Monday 23 September 2019

'The name of the game is get fellas fit and then play football. That still applies' - Tomás Ó Sé sits down with living legend Mick O'Dwyer

Tomás Ó Sé sat down with living legend Mick O'Dwyer to share memories, discuss the changing face of modern football, his legendary training methods and the possibility of Dublin completing the five-in-a-row

Micko the maestro: Kerry legend Mick O'Dwyer walks by the shores of the Atlantic near his home in Waterville. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Micko the maestro: Kerry legend Mick O'Dwyer walks by the shores of the Atlantic near his home in Waterville. Photo: Steve Humphreys

The biggest regret I have in my football life is that I was never managed by Mick O'Dwyer. He is Kerry to me. A god in our house. When I was growing up, my childhood was full of Micko stories. But, if I'm honest, I never understood how good he'd been as a player.

As a friend said to me recently, any man who could pretty much play in any position on the field, not just corner-forward where he picked up a Texaco award as the country's top scorer in 1969, had to be something phenomenal.

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Micko was 33 then by the way. He'd actually retired from the county game three years earlier but, luckily for Kerry, decided to reconsider.

Something that's maybe lost on people is that one of Kerry's greatest forwards actually started his senior inter-county career as a wing-back.

While Micko became the greatest manager the game has known, he was also one of its greatest players.

But, of course, to Kerry people, he will always be much more than that. Micko may be in his 80s now, but he still has that capacity to light up a room when he enters. He is loved widely and deeply.

Honestly, I am moved to this day by the care and affection his sons, Michael, John, Robbie and Karl, communicate to their father. Ever since Mary Carmel's death in 2012, they've kept a close eye on Micko, making sure all is good at home.

But it's not just the family. The people of Waterville do much the same, watching him on a daily basis still walking the beach or tipping up and down the road in his car. It's like the king still roaming his kingdom.

Chatting to Tomás Ó Sé earlier this week. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Chatting to Tomás Ó Sé earlier this week. Photo: Steve Humphreys

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Rogue

And let me tell you one thing . . . the rogue in him is still alive and well.

You see, I got a bee in my bonnet that I wanted to sit down and talk to him . . . the last manager to try and nail the five-in-a-row. So we met in Waterville's Sea Lodge Hotel this week, an establishment he owned for 20 years and one now in the capable hands of Eoin Moriarty.

And who happened to join our table only the great Jimmy Kerrigan of Cork. Well, you'd have heard the howls of laughter out on Skellig Michael as Jimmy reminded the great man of his never-changing speech in a Cork dressing-room facing another empty summer. "Lads, keep at it, ye're the second best team in Ireland!"

Anyway, all mischief parked, Micko and I got talking about football then and now.

Micko, they reckon there's about 25 people in Kerry's current backroom team doing different jobs. How many did you have?

"We had Claire Edwards as physio. And we had Owen McCrohan as masseur, he did a course in it. Dave Geaney was the doctor. That's all. The only time the selectors would come into Killarney was on the Monday night before we'd play an important game.

"We'd have a trial game on the Monday night and that'd be the first time I'd see the selectors. They were never at a training session.

"But I had a fella from Castleisland, Maurice Reidy, who was with RTÉ. Every Tuesday after a game, I'd have the tape of it. And for hours on end, I'd go through that tape at home. Just on my own.

"Like I'd never set out to tell fellas they needed to mark so-and-so. We played our way. 'Twas up to the other teams to take us on, that was the approach we had and it worked. So whoever walked in on number four, that's who number four marked.

"Nowadays, they'll give weeks looking at tapes before deciding who should mark who. It's crazy, but that's the way it's gone. We had 15 players in 15 positions and I decided if they were good enough. I had nobody coaching or managing with me.

"But you have to have the players, number one. Unless they're good enough, you're not going to win. And Jaysus, we had them."

Did ye train in the small field outside the Stadium?

"Up the hill . . .

Christ, Johnno (O'Keeffe) used kill us on that hill . . .

"He had plenty of it himself . . . (laughing)

Ó Cinnéide used always be giving out, Micko. He'd say to me, 'What f***ing hill is above in Croke Park?'

"Uphill for stamina Tomás; down for speed! Jacko (O'Shea) was a great man to train. Even when he was in Kildare, he could come down for two or three weeks at a time and stay in Cahirsiveen."

Were there big crowds let in to training?

"They reckon there was 5,000 at one of our training sessions. We never closed the gates. We'd just go at it hammer and tongs. No secrets. They wouldn't do it now (laughing)."

There was serious clipping in those old Dublin-Kerry games when you see them.

"I've always believed you need a few fellas to play on the edge and 'tis up to the referee to deal with them. We had them in our team. Paudie Lynch, Jesus he was a mighty player. And he could hit in close. But clipping? By Jesus, (David) Hickey and Páidí (Ó Sé)? The belting the two of them used get up to . . . There'd be a fair bit of blood around with them fellas. Hickey was strong, tough. And you had (Brian) Mullins. He hated Kerry and his mother from Lispole. He absolutely detested Kerry."

Was that rivalry always there before '75?

"It probably goes back to '55 when Kerry beat Dublin in the All-Ireland final. Heffo was on that Dublin team."

But the rivalry between you and Heffo really added to it?

"Well, we weren't friends at all. After games, we'd just go our separate ways. Might have shaken hands once. Only when it was all over and done with, I met him several times and it was much easier then. 'Twas amazing really because we became great friends. As a matter of fact, I went to Dublin to see him the week before he died.

"We had a great a chat. He said to me, 'There was no love lost between us', and the two of us took a fit of laughing. I said, 'You can be sure of that!'"

What's your memory of the build-up to that '82 final? I never heard Páidí talk about it. Was there a circus about the place?

"Oh Jaysus, the whole county was gone mad. They were all talking about it. The right job at the time would have been to take the players away, out of Kerry altogether. But sure you couldn't do that. You have to remember they'd gone through four All-Irelands before that. So why change?

"But every huckster got in on the act. Songs, poems, team photos, tee-shirts, caps, towels, mugs, people cashing in all around us. I came in the Thursday night before the final to find a fella selling five-in-a-row tee-shirts and mugs, everything. It was everywhere and we didn't get a bob out of it.

"I remember there was a massive crowd in the stand in Killarney that night and these fellas going through the stand, selling them. But sure 'twasn't much different for the four-in-a-row. Look, we just didn't play well on the day. No excuses."

Looking back, is there anything you'd have done differently?

"Nothing, not a thing. Sure we could have won nine in a row. Bear in mind, we lost that game to Offaly by a point with a last-minute Seamus Darby goal. And the following year Cork beat us by a point, again with a last-minute goal by Tadhg Murphy.

"In '84 then, we decided we'd all get together. Went into Park Place in January, I remember it well. I asked them did they want to have a right go at it, it being the centenary year of the Association. And they all agreed they'd give it one last shot. I said 'Lads, beer and everything will have to be cut out . . .' And sure then we won another three-in-a-row!"

Is it true that Eugene McGee (Offaly manager) actually attended Kerry training sessions?

"He came to Killarney several times to watch us training. I knew him, but we weren't friends. Sure, it wouldn't worry me a bit in the world. Back then, all teams sent people down to watch us training.

"But sure we had the same team for 10 years nearly. No changing.

"We'd know he was there, but nobody would pass a remark. Sure all the lads (journalists) would come down. Pádraig Puirséil, John D Hickey and they'd come into the dressing-room. They could go around to all the players any night they wanted. There was no such thing as press nights to begin with.

"Midway through, they wanted me to have them. But sure we were totally open. You wouldn't get near them now, it's crazy."

So you gave in and ye did have press nights?

"We did, but they could come down any night. Jim O'Sullivan, John D, Paddy Downey, Puirséil, all of them. They could just walk in and have a meal with us then afterwards below in Park Place."

Was that the same with all county teams?

"I don't know about the rest of them, but that was our way. We had mighty players, Tomás.

"Once they decided to give up the beer and put in the effort. Sure Páidí used train three times a day sometimes.

"Ogie Moran was in Shannon at the time and used train in the morning. He'd train at lunchtime and he'd come in to us then at night. Most of them were doing it."

The secrecy is huge these days. I heard the Dubs were down in Cooraclare last week and there was a big rug on the gate to avoid people looking in and fellas in the car park to make sure nobody looked over the wall. What do you make of that stuff?

"Sure 'tis gone crazy nowadays. Completely over the top."

I've heard ye trained 27 consecutive nights in '75, is that true?

"We did, never missed a night. But it was always something different. One night handpassing, another night ground football - we didn't call it soccer at all - then we'd have basketball another night, sprinting another. Different stuff every night.

"We lost six good players because they couldn't stick it. But you had real men in there. Páidí, and Paudie Lynch, John O'Keeffe, Jim Deenihan. Deenihan was wicked fast. He was a huge loss to us in '82 when he got that compound fracture.

"Never played with the county again. And we only had half of (Pat) Spillane that year after his cruciate. He couldn't train with us."

If ye had both of them 100 per cent . . . ?

"We'd have won it. They'd have made the difference. But they were the only two serious injuries we had over 10 years, which was amazing."

When did you think yourself that you had something special with that group of players?

"I had them in '74 as under-21s. Jimmy Barry-Murphy scored three goals in the Munster final in Cahersiveen and Cork beat us by a point. Nine of those fellas played in the All-Ireland senior final the following year.

"I mean anyone could see that Mikey (Sheehy) and (John) Egan were good. But to know how good they were, all you had to do was look at the men they were playing on. You had (Tim) Kennelly and Páidí and Ger Lynch from Valentia. He was a flier, but he was a sub for four years before he got on the team and won three All-Irelands and three All-Stars."

Those fellas took no prisoners. They weren't dirty players, but they lived on the edge all the time. They were hard. And that made the forwards.

"Like Johnno and the Bomber (Liston) used do some belting. Johnno was well able compete with the Bomber and that wasn't easy. He was a class act. A footballing full-back."

I could see they were mighty players and anything you asked them to do, they did. If you asked them to climb Carrauntoohil, they'd do it.

"Sure the likes of Sheehy and Egan were beautiful to watch. And the Bomber made them of course. He played a lot of basketball and his vision was unreal. Quick hands. And Ogie was a mighty bit of stuff for any dirty ball around.

"Then (Ger) Power was lightning fast."

But they enjoyed their down time?

"By God, you can sing it (laughing). There was maybe seven of them always inclined to sample the good life and I'd bring them in for extra training. Kennelly was on the booze one time and I brought him in with Páidí and (Paudie) Lynch and these fellas. And I'd train them separately.

"Páidí said it to John O'Keeffe one day. 'This man knows well, we'll win nothing unless he gets these fellas right!' How right he was. Ah, they were something else."

What do you make of the Kerry forwards?

"Very good, but they're not tracking back as much as they need to. I'm telling you, that's a failing. Are they willing to run from one end of the field to the other? That's the way it is today. You have to be man-on-man. That's what the game is about.

"You won't get the ball back unless you work for it. That's what Dublin are doing and it's what our fellas used to do. They were mighty. Pat Spillane would be on our goal-line one minute, the next minute he'd be scoring a point."

Páidí always said Spillane was the best of them all.

"That's because Páidí had his hands full with him every night in training! He (Spillane) was a big man. And mad of course. There is a touch of madness in him. His uncle, Jackie Lyne, was the very same. Jackie managed me in '69 and '70 to win two All-Irelands."

Could you have played in '75 if you wanted?

"The other four selectors wanted me to play. I was 38 at the time and I was a sub in that year's league. But sure I was a selector for years when I was playing for Kerry, all the way through the late '60s. I was a selector under Dr Eamonn (Fitzgerald), Johnny Walsh, Jim Brosnan and Jackie Lyne. I learned a bit from all of them."

Who was good in the dressing-room?

"Lyne. He was like Spillane. Mad as well (laughing)."

What about that Dublin team?

"(Jimmy) Keaveney over ten yards was as good as I ever saw. He was carrying a tummy always, but over ten yards . . . lethal. He was a great kicker of a ball. That was a good Dublin team."

And of this one, who catches the eye?

"That fella (Brian) Fenton in midfield is a right player!"

His father came out of Spa. Then you've Cian O'Sullivan and the Brogans, sure aren't we after shipping them half their team?

"Well, Fenton is a fine player and that (Con) O'Callaghan is a right bit of stuff. And that fella (Paul) Mannion. (Dean) Rock is no bad player either. He was weak for a long time but, by Jesus, he's some player now."

You mentioned that your team could conceivably have done nine in a row, could this Dublin team do it?

"They're quite capable of it. That's what I'm afraid of. There's nothing in Leinster so they have an easy road through that every year. And who's going to stop them after that? Mayo are gone, finished."

But do you believe there's any chance that history could weigh on them tomorrow week?

"Well, when we were leading by four points in '82, you could see that actually happen."

So it could happen again if Kerry stay with this Dublin team?

"Well, that Offaly team came over five years, won the All-Ireland and won no more. Didn't even win a league. They stayed with it for five years and trained as hard as we did. I'd say that's how they got there in the finish. It nearly had to happen. But they had a few special players. Matt Connor was a class act."

I suppose what I'm asking you is will we beat the Dubs?

"Jesus, I can't see it to be honest. But you'd be hoping. I suppose if you were from any other part of the country, maybe you'd like to see the record made. Like I remember when (Roger) Bannister broke the mile record, the whole world was delighted. We won't be delighted if Dublin win the five-in-a-row, but they're capable of doing it."

My fear Micko is that we've four or five who are not yet at the necessary level, two or three in the back-line. And I can't see them holding out the Dubs.

"Our backs are very small, Tomás."

Do you trust them man-on-man?

"They have pace, but have they the cuteness?"

But we have four forwards who would hurt any defence?

"We have and (Paul) Geaney is coming good again. He's a good player."

Will you go to the game?

"God, I think I will. Might as well knock the best out of it. Mightn't be around for long more (laughing)."

Micko, you got a song out of every team you took over, including Wicklow playing six championship games in one season. That must have been some buzz?

"It was and I got great fun out of it. Winning a game with Wicklow was like winning an All-Ireland with Kerry. And Kildare went mad of course. A great county, they're football-mad.

"Six weeks before I took them over, they lost an O'Byrne Cup game to Kilkenny. I took them into the Curragh and ran the life out of them (laughing). They couldn't understand what was going on at all. There was three of them who'd hide in the woods, then join in at the finish.

"I said nothing. But after about ten sessions I dropped the three of them and never told them why. They knew. The name of the game is get fellas fit and play football then. That still applies. You find out the fellas that'll stay with you that way.

"You get rid of the chaff. They'll disappear. Trust me, we played the world of football, used the ball in everything we did, once we got them fit."

Do you miss it?

"Of course I do. My last team was the Waterville under-14s two years ago. We won the county league. I ran the life out them too! (laughing)"

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