Friday 27 April 2018

Hold the back page: Simply right, simply the best

For five decades Mick O'Dwyer has been a great entertainer with the art to conceal his art
For five decades Mick O'Dwyer has been a great entertainer with the art to conceal his art

Eamonn Sweeney

Four years ago I went to a fantastic exhibition in the Irish Museum of Modern Art entitled, 'The Moderns: The Arts in Ireland from the 1900s to the 1970s'. From Jack Yeats paintings to Eileen Gray furniture to a movie starring Seán Bán Breathnach as an anti-imperialist sex symbol, there was something there for everyone.

A black and white photograph caught my eye. A beautiful woman with nice legs is standing by her car while a brooding matinee idol type fills it up with petrol. It looks like a shot from a film noir and he looks like he's about to say, 'Hey babe, why don't me and you quit all this and head out on the road'.

Then I noticed the sign visible over the man's head which read, 'Mick O'Dwyer', and the caption which let me know that this was actually a photo of the man himself taken at his garage in Waterville in August 1968 by the great Kerry journalist Pádraig Kennelly. There truly is no escape from the GAA.

That photo summed up perhaps the two defining qualities of Mick O'Dwyer. One, that he's always there and two, that he's always impressive.

Mick O'Dwyer embodies everything that's good about sport. For a start, before we look at the things he did, it's worth remembering the things he didn't do. There were no feuds with other managers, no moaning about the sacrifices he'd made for the game, no tirades against referees and no boasting about how great he is. Micko's career shows that there is a better way to go about things.

That the O'Dwyer way was the best way has been proven by history. Brian Cody may have one more All-Ireland title than Micko as a manager but there is nothing on Cody's CV to match O'Dwyer's second coming when he steered Kildare to a first Leinster title in 42 years and Laois to a first in 57.

He did all this while displaying a persistent commitment to open attacking play and concentrating on getting the best from his players rather than stopping the opposition from playing.

Kerry weren't always angels, they couldn't be, but their game was based on positivity and that was something O'Dwyer brought with him to Kildare and Laois. The players there were much less gifted than not just the ones Micko had dealt with in Kerry but also those on the Dublin and Meath teams who stood in their way. Yet he eschewed all thoughts of negativity. Kildare played the game in the purest of spirit and, even when they fell short in the 1998 All-Ireland final, contributed hugely to the best decider of the decade. Laois made history by winning an exhilarating provincial final against Kildare. Faced with a supposedly superior Dublin side in the semi-final, they opted to shoot it out rather than shut it down.

O'Dwyer's idealism and modesty in an era when boastfulness seemed like the defining national quality meant he was sometimes under-estimated. One ludicrous example is that when he left Laois, there were suggestions that his outmoded methods had been holding the O'Moore County's superstars back and that now they could move into the modern age and really hit the heights. Ahem. Number of Leinster titles won by Laois under Micko: 1. Number of Leinster titles won by Laois without Micko since 1946: Zero.

Similarly for all the huff and puff of the McGeeney era in Kildare, the Lilywhites didn't win one Leinster title. Under Micko they won two. Results are what counts and results are what the Kerryman always delivered. There is a certain amount of wishful thinking in the notion that Micko's retirement is prompted by his inability to keep up with the changes in the modern game. He actually did well with Wicklow. Astoundingly, when they beat Kildare in 2008 in Croke Park it was the first time they'd ever won a championship game in Croke Park. And the following year they came close to making the All-Ireland quarter-finals with a seriously limited team.

So while the condescending notion that O'Dwyer found the modern game too complex may comfort those who believe Gaelic football grows more sophisticated with each year, the fact is that he quit because he's 77 and ran out of good teams to manage.

It's not surprising that the greatest manager in history comes from Kerry but O'Dwyer was well aware that there is nothing inevitable about the Kingdom's supremacy. His playing career was spent on teams that, by the high standards of his native county, underachieved.

Micko won four All-Irelands but he lost another five deciders and it was the Down team which beat Kerry in the 1960 final and the 1961 semi-final and the Galway team which beat them in the 1964 and 1965 finals which were regarded as the outstanding ones of the era. He knew that Kerry were as vulnerable as anyone if they didn't get things exactly right and he was reminded of this again when defeats by Dublin in 1976 and 1977 led some within the county to question whether he had the right stuff as manager. The 1978 All-Ireland final victory over Dublin and the four-in-a-row which followed made him a legend.

But his outstanding managerial achievement was yet to come. To this day there is something so compelling about the Seamus Darby goal in 1982, something so utterly twilight of the gods about it, you can forget that this wasn't the end of the road for Kerry. Even after a spookily similar sucker punch in the 1983 Munster final, Micko steered them back to another All-Ireland final in 1984.

Dublin went into that game as favourites against an ageing team. They'd won the previous year when Kevin Heffernan was lauded for his tactical genius. Heffo was Micko's big rival and he always seemed to get more credit. Not because he blew his own trumpet but because he had legions willing to blow it for him. Yet in 1984 as Kerry blew Dublin's youngsters away and in 1985 when they did the same, Micko ensured that it was he who would go down in history as numero uno, the Ali to Heffernan's Frazier, the Arkle to his Mill House. Steering a Kerry team which was living on borrowed time to three in a row may well be his greatest achievement of all.

It was probably underestimated because we thought there was something automatic about Kerry winning the Sam Maguire. But after

O'Dwyer's last All-Ireland victory in 1986 they drew a blank until 1997. And his first All-Ireland victory in 1975 came after the Kingdom had won just two All-Irelands in the previous 12 years.

O'Dwyer is responsible for one of the most quoted GAA sayings, that there's nothing wrong with the game of Gaelic football if it's played properly. It is the beloved saying of those who retain faith in the country's most maligned game and believe its salvation lies not in rule changes but in a change of attitude among players and managers. And it came to mind after watching this year's semi-final between Dublin and Kerry. Not many sports could give you a spectacle like that. It was football at its best. It was Mick O'Dwyer football.

The film scholar Gerald Mast wrote about Irving Berlin, one of the finest songwriters who ever lived, that he "was the most successful American composer at making his musical art sound artless . . . no American composer rivaled Berlin's instinct for hits, the right song, the right performer, in the right style, at the right time, for the right audience. The one consistent quality that defines a Berlin song is that it's simply right."

It would make a pretty good description of what Mick O'Dwyer did in football. An O'Dwyer team was simply right. A lot of the great entertainers, Berlin, John Ford, Louis Armstrong, Sinatra, were geniuses who made what they did look easy. For five decades Mick O'Dwyer has been the same, a great entertainer with the art to conceal his art.

I'm looking at that photo again now. Just over Micko's shoulder are the petrol pumps. And written on one of them is the single word, 'Super'.

That's about right.

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Irish Independent

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