Since he signed off on those glory years with Kerry, the alchemist has presided over Kildare and Laois, and last summer at age 70, it seemed finally that retirement, and the links at Waterville, were calling him home.
The energy and the enthusiasm appeared to be there, as intoxicating as ever, but maybe the methods weren’t as hip as they used to be. It seemed the players he was fixing with his gaze now wanted the modern professionalism espoused by the likes of Tyrone and Armagh rather than the unbridled passion of a Gaelic football legend.
Yes, it seemed that O’Dwyer and his many Mercs which had cris-crossed Ireland time and time again for one more training session, one more shot at a title, would grind to a halt. Football would be poorer for his absence, but maybe after more than half a century, man and boy, at the game, the Great Motivator really was finished.
In the end, we should never have believed it. Not alone was Micko not finished, he had as many as five job offers in the weeks after Laois had lost an All Ireland quarter-final replay against Mayo. There were even rumors of a surprise return to his native heath, when out he came back into the limelight as the new manager of Wicklow.
That’s right, Wicklow. One of only two counties — Fermanagh being the other — never to have won a senior provincial football title. In-fighters, no-hopers, makeweights — had O’Dwyer lost his marbles?
At the back end of last year, it was the least likely marriage in the land: the most successful manager in the history of the game pledging his troth to the most unsuccessful county.
And last weekend, when most people with half an interest in Wicklow football, or with half a brain for that matter, should probably have been idling in front of the fire watching English soccer, there was a happening at Aughrim. It wasn’t just the 4,000 souls (usual attendance for a January O’Byrne Cup match involving Wicklow: 250) who paid in to watch a contest against Carlow, there was live television coverage and a general throng of media interest.
Of course it all boiled down to O’Dwyer. It’s not that there’s suddenly a burgeoning interest in the Wicklow senior team, it’s much more how the Wicklow senior team fares under its new manager.
And there he was, turning back the clock. Waterproof jacket and leggings, walking boots, and the Bainisteoir’s bib, the match program and biro in hand. Not too long into the game, he’s prowling the sideline and asking the referee with that innocence and that famous glint in his eye if Wicklow were going to be ridden.
They weren’t, but for quite a while it didn’t look they were going to win either, when substitute Paul Phibbs took center stage with an injury time goal that gave Wicklow a 1-12 to 2-6 victory.
A former inter-county under 21 and junior club player, Phibbs had come through O’Dwyer’s trial games which involved over 100 hopefuls to make the bench for the first competitive outing of the season. Who knows whether Phibbs will be around when the grounds are faster and the business more serious, but for the moment, he’s a barometer of the county’s newfound optimism.
“Fifteen fellas started, and there were another 15 on the bench,” he said, “but there 12 lads who were up in the stand who are also training. There’s only a whisker between us, and I was just delighted to get on at all.”
As for O’Dwyer, a dramatic injury-time victory on his first turn of another roundabout was typical. At the moment of truth, there was the same smile on his face as when his great Kerry team had beaten Dublin in another All Ireland final.
“With the two goals scored against us at vital stages of the second half, most teams would have caved in,” quoth the Great Man. “A lot would say Wicklow would have caved in under it. But no, we kept plugging away. We’re playing Wexford next, and that’s going to be another cracking game. It will help us on our way maybe to get back near the top.”
As the TV outside broadcast folded its tent, as the scribes and the supporters departed Aughrim, most Wicklow GAA people were thinking the same thing. A thought that hadn’t crept into their heads for years and years.
One man might make a difference.
Rugby off to
a flying start?
The coming weekend marks the start of the rugby year in Ireland, and not since Karl Mullen led a callow band of players to the only Grand Slam in the country’s history just after the Second World War has there been as much anticipation of national success.
Even if rugby is a relatively poor fourth behind Gaelic football, hurling and soccer in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Irish sports populace, the growth of the European Cup and the huge improvements in the preparation and results of the international team have made the game here more sexier than ever.
Kids have traditionally looked to the GAA and to soccer for their heroes, but that too is beginning to change. While the pampered, fee-paying school image of some professional rugby players still sets them apart, Munster have unearthed personalities such as Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan and Anthony Foley who appear to be hewn more from the sort of GAA rock we know and love so well.
Yet, Brian O’Driscoll — currently one of the top five players in the world — Gordon D’Arcy and Malcolm O’Kelly, who represent traditional rugby stock, have also become stars in their own right.
The rivalry between Munster and Leinster, the progress made by Ulster, allied to the influence of imported players such as Argentina’s Felipe Contepomi and Justin Harrison of Australia, have brought about heady days for the provinces, and by extension, for coach Eddie O’Sullivan and his Ireland squad.
However, with the good times has come expectation. With England currently in the mire, and with France apparently on the slide, there isn’t simply hope that Ireland might clinch an elusive Grand Slam — entailing wins over the five other countries in the Six Nations Championship — there is genuine belief. And, of course, pressure.
But, the omens are good. During the recent November internationals, Ireland didn’t just edge home against South Africa and Australia in Dublin, the southern hemisphere opposition was comprehensively defeated. The official verdict might have said otherwise, but most observers now put the Irish in second place behind New Zealand in the world rankings.
So the leading team in Europe should be going into next month’s Six Nations with plenty of optimism. With history-making home games against France and England at Croke Park, there is likely to be enough of a sense of occasion at GAA headquarters to register wins over the countries, which traditionally represent Ireland’s toughest opponents in the championship.
The first hurdle comes in Cardiff against Wales on Feb. 4, and the schedule finishes in Italy on St. Patrick’s Day, where there could be celebrations above and beyond the norm if Ireland capture the Grand Slam.
For most of the players who will be in Rome in March, the European Cup is back on the agenda this weekend with Munster traveling to Geneva to play the French side Bourgoin, while Leinster take on Edinburgh in Dublin. Both provinces are on course to qualify for the knockout stages.
Following Munster’s emotional triumph last season, it seemed that 2006 was the ultimate red-letter year for Irish rugby. With the World Cup looming in September, 2007 could be even better.
Republic of Ireland soccer manager Steve Staunton certainly won’t be investing too much in an unproven teenager, especially when his job continues to be very much on the line, but he could do worse than monitor the progress of one Anthony Stokes.
A promising youngster on Arsenal’s books, Stokes was farmed out on loan earlier in the season to Scottish club, Falkirk, where he proceeded to score 16 goals in 18 appearances. There were suggestions that he might return to Arsenal to push for a first-team place, or sign for Celtic, but then Roy Keane became interested.
Now manager at Sunderland, Keane has been so impressed by the 18-year-old Dubliner that he decided to jump the queue and to persuade Stokes to join Sunderland for a fee thought to be in the region of