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Saturday 10 December 2016

Billings told me to take Australia opportunity

Westmeath footballer John Heslin at the launch of the GAA.ie website. Croke Park,
Westmeath footballer John Heslin at the launch of the GAA.ie website. Croke Park,

In the emotional haze of the immediate aftermath of UCD's Sigerson win on Saturday, John Heslin described his relationship with the late great Dave Billings thusly: "he treated me like nearly another son".

For five years Heslin played Sigerson for UCD, hence he won't be available for the college next year as they try and retain their first title in 20 attempts.

So there was an added poignancy for the Westmeath player on the day and an understandably enhanced sentimentality.

But it was Billings he naturally referenced.

He recalls now Billings's generosity of advice in 2011 when Heslin was offered a contract with AFL club, Richmond.

"He didn't want me to go at the start," Heslin remembers now. "But he put on his hat outside of UCD and he gave me a bit of life advice that only someone who has been through various things can give you.

"It was an insightful conversation and that's what people are there for say like the Head of Sport of UCD, Brian Mullins.

"They have experienced things and I was only 19 and it was a massive decision and they gave me the advice and said 'look give it a shot, you can always come home' and that was that."

While Billings was mentioned, quoted and celebrated prolifically afterwards, Heslin says they avoided such talk beforehand.

"We didn't really talk about it as a team, that we were going to go out and do this for Dave or anything like that, but it was always of course on the back burner," he explains.

Delighted

"Personally I was very close to Dave through my time in UCD.

"He helped me out with a lot of things. Not only was he the head of GAA but he was also a friend.

"I was offered the chance to go to Australia when I was in UCD.

"I spoke to Dave on a number of occasions on what to do and what was his advice and even when I was coming back then, he was delighted to hear I was coming back to UCD.

"He looked out for me and just helped me settle back in as well."

Clearly, this wasn't just any ordinary UCD team either.

Heslin started in 2009 but the year Jack McCaffrey, Paul Mannion and Ciarán Kilkenny (who went to Australia and afterwards, turned his academic focus to teaching and St Pat's, Drumcondra) started in Belfield, expectation levels amongst the football fraternity in the college rose substantially.

"Of course I was keeping an eye on the players coming through," Heslin admits, "and we thought last year now was a real good chance that we were going to win it.

"And we ended up being beaten by DCU in the semi-final with a late penalty.

"We always knew we had the ability and no more than any other competition, it's just on the day, get it together and get everything going your way and going right and get over the line."

Phenomenal

In Heslin, they had a match-winner and one with plenty of practice too after his virtuoso kicking display last year for Westmeath in their historic win over Meath in the Leinster SFC.

In McCaffrey, they had a Footballer of the Year captaining the team, albeit one who failed to finish either the semi-final or the final succumbing to injury.

"He's a phenomenal man and a really nice person and he gets along with everyone," Heslin says of the Clontarf clubman.

"That was incentive enough to make him captain and he leads by example and as Player of the Year he has the ability.

"He leads by example on and off the field and he studies medicine so he acquits himself very well as he goes about life and he gets on with everyone and they listen when he has something to say so he get everyone together.

"Especially in the Sigerson when it is fairly compact and you aren't together for long."

Every major success brings a unique celebration routine. Heslin has never won an All-Ireland but the Sigerson win has opened his eyes to the attachment even long-retired players retain for their varsity football years.

"When you're an athlete or a player playing in any sport or any competition you want to win everything around you and when the lads are finished their footballing career and they want to look back and they can say, 'Well I won a Sigerson medal and I played with such and such'.

"You know, you're playing with top players from various different counties so I think it means a lot to everybody who wins the competition," Heslin outlines.

Regret

"I met some fellas over the last number of years, but even in particular in the last couple of days, people who would get in contact and say, 'Well done, it's a great competition, I won one back in such and such with such and such', and they have great memories.

"I got a text from Eamonn Ryan from Cork which meant a lot to me because I would have great time for him. That was his message, just 'Fair play, it's a great competition to win and you'll be delighted to look back in years to come that you were able to win a Sigerson'.

The victory was yet another reason Heslin doesn't regret either moving to Australia in the first place or returning to Ireland less than two years later.

"It was great," he insists. "I learned a lot from it. I was only 19 at the time. My college education was very important at the time and that played a big part in my decision to come home. I had only two years done. But I got a first in my degree

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