Kerry legend Mick O’Connell truly a footballer for all time

The timing was just right. Yesterday when Mick O’Connell was honoured in a Killarney hotel for his contribution to Irish sport, the great man himself stoically pointed out it would be one of the last such events that he’ll be so honoured; as sprightly and as lithe-framed as he remains, Mick O’Connell at 79 has seen too many old team-mates “leave us” to know that even for a footballing immortal like him, there are only so many times even he’ll be feted in his time among us.
Kerry legend Mick O’Connell truly a footballer for all time

But another reason why it seemed so fitting that the Association of Irish Journalists chose to honour Mick O’Connell this week and not just this year was because of a certain fixture in Croke Park this Sunday.

Here we are on the eve of another Dublin-Kerry All Ireland semi-final. A game that will be televised live not just on RTÉ but Sky Sports with more than 15 cameras tracking the action and exploits of players like Brogan, Cooper, Connolly, Cluxton and O’Donoghue.

The game they will play is almost unrecognisable to the one that he played, and yet in a way all they are doing is following in a tradition established and not just enriched by O’Connell.

As the AIJ’s president Peter Byrne noted yesterday, the very first live televised game of Gaelic football on RTÉ was the 1962 All Ireland semi-final. Kerry-Dublin.

They could not not picked a better game. In a clash among two footballing superpowers, one man’s play literally elevated himself above all others. That day a private man from Valentia Island would not only become Gaelic football’s first-ever TV star but provide a vision of the game at its finest and purest.

For Byrne it was only fitting that a national audience should see O’Connell’s audience. Two years earlier there had been a letter published in Byrne’s alma mater, the Evening Mail, featuring a letter to the editor from a Welsh visitor to Ireland.

“Sir, I have been visiting your fair country for almost 25 years now, often on the occasion of the Wales-Ireland international rugby matches. This year my party and I travelled to Killarney and therein lies the purpose of this letter. We went to see an Irish football match between Kerry and Cork and in the course of it I saw what I consider to be the greatest display that I have ever witnessed. I refer to Michael O’Connell. I know very little about Irish football but I know genius when I see it.

“I rate this boy with such greats as Stanley Matthews, Finney, Kyle, Cliff Morgan and Babe Ruth and I have no doubt that if Michael O’Connell played rugby, he would surpass anything this island has produced. He has beautiful hands, uncanny anticipation, and strength and speed.

“I am told he is only 21 years old and while I would hate to take a boy from the game he loves, I think his talent should be seen by a greater public in another code.”

By then it would have been too late to pry O’Connell away from the sport and place that he loved but yesterday O’Connell himself would admit his interest in other sports extended beyond Gaelic football. In a sometimes beautiful address to his old team-mates and opponents and friends through the years, he colourfully painted his childhood on Valentia and one summer when more than 30 Spanish trawlers were ported in the harbour.

“These were young men just after the Spanish Civil War. They didn’t have money but a ball was a very cheap way of having sport. We played with them and we got an introduction to soccer. They enjoyed it and we enjoyed it.”

Over the years other sports would fascinate him. He worked for a cable company which often had English newspapers floating around the place and he would read about the exploits of Bobby Charlton and the like.

He would go to England and watch the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Sheffield Wednesday and take in games of rugby league further north. Just last summer Eoin Hand, the former international soccer manager who now resides in Kerry, happened to come across O’Connell on a day trip to Valentia. Hand was in a car with his wife. O’Connell was cycling on his bike. A conversation on the road led to another in O’Connell’s house in which Hand was stunned by O’Connell’s knowledge of the latest transfer activity in England and players that Hand didn’t even know.

But yet for O’Connell he was the lucky one. Yesterday he spoke about opportunity and how he was more fortunate than others who had to emigrate and never got to play for Kerry as he had. Still, for sure, being based where he was had its challenges, obstacles, ones he overcame.

“Living in Valentia Island, it was difficult to maintain a standard, isolated from other parts of the county. I had to resort to all sorts of methods to maintain my fitness and improve my abilities. People mention I kicked a ball off a wall. It’s okay, to keep your eye in, but it doesn’t come powerfully strong. A ball must come powerfully strong to you to test your fielding. In my young days it was said of another player, ‘He boots the leather neatly and he fields it very high.’ That would describe my game as well — I hope.”

He was and remains a purist. Yesterday Byrne spoke about O’Connell’s intelligence, integrity and inspiration as a player and was not exaggerating when claiming that integrity was the one that mattered most to O’Connell.

“It’s very hard to assess your own game without seeing yourself playing,” O’Connell would say yesterday, “but one thing I was very conscious of was of playing the game fairly. Coming from a marine background, the word foul involves life and death.

“The word foul was totally out of bounds for me. The one thing I can look back on is I never fouled intentionally. If you enjoy and respect a sport, I don’t see why you should do anything to deface them. I didn’t see the purpose to foul somebody.”

In this day and age that might seem a very naive and ideal vision of the game; there isn’t a team playing this Sunday or any other now that will shy away from saying it’s all about winning, at any cost. But O’Connell is of the same outlook as Danny Blanchflower that he used to watch playing for Spurs across the Irish Sea. Gaelic for him was another glory game, a beautiful game.

“I played in 10 All-Irelands and lost six of them but so be it. If I lost the 10 of them, at least I still had the involvement.”

Maybe that’s why he was honoured yesterday. That truly we won’t see his likes again. A man of his time. Or more like it, a man for all time.

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