A case of the obsessed

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Despite the rumour and innuendo, it is the love of football which drives Mick O’Dwyer on, says Ewan MacKenna

The story went as follows; back in his days as Laois boss, Mick O’Dwyer was presented with a card by the county board that allowed him to top up for free at selected petrol stations. On his way to training early one evening, he noticed he was low on fuel but found himself 10 miles from the next designated garage and was sure the fumes left in the tank wouldn’t take him such a distance. To solve the problem he pulled into the nearest station, topped up with a €2 coin he found in his pocket before heading off for his free fill-up. Cute but miserly and little wonder his bank account had done well with that kind of penny-pinching across a lifetime in Gaelic football.

Certain players began to leak such tales after his departure from the county and while it surmised his relationship with Laois, it cemented his reputation with the rest of the country. The kind of mercenary Nickey Brennan suggested was the biggest threat to the future of the association. “Totally wrong,” says O’Dwyer. “That’s the shite they go on with. You see that never happened. Never got a gallon of petrol without paying for it in my life. Never had a fuel card in my life either. That’s totally out of order.”

The story you tell visibly irritates O’Dwyer but comes as no surprise to him either. Early last month when Paraic Duffy began to talk of an epidemic in the game at a lecture in Dublin, everyone assumed the man he spoke of was O’Dwyer until he confined his accusations to Ulster. In the past, a figure of €100,000 was mentioned in Laois and there was no limit to the rumours of his wages in Wicklow. After all, he came on board after property tycoon Sean Mulryan had ploughed some of his millions into the development of football in the weakest of counties.

“Money? I could have made fortunes if I stayed away from football. The stuff that I missed out on was crazy. Reg Armstrong, the guy who brought Opel into this country, did everything in his power to set me up in Tralee with a main Opel agency. If I was really into business I should have but despite all his efforts I refused because of my football involvement. 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. There’s no point denying it because that only makes it worse.

“Really though, I’m doing it because I love the bloody game. Michael Osborne was the man in charge of Kildare and everything was charted. The Revenue Commissioners took me to court over it one time to check it out. They got all the facts and figures, everything was documented. But people never believed me. I couldn’t tell them. They can’t believe I do this for enjoyment. But the Irish in general are begrudgers. If you are doing well in any walk of life they wonder how you do it. An awful country for that but I know I have never received any payment for any job in football.”

You’ve come to Aughrim to get inside the head of Mick O’Dwyer. It’s the Thursday before his second championship outing of the summer against Westmeath and the banter in the Wicklow camp has him in good humour, even if his ankle has left him hobbling and he’s been told his vocal chords are ruptured from years on the line and are now beyond repair. That, more than anything, bothers him in his lower moments and concerns him going forward. He’s spent just over an hour with his squad across a session that involved no more than some shooting and an impassioned speech and after a light meal, he jumps into his jeep and heads for the local hotel.

But there’s a problem. Upon seeing the crowd frequenting outside in the evening sun he becomes slightly unnerved. He asks to stay in the vehicle and says he’ll chat away there. It reminds you of a question put to him many years ago. When asked for a word to describe himself he barely hesitated before answering. Loner.

“It’s true. In a way I am. I love to be on my own, getting into the car and driving away on my own. I love that. Nobody annoys me. I can think of things I want to do. It’s time for me and my thoughts.”

“That word isn’t thought of in a positive light though,” you say.

“It’s not a bad thing. Every morning at half seven I’d get up and play an 18 holes all by my own, I do it regularly and I get great enjoyment out of all that. Jaysus I love it. I love to go fishing too. Have a 20-foot boat and the peace and tranquillity are unreal. My mother was born on an island called Scariff Island and I’d often land down there and get out and just lie there alone. 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.”

Mention of his mother brings up the other reason he doesn’t want to head for the hotel and stays in the safety of his BMW. Outside people are drinking. In all his life O’Dwyer never had so much as a droplet of alcohol or a drag of a cigarette. He’s never even felt the temptation and other than working in one, he’s tried never to wander through a tavern’s doors. You mention his mother in relation to his avoidance of alcohol.

“I think it’s the one thing that really helped me in life. I was always in full control of what I wanted to do. When people say cute I know they are saying mean and maybe that’s why, because I don’t drink. It does go back to my mother I suppose. She’d go on binges more than anything. Certainly it was a great education because there’s a helplessness there and that’s something I took with me. And from my father I think I got my sense of adventure. He was on the Republican side in the Civil War. At that time, himself and about five other fellas were in the hills around Waterville and they went by boat to Canada and then for a while into the United States.”

If his parents predictably shaped his life, less obvious sources were responsible for his revolutionary coaching. A world tour with Kerry in 1970 saw them beat Australia at their own game in Adelaide with an oval ball. O’Dwyer liked the idea of hand passing although it took Kerry folk a while to adapt. The biggest influence of all though was an even less likely source. A friend 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.

“But sure I looked everywhere to learn. I even went to a training course under Kevin Heffernan would you believe but didn’t take a whole lot from that. There were actually exams to be sat the following morning. The night before I said to Mickey (Ned O’Sullivan), ‘To hell, we’ll get out of here’. But Busby was the reason, more than anything, why I did take over Kerry. And since then I always encourage guys to play the game. I never go out and try and pick out guys, target players and go on with this physical stuff.

“If players started to be thugs under me, I wouldn’t associate myself with it. I never did. Any team I managed, it was always enjoyable for people to follow. But dirty stuff that’s creeping in, all that should be cut out. The four umpires should have more power. Most of the pulling and dragging is around the two full-back lines and the two umpires should see that and be able to act. They should have real power. But now guys are appealing and there’s no responsibility. You do something wrong, you put your hands up and take your punishment. All this carry on is ridiculous.”

Some things you might not know about Mick O’Dwyer. At home no one has ever called him Mick, rather Michael. He worked as a taxi driver, undertaker, hotelier, caddy and mechanic. He starred in ads in the 1970s for Persil and Bendix washing machines in order to raise money for the Kerry players fund despite opposition from the GAA. He nearly skipped his intercounty debut as a player in 1957 in order to rally in Killarney. His 12-125 remains the highest 12-month tally ever put together by a Kerry player in an intercounty calendar year.

Charlie Haughey begged him to run for Fianna Fail but his sole involvement in politics was helping Sinn Fein’s John Joe Rice to the Dail in 1956 and after he refused to actually sit, O’Dwyer swore he’d never touch politics again and has never regretted it. He’s a good Christian rather than a good Catholic. And the surprises in O’Dwyer’s life aren’t restricted to the past either. It’s getting dark when the subject of drive and hunger creeps up.

“People say I’ve a lack of ambition,” says O’Dwyer. ” But I’ve done it all. For me now, winning an All Ireland isn’t the end result. It’s nice to win but the most important thing is getting counties to compete and if you can do that then there’s enjoyment for everyone involved.”

“But don’t you miss being at the top,” you inquire.

“To me every game is like an All Ireland. I mean it. I could have bigger jobs and that’s proof.”

“Which ones?”

“To be honest, late last year I had a big meeting with the people involved in Dublin. Sat down with the top guys there and I made the decision that I’d take it. Told them that was it. I’d manage Dublin. Arthur French was with me at the time and he was going to see all the junior and intermediate games in Dublin and we were going to get players out of all those smaller clubs. I took it today and tomorrow night I rang back to say [I wouldn’t. But there weren’t any sleepless nights. I got into the car and drove home from Dublin and I just had a gut feeling and said to myself, ‘I don’t think it would be for me’. And it won’t be any other time. Not now anyway. I’ll never manage Dublin.”

“There were rumours about a return to Kerry as well,” you remind him.

“There was. And there was soundings out to me to know if I’d be interested. This term and the term before as well. I was asked and I told them straight up I wasn’t interested. I gave 38 years service to Kerry as a player, selector, manager and what have you and I think 38 years is enough. They were wonderful but to tell the truth I’ve gotten more enjoyment in Kildare than anywhere. That was the most enjoyable time I ever had and if I could change anything I’d have won that All Ireland in ’98. People there were so enthusiastic about it. Kildare were unbelievable. My best experience in football. But anyway, that’s proof to people that every game for me is an All Ireland when I’d say no to Kerry and Dublin.”

Such is his love for Kildare, he refuses to comment but before Kieran McGeeney came on board there was talk of a return. County chairman Syl Merrins even made a call to O’Dwyer but internal politics meant it was the Armagh man who took the reins. However he’s much quicker to comment on his Laois experience. Having given out about the dressing room there in his autobiography, you quote him a line Fergal Byron wrote in response. “It’s a small bit of a knife in the back when he turns around and says those things.”

“It wasn’t,” retorts O’Dwyer. “But Fergal was quite entitled to his opinion. He was one of the better players. He was speaking from his heart because he gave me a wonderful commitment while I was there. Others couldn’t say that. There was marvellous material in Laois but they were never as willing to give the same commitment as I got in Kildare. They didn’t have the commitment or the same drive.”

He’s come a long way from the man who nearly got sacked after his first game in charge of Kerry. In 1975 he took over a successful side, dropped former colleagues and teammates and replaced them with a bunch of under-21s. His thinking was simple. If they clicked, he’d have a great team for a decade but trailing by four points with 10 to go against Tipperary, it took John Egan to rescue the rookie in charge. There and then, that could have been the end of Mick O’Dwyer. Instead he’s now driving through the Carlow darkness, making his way to Portlaoise for the night, his head buzzing with selections and tactics. At this stage it’s unlikely he’ll get home to Waterville and his wife until after Sunday’s game. You interrupt his thoughts and throw out a few more grumblings the masses have had about the maestro.

Thomas Walsh? “I was a bit surprised Carlow thought they’d have him. He was a Wicklow player and that was it. He was never going to deviate from that. But sure if you are working somewhere you can play there. It’s only right and fitting if a player works and lives in a county of course he should play there.”

His lack of involvement in Wicklow’s stuttering underage teams? “Well we can’t be everywhere but I wasn’t really asked to be honest.”

Three seasons without promotion from Division Four of the league? “If we got out of the division it would have been great but what the hell does it matter at the end of the day. There’s only one thing that matters in our game whether you like it or not.”

His future with the county? “One game at a time but it’s important Wicklow make progress and if I wasn’t getting commitment or backing from the county board, I just wouldn’t be here.”

Nearing his destination he deviates from football to the other enjoyable moments in his life. A trip back in 1959 from New York. Having travelled out in a Constellation that had to land in Gander to refuel and scared the life out of him every time it hit turbulence, he returned on the SS America and spent five-and-a-half days meandering across the Atlantic with a smile on his lips. And then there was San Francisco. The most beautiful place he’d ever been and somewhere he’d have liked to finish up.

“But that’ll hardly happen now. Waterville is my home and the place I love and sure be it with my club or whoever, I’ll be involved in football as long as I live at this stage.”

Wondering about what might have become of O’Dwyer had it not been for a lifetime in management, you have one last question. “Did football stop you from living out your other dreams then?” you muse.

“Of course not,” he replies. And as he heads off into the night with a smirk on his face it’s obvious why. Football made all his dreams come true.

14 June 2009
Sunday Tribune

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