The Big Interview: How Robbie O’Dwyer found a home from home at Nemo Rangers

Robbie O'Dwyer

You want to see Nemo Rangers trainer and selector Robbie O’Dwyer at his most animated? Talk football. Though he was the only son who stayed at home while his father was cutting a swathe through Dublin in Croke Park, the memories fed a craving that thrives to this day. Hence why he’s found a home from home in Nemo, writes Tony Leen

Come on away up, Robbie O’Dwyer says, I’ll fire the kettle on.

Two and a half hours later in Douglas, we’re still cussing and criticising footballers, friends, and foes with Mary, his wife who’s too nervous to watch games, much less attend them, daughter Amy and Shane, his eldest. The youngest, Lynn, comes in the door from Nemo training in the midst of it all. In the O’Dwyer front room, football swallows the hours whole.

“Dad was up last night,” he says. “Shane was playing a Freshers B All-Ireland final for UCC against Cork IT. I never told him Micko was coming. We watched the match, but Nemo were training too so I got him to pop over after clearing it with (Nemo manager) Larry (Kavanagh) and he had a few words with the players in the middle of the pitch.”

What a snap that would have been. Dwyer, at nearly 82, in the middle of a Nemo huddle, talking All-Irelands. He has a few. “Tis all about staying fresh at this stage, ye’re playing great football, but ye must start better,” O’Dwyer snr told them. “And this fella here,” he added, nodding at Tomás Ó Se. “He still reminds me of his uncle. Going hard at it every time. Fierce spirit.”

And the old salute as he toddled off back to South Kerry.

“He’ll be there Saturday in Croke Park if he can sort the drive, though Kerry have Kildare in Tralee too that night. He might make both. He would if he was driving himself,” Robbie laughs.

The Nemo Rangers trainer and selector is in his first season as a part of Larry Kavanagh’s management team, but he’s been doing teams and sessions, a bit of playing, even masseur at the club for nearly 20 years now.

Addiction, as Dad calls it. Once this All-Ireland final is done, the senior management of Kavanagh, Stephen O’Brien, Conor Buckley, Joe Kavanagh, John Coogan and Ollie Walsh step down and O’Dwyer returns to being just Nemo Under 21 manager. In Trabeg, he’s found kindred spirits who don’t agonise over commitment. They just give it.

The people and the players, irrespective of who they are, remain involved with the club. Like Dinny Allen did the hurlers again, Billy Morgan was managing the intermediates, Briain Morgan, his son, is taking over the intermediate job this year. Jimmy Kerrigan and Niall Geary will always roll up their sleeves, Alan Cronin Snr is taking charge of underage teams. The secret isn’t a secret. They play football the way it should be played, with pace, move the ball quickly, and they give that back to all the teams.

His first involvement with the Cork kingpins was via Mary’s sister Siobhan, who is married to fellow selector John Coogan. After Shane, now 19, was born, the journey down and back from Waterville didn’t stack up anymore. He played for a small bit – and has “kind of been involved with every grade” after that. The senior management liked the job he was doing with Nemo’s minors and asked him to come in and change everyone’s gears up for the start of the 2017 campaign.

He’s done that, taking the baton with a block of punishing sessions in that treacherous no man’s land between winning the Munster final in November and last month’s All-Ireland semi-final win after extra time over Slaughtneil. It’s all slaps on the back now, but love was in short supply when the players lads were going wire-to-wire and post-to-post in December. “They were throwing comments about Micko training,” he says.

Mick O'Dwyer
Mick O'Dwyer

The aching limbs of Kerry legends felt their pain.

“After the Munster final, we felt we should take a break. The players said no way, some of them thinking it might be a last opportunity to go on and win an All-Ireland. By taking a break, it’d be on top of them before they realised it, I guess. We trained right up to the Thursday before Christmas, and we trained hard.

“And then (captain) Aidan O’Reilly rang me and said they were going to go out another day before they broke up. That’s the bunch you are dealing with. If they’re not happy with their fitness, they will tell you.

“A lot of people thought only a couple of years ago that Nemo were going to be down for a bit. But from the inside, you see the way they work for the club, the tradition, fearful of letting that slip. How they bring players through, giving players an opportunity. Like Paddy Gumley was nowhere a year and a half ago and he has turned out to be one of our best players. He came down from Cavan, was playing Junior C one day outside on Pitch 3 and kicked about ten points. He just wanted to play.

“Nemo have their own way of playing football, I suppose it is a bit Kerry-like. We have tried to re-emphasise our kicking a lot this year, get the ball into the danger area quicker. In training, we might spend 15-20 minutes just kicking. Nothing else. And we will feed the work into that to ensure they are also kicking when they’re tired. Then we are seeing if their concentration is going. Create situations, put the pass under pressure. Stephen (O’Brien) is very good at that stuff, always thinking about the games and how they can improve.

But above anything else with Nemo, I find there’s no dissenting players in this squad. Not one player will give out to you. Alright, they’ll have a bitch in a game over a bad pass, but not in a bad way. They just get on with it. Maybe it’s an arrogance, but when Nemo go out to play, they always think they are going to win. The way it works here, you work hard, you play hard and success tends to follow. That’s as relevant in life as in football.

His father taught him that.

The twin boys, Karl and Robbie had a panoramic on the harvest of footballing success inspired by Dad in the ’70s and ’80s. But it was more real come the ’90s when Micko was managing a Waterville side in Division One of the Co League that had his eldest John at centre-back, Robbie in midfield and Karl on the forty. They beat a Kerins O’Rahillys side that year in the league that, a fortnight later, would defeat the South Kerry division in the county championship. Mighty times, “the best football we ever played,” he recalls.

“We were playing the intermediate championship semi-final against Milltown-Castlemaine that time, beaten by a point. Afterwards, Dad came into the dressing-room, calm out. ‘Lads I know, for a fact, two or three fellas were out drinking in Waterville last night. Robbie, as captain, do you know who they are?’ I didn’t in all honesty. ‘We’ve only South Kerry Championship to aim for now’ Micko went on. ‘And we are training tomorrow morning. I expect everyone to be there. No excuses.’ And he walked out of the dressing room, saying ‘Robbie, ye need to chat there’. And we’re thinking, ‘but we’re just after being beaten in a championship game’. The next morning, he ran and ran and ran us until the three boys got sick. And we went on and won South Kerry Championship.

“That was his thing ultimately. He could do all the other stuff, but definitely, man management was where Dad was at his very best. He could deal with every different kind of player. Even at club level he saw the best in players and he knew how to get the best out of them, talking to each individually, egos or not. He looked at the bigger picture in terms of what he could get a player to get out of himself and they loved him for that. That’s man management. He could deal with fellas that were awkward, that needed to be brought down a peg. That’s his biggest legacy as a manager.”

But hardly his only one. “He taught me punctuality. Always be on time. Also, the way he dealt with people and how he never got involved in spats with linesmen, photographers or officials. He was always calm. He never lost his focus. And you try to emulate that.”

Robbie O’Dwyer, who manages the EBS branch in Douglas these days, was a three-year Kerry Under 21 and was on the Kerry senior panel in his father’s final year in charge, 1989. He had further League outings with the Kingdom up to 1993 but a serious back surgery hampered his inter-county ambitions thereafter. Around Waterville and the division, he was regarded as the brightest of the football-playing brothers (Haulie only played casually), though by 1997, his twin brother was playing the football of his life. And getting nowhere with Kerry.

Robbie O’Dwyer at his office at the EBS in Douglas, Cork. Picture: Eddie O’Hare
Robbie O’Dwyer at his office at the EBS in Douglas, Cork. Picture: Eddie O’Hare

“Karl was in serious footballing form but didn’t even get a trial under Páidi. Jack O’Connor was a selector too at the time. Ah, that’s been well documented. Dad (Kildare manager by this stage) saw an opportunity I’d say and felt if they’d no interest in him down in Kerry – where he had failed to secure a teaching post – Kildare would be happy to help.” In 1998, Kildare beat Dublin and Kerry en route to a final against Galway. Karl O’Dwyer won an All-Star, but Galway went in ‘nice, tight and under the radar’.

“After they beat Kerry in the All-Ireland semi, I remember Dad thinking could he take the team training out of Kildare? They all went baloobas. It did get to the players. A few small things went against them. Glen Ryan picked up a freak injury playing golf and wasn’t right…

“I think he was more disappointed with Laois after winning that Leinster in 2003 because he felt they could have done more. Dad thought they had the players to win an All-Ireland. Wicklow was a very different gig. He really enjoyed that. They won in Croke Park, himself and (assistant) Arthur French got a great kick out of it, the whole county got behind him.

“But in Laois, there were problems with a few players. Anywhere else he went, when he did something, he just did it, and they invariably rowed in behind and there was none of that shite. Laois got to a stage where I suspect they felt they were better than they actually were, and some wanted him out. In fairness it never got to him. If the players don’t want me, they don’t want me, he would say.”

On occasion, father and son get around to chatting about Tomás Ó Se, Micko saying that once you got Paidi right, he was a force of nature. Robbie knows too that Micko loves the uncomplicated brilliance of his nephew, even now.

Robbie O’Dwyer, trainer and selector, with current Nemo player and former Kerry star Tomás Ó Sé, at the Nemo Rangers complex. Picture: Denis Minihane
Robbie O’Dwyer, trainer and selector, with current Nemo player and former Kerry star Tomás Ó Sé, at the Nemo Rangers complex. Picture: Denis Minihane

“The respect is up there for him in Nemo,” O’Dwyer says, pointing at the ceiling. “When Tomás talks, everyone listens. At halftime against Slaughtneil, he spoke, no mad roaring or shouting. He’s a very calming influence. Players just respect him and love playing with him. He just goes out and plays the game, there’s no shite, no negativity, Tomás goes out to play football. Players love that. He’s an example to the younger fellas, he talks to them. You can’t buy that.

“We trained on the Tuesday after the semi-final, the weather moved us indoors and after the session, he spoke to the players unscripted for about 15 minutes. Did they realise this was something that might not come around again? Don’t let it pass ye by. There will be a load of hype around the club but ye need to be selfish and short and focused.

“You can’t beat that. That’s experience.”

When Micko was painting those years golden, Robbie was the only one of the four bothered with the pilgrimage to Jones’ Road.

“I was never that interested in going to the matches strangely when I was young. I’d ride the bike and when it was half three, I’d go inside and watch it on the telly. The first time I was ever in Croke Park was as a player against Antrim in the National League quarter-final. Ger Lynch was to play corner-back, Dad never told me he was out, and I was starting.”

Whether the league games were in Dublin or Down or Derry, Mary Carmel and the lads could set their watches against him pulling up outside the Strand Hotel or the Villa Marie in time for the dancing Sunday night.

“When we were younger, it was probably harder on my mother because she had the rearing to do, and Dad was always on the road. She never stopped him or gave out to him or wanted to stop him from doing what he wanted to do. But as we got older, it got easier.

“We’d work in the bar at the Villa Marie, then up to the Strand, Haulie would do the door, I’d do the bar, John would do the disco, Karl was on the floor bouncing. It was family business. At least mother wasn’t up and down between the two places.

“But she was always there for him, regardless of the hour, waiting. And that came out in the RTÉ programme, which was a bit sad from our point of view, you could see that loneliness.

“We are all away now, and she was his rock. But wasn’t it great that they did the programme when he was still alive?”

Micko has good company around the place though. Haulie is nearby in Ballinskelligs and Dwyer will wander up the village for coffee in the hotel, now rebranded and refurbished as the Sea Lodge. Frequently that coffee is with Maurice Fitzgerald, whose wife manages the hotel for her football-mad brother Eoin Moriarty.

It was his savvy idea to convert all twelve bedrooms of the Villa Marie — which he bought too — into an All-Ireland theme for each of the years Dwyer won Sam Maguire — four as a player, eight as Kerry manager. A picture of the said team adorns the wall in each room. “It’s very well done,” Robbie says.

“We’d still discuss football things, he was here on the sofa last night, and he’d offer his opinion. I’d say he enjoyed the fact we were doing wire to wires, and how beneficial it was to us in the semi-final. You pick up bits and pieces all the time and players get bored if there’s not something new in the session for them. (Former Kerry trainer) Alan O’Sullivan was a good help to me when I started this, but you learn from everyone. There’s a fanatic at home, Jerdie ‘Gow’ O’Sullivan, he’s training Caherciveen, he drives up to watch us train. And he’s gone up as far as Crossmaglen watching them. I’ve got ideas back off him too. When we were coming off the field in Portlaoise, he was the first man to congratulate me.”

But the basics are forever. Hard work. And football, football. Conditioned games. Keeping possession.

“In this year’s Cork final and the replay against the Barr’s, consistency was our biggest issue. Playing well in patches. But we found our rhythm in A v B games between ourselves, and by the time we were faced with Dr Crokes in a Munster final, we knew we were going well. We just ran at Crokes. We didn’t let them dictate the tempo. The players were told ‘we will go at this for 30 minutes, if it’s good enough fine, if we have to make changes, we will do that too’. There was no arrogance. We knew the work had been done.”

Work hard. Play hard. Success tends to follow.


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