Brendan O Sullivan

Mick O'Connell

by Brendan O'Sullivan

It is 50 years since Mick O'Connell won his first All-Ireland medal. In September 1959 Mick was the captain of the Kerry team which defeated Galway. A legend was born as he accepted the Sam Maguire Cup, said  the obligatory few words, was cheered across the field -- and left the cup behind him in the dressing room.

He was then 22 years old, lived on Valentia  Island and rowed to the mainland before every match. He would travel to the match, play and return to the island the same day, often rowing home in the darkness. No wonder he became a romantic figure who intrigued the nation. A shy, almost reclusive figure who gave no interviews, O'Connell's talking was done on the pitch.

He was a pure footballer for whom cups and medals held little interest. His fielding of the ball was a delight.

"I was waiting under a dropping ball with Phil Stuart of Derry when I caught a glimpse of a pair of knees above my shoulder and hands gripping the ball. It was Mick O'Connell."
I quote there from his long-time midfield partner, the late Seamus Murphy.

Mick had a natural spring in his step so that with just a few steps in his run-up, he could leap into the air, soaring high above all others, to catch the ball. With the ball in his hands, he was a master distributor. Equally adept with left or right foot, the ball would travel unerringly to a forward better positioned than himself.

Later in his career he had a telepathic understanding with corner forward, Mick O'Dwyer. O'Connell would gather the ball in the centre of the field, O'Dwyer make a run towards the goal, O'Connell kick the ball towards the corner flag. O'Dwyer double back, having sent his marker the wrong way, collect the  pass and slot it over the bar.

Unfortunately for much of their careers, Mick O'Dwyer was the only Kerry forward who had the same quickness of thought and foot as Mick O'Connell.
O'Connell collected a second All-Ireland in 1962 and was already being spoken of as one of the greatest players ever to play the game.
But in other years in the 60s Kerry suffered defeats to Down and Galway. Mick O'Connell was accused of giving up too easily as other teams marked him with two and even three men, didn't attempt to compete with him in catching the ball, or broke the ball away from him, thus negating his talents. These tactics were  - - - legal and the truth was that Kerry lacked strength in depth, especially in the forward line, to win these games.
O'Connell, O'Dwyer and other so-called veterans retired from inter-county football in 1967. Deprived of their talent, the future looked bleak. The county had lost 2 All-Ireland finals in a row to Galway, 2 Munster finals to Cork and the best players had retired. Mick O'Connell was 30 years old but surprisingly his best years were ahead of him. After a challenge match early in 1968 in which retired Kerry footballers comprehensively defeated the present, the veterans--O'Connell, O'Dwyer, Johnny Culloty, Seamus Murphy--were persuaded to return. The team qualified for the 1968 All-Ireland final but couldn't recover from Down's electric start -8 points up after 10 minutes. It was after this final that the Down captain made the prophesy that Kerry football was finished for 20 years! Little did he know!

The next year Kerry were back in the final where Offaly awaited. As the big day approached, O'Connell's name was in the headlines. Rumours from the Kingdom suggested all was not well with their iconic figure. A mysterious injury--he was not training in Killarney with the team -- would he play? Would he not play? Few in Croke Park knew as the throw-in approached. 14 Kerry players ran onto the field--no sign of O'Connell! Moments later he ran out on his own to tumultuous cheers. In the game he was quiet--perhaps he was injured! But when Kerry were under pressure in the second half he scored two difficult frees into the wind. Kerry won by three and had finally achieved that 21st All-Ireland.

The next year it was easier. In a free-flowing, high-scoring game  against Meath O'Connell played well and he had won his 4th All-Ireland medal.
He was probably at the height of his powers. He had grown into his role as the best-known player in gaelic football and was more comfortable with the media attention. He had learned to cope with the negative tactics, not to get disheartened but to fight on -- while never compromising his own ideals. He now played into a forward line which was on his wavelength -O'Dwyer still in the corner but the others playing their part --Brendan Lynch, Pat Griffin, Eamon O'Donoghue, Mick Gleeson and Liam Higgins.

One last hurrah beckoned in Croke Park. Kerry played Offaly in the 1972 final and were lucky to draw. The replay was set for Sunday October 15.Any problem? Well, Mick's wedding to Rosaleen was fixed for Saturday October 14.The wedding went ahead--some of the team attending, all presumably abstemious.

The next day, Offaly started well but for the rest of the first half O'Connell gave an exhibition. He dominated the game--fielding, distributing, scoring wonderful points. It was his finest All-Ireland final although eventually a losing one. In those years of 80-minute games a team could not dominate all the time, Mick was then 35 years old and maybe anno domine was catching up.

His last appearance for Kerry came as a substitute in the second half of the 1974 Munster final when Kerry were being well beaten by Cork. When asked to go in, he told the selectors to send on one of the young lads who shared the subs bench with him --to give them experience. Mick was sent on anyway but not even in his prime could he have retrieved that situation. He was 37 --the young lads on the bench were the future--and what a future beckoned. Those lads were to win the next All-Ireland in 1975 and 7 more in the next 11 years.
Mick retired but continued to play club and charity games for many years. A more outgoing personality emerged and  he began to use his fame and popularity to serve his community. He was elected as a county councillor  and devoted his time to many charitable causes. His interest in football continued and Maurice Fitzgerald, son of his best friend, became an icon for  a new generation of Kerry supporters--his style and grace reminding followers of his mentor.

Mick O'Connell's position in the history of gaelic football is unchallenged. He was selected at centre field on the Team of the Century and the Team of the Millennium. While attempting to adjudicate on who was the greatest footballer of all is a futile exercise, all I can say is that I have seen them all, Kerry and non-Kerry, since 1955 and I have never seen another player who was the equal of Mick O'Connell in those 55 seasons.

As 2009 ends we think back 50 years to his first All-Ireland and we salute a man who, although the captain, returned that All-Ireland Sunday to his home on Valentia without the cup. Brendan Kennelly, in his poem about the great midfielder, describes the journey and the person.

The island clay felt good beneath his feet
A man undeceived by victory or defeat.

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