Tuesday 11 December 2018

Last hurrah looms for football's most remarkable man

I REMEMBER training in Killarney one night. It had been a tough session with Mick O'Dwyer on the whistle and it was a particularly trying night for me as Pat Spillane had given me the complete runaround.

After training, it emerged Micko's whistle was lost. This was his lucky whistle that had been at the heart of so many All-Irelands. A couple of us stayed behind with flashlamps and scoured the field for Micko's lucky whistle.

So there I was, 50 miles from home at 10.0 at night after having the legs run off me looking for this damn whistle. But that was Micko, that was the hold he had on you and that was part of the reason he has been the greatest manager the game has ever known.

Today, he leads a team out in championship action for possibly the last time as his Wicklow side face Kildare at Croke Park. My memories of Micko and Gaelic football span almost 30 years. I've watched him play, I've played with him, I've played against him and I've played under him. And when all that was finished, we became friends. If today is to be his last hurrah, then it will bring the curtain down on the most remarkable career in our game's history.

I think it was 1969, as a student in St Brendan's, when I first understood what a really good footballer was. I watched the 1968 All-Ireland final against Down, but a year later I was older and wiser and Micko left an impression on me that year.

He played top of the left with Liam Higgins at full-forward and Mick Gleeson on the other side, while outside them was a devastating half-forward line of Brendan Lynch, Pat Griffin and the late Eamon O'Donoghue. But how he even got to be on the team by then is a story in itself, and another insight into the man. The mid-1960s was not a happy time for Kerry football. After the All-Ireland final defeat to Galway in '65 Micko left the panel, but then two things happened which led to a dramatic recall in early '67.

Firstly, Jackie Lyne, Pat Spillane's uncle, took over the team and, secondly, a match was organised between past players and the then panel. Out of that game, Micko, Seamus Murphy and Mick O'Connell were brought back in.

I admired Micko from afar and knew enough by then to know how good a footballer he was. Three years after seeing him win that final of 1969, we reached an All-Ireland Colleges' decider and Kerry made it to the league final so Jimmy Hegarty in Brendan's organised a challenge between the two teams in Killarney. Kerry used the game to play open football and it was an unforgettable experience for me being able to see Micko and others at such close quarters.

Micko was deceptively strong, especially in the air. He had great hands and was fearless going for the ball. In possession, he was both clever and accurate and -- a trait that became even more apparent when he was managing teams -- he hated to see possession wasted.

Believe it or not, I actually played a senior inter-county game with Micko as well. In April 1975 he played at full-forward in a challenge against Sligo. I was in the half-forward line and I remember he scored seven or eight points that day. He was the manager by then and there was serious consideration being given to allowing him be player-manager. I'm not sure what happened, but by the time the championship began he had decided to concentrate solely on management.

I know we won the All-Ireland that year, but my principle memories are of savagely hard training sessions. There's no doubt that Micko became a tough taskmaster and it didn't take long for stories of his training regime to spread around the county.

No one in Kerry had seen the like of it before and looking back I have no doubt that if we hadn't won the All-Ireland Micko would have been fired after his first year. What he was doing was new to the administrators and it took them a long time to get used to it. A lot of us were away from home at the time and would just come down at weekends, but Micko changed all that. I was in Templemore as a trainee Garda and I used to head home every Friday for training that night, on Saturday and again on Sunday. There were no excuses accepted for not putting it in -- but we got our reward.

But by the time we lost to Dublin in the 1977 semi-final, Micko was under fierce pressure in the county. He survived an attempt to oust him that winter and the rest, as they say, is history. Between '78 and '86 he led us to seven All-Irelands, a feat unlikely to be seen again.

Micko was a brilliant manager but I think it's fair to say he was also fortunate in that he had the raw material to work with. We were willing and hungry for success and he was the right man in the right place at the right time. Micko had a gift to focus and prepare a team like no other man I've come across in my 30 years in the game.

You have to remember, too, that his team were the kick of a ball away from the five in-a-row in 1982, and in '83 we were another kick of a ball from getting the show on the road again when we were undone by Tadhg Murphy's last-minute goal in the Munster

final. That would have been enough to floor most mere mortals but not Micko -- he got us right for another three in-a-row.

I thought when I retired from football that that would be it as far as Micko and I were concerned. How wrong I was. Apart from the fact that we have become friends, we've squared off against each other a few times since too.

I think he probably knew that football meant the world to me and when I became a manager, he told me to follow my gut feeling. After his Kildare team beat my Kerry team in 1998, he made a point of saying that he understood fully how much that defeat would hurt, but he encouraged me to keep going. Having worked for so long in the pressure cooker of managing Kerry, his encouragement helped me through some dark days.

A few years later, in 2004, the roles were reversed after Westmeath beat Laois in the Leinster final. His visit to our dressing room that day left a profound mark on me. It wasn't something he was known for during his time as Kerry manager, but he gave us great praise and made special mention of me in front of our players.

It's hard to see his Wicklow side having the quality to beat Kildare today but if it is to be the end of an era, he can walk out of Croke Park with his head held high knowing, to borrow a phrase from a late friend of mine, that he did the state some service.

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