Páidí Ó Sé would have been 65 years of age today. It’s difficult to imagine and, for those of us who still feel his presence is as real as his absence, it’s difficult to process as well.
There is rarely a week goes by since his untimely death in December 2012 that a story, a yarn or a memory of Páidí doesn’t bubble up to the surface here in the Gaeltacht. And given the last few months we’ve had there’s been more time than usual for reflection and to retell the stories and yarns.
Like most GAA clubs, Cumann Caide na Gaeltachta are indulging in the selection of fantasy football teams and rambles down memory lane to pass the time. Old photographs have been unearthed, old rivalries reconsidered and old memories resurrected.
We do it out of boredom, maybe, or perhaps out of some deeper yearning. There’s some measure of solace in talk about yesterday’s games with the games of tomorrow still so tantalisingly out of reach.
When the doors of memory are opened in our club, Páidí invariably enters. And if you’re one for indulging the fantasy, the what-ifery and the what-aboutery, here’s a question that got thrown out this week –what kind of a manager would Páidí Ó Sé be in 2020?
This is a question, like so many others being debated these days, that asks a lifetime of other questions. Like, how good a manager was Páidí anyway? How much has the game changed in the decade and a half since he was prowling the sidelines, twitching with all that pent up energy?
What could Páidí possibly bring to a team environment that would be of any use today?
Ever heard of the word?
Loosely translated from Irish, it means courage, but not in the conventional sense. In our language it means much more. It can mean morale or pluck or bottle. It can also mean hope, heart, spirit and strength, and, when used in relation to Páidí, it could mean all of those things and more.
It is entirely fitting that today, the 16th of May, the feast day of St Brendan the Navigator, was Páidí’s birthday.
Theshown by Brendan on his epic voyage to an Tír Tairngre, often thought to be modern day America, is the stuff of legend in Kerry and beyond. With no maps to guide him and no guarantee of reaching shore, Brendan and his companions set off on a voyage into the unknown that would eventually become one of the most remarkable and enduring of European legends.
As science appears to be gathering knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom, the same could be said of our games as they continue to change at an alarming pace.
But a bitcan still go a long way today and Páidí had it in bucketloads.
When he took over the management of the Kerry senior team almost a quarter century ago, there was a sense of a new world coming rapidly. Then, as now, Dublin were All Ireland champions having finally beaten an Ulster team in the final. A young and hungry Meath team were about to usurp the Dubs, however. They did just that in 1996, the same year Kerry’s lean period extended into a decade long famine.
was called for at that time in Kerry football, and more than at any time since.
Páidí was surely a man whose time had come.
Right man, right place, right time.
While Maurice Fitzgerald rightly gets credit for helping deliver Kerry’s first All-Ireland in 11 years in 1997, it wouldn’t have happened but for a hundred other factors and forces, all of which were marshalled by Páidí.
His man-management skills were well honed and his delivery at a team meeting or in the dressing room was always precise and to the point. Future Kerry managers Jack O’Connor and Éamonn Fitzmaurice would learn a lot in those years and I’ve no doubt their understanding of the team dynamic was deepened by closely observing Páidí back then.
As a group, we may have chuckled amongst ourselves as Páidí struggled with the remote control when trying to highlight a particular tactical nuance during our video analysis sessions after training.
Later when you visited Páidí in his sitting room in Ard a’Bhóthair, surrounded by his stockpile of old games and with two VCR machines set to ‘play’ and ‘record’ endlessly, you understood that the man was years ahead of the curve when it came to analysing stuff like kickout patterns, players’ spatial awareness and opposition habits.
It can all seem a bit primitive today when compared to the analysis software now available to managers and the human resources at their disposal to make the most of that software, but Páidí was a lot more sophisticated a manager than he was given credit for.
Like any good manager, he wasn’t afraid to delegate and often took advice from outside the game of Gaelic football. He drew on Mick Doyle’s experience as a rugby coach and on Tom O’Riordan’s and Eamon Coughlan’s athletic prowess to make his own troops more competitive and better informed.
One night, in an attempt to impress upon us the respective benefits of an off-the-cuff-flair-play and of good decision making, he showed us a carefully crafted piece of Mike Gibson’s career highlights. Once again, we giggled and chuckled our way through the black and white footage of Gibson’s genius. Ní thagann ciall roimh aois.
Although he never used the word, Páidí was extremely fond of ‘visualisation’ techniques in improving performance.
He was constantly asking us in our private moments as players to imagine testing scenarios for ourselves.
“Twenty minutes gone in an All-Ireland final as a forward, and you still haven’t touched the ball, what are you going to do with it when you get it?”
“You concede a bad goal to your man just before half-time, how do you react? Have you time to react?”
His attempts at “cutting out the bullshit” that accompanied modern training methods often made him appear ignorant or oblivious to progressive thinking. Nothing could be further from the truth.
With limited resources compared to today, Páidí managed to communicate with players and get to know them better so that he could attend to their needs off the field. It wasn’t as carefully crafted as today’s holistic approach to player development, but it was often rewarding and always entertaining.
Irrespective of ability or achievement, we are all, both players and managers, of our time. A cursory look at the old games being repeated endlessly on TV and elsewhere these days will quickly disabuse you of any notions you might have.
We were never quite as good as we imagined and we were never as potent as our dim and ever distant memories tell us. I cringe now watching some of the stuff I did as a player when these games are repeated. I’m sure Páidí’s critics can point to mistakes he made over the years but as he often said himself, 'aon fhear nár dhein dearmad riamh, ní mór a dhein sé'.
The game moves on and despite what the naysayers tell us, it is getting better all the time.
The world is present and future in the game of Gaelic football and while its past traditions and associated lore can inform and entertain us, those things must always be kept in their place.
Would a pension-aged Páidí have a place in today’s game? Would he have the patience and the will to put up with some of the nonsense that has built up around the games in recent years?
Would there be enough colour and character in the game and in those around it to sustain him?
I’m not so sure.
How does one gauge these thing when all is conjecture anyway?
Maybe the poet Ted Hughes was right when he said that “the only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn't live boldly enough, that they didn't invest enough heart, didn't love enough. Nothing else really counts at all."
Yes, we’ve been doing an awful lot of thinking and looking back these past nine weeks. These rambles down bóithrín na smaointe throw up a lot of good memories and they are certainly giving us time to draw breath and catch up.
Almost inevitably too though, our rambles bring us to recall those no longer with us on the road and that can, at times, be overwhelmingly sad.
We miss Páidí back west. We hope he is alright.
His message, however, is eternal: coinnibh do mhisneach.