As a Kerry player or manager Mick O’Dwyer loved sending the Rebels home empty handed – it’s what he’s aiming to do on Sunday on his first Munster Championship day out in nearly a quarter of a century, reports Joe Ó Muircheartaigh.
IT was the month of July, the sun was shining and it was a first for Mick O’Dwyer – the real beginning of an obsession that will be brought up to the present day when he walks out the tunnel of Cusack Park on Sunday.
Cork. The red jersey. The team he always wanted to beat – a goal that sustained him through a near 20-year playing career and that followed him throughout his Kerry management years.
“Beat Cork and you were away,” he says, ahead of taking up the challenge of the Munster championship for the first time in 24 years. “It’s been a long time,” he continues, “but it’s great to be facing them, one of the best in country”.
Same as it was in O’Dwyer’s first day against them – that July over 50 summers ago when Cork were as they are now: Munster champions and among the best in Ireland having contested the previous two All-Irelands.
“It was 1958 I think,” he says. “Waterford beat us in ’57 on my first championship game with Kerry and then the following year was the first time I came in contact with Cork.
“They had a really good team around that time with Paddy Harrington, Toots Kelleher, Neilly Duggan, Niall Fitzgerald and those lads, but we came back in ’58 with a team that nobody considered to be any good. Cork was always a huge game for me – always and ever.”
So began O’Dwyer obsession – one that was never diluted by the fact that the Kerry teams he was part of, whether on the field or off had the whip hand on Cork for majority of his 30-year involvement.
As a player his only defeats were in 1971 and ’73 – he missed out on the back-to-back defeats in ’66 and ’67 as he’d retired temporarily after breaking both his legs – while as a manager the only reverses were thanks to Tadhg Murphy’s famous goal in ’83 and the three-in-a-row of defeats from ’87 to ’89.
“I generally came out the right end most of the time,” he says, “but still the Cork game was always huge – whether it was Cork or Killarney, but especially in Killarney because Cork always loved coming there.
“It was two games a year. Cork in the Munster final and then the All-Ireland final. That was it. When I was managing Kerry, I used to say they were the second best team in Ireland – and they were. That time there was no back door system and if there had been, ourselves and Cork would have met in a number of All-Ireland finals. I’ve no doubt about that. Now, after so long it’s great to be playing them in Munster again,” he adds.
O’DWYER’S return to the Munster Championship after nearly a quarter of a century away was kickstarted last October by a cold call from former Clare manager and fellow Kerryman, John McCarthy that he followed up by a visit to Waterville when he was accompanied by then Clare County Board chairman Michael O’Neill.
“It was a surprise,” says O’Dwyer, “because I had no real intention of going back into management, but when I heard what the lads had to say and it was an opportunity to get up and out there again.
“I went to Kildare many years ago after they were beaten by Kilkenny in an O’Byrne Cup game and they went on to win two Leinster titles and went all the way to an All-Ireland final.
“I went to Laois and won a Leinster title there after many many years and then to Wicklow and raised the standards there, so I thought I’d come to Clare and see if the same procedures can be put in place that was in those counties.
“I know in Clare we haven’t the big numbers. Hurling is the big game here – as I have found out since I came here,” he adds.
That was O’Dwyer’s first culture shock – something he never encountered in his travels to Kildare, Laois or Wicklow – but not the only change he embraced when his job of journeywork took him to this latest posting.
“The whole system was put in place before I came here,” he says. “Michéal Cahill was the physical trainer and Michael (Neylon) and Ger (Keane) did most of the coaching work. It was a huge change for me.
“When I started out at this I was in total control. I remember in Kerry I used to play the training games. There was no one only myself – I had a good masseur with me, a doctor and myself. That was it. There was four selectors, but they’d never come to the training sessions. They might come to the odd training session, but that was it.
“In the training games I was playing corner-forward most of the time and I’d be generally on Jimmy Deenihan. I remember it well, because when you’d spend an hour on that fella, you’d remember it for a while.
“It’s certainly a huge change for me, but I have had a bad ankle all along and the lads did the work and did a good job. Try change. If it works, it works, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t,” he adds.
How it works in the short-term will be told on Sunday, of course, as Clare face into the only game that has occupied O’Dwyer’s attention all year. “This is what I came to Clare for,” he says.
“Championship. We were focused on the championship the day I came in. The championship has always been the thing that I look forward to being involved in.
“Of course we’re going into this game without being given a chance. They’re one of the most powerful teams in the country – there’s no doubt about that, but it’s a championship game and anything can happen.
“It’s trying to get the players in Clare to believe that they can do it. That’s the important thing. We are trying to do that. It might be a hurling county but the Clare footballers train every bit as hard as the hurlers and have given a total commitment and it will all be on the day.
“We’ll arrive in Ennis and we’ll try and give them a game – there’s no more than that can we do. I would have much preferred to have gone away to the west, gone to Miltown Malbay or some place like that. I’d a good record in Miltown once,” he adds.
Ah, the Miltown Massacre of 1979 when O’Dwyer’s Kerry team filleted the Poor Clares by 9-21 to 1-9. What Mick O’Dwyer is remembered for in Clare – until this Sunday when he resumes his love affair with the Munster Championship and that obsession of beating Cork.