Tuesday 19 November 2019

'Every GAA man, woman and child in any part of the country felt they knew Páidí'

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

A few minutes from the end of the 2004 Leinster final replay in Croke Park, two of the most famous Kerrymen of all time exchanged a few words on the sideline.

Both had won several All-Ireland medals with the Kingdom as players and managers, but now their allegiance lay with Laois and Westmeath respectively.

Mick O'Dwyer was in the blue and white corner with defending champions Laois, while Páidí ó Sé was presiding over the maroon and white corner with challengers Westmeath. What's more, Westmeath were winning.

As Micko was striding down the line to make a point to one of the Laois players, he encountered Páidí, who couldn't let the moment pass without a quick comment to his former mentor.

"Micko, sure you wouldn't begrudge it to us," remarked Páidí with a mischievous twinkle.

"Sure all I could do was smile. The devil had done me. Westmeath won by a few points," recalls O'Dwyer.

A year earlier, O'Dwyer had led Laois to their first Leinster title for 57 years; now Páidí had trumped him, having steered Westmeath to their first ever senior provincial title. And they had done it the hard way, beating Offaly, Dublin, Wexford and Laois.

Of Páidí's many achievements as player and manager, the success with Westmeath ranks up there among his best.

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When his eight-year term as Kerry manager ended after the defeat by Tyrone in the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final, few could possibly have envisaged that his next move would be to manage a county 200 miles away from his home.

Westmeath's decision to approach him and his willingness to take on the job was the perfect coalition of sound judgment and sheer courage. Still, there were many who sniggered quietly to themselves, claiming that Páidí and Westmeath just wouldn't work together.

They argued that Westmeath wouldn't buy into his brand of persuasion and that, even if they did, Páidí would quickly discover that he wasn't dealing with the same level of quality he enjoyed in Kerry.

The underlying theme of the argument was he had been lucky with the calibre of players he managed in Kerry and would be found wanting in a less fertile environment.

"That's where some people got Páidí completely wrong. Whatever that man set his mind to, he did it very well. I knew from his early days as a player that he was serious management material and that when he went to Westmeath, he'd work well with them," said O'Dwyer.

Micko's and Páidí's playing careers overlapped for a short time in 1973 and '74, but it was as manager/player that they really got to know each other in the most glorious period in Kerry football history when they won eight All-Ireland senior titles between 1975 and 1986.

"As good a defender as ever wore the Kerry jersey – there's no doubt in the world about that," is O'Dwyer's description of a man whose career took him from wing-back to corner-back, with a brief spell at midfield in 1977.


Successfully making the switch from wing-back to corner-back is an achievement attained by relatively few but, unsurprisingly, it came with a natural ease to ó Sé who conceded only one point to an immediate opponent in all his All-Ireland finals.

"It didn't bother him in the slightest, but he had such a cute football brain that he could work his way through most positions. He had so much natural talent and made it all count," said O'Dwyer.

The switch of defensive lines was made after the '82 All-Ireland final loss to Offaly. ó Sé had been the All Star No 5 in 1981 and 1982 but settled into the No 2 slot so quickly that, despite Kerry's defeat by Cork in the 1983 Munster final, he was later chosen as the All-Star right full-back, an honour he again earned in 1984 and 1985, thus completing a five-timer in successive seasons.

O'Dwyer's view that Páidí was destined to enter management after his playing career ended reinforced itself during his year as Kerry captain in 1985.

"He was a great captain, a great man to motivate lads and to say the right thing at the right time. He did a lot of talking that year. He loved the whole captaincy thing. You'd know well he'd be back as a manager later on," said O'Dwyer.

Prior to the Laois-Westmeath clash in 2004, the pair's managerial paths had crossed in another big game six years earlier when Kildare, managed by O'Dwyer, beat Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final. It was a big setback for him, but he took it like the man that he was," said O'Dwyer.

Páidí had another disappointing day in Croke Park in 2002 when Kerry lost the All-Ireland final to Armagh, who won the title for the first time. As with any other time during his reign when Kerry lost, he was extremely gracious.

"He came straight into the Armagh dressing-room and said a lovely few words. We appreciated it coming from him, but then he was like that," said winning manager Joe Kernan.

When Armagh travelled to play Kerry in Tralee in the following season's league, Páidí came into the Armagh dressing-room before the game.

"With a big smile on his face, he welcomed Armagh and the Sam Maguire Cup to Kerry. Niceties over, he sent the Kerry team out to get stuck into us," said Kernan.

He played with ó Sé in New York in the days when players jetted to the US quite regularly on weekend trips. Kernan and ó Sé won a New York title, playing with 'Cavan', and enjoyed good times on and off the pitch.

"Can you imagine the fun we had? Páidí was one of the most entertaining men you could possibly meet. He'd have you in stitches. The one thing you'd have to say about Páidí is that he did just about everything in life. Not everyone gets to say that but he genuinely could.

"The reaction to his death up here in Ulster has been incredible. Every GAA man, woman and child in any part of the country felt they knew Páidí. He was just one of those great characters that people loved. It's hard to believe he's gone," said Kernan.

Páidí was a master at using the media. Many journalists would get the call around the same time every year, summoning them to the launch of his annual club football tournament.

He would share around some nuggets of information to help incentivise the media to give the tournament publicity. He also successfully managed to turn the launch into a big political event – usually involving a cross-party spread that few others could ever hope to achieve.

Having been successful as a manager (he was the highest managerial achiever from that great Kerry team) with his native county and Westmeath, and also building a reputation as a larger-than-life character, it's easy to forget just how good a footballer he really was.

In his prime years, he was virtually unbeatable, making the difficult art of defending look incredibly simple.

The level of respect in which he was held has been vividly illustrated by the amount of goodwill that has emerged since his death on Saturday morning.

It has come from every county in the country, and indeed beyond, for the simple reason that everyone who ever met him will have one common memory: they were always in better form for the encounter.

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