One-to-one with Mickey Heeney

PART TWO | Louth's discarded genius - Mickey Heeney talks controversy, fulfilment and fall-out

One-to-one with Mickey Heeney

Caoimhín Reilly


Caoimhín Reilly


PART TWO | Louth's discarded genius - Mickey Heeney talks controversy, fulfilment and fall-out

There are few reasonable GAA figures who would argue with Heeney and coaching expert being uttered in the same breath. (Pic: Arthur Kinahan)

CLICK HERE FOR PART ONE: 'Louth's discarded genius - Mickey Heeney talks about his coaching career'

How many years are Louth in the doldrums?

“Fifty,” says Mickey Heeney, unequivocally. “It’s 1957 since Louth won an All-Ireland.”

This is a man who told a County Board delegation, on his third interview for the senior team manager’s job, that he didn’t want money, that it would be “a privilege” to take charge of his county.

Yet, 15 years on, he has no interest in domestic football or its politics and can’t remember the last time he watched Louth seniors play. But, as with any genius, he has a theory to answer the ‘where have we gone wrong?’ query.

“Nobody can tell me that every child who goes to a summer camp in Louth at seven or eight years of age isn’t the same as a child who goes in Dublin or Kerry or Mayo,” he shouts.

“They’re exactly the same, so we have to have a serious look at how we deal with those who want to play football, but aren’t getting anything out of it.

“I recall trying to get skills on wheels. We should have had a trailer or a van, with ‘skills on wheels’ clearly marked on it, going around to every green area in Dundalk, Drogheda, Ardee or wherever. Set yourself down on a Saturday morning - portable goalposts, flags, cones and 50 footballs - and I guarantee you now, never mind 30 years ago, you’d have every child in the place out playing.

“Why we wouldn’t buy into that is one of the reasons why we’re oblivious to the needs of developing underage football.

“Explain to me why you’d want high-profile managers coming in at the top level when there’s nothing to come in for? It’s been my argument for many years that the money spent on trying to develop a senior team that was going nowhere, had it been spent at the bottom level, to develop young players, it was a far more productive thing to do.

“If someone could come up with the sum of money that we have expended at the so-called top level for the last 20 years, what have we to show for it? A Tommy Murphy Cup? What are people thinking?

“The greatest satisfaction I got in my time within GAA was summer camps, I absolutely loved summer camps and the key element is that you want children to want to come back. But we’ve lost sight of that.

“We wanted the money and kept upping the price, so that if there were two or three children in one family, one of them was going to be left out, and I think that’s cruel. Not wrong, cruel. €200 a week to send the children to a summer camp, it wasn’t fair.

“I decided that when they were there I’d give them as much as I could, entertaining them, a bit of laughing and craic. I saw children coming on the Monday morning holding on to their Mammy’s hand, who didn’t want to come, and on Friday, when the camp was over, they didn’t want to go home. That’s immense satisfaction.

“Children then now recognise you as an adult. I take that great grá from that.”

There are few reasonable GAA figures who would argue with Heeney and coaching expert being uttered in the same breath. Gather the public of Kilcoo, Carrickcruppen and Inniskeen and ask them. Phone members of the 1996 Louth U21 squad.

Contact his showls of players in DkIT, or the men he worked with to secure Sigerson Cup in 2005.

Ask the Armagh County Board. Who? Yeah, the men Heeney could almost stone from his house on the Castleblayney Road. They wanted him as manager, in the job Louth wouldn’t give him.

The subject takes up the story…

“Paddy Clarke was asked to go for an interview,” he explains. “He met me coming out of an interview room in The Fairways.

He says: ‘Mickey, the job is yours. I’m after recommending that you get that job’.

“But what was said at that meeting is a very black memory for me. One of the quotations was that I would never get the Louth job as long as one of those men were involved.”

A pause is taken, as he gathers himself. Regret, pain and passion are palpable. Tension is building, in sync with the ferocious boiling of the kettle in the next door kitchen.

“I was asked to be interviewed for the Armagh job, so I went down to the Athletic Grounds. Pádraig Óg Nugent was after replacing his father as secretary.

“I enjoyed the interview immensely because I was asked football questions. I was asked about two particular men that were playing for Armagh at that time and how I’d deal with them? The Grimleys.

“I said: ‘If I was looking for an electrician, I’d send for an electrician; if I wanted a plumber, I’d send for a plumber; if I wanted two bouncers, I’d send for the Grimleys…’

“So I got a call that night from Pádraig Óg Nugent to say the job was mine, but just to clarify it with Louth County Board because I was development officer.

“It’s a huge regret, ultimately, because I was told I couldn’t take the Armagh job and one of the reasons I was given was ‘because I knew too much about Louth football’. I declined Armagh having been put under immense pressure and it sums up the attitude in this county: they were never going to give it to you, but they were preventing you from getting it somewhere else. I don’t get it.

“I was a loyal servant in my job in Louth through Leinster Council and Louth subsequently withdrew the funding from my employment. To be prevented by your own county from taking a job within another county, and then withdrawing the funding from you themselves, doesn’t make my attitude towards the establishment here very favourable.”

Why did he go forward twice more, then? Especially on the third occasion, in the noughties.

“On the third occasion I was interviewed, I did say: ‘Have you changed your mind, because you’ve already told me I wasn’t getting this job?’. Which was hardly a great thing to say starting off, but I just wanted to get it out there.

“Three questions, I was asked: ‘Do you want a mobile phone?’

“‘No, I have two.’

“‘How much money do you want?’

“I did not want any money, I’d have been very proud to manage my own county. As long as I was covered for my genuine expenses, at their call.

“‘Who would you want in the dugout with you?’

“I said: ‘Whoever I have as my advisors and nobody else.’

“I was asked again if I would want the chairman and secretary in the dugout, ‘we’re always there.’

“‘No,’ I said. ‘I want to surround myself with people who are a help to me during a match.’

“‘But we always sit there. The secretary writes out the team.’

“To which, I replied: ‘I can write it myself.’

“I knew I wasn’t going to get the job, I knew it going in. If you go to an interview and are asked three negative questions like that, nothing to do with football, you’ve no chance. Part of that reason is because, I’m assuming, I’m not beholding to any of those people.”

For him to never have guided Louth seniors is a travesty, regardless of Gaels’ personal view of the lively former Clans man.

Do you sometimes take over?

“I’ve never stepped over a mark, but why should I agree with you if you say something that I don’t agree with?

“Take the Citizens Assembly that’s been happening over the last few years, that’s a group of people who’ve got together to develop ideas. They all don’t have the same idea, they’re looking for the convergence of ideas that’ll be brought to a higher table.

“In this county, if you disagree with one thing a person of authority says, you’re now anti-Louth. That can’t be right. The definition of insanity: keep doing the same things over and over.”

Underage football, summer camps being an encompasser, has been a personal interest since Heeney’s own playing days. Louth’s first development officer, in later years he offered a presentation on how it was impossible for one man to cover an entire county, populated by an ever-growing number of schools, at various levels.

Dublin, he claims, started with two before growing that number, which now stands in the hundreds. He made a plea for more to be employed, offering a detailed account, but the sentiment was one of disinterest, he adds.

On another occasion, Heeney spent time at Liverpool Football Club, on his own week’s holidays, and came back “full of enthusiasm”, “brimming with ideas”. But he was stonewalled. “Who authorised you to go there?”

“That was a kick in the teeth. I went on my own holidays…”

He adds: “I was a founding member of the street league, Cumann Péil na nÓg, in 1965. I was the first mentor in Castletown and sadly it’s a major disappointment to me that it’s no more. The street leagues, in its purest form, saw every child in every street in Dundalk exposed to playing Gaelic football.

“I knew every house in Castletown, from Peter Bennett’s pub to the bridge; knew every child. Peter Branigan and Jim Ryan in the Demesne, knew every child; down the Quay, up Hill Street, Marian Park, Cluain Enda, Pearse Park, the Carrick Road… all covered and it brought magnificent feeling around Dundalk.

“Now, the interest has diluted. More and more people I meet aren’t going to football, players I played with all my life can’t look at it any more. Less and less people playing football.

“How can anyone tell me that in the town of Dundalk, from Blackrock to Dowdallshill graveyard, that three minor teams are amalgamated to play minor football. How many houses are in that area? It’s a total scandal and those who are responsible should be taken out and flogged. We knew every child…

“How can anyone scratch their heads and wonder what’s happening in Louth?”

Passion drips from his narrowing eye sockets.

Heeney brought Sigerson Cup to Dundalk in 2005, having gone to Croke Park, “on my Sweeney Todd”, and told the respective committee that “Louth football is on its knees, in tatters”, suggesting that the third-level festival could help reinvigorate an ailing state.

“I felt it could be the catalyst for change and that night I got a call to tell me that on foot of my ‘presentation’, Sigerson Cup had been awarded to Dundalk. Well, at that moment in time, I could’ve flown to the moon.

“I went into DkIT the next day and told the relevant people. One of the hierarchy said to me,” Heeney says, giggling, “what is Sigerson Cup?”

And so over the following months, after the development of the college’s state-of-the-art pitches, Bob The Builder, ie. Heeney, got a standing bank moulded, put in place a temporary stand, organised the pitch plans and erected a platform for the competition’s broadcasters.

The majority of which was fund-driven by Heeney, a loyal colleague Johnny Gallagher and students of the Institute.

“It was a fantastic success,” he beams, yet there is a claim that it was almost taken away, that Louth County Board wanted the final to be played in Drogheda, “a bog”.

“I told them, ‘if you want the final in Drogheda, then play the entire thing in Drogheda’.”

That put an end to that, but not the interference. At a later stage, he contends that the funding of his employment, from Louth GAA, was extracted and when he sought an explanation, the answer was: “We’re not funding you to train lads from Cavan and Monaghan”.

Contributions towards grants to entice football-able students to the college were also held back, until Heeney, arguing enough was enough, disbanded the GAA club. Controversial, but he felt his existence of being pulled from pillar to post had run its course.

“I was subsequently invited to a function at Trinity College where Brian Mullins was on a committee to decide the CUSAI (Combined University Students’ Association of Ireland) award, for the best project run at Universities’ level. For the first time ever a Gaelic club won the award for hosting Sigerson Cup. It was an incredible achievement.

“Unfortunately, some of the glory was stolen from that as well. To the minute of this day, I know every ball that was kicked in the competition and every person that came, but I do not know what the gate receipts were.

“They were not collected by us, they were collected by Louth County Board. That’s a fact.

“We just got the award based on the competition’s organisation.”

He takes pride in the recognition, but, it seems, Mickey Heeney has never received the kudos he deserves for how undoubtedly good he was.

His most recent job in management was at the helm of the Roche Emmets ladies’ team. They were in the depths of despair this time last year, struggling on all levels, but by the end of the term they had reached the senior championship semi-final, having taken out Division One teams en route, were pipped to the Division Two crown at the deciding hurdle and caught at the death of the Subsidiary League final by senior kingpins Geraldines.

He won’t be with them in 2020: their loss.

He has never managed his county’s senior team: Louth’s loss.

He is soon to relocate to Waterford: our loss.

CLICK HERE FOR PART THREE - 'Louth legend Mickey Heeney on decades of depression, suicide and his murdered brother'