Posted by Ewan MacKenna

If Clare's defeat to Laois was Mick O'Dwyer's final game on the line, he deserved a better send-off after all he's done

2013 Clare Laois

If that was the end, then it was anything but fitting. The majority of Clare people may turn their noses up at football, but they know heroes and legends as well as anyone, and to leave Mick O’Dwyer to manage out what could be his last ever game in front of bald and bare terraces was bad form.

With the hurlers taking apart Laois, there was a rush for the gates of Cusack Park at five o’clock on Saturday. “We’ll leave these fools to their basketball,” said one local on the way out, so little wonder then that when the stewards were asked beforehand about their thoughts on O’Dwyer, the answer was quick in coming. “Well, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” came the reply.

Perhaps it was little wonder too that afterwards O’Dwyer had enough of what was the most challenging and least fruitful job he’s had. “I took this on for one year only and that has ended now,” he replied glumly after his side were taken apart.

“That is it. I won't say any more beyond that. It was a difficult way to finish up, but the lads did their best against a very good side. It’s very hard to say much about it. They were full of energy and they are big strong team. They will take a lot of beating. That’s football. The majority of them Laois fellas did some sessions under me I can tell you, and I mean they did some sessions.

"They came back to haunt me in the end. They'll go back to their clubs now so it's club football for them for the rest of the summer. I wish them well in the future.”

O’Dwyer may not have taken Clare forward, but he didn’t take them back either and each of that Clare side will tell people they played under the greatest. If that’s a measure of the man, then so is the fact that the story of his resignation, and quite possibly his retirement, overshadowed even the Munster football final yesterday.

Besides, to judge him on the end is to miss the magic. Whatever about Kerry – where he ranks with even their greatest – ask people in Kildare and Laois and Wicklow what he means to them. In an era when pundits point to All Irelands as a measure of success, fans in those counties will rightly tell you otherwise.

In the case of the former it was hysteria and a one-in-a-lifetime chance to win it all, in the case of latter, it was a victory in Croke Park and so many more, in the case of Laois it was a Leinster. All seemed impossibilities before Micko arrived.

Consider this. Before he took over in Kildare, they’d been beaten by Kilkenny. Before he took over Laois, Offaly put them out of Leinster and they won just a single game in the qualifiers, but 18 months after he took over they’d topped the province for the first time in 57 years. A year before he took over Wicklow, they were trounced by Carlow, by his second-season in charge they were winning their first-ever game in headquarters, against Kildare no less. But it wasn't just a case of winning, in all those cases it was a case of first re-energising a county that had settled for mediocrity and an endless footballing slumber. 

But names and achievements like that can flit too easily by without putting them into emotional context and that’s important given the scale of the accomplishments here. In 1998, when Kildare finally got their hands on a Leinster title, the man in the seat behind us in the Cusack Stand pulled a shovel from under his seat, charged the field, headed for the Canal End goal and started to dig up the ground. When asked what he was doing, he said he planned to grow the grass in his own garden. It was pandemonium, resulting in a tour of the county.

In some places, they close down schools the day after All Irelands, in Kildare they closed down schools because of that. In Naas, I can remember people stretching out to touch him, as if some sort of Messiah that would cure their ills. That’s why losing him hurt and why his move to our neighbours hurt even more. 

Growing up in a border outpost, Laois had never bothered us before. They were an irrelevance we’d beat up on every so often, and it made us feel good about ourselves until we were faced and usually beaten by a proper football county as we saw it.

But in 2005 they humiliated us in a provincial semi-final and made it to an All Ireland quarter-final against Armagh. Micko had suddenly made them relevant, so much so that the night before that last-eight game, knowing their fans had to drive through Athy on the way to the match, a local got up and strapped election posters to telephone poles throughout the town that read ‘Ulster Says No To The Queen’s County’. For the first time ever, he'd created a Laois team that got under our skins because of their talent. 

In the last few years of management though, time caught up on O’Dwyer in a couple of ways. Back in 2009, I drove with him from Aughrim to Athy and there was a hoarseness in his voice from years of shouting on the line. He said it irked him and he’d need surgery on his voice box and it wouldn’t be the same again.

Just a few weeks ago, I rang him again for an interview and while he wanted to, he said he couldn’t as he needed some work on his knee. Not that anything like that would ever stop him from striding the line. Instead time in the form of Gaelic football’s evolution not only caught him, but bypassed him.

In the 1950s, a friend organised for Micko to visit Matt Busby and from that trip to Manchester United he returned with the idea of distance running and modern exercises that helped him get to the front of the field. And he stayed there, always ahead of even the other market leaders.

“I even went to a training course under Kevin Heffernan would you believe but didn’t take a whole lot from that,” he told me on that journey across the Wicklow hills. “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.”

Perhaps it says as much about the game as it does about O’Dwyer that his lack of cynicism in recent years meant the results weren’t what they once were. But after generations where the game was played the same and what he did worked, it’s jumped generations in the space of seasons and modern football just doesn’t suit his free-flowing, open-running, traditional man-to-man style anymore.

That’s not to say he’s finished though and just his presence in a smaller county could bring interest back in a way no one else could achieve, and all by simply being there. If he wants to go again, he’s deserved that chance.

With all the images and memories of O’Dwyer’s glory days in Leinster streaming through the mind, it’s hard to picture images of him at his best in Clare. Or it least it was and that’s why I felt fortunate to be in Ennis on Saturday despite the games themselves.

Waiting for quotes from Davy Fitzgerald after the hurling, the Clare footballers passed us in the trench that runs from the back of the stand out onto the pitch. Locals stared down at him, most on their way home after the first game, with one shouting, “How are you Micko?”. He responded with, “I’m great,” a thump up in the air and that boyish grin that you imagine was exactly the same when he kicked ball in a green and gold jersey.

If that is the end of Mick O’Dwyer the manager, then it’s a most fitting memory, because it’s the same grin that followed him through a career that made him a hero and a legend.

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