One-to-one with Mickey Heeney

PART ONE | Louth's discarded genius - Mickey Heeney talks about his coaching career

One-to-one with Mickey Heeney

Caoimhín Reilly


Caoimhín Reilly


PART ONE | Louth's discarded genius - Mickey Heeney talks about his coaching career

Mickey Heeney brought a set of weighing scales to training when in charge of Carrickcruppen ladies, he made Kilcoo run through nettles and had Louth U21s on the pitch at 6am.

Mickey Heeney brought a set of weighing scales to training when in charge of Carrickcruppen ladies, he made Kilcoo run through nettles and had Louth U21s on the pitch at 6am.

“If you can motivate young guys at 19, 20 and 21 to buy into that regime, training at six o’clock in the morning, don’t tell me you haven’t something going for you,” he says, towards the end of three hours of chat.

“You immediately have the group.” And, he did. Mention him in Carrickcruppen or Kilcoo and he’s referred to in the same breath as Our Lord himself. Likewise with The Wee County U21s of 1996, who he led to within a hair’s breadth of Leinster glory, losing agonisingly to a star-studded Meath team.

“Those young men were fantastic and they worked very, very hard,” he adds.

His ideal team?

“This was it.”

And did he work them hard.

“I couldn’t get a pitch to train on and Drumcar wasn’t being made available (at usual training times), so we had to land at six in the morning and Peter Shevlin, Lord rest him, heated the swimming pool for us.”

They went on a training weekend to Inisboffin, off the Galway/Mayo coast, an island with no electricity. Traditionally “boozing weekends”, this was about preparation and Heeney led his crew on consecutive mornings to the land’s football field, beside the rough Atlantic Ocean, which they swam in afterwards to clean their sand-caked bodies.

A crew of bird-watching journalists spotted the team being put through their paces before dawn and, as Heeney puts it, “thought they were in outer space”.

“‘Heeney’s Dawn Patrol’,” was the heading of The Irish Times article which told the story.

All the work paid off in the form of wins over Dublin and Kildare, leading to a provincial decider against The Royals, but people, he felt, were pulling against him. A call, he claims, was made to Day’s Hotel by a member of the County Board during their weekend away, almost checking in on him. “It shows you the way we were viewed”.

Back to all that later…

“In football, I believe, if you’re training or managing a team at the higher level, you have to have an insight into how the individual thinks and operates within the team, because, ultimately, as is commonly known in psychology, when the crunch comes we all revert to type.

“If you’re a hot-headed guy in your normal life or you’re quick to answer back or respond, it’s likely that’s going to come at you in a game when you’re under pressure. I think it’s imperative if you’re into a team, which I’d always be, you have to know all these nuances.

“The point of supervising or managing is to be aware of certain shortcomings within individuals in the team or on the bench that’ll determine whether they’re going to have a good game or a bad game. I don’t consider that to be too deep, it’s something you should be able to do.”

Heeney won championships in Louth, Monaghan and Armagh, but was more accustomed, in his own words, to “building teams”.

We speak on the night one of the sides he helped to create, Kilcoo, were in the All-Ireland senior club final. Three chairs are in the room: Mickey sits on one, The Democrat on another and a Kilcoo jacket rests over the back of the third. Coincidental, he adds.

“You have to be at the cutting edge before making the breakthrough, and that’s the same in all sports. In soccer, Leicester are the only team in my lifetime that’s come from nowhere to win the Premier League.”

The Down champions have been on that edge for a long time, pushing hard in Ulster without getting over the line.

“How many inter-county football teams just appear out of nowhere?”


“Donegal were a different group. They were annihilated by Armagh in Crossmaglen (2010) and Jimmy McGuinness, whom I knew personally, took over a mess; there was no trust in the management, people were just there for the job.

“McGuinness was a thinker. (Colm) McFadden was on the periphery, but when McGuinness went in he made him important. He transformed Donegal in one year and came up with this great system based on the fact that they didn’t have many great scorers.

“If you’ve only one or two scorers, all the other forwards are getting in the way of them scoring, so you get them out of the way to release the forwards who can play.

“They were transforming the way the game was played. Not because, in my opinion, it was a particular system of puke football. Just maybe they realised they didn’t have the scoring forwards.

“If I went into a team and had six scoring forwards, I wouldn’t want them back in the full-back line. Today, Conor Laverty was back in the full-back line. You couldn’t beat his work-rate, but you needed him up front to get the vital scores, because he’s a scorer and a maker-of-scores. If I’m over the other team and I see their best forward playing in the corner-back position, that’s pressure off us, isn’t it?”

His reading of McGuinness’ slant on the game is interesting. It’s comparable to his situation in Kilcoo, where he devised a method of clearing the forward line, leaving Laverty lonesome up front. It was a case of turnover and kick into the space, allowing the speedy goal machine to do the rest.

Jump back 10 years earlier, and the game was the same with Louth U21s.

“I decided to play one man up front, Ollie McDonnell, against Dublin in Dowdallshill, because he was a natural scorer and we didn’t have that many natural scorers at that level. So we pulled everybody out the field,” Heeney explains.

“This was a Dublin team who were favourites for the All-Ireland, with (Paddy) Christie, (Jason) Sherlock, and (Darren) Homan and (Ciarán) Whelan in midfield.

“The deal was to let the ball up to Ollie who had tremendous pace and he would be left with a one-to-one. The first half of that game was magnificent.

“The second strategy was that if you pull them all back, we’ll have a chance to break out from defence and the man to do it was Aaron Hoey, who was wing-half-back. He got the ball and soloed the entire field… goal. It was the score that gave us the big onus.

“Dublin came back in the second half, but that (Louth) team was fit, they were rare, willing and had put in the work.”

The semi-final brought a different trick and another headline.

“I’m very proud of the fact that we stayed one step ahead,” he adds.

“We played Kildare in Páirc Tailteann and I changed Ollie McDonnell for Peter Kane from the Gaels. They followed Ollie everywhere because they were expecting him to be the main danger, but Kane scored six points; he was a good footballer.

“I remember the headline in The Democrat: ‘Kane the new lone ranger’.”

“Give me 20 or 25 young men or women willing to work, you could win everything or anything in this county or other counties, because of the work ethic and fitness.

“You cannot possibly get fit with a tan on you, listening to music in a gym, or watching yourself combing your hair on a walking machine. In the name of Christ, put them out on to a field in lashing rain and the first thing they’d say is: ‘It’s very cold’.

“What has happened? You’ve got me going…

“I understand because of the change in lifestyle, people who are coming up with solutions realise the natural fitness isn’t there. But taking them to a gym is making them look better, it doesn’t make them a better footballer. I’ve yet to see one footballer come out of a gym a better footballer than he went in.

“Of course it has its benefits, core strength et al, but I’ve said it umpteen times, including to Kilcoo, you go to the gym in addition to your training, not instead of. But it’s prevailed everywhere now and it’s a modern phenomenon that’s getting us nowhere.”

He landed in Kilcoo in 2006, the 69th year of Eoghan Rua’s Down senior championship drought. Three years he was there, in which time the great Mayobridge team of the noughties defeated The Magpies twice in semi-finals, by the solitary margin.
Heeney’s departure was in 2008, after a Division One final defeat by Pete McGrath’s An Riocht, who had flown Martin Clarke home from his Australian Rules career for the game.

“I got it hard to convince Kilcoo that Clarke was going to be a major factor and had to be managed and watched. So, I knew that night, that was me.”

He’d set the foundations, though, and the Kilcoo public would tell you that. In 2009, their wait on the Tom O’Hare Cup was ended, and they’ve won seven since.

“Kilcoo, those boys would eat the cross of an ass, eat the flowers of a plate, no bother,” he says. “You saw them today, they wouldn’t be shy in fitness or ability, and certainly not in courage.

“They always showed they’d the aptitude for training and hard work wasn’t a problem to them. We trained up a very steep hill beside the pitch and they’d eat each other nearly to get to the top first, through nettles, holes, weeds… I believe they converted that field since... to avoid running up it.

“Kilcoo are one of the very few clubs in GAA history that, I believe, have managed to develop on the pitch while developing off it. It was a staunch republican outfit, who were very fond of their ‘Irishness’ and had many an incident that maybe had good cause, but they were the team that gave the most.

“I’ve yet to see a team that were as strong-willed as Kilcoo. They observed a 15-match winning streak without touching a drink one time and they did not feel that they were under pressure to do so; they voluntarily did it.

“So it’s absolutely no surprise that they’ve reached the pinnacle and just fell short, but they’ll rectify that; that’s a certainty. They’re just brilliant people, and they love their football.”

Paul Devlin, the man whose leveller sent their duel with Corofin to extra-time, was a teenager who Heeney worked closely with, kicking frees after training, during his spell under the gaze of the Mournes. Laverty and Niall McEvoy, too.

“I’m not with them, but I’m proud of the part I played in the journey to some degree.”

And, typically, there is a story of a weekend spent training in Wexford. Up at daybreak, train ferociously, return, eat the house out and go to mass. The latter was optional, but every player, without fail, was in attendance, giving credence to Aaron Branagan’s memorable claim that football, farming and mass are the only pastimes in the vibrant village.

A monument to those few days remain at the local football pitch. The tractor tyres, which Heeney gathered for the players to jump through, are still in the place he left them.

“The locals had never seen this before.”

“I never use a whistle in training, I let the game go and allow players to take the blow so they’ll get used to it.

“As we’ve seen, when it comes to championship, edgy games, that’s par for the course. If you’re not used to taking it, you won’t be able to deal with it.”

The ’96 final beating by Meath remains a source of consternation.

“We were beaten in an extraordinary match at Parnell Park.”

1-8 to 0-8.

With Louth two clear, though, McDonnell rounded the Meath stopper and slid an effort towards goal, which Darren Fay, who would become a Royals legend, scraped off the line.

Within seconds, Ollie Murphy, another who would win an All-Ireland senior crown later in the year, had the ball in the Louth net, having got away from Ollie Reilly for the first time in the match.

“I personally believe, had we achieved that breakthrough, it could have been the catalyst for change.

“It would have been huge for us, but as it turns out it wasn’t brilliant for Meath because they surpassed it that year. Half of their team were involved in the All-Ireland win: Trevor Giles, Fay, Murphy, Mark Reilly, Paddy Reynolds, among others.

“We had one, Ollie McDonnell. The rest, that year, were discarded. A team of also-rans nearly beat Meath and look what those Meath players went on to achieve.

“I learned then that some people in this county didn’t want us to make the progress.”

But that’s for next week.

“All you need is players who want to play and can play. The rest is cosmetic.

“There are lots of players who want to play, but can’t. There are lots of players who can play, but don’t want to. The pubs of Dundalk are full of them.”

Great satisfaction is taken from his spell with Inniskeen during the mid-90s, where he won an intermediate championship (1994) before going within a point of Castleblayney the following year.

“They were a really gifted group,” Heeney says of that Grattan’s crew.

He had earned his reputation with Clans, winning a championship in 1992, the last year of his association with a club he played for over many years.

“I was very lucky to manage the teams I did,” he adds.

But it’s been a rocky road.

“Clans won the championship in 1992; we were after being in two finals, and ’91 was an extraordinary game, a defining game in Louth, in my opinion.

“There were incidents that happened in that game that were commonly joked about for years. The standard of refereeing was pathetic and very favourable to Stabannon.

“In 1990, Clans were beaten by Cooley by one point. Seamus O’Hanlon was sent-off early in the second half and people forget that; we’d to play with 14 men without our star player.

“Stabannon, the following year, was outrageous and what’s happened to Stabannon since? Gone, because all those players were, to say the least, imported.

“The following year we drew with Gaels in the final, who should have won; Clans underperformed immensely. I’d Mickey Whelan with me at that stage and let’s say we had a stern chat after the game, which ultimately altered the course of my life and my family’s life.

“We made a few changes and Clans were mighty in the replay; Cathal O’Hanlon and Stefan White, in particular, were magnificent.

“It’s to my regret that we didn’t win as much as we should have.”

His final game at the helm was the Leinster semi-final reverse against Ballyroan of Laois.

The drama was still to get underway, though…