, was tough. And [Greg] Hughes, their full-back. He was great in the air.

"But it was great. It was the time of our lives."

And then, he took himself away from it all.

On a Wednesday in late 1969, Whelan was appointed Dublin captain by Kevin Heffernan.

That Saturday, a phone call came from John 'Kerry' O'Donnell, the GAA's most prominent official in America, offering Whelan - who had qualified and was working as a turner and fitter - a route to the teaching job he craved by studying Stateside.

"It was terrible," Whelan recalls. "I had to leave my wife and two kids behind at the start. I was illegal there and I didn't know it. Irene [his late wife] was stopped coming out.

"The embassy told her that her husband was moonlighting in America."

At that stage, he and Heffernan had become close.

At the start, when Whelan and Paddy Holden presented themselves as impressionable teenagers, Heffernan had seen something in Whelan.

And Whelan saw a superstar in Heffernan.

"I knew him as a god. Winning everything.

"But I struck a very close friendship with him very quickly," Whelan says.

"He had a lot of shyness in him. And people got the wrong idea - they thought he was aloof, but he wasn't.

"He was just shy and he was very conscious of his persona."

As a footballer, Whelan recalls, Heffernan was peerless and his greatest qualities were "between the ears".

"He was very cerebral in terms of reading a game, as well as reading people."

And the rest of their managerial lives dovetailed snugly.

Whelan 2008 Vins.JPG
17 March 2008; St Vincent's manager Mickey Whelan celebrates victory. AIB All-Ireland Club Football Final - St Vincent's v Nemo Rangers, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit; Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

Whelan was Heffernan's transatlantic coaching guide through the glory era of the 1970s, while the older man had been a source of persuasive encouragement in more recent years for Whelan to manage and later coach both the St Vincent's and Dublin senior football teams.

It paid off handsomely for both men.

In 2007, Heffernan convinced a hugely reluctant Whelan to give the St Vincent's seniors one more year after a county final defeat to UCD, the manner of which had soured many in the club. As it went, that commitment resulted in the club not only winning a first county title since 1984, but an All-Ireland too.

On the night they beat Cork's Nemo Rangers in the final on St Patrick's Day 2008, Whelan celebrated with the rest of the club in the large marquee erected in Páirc Naomh Uinsionn for the occasion.

After the formalities had finished and the crowd filed up to the bar to continue their revelry, Whelan encountered Heffernan standing at the top of the stairs waiting for him, smoking.

"He had kept his distance from me since the game," Whelan remembers.

"But he was waiting at the stairs for me when I came in.

"So he said 'Mickey, you've been a great help to me'.

"And I said 'no, I owe you a lot, Kevin'.

"He said 'no, I owe you a lot. And I probably haven't said this to you'.

"Then he caught me and he said 'I'll tell you what, would you accept this: we were mutually beneficial for each other?'

"And I said, 'Kevin, I'd be honoured'."

Two giants of Gaelic games in the capital, a duo that helped steer the course of club and county for a lifetime.

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