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Heffo's Army mourns its lost leader

EARLY SUNDAY morning a few years ago in O'Toole Park. St Vincent's were playing in a Junior Football match. A small crowd were huddled on the bank. In walks Kevin Heffernan.

The heads turned in unison like an audience watching a tennis match.

Heffo had such presence. There was an aura about him.

He may have been the leader of an army, but he avoided publicity with all the guile of that famous body-swerve of his.

When the Dubs were at their height and Kevin's phone was ringing from sports departments all around town, Heffo wouldn't be rushing to answer it.

His good pal, Seán óg ó Ceallacháin, lived a few doors away on the Howth Road. Seán had a column in the Evening Press.

He'd pop into Kevin's for tea and cake, and a plate full of exclusives! If you were a friend of the Heff, you were a friend for life.

Another great buddy of his was Jack Gilroy, Pat's father. Some years ago, Kevin was back managing an U15 team at St Vincent's.

Kevin hated fuss, but Jack thought it would make a nice little story. He tipped off the Herald desk.

The reporter nervously rang Kevin's home. The great man answered.

To the line of "I hope I'm not disturbing you" came the thundering reply: "I'm in bed!"

Bad start. Worse was to follow. When told the purpose of the call, the snarl could be heard down in Páirc Naomh Uinsionn.

And when it was revealed who spilled the secret of his return to the dugout, Kevin didn't exactly wish Jack a happy Christmas!

But on he chatted anyway, ending the call with the kind invitation "to ring me, anytime".

He must have felt like wringing Mick Holden's neck a few times. Mick was the joker in the room.

But he was a Heffernan favourite. The manager knew that when it came to it, there was no more committed player in the squad.

As John O'Leary relates, the boss-man understood that managing a group of fellas wasn't all black and white.

John, one of Dublin's greatest goalkeepers, will always remember his Dublin debut.

It was back in 1980. Dublin were to play Offaly in the Leinster final.

"I was working in Wexford at the time and when I came back to the house on the Friday night there was a message to say to report down to training the following morning in Parnell Park," recalls John.

"I thought nothing of it. I was only out of minor and I thought I was just going to Parnell Park for a bit of a kickabout.

"I was then told to bring my gear to Croke Park the following day. Again, I didn't think much of it.

"I felt I'd be sitting on the bench soaking up the atmosphere and no more than that.

"Yet when I was in the dressing-room on the Sunday, Kevin threw me the goalkeeper's jersey and said, 'You're playing today'. And that was it.

"Looking back on it, you could see his man-management skills. He didn't want me worrying or losing any sleep.

"We lost to Offaly. The great Matt Connor got a goal, but things went well enough for me."

So well that John would spend the next 18 years wearing the Dublin number one shirt.

"Kevin never said much to me personally. He kept things simple.

"Once you did your job, you were okay. And I knew my job was to focus on keeping the ball out of the net and getting my kick-outs right.

"I felt in awe walking into that dressing-room for the first time and seeing all those famous faces that you grew up idolising, including the great man himself.

"But Kevin's decision not to tell me on the Friday or the Saturday that I was going to play in a Leinster final was a big help to me.

"He knew how to deal with players. He realised that people had different temperaments, and that they'd react in different ways. Some would respond to the kick up the backside, while others appreciated the hand on the shoulder.

"He had such a huge presence. But he was never loud or anything like that. He was shy in his own way. He was such an intelligent man.

"Winning the All-Ireland title in 1983 was a great experience, but I'd have to say that the circumstances of my Dublin debut in 1980 made an even bigger impact on me.

"Seeing Kevin throwing the jersey across the dressing-room to me is an image that will live with me forever."

And like all the best communicators, Kevin was also a good listener. He accepted advice... as long as it was good advice!

When back in 1974, Terry Jennings, then a child, suggested that Jimmy Keaveney could do a job for Dublin, Kevin acted on it.

That same evening, he called Jimmy back into the squad and, perhaps, that was his wisest decision of all.

The ovation in Parnell Park on Saturday night told its own story. That's the ground where the hard work was done that sparked the Dublin renaissance.

As Brian Mullins said: "He had no time for you feeling sorry for yourself. He insisted that the only way to meet adversity was head-on."

With Dublin football resembling Bleak House in the early '70s, Kevin, down in the sweat of the Donnycarney Den, began to change the script. And the script would change forever.

He gave the impression that he didn't suffer fools and that he placed a high price on integrity.

He had such self-assurance, but he was more content sitting in Patsy Kiernan's Parnell Park kitchen than sharing a table with royalty. But Kevin Heffernan was royalty -- Dublin royalty. He was the Godfather of Dublin football.

Late last season, his beloved St Vincent's were playing St Maur's in the Dublin Senior Championship in Swords.

The Fingallians folk reserved a special car-parking spot. They had been told that the King was on his way.

Dublin GAA will always reserve a special place in its heart for this most genial and charismatic of men, the man that put the soul back into Dublin football. Hill 16 will always feel privileged that it got to celebrate the magical days of Heffo's Army.