'An incredible career that will never be matched'

In Kildare, he meant more than anywhere.

After Mick O’Dwyer ended a Leinster famine that made Richie Stakelum look like he’d merely skipped breakfast, Glenn Ryan sang into the microphone, and only then could the county-wide tour begin. On the Sunday night, O’Dwyer was on a stage in Naas. By Monday, he’d made it as far as Athy, reaching out and touching people’s hands as they fought for position in the square. Forget Jesus and Jerusalem, this was modern-day religion on an epic scale.

As a kid I witnessed Micko the legend, years later I got to meet Micko the man. After a Wicklow training session in Aughrim, we agreed to go for coffee locally but seeing people spilling out of a pub, he changed his mind and instead we went driving across the hills and into the county where football gave him the most satisfaction, even more so than in Kerry.

“I think it’s the one thing that really helped me in life, staying away from drink,” he said. “When people say cute I know they are saying mean and maybe that’s why. It goes back to my mother. She’d go on binges. But certainly it was a great education because there’s a helplessness and that’s something I took with me.”

They were fascinating and earthy words from a man renowned for saying little, but he didn’t stop there. “It’s true, in a way I am a loner,” he continued, running from the crowds. “I love to be on my own, getting into the car and driving away. Nobody annoys me. I can think of things I want to do. It’s not a bad thing either… Jaysus I love it. I love to go fishing too. The peace and tranquility are unreal. That makes me happy. Was the same after I won an All Ireland. I’d love to get away from everyone and be alone on my boat.”

That evening, he showed a frailty as a human that few associate with the greatest manager of them all. But recently, that frailty has extended to football. It’s sad in many ways, because what he both preached and practiced has always involved honesty and effort. But of late, as the evolution of football sped up and what once took generations happened in a single season, the game has by-passed even him. Nice, man-to-man football doesn’t cut it and perhaps that’s why success has slowed and perhaps that’s why he walked away from Clare on Saturday.

Did he bring them forward? Perhaps not, but he certainly didn’t bring them back and those footballers that played under him in Clare can say forever that Mick O’Dwyer was their manager. That’s a measure of the man. Will he be back? Who knows but that’s something he’s earned the right to decide himself.

In the year Alex Ferguson goes, his Gaelic equivalent may well have gone too but to use the comparison for longevity purposes is wrong. Consider this. A friend of O’Dwyers by the name of Billy Behan was a Manchester United scout in Ireland in the 1950s and organised a trip to meet Matt Busby in the off season. O’Dwyer brought back the idea of distance running and modern exercises but couldn’t implement a weights programme because there were no facilities available. They’re the miles that have been put on the clock, but as for the joy he brought, here’s a sample. That day in 1998, when Kildare beat Meath, the man sitting behind us in the Cusack Stand whipped a shovel out from under his seat, rushed the pitch, dug up part of the Canal End goalmouth and brought it back home to sow in his garden.

Others across Kerry, Laois and Wicklow have similar tales to tell.

Is there a caveat? Well to pay tribute to a man and ignore the negative accusations would be to do him a disservice. And with O’Dwyer, the accusation was always money. “I could have made fortunes if I stayed away from football,” he once told me. “The stuff that I missed out on was crazy. But everyone hears the word mercenary and straight away, of course it is me. But it doesn’t bother me. I make a joke of it now. Really though, I’m doing it because I love the bloody game.”

And don’t be mistaken, he still loves that bloody game. Having grown as a football fan with O’Dwyer as the shining light, and having become a journalist and seen the true meaning of his accomplishments, there’s another enduring image of O’Dwyer to add to the collection.

As Clare left the dressing rooms and walked down the deep trench and took to the Cusack Park field on Saturday, O’Dwyer walked behind them and a line of people stared down from above, just to get a glimpse. “How are you Micko?” one roared. “I’m great,” he shouted back up, gave a thumbs up and smiled that cheeky smile that has stayed with him throughout an incredible career that will never be matched.


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