Mikey Sheehy: I’d have given anything to play with David Clifford, Maurice Fitzgerald, and Gooch

They pay homage to the great Mikey Sheehy any which way they can in Tralee. But the Kerry legend hopes to be toasting a new generation of Austin Stacks stars after tomorrow’s Kerry county football final against deadly town rivals Kerins O’Rahillys
Mikey Sheehy: I’d have given anything to play with David Clifford, Maurice Fitzgerald, and Gooch

SET IN STONE: The 18ft mural of Mikey Sheehy behind the Castle Bar on Rock Street in Tralee. Drawn by artist Mike O’Donnell

This is a man who pleads quietly on the doorstep that the householder won’t answer when he goes canvassing for votes to elect his son to the County Council. Who cringes talking about his own career. Or comparisons to those who came after and imitated him. Who asks can anyone else go up on stage and pick up that All-Star.

So let’s get straight to the 18ft high mural of Mikey Sheehy at the top of Tralee’s Rock Street.

“The slagging I’m getting is cat altogether. At least it’s not visible on the main street if you’re walking up the Rock. You have to go around the back to the car park or be in the Castle Bar and head out the back to the toilets. There are fellas reckoning I’ve free porter for life out of it.”

In Kerry, they adore Maurice, Gooch, and David Clifford. In Tralee, they revere Mikey. Lads break out in teenage giggles when he salutes them walking down the Rock. Eight All-Irelands, seven All-Stars, and five county championships with Austin Stacks, spots on the Teams of the Century and the Millennium. But the true measure of a man’s worth these days is a lad fixing a ladder to a gable wall of a pub and spelling out love and respect with a graphite pencil. Mike O’Donnell, who used to play with Stacks, is the artist. “A very talented individual. It’s impressive but I’m quite happy where it is either way.”

Down the Rock on the corner of Pembroke Street, street art paid homage too to the famous Kevin Coleman picture of Seanie Walsh soaring above Dublin’s Brian Mullins in the 70s. “I’m not even sure if it is still there,” Sheehy muses (It’s not.). But for the weekend that’s in it, as Tralee’s senior powerhouses go at it for the first time in a county final since the 1930s, it’s honours even with the easel: Austin Stacks 1 Kerins O’Rahillys 1.

It wasn’t always thus. John Mitchels, with the Fitzgeralds, the Sheas and the Sheehys, won five counties on the spin in the early 60s. Boherbee was where it was at. It felt for a while that the late, revered John Dowling was the force of nature keeping Kerins O’Rahillys relevant until they won their most recent county (and sixth in all) in 2002. However, there’s a blue tide rising and Mikey Sheehy senses it.

“We’re wary of them. I’m not involved in any formal capacity but this year, for whatever reason, I find myself more nervous going to the games. Maybe with the likes of Donaghy involved, and I’d know Wayne Quillinan the trainer, well. But it’s for the people down the line like Tim McMahon, the chairman of the underage, they have a fantastic structure. Maybe Stacks are lucky that there is still housing development going on in our area, but the work being done at that level by these guys and the coaches is serious, serious. It’s one o’clock Wednesday and I am getting excited, nervous even. And I seldom got that way in my own time. Maybe it’s because it is Strand Road.

“I have great friends on that side of town. Mike Jnr lives right in the heart of it. People wouldn’t know how close myself and John Dowling were, great friends. We had coffee every single morning when I was playing with Kerry. His name just resonated around town back then. The work that he did for Strand Road, he is the godfather of the club really.

“I did the cruciate that finished me in 1988, on an Easter Sunday against Spa in the County League. There wasn’t much happening in casualty at the hospital that night and there was still no sign of me circulating on the Tuesday. I was feeling sorry for myself at home in Farmer’s Bridge on crutches, because I knew my career was finished. Next thing a knock on the door. ‘What’s wrong with you…?’ Dowling was growling. There were famous stories back then of him playing through all manner of pain barriers. He didn’t know or care what a cruciate was. You’d have so much respect for that man.”

When Stacks won a first county championship in 37 years in 1973, it precipitated a splurge of black and amber success. Rock Street truly became the street of champions, from Bill Kirby’s Brogue Inn up Monavalley, where Sheehy eventually settled. Four more counties followed and a couple more left after them up to 1986. Small wonder with a third of the Golden Years’ Kerry side in their ranks.

What was really unfair when you look back at it was how we were nearly always involved with Kerry playing an All-Ireland final the previous Sunday. At least now they have the common sense to give them a break of a few weeks after the All-Ireland is done. 

“Imagine if we were in an All-Ireland and we won, we mightn’t arrive back to Stacks training until the Thursday night with a county final on the Sunday. That was very unfair on the ordinary club player. You could laugh at it, but you certainly wouldn’t get away with it now.”

The 18ft mural of Mikey Sheehy behind the Castle Bar on Rock Street in Tralee. Drawn by artist Mike O’Donnell
The 18ft mural of Mikey Sheehy behind the Castle Bar on Rock Street in Tralee. Drawn by artist Mike O’Donnell

One imagines forgiveness came easy. John O’Keeffe returned to spread calm and authority around the defence with Ger and Tony O’Keeffe, Denny Long shored up midfield when he landed from Millstreet. Up top, Ger Power and Mikey did as they bid, and whatever scraps were left, John L McElligott hoovered. They remained pretty peerless until the mid-80s, the end of hegemony coinciding with Kerry’s descent from the skies.

“I might go down if we weren’t training with Kerry and kick around. But Micko, who in my eyes is still the best gaelic football manager of all time, had a job to do and he didn’t give one hoot about any club. He was right, the buck stopped with him come September, he was the Kerry manager, so he had first call on us really.”

Irish people adore their modest high achievers. Shane Lowry. Katie Taylor. Pádraig Harrington. In Kerry, it’s the tie that binds Maurice, Gooch, and Mikey: a reticence to blow their own trumpet. Even showboating couldn’t possibly be interpreted as showboating.

“I came from a very happy family. It’s 30 years and more since I retired and am still not comfortable when they start talking about me, I prefer to change the subject. At times, you’d be here in the kitchen, especially around big games in the championship and you would kind of reminisce in your head. What I always imagine is ‘what are the players doing now on a Sunday morning at 11 o’clock?’ But it’s all so different. They all go in buses now, we used to go in cars. I never landed in Croke Park on a bus.

“My father was a fanatic on football. I have six sisters and was the only boy. So, I was spoiled. Páidí Ó Sé used slag me after I got married that I was never as neatly togged out as when my mother would get me ready for training. Then, you brought your own gear, now it’s all laid out for them. So my poor mother, she used to have the gear perfect for training. Colour co-ordinated, and nearly always soccer gear.”

Sheehy was offered a chance at Southampton in his early years but passed.

“Even though I was Man Utd, the one I’d love wearing was the old Crystal Place one with the stripes and the light blue togs. And I had a Birmingham City jersey with white togs and blue socks, she had it all perfect. And for the boots, especially during the winter, she’d have the Dubbin to soften them, make them comfortable.”

The week of an All-Ireland, Sheehy would pop around the corner to Hennebery’s shop on Ashe Street for his Pumas or World Cups. But always a half size too small. “I was very picky about boots and the size of them. If they ever had a camera on me before a game, I would be ripping my laces, tying them again around 10 times. I had this constant nagging fear in my head. Were they a small bit loose? Silly stuff.

“Then on the Friday night before the All-Ireland, I would tog out in full at home, top to toe. I’d have my Kerry jersey, not obviously the one we would be wearing in the final, but it made me feel confident. The shorts, socks, and boots, the full kit. Now I’d be doing it out the back garden obviously. Some fellas might say wouldn’t he be better off down at the field kicking frees, but it was just a routine.

“I was cranky too the week of a big match and my poor mother would take the brunt of it. I’d be very snappy from midweek. I remember at times you’d also have a ticket situation. Fellas ringing you in the office, any chance of a spare. My poor mother rang one year looking for one on a Friday. I was inside the office window tearing my hair out and Paidi would bounce by on his way to picking up his All-Ireland suit from Donie Rooney in Willie Ryle’s. Always off Donie.”

How would Dwyer do now? Among the nutritionists and psychologists and performance analysts? How did he marry the contrasting traits of Ó Sé, Bomber, Mikey, Jacko, and Spillane? 

“Dwyer was a psychologist. He’d have that word with you: ‘You need to get to Banna,’ he’d be whispering if he thought you had wintered well. And if he asked you to run from Killarney to Tralee after training, you’d do it. Later in the season, you’d be going well, and he’d be in your ear again: ‘You’re getting there’. That was psychology at its best for us.

“I remember after one All-Ireland semi-final, he came up to me before we came off the pitch: ‘I’ll be doing very little with you in the next four weeks’. Another time I missed the league final against Cork and worked hard to get back. They were picking the team on Thursday night and the word on the street was that John Kennedy was keeping his place. After the shower, Micko followed me: ‘Don’t mind the speculation, you’ll be starting’. I might have actually contemplated running home from Killarney that night.

You know what? From the time he took over in 1975, I never once got tired of listening to him in a dressing room. Ever. In 2016, when I was a selector for the All-Ireland semi against Dublin, Éamonn Fitzmaurice said ‘will we get Micko in to present the jerseys to the boys? Let’s do it in the dressing room’. 

“Micko spoke to them so brilliantly, exactly like our day, he knew every player and had a word for them. Éamonn said after that we were seeing Dwyer at his peak because the dressing room was his natural habitat. I looked around that room. The players were in awe. An incredible man.

“He was everything. He was the physical trainer and the psychologist. We would train hard four nights in a row, but you wouldn’t want to show weakness. ‘We will do another tough session tomorrow night lads.’ And the following evening he’d pick two bits of paper out of his pocket and throw out the new O’Neills footballs. We were ravenous for ball. It was summer in Killarney, a Thursday evening and the sweat would be rolling off you. Heaven.”

He has the eight September medals in the house. At least Gráinne assures him they’re there, somewhere. The four grandchildren might each come into a couple of the most prized baubles in Irish sport. After every final, the golden moment was rendezvousing with his parents and sisters under the old bridge on Jones’ Road. His placid father, Jim, greeting elation and despair as equal imposters.

“If anything went to my head, I’d have my wings clipped at home. Particularly by my father, who was a very, very grounded man. Whether we won or lost, I would meet family and all they’d say was well done or hard luck. Even after the 1982 All-Ireland and the missed penalty against Offaly, he never even drew it down.”

Four years apart, Sheehy was a key player in a pair of the most iconic All-Ireland finals in GAA history — and central to historic football moments therein. “I’m not looking for a pass for the penalty (saved by Martin Furlong), but I get asked more about the Paddy Cullen goal in 1978. Seamus Darby got me off the hook a bit in 82. I liked those Offaly lads. It was dreadful to lose the five in a row, but of all the counties to beat us….

“It took a long time to shake it off. I know how much it meant to Micko, fellas said he has never got over it. But I went through bad times after it. Years just thinking. it would have hit me fairly hard. When you do look out the window at home and start to think back, you remember 1982 straight away.”

Sheehy and the other quartet of Kerry men with eight All-Ireland medals have been joined latterly on the pantheon by a group of seven Dubs. As a Kerry selector with Fitzmaurice, he had a ringside view of the history the Kingdom was once denied.

“There was one recurring theme with Jim Gavin and the players. They stuck to the process and never panicked. In the 2016 semi-final, we found a bit of a chink, caught them for the two goals before half-time. The killer for us was the interval came at the wrong time, they were panicking a bit, beginning to get cranky with each other.

“Brian Fenton is up with Jacko, but of all them, James McCarthy is the Rolls Royce for me. You could literally put him anywhere to excel. Gavin is measured and gracious. Maybe it’s his professional training in the Air Corps. Even the players, after beating us in 2015, you saw how grounded, dignified they were. Dublin people should realise they have been enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime group of very sound young lads.”

He loved and learned from Matt Connor, Tony McManus, and afterwards, Mickey Linden of Down. But pound for pound, the best player outside the Kingdom was Peter Canavan.

The impossible pub question inevitably followed: rank Maurice Fitz and Colm Cooper against David Clifford.

Imagine that full forward line. David Clifford is exceptional. I’d fecking have given anything to play with the three of them. Clifford will shoot the lights out but Maurice and Gooch would also be on any Kerry team. They are two of the greatest.

“We were in the Algarve on a spring training camp a few years ago and Gooch was in his pomp. There was an A v B game on the first evening we arrived, the weather was beautiful. He was on the 40, Éamonn reffed it. My god, Colm’s vision was frightening, I actually thought he had eyes in the back of his head. There were evenings in Killarney training where he’d ping a pass that was not visible to the naked eye. He was totally unselfish, that was a key attribute. The better-placed player always got the ball.”

Those summer evenings in the Stadium proved an occasional distraction for Sheehy in 2013, when the eldest of his two sons, Mike Jnr was diagnosed with Hodgins Lymphoma. “Out of the blue it was. He was playing golf, carrying his bag, felt a soreness. He pursued it himself. Initially the blood test results were fine but in May he was diagnosed and had six months of chemotherapy.

“I think women are better at dealing with these situations. I was in denial. I didn’t want to talk about it and even Kerry couldn’t take my mind off it at times. At night-time, you’d be looking at the ceiling, thinking ‘I’m 60, why wasn’t it me? You’d take it for him but, thank God, it worked out. I’d be a lukewarm catholic I have to admit, but there is something there, you do get strength from somewhere.”

The following November, the news was positive. As Mikey Jnr finished chemo, his daughter Alva was born. Now he’s a progressive and well-regarded FF member of Kerry County Council, with the most popular canvasser in the county on tap.

“I break out in a sweat at the thought of the next Council elections. ‘How many doors did you knock on tonight?’ he’d be asking.

“One night we had to split up because it was getting dark and the lads sent me down this row of houses on my own. I half knocked, slipped the leaflet quietly in the door and was gone out the gate like I was running for a breaking ball.”

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