A GREAT RIVAL WHO BELIEVED ALL WAS FAIR IN LOVE AND WAR – EUGENE McGEE ON KEVIN HEFFERNAN.

I had many football battles with Kevin Heffernan over five county finals and a few more semi-finals between St Vincent’s and UCD. After those club battles, we met in four Leinster finals and two semi-finals between Offaly and Dublin, and several league and O’Byrne Cup games, with honours more or less even.

I understood Kevin, probably as well as anybody ever did, from a football point of view. I saw close up his ruthlessness, his cunning and his incredible intellect. He never spoke to me before, during or after a game in any of these encounters but I gather that was the norm for him with other managers too.

I hadn’t the slightest doubt about Kevin’s modus operandi in relation to myself and UCD, or indeed later on with Offaly. Long after those events, I was made aware that I was used as some kind of ‘hate figure’ by Heffernan, in the best sporting context I should add, as he used every device to get his team to win matches.

A reference in former Dublin goalkeeper John O’Leary’s biography, Back to the Hill, sheds further light in the form of a comment during the build-up to the Leinster final of 1983. “The fact that Offaly were All-Ireland champions really whetted our appetite. They were managed by Eugene McGee, who for some reason, we didn’t like. Maybe it was his style or his manner, but we took a dislike to him and decided to use it as a motivating force in the run-up to that final.”

Many team managers over the years have used the same approach and that is all part of the mix that makes up sporting rivalry. I can honestly say I never fell out seriously or permanently with any opposing player or mentor, and particularly not with Kevin Heffernan, who I regarded as being a cut above myself, especially because of his own playing record and also because he was a bit more ruthless in dealing with players – both opponents and his own players – than I was.

It was inevitable that Heffernan would up the ante when his club was facing UCD for high stakes in Dublin because competing against ‘culchies’ was always a bait that he could never resist.

The same role in earlier years was filled whenever St Vincent’s played the Garda, who had some marvellous teams, all country fellows. He regarded himself as a genuine, home-grown Dub even though, as I only discovered many years later, his father was a native of Clonbullogue in Offaly, of all places.

I doubt very much if he actually hated country players per se, but rather they represented a suitable vehicle for him to create a war situation every time Dublin or Vincent’s faced country opposition – bearing out the saying that all’s fair in love and war.

A very respected Dublin GAA man of my acquaintance, who was close to Kevin, used to point out to me that Heffernan’s playing days in the Leinster championship were responsible for colouring his views later on. This man would say that as a player, Kevin, who was one of the very best of his generation and very clever too, was often the subject of much physical abuse in games down the country and it left a lasting impression on him.

Those were the days of the infamous third-man tackle, often seen as a licence to kill by defenders. Heffo was determined when he became Dublin manager that never again would a Dublin football team be thrown around the place as sometimes happened at Leinster venues up to then.

The first panel of players he selected in 1973 was made up of big, strong, aggressive players, even including some ‘country’ lads from north county Dublin. The players quickly learned what Heffernan had in mind, that in future there would be no surrender against any opponents and they could play the fine football once that was established.

Maybe it was because Offaly, in the 1960s and ’70s, had a reputation of being the hardest and toughest team in the country, that he was going to give special attention to Dublin standing up to Offaly jerseys and fighting fire with fire at all times. As far back as the early ’60s, there were some ferocious battles when Dublin played Offaly in Portlaoise, and indeed, the last Leinster final to be played outside of Croke Park was a particularly violent encounter that Offaly won.

All the Dublin teams that played under Kevin Heffernan in those glory days were hard men, as well as being outstanding footballers, and that was one of the big factors in the hordes of Dublin followers converging on Croke Park in unprecedented numbers.

They came there happy in the knowledge that no country teams would be able to tramp on Dublin anymore – the ‘culchies’ would be kept at bay and most times they would be devoured, metaphorically of course, by Heffo’s Army on Hill 16.

This was not the first time that Kevin Heffernan was in charge of the Dublin football team, something that is often forgotten. He was trainer, the term used then, of Dublin in 1969 and 1970 but only small signs of a new team were surfacing at that time and they achieved nothing of note.

When myself and Kevin Heffernan had long left the inter-county football battlegrounds behind us, I rang him one day when I was preparing a book on famous football games and I wanted to talk to him about that 1955 final.

“Don’t you know I never talk to journalists, so what are you ringing me for,” was his opening comment, which did not bode well.

Almost immediately though, he relented by declaring: “Ah look, you are supposed to know something about football so come over to my office in the ESB and we will have a chat.”

And a very long and stimulating chat it was. As it transpired, we met several times at social events in the following years. Some years later, in a book written by Tom Humphries, when asked about me this is what Heffernan said: “In the ’70s, McGee and I would have spat at each other up and down sidelines, first when he was with UCD and I was with Vincent’s, then when he was with Offaly and I was with Dublin. We would have disliked each other intensely. Now, we can be civil to each other. Now, we can have a chat and I think we are both surprised that we have a lot of views in common about the GAA. Back then, however, he was the enemy.”

I would echo those words. I always had immense regard for Kevin and what he did for the GAA in those years.

He was an extremely intelligent man who was never afraid to break barriers, such as when he entered Trinity College at a time when Catholics were banned from that institution. I always believed that he regarded his contests with opposing team managers as contests of intellectual excellence.

He seemed determined to personally outwit the football intelligence of opposing managers as much as the contest between the two sets of football teams involved. As a result he was very hostile in football terms to anybody who he regarded as a threat to his ability as a manager and that was what probably drove him to the high levels of dedication that were his hallmark.

That along with his strong desire to beat ‘culchies’ whenever he got the chance with St Vincent’s or against any other county team. I would never have regarded Kevin Heffernan as anti-rural people and indeed he had many close friends in all parts of the country, such as a wonderful Leitrim player of the ’60s Tony Hayden with whom Kevin worked in his younger days in the ESB. Rather he saw Dublin beating country teams and country players as the ultimate challenge and eventually the ultimate satisfaction.

I had a very good example of the sort of thinking that permeated Heffernan’s attitude as a team manager in 1983. As the teams were leaving the field in Croke Park after the Leinster final of 1982 when Offaly crushed Dublin by 1-16 to 1-7, an Offaly player said within Heffernan’s earshot to a colleague: “I thought Dublin would have given us a better game of it.”

Now, that was the sort of comment that a manager like Heffernan, or indeed myself, would never forget and I have no doubt that from that moment on he was determined to rectify what he must have regarded as a slight on the Dublin team.

When the teams met the following year in another Leinster final he had a largely new-look team on duty and they beat Offaly as All-Ireland champions by 2-13 to 1-11.

Unfortunately for me, I never heard about that comment until 24 years later when Offaly had a reunion, because had I been aware of it I would have known that Heffernan was going to go to any lengths to teach that player a lesson, and also Offaly, and McGee, and I would have been prepared for a Heffernan onslaught.

Instead, for probably the one and only time in my football life, I took an opponent somewhat for granted. Offaly had beaten Kildare in the semi-final by 2-16 to 0-6 and the week before that Leinster final Kerry had, for the second year in a row, been beaten by a last-minute goal by Cork in the Munster final, so it was looking like a second All-Ireland for Offaly even at that stage. But Heffernan had been planning for a year to get revenge and boy how he must have revelled in doing so!

I hope when the time is right in a few years’ time that the next new bridge to be built over the river Liffey will be named ‘The Heffo Bridge’.

I would regard Kevin Heffernan as one of the greatest GAA persons I have ever met and when he passed away a couple of years ago, I felt genuinely very sad but privileged to have fought and sometimes won many battles against such a warrior down the years.

Extract taken from Eugene McGee’s new book, ‘The GAA In My Time’, available now in all good bookshops
(Sunday Independent)
Image Credit:Sportsfile

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