Micko the Great
A DUBLIN sports journalist suggested recently that prose is no longer suitable to describe Kerry's Mick O'Connell-that only an epic poem could properly do him justice. There is a deal of truth in this. At the age of thirty-two, the Valentia islander is still the monarch of all he surveys. His consummate artistry and style-whether it is in going up against opponents for the high ball or in the accuracy of his shooting and passing-combine to make him the undisputed maestro of the midfield. For a dozen years he has been the Kingdom's tower of strength and Gaelic football's player supreme.
If on the pitch he is the complete footballer, off it he is something of an enigma. Laconic in the extreme, he is a modest, unassuming and withdrawn man. He has always sidestepped the ballyhoo that attaches to stardom and his distaste for the trappings and publicity that accompany success is well known. He scoffs at words like" idol," " personality" and" genius." And yet he remains the best-known sportsman playing under any code in Ireland today.
On the eve of the last month's semifinal between Kerry and Mayo the Kerry team contingent checked into a hotel on Dublin's north side, half a mile from Croke Park. Mick O'Connell was not with them. With only two exceptions (O'Connell and Mick O'Dwyer), the team had travelled up by train, leaving Tralee at five o'clock. O'Connell drove up with a friend, Ned FitzGerald, arriving shortly after the others. A bit of a longer, he has always preferred it that way.
After checking in at the hotel desk and briefly visiting his room, O'Connell reappeared, dressed in a dark suit and sandals. He relaxed in a lobby armchair and asked for a glass of milk. " How many miles have we travelled since taking up the game? " he asked veteran colleague Mick O'Dwyer. "Something like 197,000," replied O'Dwyer after a moment's reflection. " Yes," O'Connell agreed, "we've gone through two dozen cars and that's without putting a dint in anyone of them."
The rest of the Kerry squad were either sitting around in subdued but not noticeably tense groups, or having a snack, or simply heading for an early bed. Collective training had ended for the team after their final stint at Tralee on the Wednesday night. But not individual training as far as Mick O'Connell was concerned: a man totally dedicated to the sport and to maintaining peak physical fitness, he had stopped on the way up for what he casually referred to as "a bit of a gallop in the hills with Ned here. . . "
Maybe it was the benefit of his long playing experience (he was captain of the victorious Kerry team in the 1959 final and has played in four All-Ireland finals in the sixties) or perhaps it was the natural confidence of all Kerrymen, but he did not appear in any way tense at the prospect of the next day's game or the thought of Croke Park with its II attendant crowds and pageantry:
"Arrah, I'm not a bit tensed up. Sure we take it in our stride. Although some of the lads do get a bit taut just before the game. You might have to tie a fellow's laces for him, for instance."
His blunt, philosophical approach to the game comes through at all times. On fitness: "Physically I'm fine for the game. That's not the hard part." On winning: "There's too much winat-all-costs attitude around." On tension: "Mentally there can be a lot of strain. Things outside the game can we'll be on our way. I'm going to bed before midnight. I'm reserving all my energies for Loftus." (P. J. Loftus, his Mayo opposite number).
At this point he excused himself and disappeared upstairs. A small knot of Kerry players remained to sit around chatting. We asked them about Mick O'Connell: "It's a help to know he's on the field even if he's nowhere near the ball," said Eamon O'Donoghue. "Yes," agreed his brother Paud, the full-back, "It's a help just knowing he's there." Johnny Culloty, the Kerry was the most well-known player on the Kerry team. Ninety-nine people plumped immediately for Mick O'Connell. The single dissenting vote was that of a Kerryman who expressed a preference for Pat Griffin).
At the team's hotel the next morning, the general picture was much the same: quiet little groups of players standing around in groups with well-wishers and friends; Johnny Culloty passing an autograph book around; the" Say, are you guys athletes or something? " from a transatlantic tourist who worry you." On Gaelic football: "This is an amateur sport but it's expensive enough to play. We have to pay for our gear and out boots. And there are the worries. But I suppose we have our memories." On the last dozen years: "There were disappointments and there were satisfactions and they cancel each other out. I put a share in and I got a share out. I don't regret it." On the next morning: "Usually we get up at seven. But tomorrow we'll have a bit of a sleep-on, a fair breakfast, then later maybe a light snack and then captain, declared: "If you ask anyone in any county outside of Kerry to name the Kerry football team, the first name they'll say is that of Mick O'Connell." With a wry grin, Culloty (who has been playing on the side for a year longer than O'Connell) added: " Perhaps he'd be the only fellow that they'd mention."
ceived a modest nod of acquiescence; and Pat Griffin declaring that he wasn't a bit tense but he wanted a bowl of oxtail soup. O'Connell was not much in evidence. Having attended Mass in a nearby Drumcondra church with other team members, he returned to the hotel for a brief rest.
Also in the lobby was John" Kerry" O'Donnell, the supremo of the New York G.A.A. and" assistant trainer" of the Kerry team, a man whose respect for O'Connell is boundless: "Kerry wouldn't be the same without him. An indication of his popularity was brought home to me in the Munster Final: when each player came out he got a hand from the crowd, but when Mick came out he got an ovation. He's the number one man anywhere Gaelic football is played, and anyone who plays the game as cleanly as he does and advocates cleanness as he does is deservedly so, He's a very big draw in New York. Last year at Gaelic Park (in New York) in 90 degrees of heat he was injured in the first five minutes of the first game. He played for the second half of the second game and won it for Kerry) dominating the play."
A smile in the dressing-room from a tired but happy O'Connell after last month's Kerry-Mayo semi-final. Kerrymen tend to become eloquent that O'Connell played a " blinder" and to the point of lyricism when they speak made his usual contribution to the of Mick O'Connell. John" Kerry" Kerry victory. O'Donnell is no exception: "He's the Since captain Johnny Culloty was in perfect example of he who exalteth him- goal, O'Connell strode through the self shall be humbled and he who humbleth midfield like some latter-day Ghengis himself shall be exalted. Mick O'Connell Khan, keeping a tight rein on the game is the type of son that every Kerry with urgent semaphoric signalling to mother and father would like to have."his colleagues. His passes were spot on
Later, as the phalanxes of Mayo and target and his fielding was brilliant. Kerry supporters were moving through The trajectory of one sizzling shot was Dublin towards Croke Park, the Kerry low that it skimmed the bar for a point team was preparing to leave its hotel. before removing the cap of a startled Mick O'Connell's granite face effect- St. John's Ambulance man, who had ively hid any emotions he may have been standing some yards behind the been feeling, We asked him what he goal. As usual, O'Connell was superb would do after the game. .. "I'll head in the air, outlofting the outstretched hands of the Mayomen as he plucked the ball from the clouds.
Elegant, immaculate and serene are adjectives not normally applied to a foot baIler. But during the semi-final, surely one of the tensest games ever seen at the G,A.A. mecca, he was all of these. His superiority in the midfield was outstanding and, despite a few minor lapses (he missed two chances of points in the first half and a free in the second) O'Connell was indubitably the man of the match.
The game itself was an hour of tense, exciting drama. The fact that on their showing Kerry should have been halfdozen points ahead of a courageous but outplayed Mayo team was irrelevant. When Mayo's Des Griffith scythed his way through the Kerry defence and rocketed a shot past Culloty into the net from ten yards out the game was thrown wide open: with four minutes still in the game, Mayo were a point behind. A battle royal ensued and
O'Connell was in the thick of it. As the cliff-hanging tension increased unbearably, he must have been a source of mighty inspiration to the beleaguered Kerrymen, as he urged, gesticulated and will!;:d them to hold on. Then, with a minute to go, referee Kelly awarded a free to Mayo. From an angle, the unfortunate O'Dowd sent it wide and then it was all over.
Throngs of Kerry supporters raced on to the field, jubilantly surrounding their heroes. As the team left the pitch, Mick O'Connell strode grirnly,towards the dressingroom. Autograph hunters were greeted with a scowl. When we congratulated him the response was a curt nod and a "yeah, all right. All right." He seemed disturbed by the closeness of the one point margin. Later, as enigmatic as ever, he muttered "'twas okay," a comment utterly in keeping with the man and set off for the Kingdom.
At thirty-two, Mick O'Connell may be in the afternoon of his long playing career but as Dr. Jim Brosnan, Chairman of the Kerry G.A.A.) put it to us after the game: "He's outstandinghe wins more games for Kerry than any other player. He's out on his own. And he should be playing for Kerry for a good while to come."
Mick O'Connell is a sort of a John Wayne in green and gold. Perhaps somewhere in Ireland there may be a bard who will try his hand at that epic poem. But the last person to worry about it will be the Ulysses of Kerry himself, It is refreshing to come across someone as unspoiled by success as Mick O'Connell and so unaffected by praise. But then Mick O'Connell needs praise like he needs a torn ligament.