The 19th remembers Kevin Heffernan

Kevin Heffernan in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day.

IT was Bob Dylan who said that Muhammad Ali “served the world a banquet of dreams”.
This much is very true, but narrowing it down to the local and it doesn’t get much more local than the GAA, it’s true to say that Kevin Heffernan also “served the world a banquet of dreams”.
The GAA world, the world for those of us whose life danced to the beat of the GAA drum, the treks to Croke Park on winter and summer Sundays. Climbing in over the stiles for free and soaking it all up.
Croker was a grey old place then, but it had history and it had stories.
Us Dubs loved the place and called it home.
Yes, we also had split personalities in our house. Kerry one day, Dublin the next, Kerry the day after again and on it went as we grappled with our peculiar predicament.
Dublin-born, yet Kerry-ified from the cradle. Intravenously from a Kerry mother, who had fallen for Sean Murphy in 1955 when she was in the throng that broke down the gates of the Canal End and saw Kerry beat Dublin the mother and father of all All-Ireland finals.
Don’t worry Mam, all the girls fell for Sean Murphy because he was the man. The man for the big day and the big crowd – the Duncan Edwards of the day. Everyone’s hero.
Us Dubs were fed Kerry by my father too, who religiously brought us up to Belfield, week after week, to see Jack O’Shea, John O’Keeffe, Charlie Nelligan and the rest of the Dublin-based Kerry lads train.
We loved it, but we loved the Dubs too, because the Dubs came to our school with Sam Maguire. Mullins and Kelleher let us hold Sam, lift it in the air and made us dream of Croke Park.
These were Heffo’s heroes, the Jacks were back and we, without or with Kerry blood, saw ourselves as being recruits to Heffo’s Army.
The Hill and the way it heaved – it was our Kop, way better than the one Bill Shankly built across the water.
It was all because of Heffo. The team he built from nothing, the team that were an extension of himself.
Tough and uncompromising, yet with a swagger that seduced a city over a few years and provided the GAA with a transfusion that has sustained it to the present day.
With the Dubs under Heffo it was rock’n’roll. It was theatre. It was sulphur. Dublin v Kerry. Jackeen v Culchie.
They didn’t like each other, yet they only really existed because of one another.
And it was Heffo who started it all, taking a team of miss-fits and transforming them into the biggest things to ever hit the GAA.
Remember in 1974 they were beaten by Clare in a National Football League game in Croke Park, but in a few months were the All-Ireland champions.
The Clare hurlers trained like no hurling team before them and it helped them win the All-Ireland in 1995 – Ger Loughnane was taking something from the template patented by Heffo and then taken on by Mick O’Dwyer in ’75 and on and on it has gone to the present day.
I always wanted to interview the great man – ever since deciding on journalism as a career. He didn’t do many interviews, yet he was one of the most easily accessible county managers, whether past or present. His phone number was in the book.
I’d met him a few times down the years – nearly 30 years ago at Shelbourne dog track when my uncle Michéal introduced him to an American cousin of ours as “the greatest manager in the history of the GAA”.
Another time was in the ESB where he worked alongside my late uncle Paddy for many years.
So it was that I rang him and asked for the interview – he didn’t say yes, but didn’t say no either and it was finally arranged through Paddy in the mid-‘90s.
I was working with Clare FM at the time and the interview would later win a McNamee Award. Heffo won it, not me, because of the way he spoke about the GAA. The county. The Club. The Parish.
The Berkeley Court Hotel was the meeting place. We were about to sit down and talk when Heffo said ‘have you a car’.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Then let’s go. Follow me’.
Off we went, down towards Lansdowne Road and on to Grand Canal Street, Pearse Street and across Butt Bridge to the north side.
I thought we were heading for Croker, but I was mistaken – it as out to Fairview and up the old Malahide Road to St Vincent’s.
There he sat on the high stool drinking coffee for an hour and talked football. The Dubs. Vincent’s. As a player being beaten by Kerry in ’55, what it was like to finally beat them as a manager in ’76.
But it was his hurling story that showed the greatness of the man – and showed away from the glamour of All-Ireland final day what the GAA is really about.
The Club. A few years earlier himself and another legend Des Foley put their hands up at a Vincent’s AGM and enlisted for duty – it wasn’t the senior team, but the Junior 4 team, then the lowest rung of the hurling ladder in the county leagues.
“We got them,” said Heffo, “and we started working on them and at the end of the year we won the championship. The satisfaction both of us got out of seeing the progress they made as a team was as good as anything. That’s what it was about.”
That’s class, and Heffo was class.
Yes he was ruthless and as Noel Roche recalled from his experiences down under with the Compromise Rules under Heffo. He spared no one. “Heffernan was the one man who came across as totally ruthless. He told one player in a public meeting of players that his performance just wasn’t good enough,” he recalled.
“I was there looking at him and couldn’t understand. He was playing in the first test but Heffernan told him ‘you shied away back off the ball, you’re out’,” added Roche.
The man that Heffo was speaking to had pocket full of All-Ireland medals.
Fast forward a few years and Heffo is on scouting duty in the field in the old industrial school in Artane that St Vincent’s used as a field.
Vins’ Junior 4 team, then the lowest rung of the football ladder, were playing my own club, Clann Choláiste Mhuire.
He was there to see Pat Gilroy play – within a year Gilroy was on the Dublin team and no doubt Heffernan recommended him for selection.
No doubt he recommended Gilroy for the Dublin job a few years back too.
The rest is history and Heffo’s great hands are all over it.
The GAA in Dublin and everywhere owes him an awful lot.
That banquet of dreams.


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