Kerry Footballers

Saluting the Incomparable Mick O’Connell

August 17th, 2011
by Weeshie Fogarty

Perched in the lea of Doulas Head and facing into Dingle Bay lies the now uninhabited island of Beginish. This is Mick O'Connell's ancestral home. His father, Jeremiah, lived there up until the early 1930s when he moved his family to nearby Valentia, where he bought a small farm and built a house.

The children of that generation grew up in tranquil surroundings when there was no bridge to the mainland and a visit to the local cinema provided the high point of the week.

Some further constants could be mentioned. Padgen Murphy, a lone accordionist, became the resident orchestra in St. Derarca's Hall. On New Year's Eve, the pipe band sallied forth. That most unusual of luxuries, a late ferry, was a blessing to be savoured. Life moved at a slow, measured pace.

A strong football tradition ensured that no young aspirant had to look far for inspiration. Charlie Coughlan, a consummate stylist who played rugby at Rockwell College and who died recently in Kenya, would have provided the supreme prototype of excellence.

Eddie Condon, who played for Kerry and Galway, was another. Both of these were among the tiny minority who saw college education. The vast majority enjoyed no such conditioning.

That certain aura displayed by Valentia footballers whenever they lined out in Reenrusheen became part of GAA lore and even Jackie Walsh, a dyed-in-the-wool St. Mary's man, would often hold forth on this subject. Gaining kudos from the elite in Cahirsiveen was an unexpected bonus because both clubs were keen rivals.

In later years, the explosive talent that was O'Connell burst like a mortar shell on the sporting consciousness of a nation. Conversely, the time and place that produced him could have stifled his development because his beginnings in football couldn't have been more humble or more ordinary.

The school yard in Knightstown was where it all started. Mrs Coughlan, the teacher, encouraged her pupils by presenting them with their first rag-ball. It was as round as an apple and stitched perfectly at both ends.

Growing up about half a mile away in the company of his older brother, John, and his five sisters, the future Kerry midfielder's upbringing was no different from any of his contemporaries.

There were no football genes in the family on either side. Unlike the Spillanes of Templenoe, the Sheehys of Tralee or the Brosnans of Moyvane, whose ancestry was rich in football adornment, he had to carve out his own destiny.

The small field adjoining the family home became a battlefield during the long summer evenings after school. Jackets substituted for goalposts.

The two worst players went into goals at either end and the rest played "outfield." Shouts of encouragement from passers-by added an authentic touch. Croke Park was brought closer by the spin-doctoring of Micheál O Hehir on Sundays.

After one juvenile game in the Con Keating Park, Eugene Ring, a seasoned official who knew his football, was lavish in his praises. He spoke gushingly about "Jeremiah's son." Already there were unmistakeable signs of excellence. Learning to kick well with both feet was a given precept. In time, subtle touches were added to a deep reservoir of skill.

A senior championship debut in the 1956 Munster final replay at Killarney brought the first sightings of what was to follow. Cork supporters were jubilant when Niall Fitzgerald kicked the winning point almost on the stroke of full-time. Tom Cunningham repeated that bitter riposte a year later in Waterford.

Fast forward 14 months to the All-Ireland semi-final of 1958. In torrential rain at Croke Park and with the pitch cutting up badly, Kerry were in trouble. At the start of the second half, John Dowling moved into attack and the young wing-forward from Valentia was switched to mark Jim McKeever. The rest is history.

Here were two master craftsmen, superb athletes and exemplary sportsmen, who didn't indulge in fouling, spoiling or negativity. Their combined brilliance would illuminate the greyness of that never-to-be-forgotten day.

By now, the high catch, often from a standing position, had become a trademark virtue of the emerging phenomenon that was O'Connell. But mostly he favoured a running leap, going in sideways to take the ball with arms fully extended.

This was a skill he had perfected against club colleagues who were very good fielders, men like Pat Cooper, Des and Frank Burke, Patrick Daly and Sonny Curran.

In his book, A Kerry Footballer, there is no attempt at hiding behind a public persona that was largely a myth. It is a rare glimpse at a man who seemed unsure of his place in history and who obviously suffered the same doubts and insecurities as everybody else.

"How would I portray myself?" he wrote. "By no means could I claim star quality. I lack the self-confidence for that role. My self-esteem fluctuated, depending on my current form on the football field. To a strong degree, I think I am temperemental also."

The temperamental aspect, driven by media curiosity, became a fascinating side-show to the main event. Here was somebody who didn't hang around after matches, who lived on an island, who often rowed his boat to the mainland to play football. Already he was earning comparisons with Christy Ring.

In his Pocket History of Gaelic Sports, Eamonn Sweeney wrote:

"Tales of O'Connell rowing solo across the waves to the mainland for matches added to the mystique. There was an aloofness which he cultivated too, giving the impression that the adulation which is the normal lot of football legends didn't matter to him.

"These are only incidental details, however. What really won O'Connell his place in the hearts of football fans was the extraordinary elegance and accomplishment of his midfield play."

That his lifestyle provided an insoluble conundrum to the masses who didn't understand is beyond doubt. Nobody could ever quite rationalise the odds that were stacked against him or why he went to such extremes in the pursuit of excellence. But far from being inhibited by his environment, he thrived on it.

There was no need for gym work, weight lifting, a low fat diet or sports psychology. He ate whatever was put in front of him. He trained mostly on his own. Coaching was unheard of. Scientific training methods were at least 40 years away.

The training regimen favoured by Mick O'Connell would not have worked for everybody, but it brought rewards in rich abundance. And the reason it proved successful has a very simple resonance. Put it down to sheer natural talent.

There is no substitute for that and Mick O'Connell is going to be a particularly worthy recipient of the Hall of Fame Award when the Kerry Sports Stars Banquet is held in the INEC, Killarney, on Saturday night, January 15.

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