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Páidí on the rebound

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GOING WEST: Páidí Ó Sé in full flow as Westmeath manager. Pic: Matt Browne / Sportsfile

GOING WEST: Páidí Ó Sé in full flow as Westmeath manager. Pic: Matt Browne / Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

GOING WEST: Páidí Ó Sé in full flow as Westmeath manager. Pic: Matt Browne / Sportsfile

He was a bull as they saw it and a wild bull at that, but he was theirs now, ready to knock spots off the m. Alan Mangan first heard the news in Gran Canaria, initially presuming it just mischief. Páidí Ó Sé, that Kerry institution, was coming to manage Westmeath, all the way from Ventry. But the hullabaloo aroused at home soon caught a persuasive wind and, within hours of landing in Las Palmas, three of them were exploring options for early flights home.

Mangan was there with Aidan Lenihan and Brian Morley, rumour quickly reaching them that Páidí wanted 'everybody' at his first team-meeting.

They knew him only as we all did. That storied, untameable figure with a record of prolific success. Someone with a plain repugnance of ambivalent ways, of half-heartedness. A man who might just know something they couldn't know themselves. Give them something.

What exactly? Who could say? Maybe a small edge of banditry. The story grew from nothing and, accordingly, it was hard not to see it all as a little impulsive and half-baked. Páidí was hurting, the whole country knew it.

Cut loose by Kerry, he'd been given the news as loose-tongued gossip before the county board managed the courtesy of a call. Two All-Irelands delivered as manager after they'd been more than a decade without, but paying the price now for three Championships without the 'cannister' coming south. And wounded by the clumsiness of it all.

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ARRIVAL: Páidí Ó Sé at the Greville Arms Hotel, Mullingar where he was formally announced as the Westmeath manager in 2003. Pic: Matt Browne / Sportsfile

ARRIVAL: Páidí Ó Sé at the Greville Arms Hotel, Mullingar where he was formally announced as the Westmeath manager in 2003. Pic: Matt Browne / Sportsfile

Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

ARRIVAL: Páidí Ó Sé at the Greville Arms Hotel, Mullingar where he was formally announced as the Westmeath manager in 2003. Pic: Matt Browne / Sportsfile

Westmeath? They'd yet to cross that great river of winning a Leinster championship, but they weren't exactly harmless, hayseed types either. Luke Dempsey had managed the county to unprecedented underage success and, as senior manager, he seemed lacking in nothing more than good fortune.

They'd taken Meath to a replay in 2003, but now stood a gaping 55 years without even a senior provincial final appearance.

The three men in on what had been considered 'secret' negotiations with Páidí were county board officers Denis Coyne, Seamus O'Faolain and Paddy Collins. An agreement was reached that they'd 'keep a lid' on the story until Páidí tied up some loose ends at home.

The lid popped quickly, Westmeath's coup making the front page of a national newspaper before anything had been formalised. Even Páidí's extended family felt the breath whipped from their rib-cages.

"We knew he was really hurt," recalls Tomás Ó Sé, one of three nephews on the Kerry team he was leaving behind.

"I remember him talking to us about it and there were tears in his eyes. We were trying to lift his spirits, saying there were plenty more fish in the sea. But he was 'No, I'll never manage another county . . . '

"And about two days later someone says to me 'The boyo's gone to Westmeath!'

"Next thing I turned on the Six One News and there's helicopters and flashing camera bulbs and he's wearing a f***ing Westmeath jersey! And I'm 'Oh my God, this fella!'"

Turning his broad back on Kerry demanded things of Páidí Ó Sé that he instantly transmitted to his new charges, through the low rumble of a voice that encouraged no liberties.

But the unveiling at a packed Greville Arms Hotel had an almost slapstick feel too, Westmeath's new manager filmed in a helicopter descent onto the lawns of the Bloomfield House Hotel before being escorted down through a town already overheating with his presence.

He gave a 45-minute press conference soaked through with trademark roguery before removing the jacket of his charcoal suit and, to giddy roars, pulling a maroon jersey down over his shirt and tie.

It all felt a little forced and unconvincing. Why? Deep down, everybody knew that Páidí was on the rebound here. Wounded. A little bitter. Still pre-occupied with home.

But he signed up Jack Cooney and Paddy Collins as selectors before enticing Tomás Ó Flatharta to train the team. A member of the Kilmacud Crokes squad that won the All-Ireland Club title in 1995, Ó Flatharta was a Kerry native, growing up in a house by the road between Ballyferriter and Dunquin. Páidí told him he wanted Westmeath to be the fittest team in Ireland. That would be their starting base.

For the players, his torn emotions remained well hidden. Years later, John Keane recalled their first meeting with him in CityWest.

"We were standing at the bottom of the stairs and he arrived in his suit at the top," remembered a man who, one year later, would be an All Star.

"It was kind of like a grandmaster getting ready to direct us all. He was introduced and we were all just in awe, not knowing whether to laugh, clap or say hello."

Challenge

They played their first challenge against Dublin in St Jude's, just ten minutes into which Páidí reputedly turned to Ó Flatharta and groaned "Jesus Christ Almighty, what have we let ourselves in for?'

Mangan remembers the players being "nearly star-struck".

Famously, a 100-metre sand-trap was built at the team's training base in Ballinagore on Páidí's instruction, the players routinely compelled to run backwards through it. "You couldn't print what I'd like to say about that sand-trap!" Mangan laughs now. "It was absolute torture.

"But if Páidí Ó Sé told us back then to stand on our heads in the corner of a pitch for 40 minutes to win a Leinster Championship, we'd have done it. From day one, he made it quite clear he was there to win a Leinster."

Pretty quickly, Páidí's copyright was stamped all over their new lives.

In Donal Keenan's terrific book, 'Páidí - A Big Life', Dessie Dolan - Westmeath's most coveted forward - described the profound change they were all encountering.

"The whole announcement, the excitement . . . it was like something you would see on Sky Sports," reflected Dolan. "It was headline news and it was happening in Westmeath. It was happening to us.

"There was a great buzz throughout the county, it was infectious. Just by being there, he gave the players a bit more belief. He talked so much sense when he talked football. He talked about trust. And that's something we bought into."

They got to an O'Byrne Cup final that drew a reputed 18,000 to Cusack Park. And out of the blue, a TV camera crew arrived at training one night, Páidí shrugging their presence away with an observation that they'd be "following me around for the next few months".

By then the National League was up and running, Westmeath's Division One status now shining a harsh light on where they might be headed under their new manager.

Heavy training in their legs, they drew with Cork, lost to Longford, drew with Fermanagh and lost to Dublin before Jack O'Connor brought Kerry to Mullingar. Westmeath lost again, their manager seemingly frozen to the spot in the dug-out.

Afterwards, Páidí would describe the experience as "apart from bereavements and other situations, the hardest day of my life."

Back home in Ventry, his torment faced a pitiless constituency.

As Tomás, his nephew remembers "In the pub, the locals took to referring to him as Páidí Ó Sé OBE (Out Before Easter). He didn't know what they were on about. But things were going so poorly, the feeling was that he would be gone. Because they were going shocking.

"Looking back, the trouble was that Páidí never gave a s**t about the League. But Westmeath were looking for an instant hit and that instant hit wasn't coming. And we probably didn't help him much.

"Even in our twenties, we'd still have these little kickarounds in the back garden and we'd knock great craic out of him when we'd see the helicopter coming to bring him to training. Now, when I say helicopter, I could only describe it as a motorbike with a cab. That's all it was. It was tiny.

"But I remember one day, we were leaning on the wall looking into the field of long grass when he came out in his suit. He was wearing an old pair of shoes, his good ones in a gear-bag as he's walking across to get into this helicopter.

"He could see us and he knew we were laughing at him. As he got in, he threw the old shoes at us across the wall. As if to say 'F**k ye!'"

Some nights, Páidí didn't make training and the gossip would jump into overdrive. Others, he'd slip off half-way through, compelled to catch a flight from Dublin to Farranfore. On occasion, it wasn't entirely clear to them who was actually managing Westmeath, Páidí or Ó Flatharta.

Then they played All-Ireland champions Tyrone, in Omagh, and everybody got their answer.

By the time Dolan got Westmeath's opening score, the game was already three quarters way over, Tyrone leading 2-7 to 0-0. They ended up losing by 11 points and, on the bus journey home afterwards, someone suggested putting on a comedy DVD. And that's when Páidí really introduced himself.

As Dolan recalls in 'Páidí - A Big Life', "We were chatting and laughing among ourselves and the one thing we weren't talking about was the match. Someone asked for a DVD to be put on. Bad Boys 2 or something like that. We were ready to settle down and have a bit of craic . . . young lads out for a good time.

"And Páidí exploded. "'Ye should be ashamed of yourselves' he roared from the front of the bus. 'Do ye even care about what just happened here today? Have ye no respect? Ye were f***ing hammered out there and look at ye. Laughing and joking.

"'By Jesus, I didn't see much today to be laughing and joking about. Ye boys are going to have to toughen up. Otherwise, we're wasting our time.'"

Two nights later, they paid for their frivolity in Ballinagore.

Westmeath retained their Division One status on scoring averages by winning their final game against Mayo.

It felt an act of evasion more than any great show of accountability. But the fury they'd encountered on the bus that day coming out of Healy Park in Omagh was bubbling in Páidí all the time now. He had a favoured expression 'Bualadh dair le dornaibh' that he had inscribed on badges handed around to every one of the Westmeath players.

The expression, he said, needed to apply to every single one of them. That hitting a Westmeath man would be the equivalent of "beating your hand off an oak tree".

In 'Marooned', the subsequently acclaimed Pat Collins documentary that would explain the constant presence of TV cameras, Páidí confirmed the depth of the fire now raging inside him.

"The last thing I think about before going to bed is football and Kerry," he revealed. "And the first thing I think about in the morning when I wake up is football and Kerry. And I've been doing that since I knew what a football looked like.

"Nothing meant more to me than the green and gold. It's no major secret that I heard the news (of his imminent sacking) second-hand. That hurt me immensely you know. They possibly felt that I was going to go away quietly. Give him enough time now and he'll walk the plank.

"But no, no, in actual fact my own wife and family said 'Make them fire you!' Of course I have made mistakes. Calling Kerry supporters . . . was it f***ing animals or something (in a famous Sunday Independent interview) . . . what I meant was that they were high achievers in Kerry, that they were animals to satisfy.

"Because they wanted their team in Croke Park every year. I mean, as far as I'm concerned, that's a compliment. I have made mistakes and I'll admit I've made mistakes.

"Will they admit that they made a mistake and will they admit that they handled their business untidily? I didn't hear any of them admitting it yet anyhow. And you won't either.

"I didn't give any major thought to training another team to be honest. I gave the Westmeath job no major thought. The ideal situation for when I was finished with management in Kerry was to bow out totally and not get involved in any managerial work anymore. Maybe concentrate a little bit of my time on my family and my business.

"But then the manner in which it all happened - all of a sudden and out of the blue - that's possibly how I said I'd better hang onto something for my sanity."

Westmeath might have got a special man here. But he was emotionally damaged too.

Now if Kerry's handling of their business was clumsy, it would be remiss not to point out that they would win four of the next six All-Irelands too. Maybe Páidí's voice had lost its edge in that dressing-room.

But it was only growing louder in Westmeath now.

As Mangan remembers "We knew we had a right good team and Páidí just had a really good knack of saying the right thing at the right time. Once it came to Championship, his speeches . . . I remember leaving the dressing room before the first round against Offaly and the hair was standing on the back of my neck.

"We sort of hung onto every word that he said."

The story of the 2004 Leinster Championship will forever be that of previously sedate and orderly lives turning momentous. Westmeath beat Offaly for the first time in 55 years by a single point.

Two weeks later, they hastened Tommy Lyons' departure as Dublin manager when they had two points to spare over the city team. Another three weeks down the road, Wexford were despatched by four.

Westmeath had made their first Leinster final since 1949. Opposing them? The defending champions, Mick O'Dwyer's Laois.

The final would go to a replay, Páidí making a speech between the two games that - filmed for 'Marooned' - would acquire iconic status. And Mangan would be central to it.

Twice in the drawn game, he'd been bounced out over the sideline in front of the Westmeath manager, the sight of that offending everything Páidí Ó Sé stood for as a football man.

"Lads bring the bit of f***ing devilment into your play the next day" says Páidí in a huddle. "And the tigerish play, the discipline, the tightness, the rough-and-tumble stuff out around the middle of the field, the f***ing breaking ball. A grain of rice is going to tip the scale. Just remember that lads, a grain of rice will tip the scale.

"But you'll have to get steely tough upstairs and you must be willing to f***ing break your gut. (Then turning to Mangan) You were f***ed over the line twice, f***ed over the line like you'd catch a f***ing loaf of bread and f**k you over the line with a shoulder. And what that does is it lifts the opposition.

"We don't want to see no Westmeath man f***ed about. Is that clear now Alan? No more. You'll have to be closer, closer to f**k. We'll have to f***ing crash into these fellas and test out their f***ing pulse. Because I'm telling ye lads, these fellas will play good football if they're allowed.

"Give me one f***ing guarantee each and every one of ye, that ye're going to take the f***ing game to these fellas. That these fellas will get such a f***ing shell-shock next Saturday evening, that we'll put them back on their f***ing arses for f***ing ten years."

The camera clearly picks out Mangan, head down, as Páidí speaks. It seems a vaguely intrusive moment. An invasion of privacy almost.

Mangan knew precisely the incidents Páidí was identifying. In the first one, he had been blatantly pushed across the whitewash. The second one? He tried to take on one of Laois's biggest players, Darren Rooney, down the line and the resulting clash simply wasn't a collision of physical equals.

Mangan says today that he wasn't wounded by the reprimand. On the contrary, he interpreted it as a positive sign.

"First thing I'd say now is that, in fairness to the camera crew, I don't ever remember being even conscious of the presence after the first night," he reflects now. "They always kept in the background, generally staying off the pitch.

"Like when Páidí gives that famous speech, it seems like the camera is right beside us, but I had no sense of them being there at the time. And Páidí always said to us 'If you're getting a bollocking off me, it only means I respect you enough as a footballer to give you that bollocking.

"I knew I could easily have been dropped for the replay because I was poor the first day and Joe Fallon came on for me, scoring two points from play. So I'd actually gone to training that night, thinking I might be dropped. But I reckoned he wasn't going to say what he said to me if he didn't intend playing me.

"Páidí was a great man to flick those psychological switches."

The following Saturday evening, Mangan played maybe the game of his life - scoring 0-4 from play - as Westmeath were duly crowned Leinster champions, beating Laois 0-12 to 0-10.

A couple of years ago, on a stag weekend in Liverpool, a stranger with a strong Kerry accent approached him, enquiring "Do you mind if I ask you something?"

The man wanted to know if Mangan was Páidí's famous loaf of bread?

"It's sort of hanging over me ever since" he says laughing now. "But I don't mind. I have my Leinster medal."

Páidí didn't change their lives, but he did profoundly reset how those Westmeath players came to see themselves.

The great fairytale came to an end that August in Croke Park with a two points All-Ireland quarter-final loss to Derry. The game was played as a curtain-raiser to Kerry's quarter-final against Dublin and Tomás Ó Sé vividly remembers a moment during the second game when he caught his uncle's eye as he and Ó Flatharta made their way around the pitch from the Cusack Park dressing-rooms.

Páidí was in his suit, maybe just 30 yards away, Tomás - still unaware of the match result - almost tempted to ask if Westmeath had won.

He quickly snapped out of it but, when he heard the result at half-time, something told Ó Sé that Páidí would be fine. They'd roared at their television in Ventry the day Westmeath conquered Leinster, but something told them too that that had been the height of their uncle's ambition.

Happy enough

Had Westmeath beaten Derry in that quarter-final, they'd have been in a semi-final against Kerry.

"I could just sense off Páidí that he didn't want to meet us," Tomás says now. "Now this was in hindsight, not in talking to him at the time. But I could sense off him that he was happy enough with his lot at Westmeath, knowing he wasn't going to win the All-Ireland.

"Like he loved those men because they'd have run through a wall for him more so than the fellas in Kerry would.

"But no way did he want to manage them in the championship against Kerry."

News of Páidí's death came swinging into the national consciousness like a wrecking ball that December day eight years later.

Mangan was at home when his mother came into the kitchen, saying she'd just read about it online. He immediately rang John Keane, the Westmeath player who had remained in the most regular contact with Páidí. And Keane confirmed the awful truth. The great man was gone. Dead at 57.

They travelled, virtually en bloc, to the funeral, a pile of them staying overnight in Dingle. And they drank to a man they will forever remember as someone who was invariably right when he had to be.

"He'll always have a special place in our hearts," says Mangan. "A week never goes by without someone or something bringing him back into our minds. But my abiding memory of Páidí is in the minutes just after we won that Leinster title.

"He brought us into the warm-up area and gave this speech about how we should carry ourselves from that moment on. About how it was every bit as important to be respectful in victory as it was in defeat.

"And I just thought, that was a great measure of the man. Telling us that there was a right way to win just as there was a right way to lose.

"One every bit as important as the other."