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Mick O'Connell At 80: Letter From Welsh Tourist Captures His Greatness Most Vividly Of All

Mick O'Connell At 80: Letter From Welsh Tourist Captures His Greatness Most Vividly Of All
By Conor Neville Updated

Mick O'Connell, one of the most celebrated and heavily romanticised footballers of all time, turns 80 today. In keeping with his reputation, he does not want a fuss made. Do we need to return to the story of the 1959 All-Ireland football final here?

Kerry had beaten Sean Purcell's Galway and a 22-year old O'Connell, thanks to South Kerry's county triumph in 1958, was the team captain. He ascended the steps of the Hogan to lift Sam aloft. In his haste to return to Valentia, he left the cup behind him in Dublin.

In his 1974 autobiography, O'Connell clarified that he initially lost the cup while being carried shoulder high through the mass of bodies congregated on the pitch after the match. He lost the trophy in the forest of hands grappling at him.

Picture if you can, a fellow hoisted shoulder high with an aching knee and the weighty Sam Maguire cup. From my vantage point it was not the green of Croke Park that I saw but one huge mass of jubilant supporters. No hand free, but everyone wants to shake hands. So the cup and I parted company very quickly. Whose hands it went into or where it went, I had no idea, nor was it possible to make oneself heard in such a situation to effect a rescue.

Attending receptions was not a habit of mine so as usual I headed homewards. As I limped to the train in Dublin that evening, my thoughts were not on wine, women nor song as might be expected. What was on my mind was the problem of securing my punt (small boat) above high water mark when I reached the island that night.

O'Connell played for Kerry between 1956 and 1974. He won four All-Ireland titles and collected Munster championships by the bucket-load.

He was selected at midfield on every commemorative team going, presumably the first name on the team sheet in most cases. He was picked on the Team of the Century in 1984 and the Team of the Millennium in 1999.

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Whenever an old boy reminisces about the great fielders of yesteryear, O'Connell's name is never far away. Indeed, he is usually the first mentioned. A majestic sight.

Even those ignorant of Gaelic football were wowed.

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Last August, reporting on a reception honouring O'Connell in Killarney, Kieran Shannon reprinted the contents of a letter published in the Dublin Evening Mail in 1960.

It was written by a Welsh visitor to Ireland who had seen O'Connell play against Cork in the Munster championship. (A forerunner of the British Twitter Reaction, if you will)

Sir, I have been visiting your fair country for almost 25 years now, often on the occasion of the Wales-Ireland international rugby matches. This year my party and I travelled to Killarney and therein lies the purpose of this letter. We went to see an Irish football match between Kerry and Cork and in the course of it I saw what I consider to be the greatest display that I have ever witnessed. I refer to Michael O’Connell. I know very little about Irish football but I know genius when I see it.

I rate this boy with such greats as Stanley Matthews, Finney, Kyle, Cliff Morgan and Babe Ruth and I have no doubt that if Michael O’Connell played rugby, he would surpass anything this island has produced. He has beautiful hands, uncanny anticipation, and strength and speed.

I am told he is only 21 years old and while I would hate to take a boy from the game he loves, I think his talent should be seen by a greater public in another code.

Notwithstanding these personal accolades, it wasn't always a cloudless era for Kerry football. They were often forced to play second fiddle to Down and Galway in the 1960s, both of whom claimed more All-Ireland's than Kerry in that decade. A world away from the barren years that Maurice Fitzgerald would endure in the first half of his career but not quite the outrageous riches of the golden generation either. It was the year after O'Connell finally retired from the inter-county scene that that team burst into the national consciousness.

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But then it would appear to be all the same to Mick himself. Winning and losing. It didn't matter that much.

He has just given an amusing interview to Ger Gilroy and Joe Molloy on Off the Ball in the past hour. He quibbled with the assumption underlying every question.

For instance, when Molloy went to ask him about his football career, he rejected the use of the word 'career', saying that football was his hobby and there were more important things in life.

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Gilroy tentatively advanced the view that his practice of rowing back and forth from Valentia to the mainland stood him in good stead on the pitch. O'Connell wouldn't hear of it, demanding to know what relationship rowing bore to Gaelic football.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DlmYUup_KSQ

When Ger put it to him that he was "beloved" by Kerry football supporters, O'Connell asked what he meant by "beloved".

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He flatly insisted that he had no passion in life. None whatsoever. Not even Gaelic football. The chief reason he played Gaelic football was because it was the dominant sport in his locality. Had he been born elsewhere, he'd have played soccer.

In fact, significant given the comments of the Welshman above, one of the most interesting things about O'Connell is how big a soccer fan he is.

I played football first of all because I liked it. If I were born somewhere else, it would probably be soccer or something that I would have played. Gaelic was the game in this locality. I happened to play it by accident.

Most strikingly of all, he consistently hammered the notion that neither winning nor losing affected him that much, nor should it affect anybody that much.

He constantly hears journalists gabbing excitedly about Kerry's "disastrous" defeats. There are, he says, no disasters in sport.

There was no such thing as days after matches. Triumph and disaster came the same to me. Losing a match wasn't a disaster. That was the thinking I had on the game. And I made no apologies for it.

This Kiplingesque approach jars violently with the modern - and much loved - stereotype of Kerry as a county that descends into an orgy of mournful introspection every time their football team loses a big championship match, leading to increased admissions to psychiatric hospitals and so forth.

That's Mick O'Connell, a soccer fan with a 1st class engineering degree from UCC who grew up on the 'cosmopolitan' Valentia Island.

A rather memorable interview and you can listen below.

Read more: Balls Remembers... Kerry: The Lost Years 1987 - 1996

Read more: "I'm Sick To Death Of Championship Formulas" - Balls Review Of The GAA Year 2016

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