MICHAEL MOYNIHAN: Late great Heffo was the original football innovator

I remember it like it was yesterday.

It was August 28, 1983, and I was sitting in the covered stand in Páirc Uí Chaoimh ahead of Cork and Dublin’s clash in the All-Ireland semi-final replay.

A great day: contrary to general expectations, the descending hordes in sky blue had not adopted the Genghis Khan handbook on etiquette in new cities; the sun was shining; and Cork were at home.

Before the throw-in, the teams trotted into position and on the far side I could see Jimmy Kerrigan — do I have to make everybody feel old by saying Paul’s dad? — bouncing up and down, ready for battle. In the drawn game Kerrigan had made the left wing his own in a series of raids into Dublin territory and we anticipated a repeat performance on home soil.

Barney Rock, who would nowadays be known as Dublin’s strike forward, was named to start at wing-forward but as I watched, he jogged past Kerrigan and on into the corner. Kerrigan followed him, and while he did well at corner-back, the springboard for attacking the opposition was gone.

The late Kevin Heffernan was manager of that Dublin team. We tend to think that tactical innovation in Gaelic football began about half an hour ago, and that it originated in the northern province according to cheerleaders from that area, but Heffernan’s teams always asked questions of the formation.

Not for show or sizzle, but to suit the make-up of his 15 — if they could profit by accommodating each others’ individual strengths, then they’d do so.

The take-home memory of the 1983 football season might be the infamous conclusion, with Dublin and Galway players swapping digs on a Croke Park pitch which seemed strewn with scraps of plastic bags, but Heffernan’s side had ranged through that championship with a corner-forward drifting out to the middle of the field for most of their games, supplementing the men in the 8 and 9 jerseys (wasn’t that corner-forward John Caffrey usually?). Go back further and take one of the most familiar clips of Gaelic football action from the 70s — of all time, really. It’s the stunning goal scored by Bernard Brogan — do we have to make everyone feel old by saying Bernard and Alan’s dad? — against Kerry in the 1977 All-Ireland semi-final.

It’s the sequence that’s usually run to illustrate that match’s status as the greatest ever played (though the 1976 Munster final has persuasive arguments in its favour, to digress) and you may have noticed Tony Hanahoe’s pivotal role in its execution.

In the build-up Hanahoe, the embodiment of a brainy centre-forward, collects the ball near the right-half-forward’s usual slot and turns for goal, his left arm windmilling to balance him and help the change of direction; then he flicks the ball inside to Brogan, steaming through the middle.

It’s neat that Hanahoe is frozen out of position like that, because that was often his job under Heffernan’s direction. Having a centre-forward take on the centre-back like one stag rutting with another was a waste of a good player, so Hanahoe often drifted out to the wing, out of the way of flying players coming from deep — you may remember Kevin Moran doing it more than once — and taking centre-backs such as Tim Kennelly with him.

You could go back even further, to Heffernan’s own playing career. When the entire country was in the grip of orthodoxies in the 50s, the GAA was no different, with 3-3-2-3-3 an article of faith in hurling and football.

Heffernan helped to change that by becoming a roving full-forward, causing existential crises in full-backs accustomed to single combat in front of goal like Hector before the gates of Troy. The St Vincent’s man and his colleagues came unstuck in the 1955 All-Ireland final, however, when Kerry’s traditional game got them over the line.

What would have happened if Dublin had won that game, however? Would the positions in football have broken down half a century earlier? We might be decades into blanket defences and mass attacking, roaming corner-backs and midfielders playing as extra centre-backs.

(Interesting how traditional counties can retard tactical progress: Galway came with a third midfielder and running/support game in hurling back in 1986 but Cork held their positions in that All-Ireland final to win — did it set back the cause of positional fluidity by a couple of decades?) We’re used to the colour and sweep of the Heffernan legend, from the manager being accosted on Dorset Street after the 1974 All-Ireland final by recent converts who wanted to know who the Dub would face “in Europe”. The funny thing is that by interrogating what positions on Gaelic football field meant, what Heffernan did for the entire sport was just as important.

* michael.moynihan@examiner.ie Twitter: MikeMoynihanEx

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