Cork football manager Peadar Healy doesn’t like one-on-one interviews. We insisted. He eventually relented. Kieran McCarthy met up with him in Bantry, vowing to find out more about the new man in charge
‘JESUS Christ, Peadar, why the feck did you give him the ball?’ came the roar from his left.
As Ger O’Driscoll yelled across at him, shaking his head, Peadar Healy couldn’t help but smile to himself, as he watched the ball sail over the post, then the road, and disappear into the next field.
‘You’re some man, Micko,’ he thought to himself.
This was Valentia Island in the mid 1980s, no country for old footballers, as a charity game between married men and single Romeos was the box-office draw one weekend.
A Garda stationed in Caherciveen at the time, former Cork minor and U21 Healy, a blow-in from across the county bounds in Ballyvourney, lined out with the married men, as did former Kerry footballer and good friend Ger O’Driscoll, and there was also a certain Mick O’Connell – one of the all-time football greats.
Even now, 30 years on, Healy (53 since late January) laughs as if this game was yesterday.
Sitting upstairs in a meeting room at Bantry Garda Station, which overlooked a cranky and misty bay last Friday morning, the Cork senior football manager sat back into his chair, arms behind his head, and reminisced.
‘Micko landed to the game in a Kerry jersey. We had the Valentia home jerseys and away jerseys, but he wouldn’t take off the Kerry jersey. The next thing, some fella had to go off down to Portmagee to get their jerseys because they are the same colour as the Kerry ones. We had to change the jerseys because of Micko!’ he laughed, but there was more.
‘I was taking our frees that day. We got one on the 14-yard line and I threw the ball to Micko and told him to take it.
‘The Valentia pitch at the time was on a slope and there were only a few metres between the top goal and the main road. There were no nets behind the goal.
‘If I was taking the free, I’d try to drop it just over the bar. But Micko took the free – he kicked it over the bar, he kicked it over the road, he kicked it into a field across the way! Ger O’Driscoll turns to me: ‘You bollix, what are you doing giving him that fecking free!’
Those six years in the ’80s when he was stationed as a Garda in South Kerry, living in Caherciveen and playing football on the tip of the Iveragh Peninsula taught Healy a lot.
He was an All-Ireland winning former Cork minor footballer and a former Cork U21, he had won a couple of Comórtas Peiles with his club Naomh Abán and enjoyed good times underage, had played senior club football in Cork, was successful in Mid Cork and with Coláiste Iosagáin – but that mattered little on his first outing for Valentia.
‘It was a home game, my first day out, and I’d say all the parish came to watch the new fella play. It was rare back then for an outsider to join them, I would have been one of the first, I say,’ Healy recalled.
‘Coming off the pitch, I felt a hand catch my jersey: “You didn’t play well today, you’ll have to improve.” It was Micko.’
The verdict was in. It wasn’t good. But his second day out with the Islanders, against Dr Crokes, went a bit better.
‘I did okay that day, and I knew that because coming off the pitch Micko caught me again: “You were the best man out there today!”’
Life in the deep south kept Healy grounded, and he remains that way today, even facing into the biggest challenge of his football career.
While Cork were being battered and bruised in Thurles on the last Saturday of July last summer, as Kildare humiliated the Rebel footballers, Healy was 100 miles south, at the Lewis Road venue in Killarney, home of Dr Crokes.
Healy took over as coach of the Crokes in December 2014, and on that forgettable evening in Semple Stadium, he was on the line for a county league Division 1 game at home to St Michaels/Foilmore.
Crokes won by a point, but news filtered through to Healy, courtesy of the referee, that Cork were in big trouble.
‘He came up to me and told me Cork were down six at half-time. I couldn’t believe it, to be honest. I thought we’d win that one.’
Healy, like all Cork fans, couldn’t have envisaged that 1-21 to 1-13 All-Ireland fourth round qualifier defeat.
Brian Cuthbert’s reign was soon over. The search for his successor was launched, with not even a mention of Healy – it was all about John Cleary, the heir apparent.
Apparently not. The Castlehaven man pulled out, twice.
Healy watched on too, still not a contender.
‘I was like any fan, I suppose, I took a bit of interest, but I stay away from speculation and I don’t read newspapers. I didn’t read a paper (after we beat Mayo in the league), or after when we won the McGrath Cup,’ he said.
‘You need to be strong enough to form your own opinion. Don’t get me wrong, there are certain people whose advice I take seriously and who are a phone call away.
‘Look, I have been at traffic accidents where they have been three or four people involved. On the drive back to the station, you’d think to yourself “were they all at the same accident?” because everyone has a different view and everyone forms their own opinion – and that’s fine. I have mine.’
Cork’s search for a football manager dragged on, and then, out of left field and late in the day, Healy emerged as the favourite – player power a factor.
The news was made official at 6.45pm on Saturday, October 17th. Cork’s Twitter account announced: Peadar Healy appointed Cork senior football manager.
When he was approached, his first reaction was – can I do this?
Based as a Garda in Glengarriff where he lives in the barracks, he worked out the logistics. He needed a few days to think it through.
Having been involved as a selector for six seasons (2008 to ’13) under Conor Counihan, he knows how ruthless and demanding the inter-county game is. You don’t walk into this eyes shut.
‘You’d question yourself if you are good enough to do it and then there’s the question are you capable of doing it,’ Healy mused.
‘The most important people are those you surround yourself with. I wasn’t going to rush it, or panic. I want good, solid people around me, people who I could work with. We will have our arguments but you need a strong team that sees the potential to develop these players, to give them every chance to succeed. We are here for the players. They’re talented guys and we need to get the best out of them.
‘What happened in 2015 has happened. We can’t change that, just like we can’t change what happened the year before, but we can help shape 2016.’
He’s a softly spoken Mid Cork man with strong roots in Glengarriff since the late 1980s when he was transferred to the West Cork village, but his eyes have seen the world in its many guises.
He’s felt love – marrying his Coláiste Iosagáin sweetheart Norma White, from Kenmare.
He’s felt the worst pain – his only brother, Gerard, died tragically the Wednesday before the 2009 All-Ireland final that Cork lost to Kerry. (He has four sisters, Mary, Anne, Noirin and Carmel).
In 1983, as a ‘green’ Garda just out of Templemore, he was sent north to the border, staying in Dundalk, as The Troubles raged on. He saw a lot. But he also learned a lot – like to make up his own mind and follow his own path.
When he landed in Caherciveen in the early 1980s, the Superintendent encouraged him to get involved locally and join a GAA club, suggesting St Mary’s. Healy had different ideas. He joined Valentia.
Life has taught Healy many things, and one of those is to make the most of every opportunity.
An attacker in his day, who preferred the freedom of the half-forward line, he admits he wasn’t good enough for the Cork seniors, but he tried. He travelled from Caherciveen to Cork for senior training in 1983, but he was only making up the numbers. He realised that it wasn’t to be.
When he had finished at Coláiste Iosagáin, his plan was to study teaching in Galway, but fate had different ideas in the summer of 1982 – the year after he won an All-Ireland minor medal with Cork, his third and last season as a minor.
‘With the club we played in the Comórtas Peile final against Gaoth Dobhair. The shoulder was blown off me and I ended up going for three operations. That was Galway over.’
(Interestingly, his son Shane and daughter Caoimhe are both teachers, with Caoimhe principal in Cappabue National School in Kealkil)
With teaching off the blackboard, a friend’s father pointed both Healy and his friend Brendan Kelly towards the gardaí. He never looked back, and he knows the importance of seizing every chance – which is what he intends to do with Cork and also what he hopes to instil in the Rebel footballers this year.
He stands up, walks across the room, upstairs at Bantry Garda Station, and rests his back up against the wall. He needs to stretch his legs.
He looks across and admits: I don’t like interviews.
‘Not many managers do,’ I respond, ‘but it goes with the territory. It’s the same with the guards – you’re used to asking the questions.’
He nods in agreement.
‘Like everything else it’s a new challenge. I am uncomfortable with it, to be honest. They are a distraction. This, right now, is a distraction.’
This interview has been a long time coming. Three months, in fact.
Finally, last week, Healy relented.
‘You don’t give up, do you?’ he quipped, but that’s also the quality he wants to instil in his Cork team that has lost the trust of the county’s football following.
Too many false dawns and too many inconsistent performances have created a divide between the team and its supporters. Healy needs to bridge that.
It’s all linked. If Cork can find consistency, that should improve performances which could build trust – but the past two weekends in Allianz Football League Division 1 have shown the good (the win against Mayo) and the not-so-good (the loss away to Donegal last Sunday, after this interview was held).
‘What I always want is an honest performance. You need every fella trying to the end and giving it all, no matter what,’ Healy said.
‘The Cork public know their football – and some will say they know their football better than Peadar Healy, like the guys outside at an accident, but that’s okay too.
‘We need to show that we are improving and that we are learning as the league goes ahead.’
‘I box every competition,’ he continued, ‘the McGrath Cup (which Cork won in January) is in its own box, the same for the league and so on. We are dealing with the league now and we’ll be judged over the seven games. We have a lot to learn and a lot to improve. If we win, we won’t get carried away. If we lose, we won’t get down. We know where we are going and what we need to do.’
To get to where Cork want to get will take a lot of work, but central to this journey, he feels, will be his players’ skillset.
After he got the job, he didn’t wait long to surround himself with ‘good, honest men’. Morgan O’Sullivan (Castletownbere) and Eoin O’Neill (Aghada) came on board as selectors, Conor McCarthy (O’Donovan Rossa) as high performance coach, former Rebel Paudie Kissane (Clyda) as strength and conditioning coach, and there was a gap until before Christmas when his backroom team was in place – Eamonn Ryan, of Cork ladies football fame, was the final piece of the jigsaw.
Healy is a believer in the basics of football. It’s not a game for robots, he stresses, but a game of skill.
‘Skills are so important. Eamonn does all the skills with the players. You want them at a level that if they are stuck in a corner that they can deliver a pass to get out of it and take the right direction,’ he explained.
‘You don’t want to give a free away because some fella can’t tackle, or cough up easy ball because some fella can’t kick off his left foot, or a fella can’t kick a point on the run off his right leg because he is left-legged – they can all determine the outcome of a game.
‘If he’s a good kicker of a ball, encourage him to kick. If he’s a bad kicker of the ball, encourage him to pass it. If he can’t win a ball over his head, get him to win the ball in front of his man.
‘You have to simplify the game. It can be too demanding, too complicated, too many video clips, too many stats, too many this and that – it just clutters their head. They’re here to play football. They have enough pressures in life and in sport so we need to help them, to give them the confidence to express themselves.’
Healy wants to strip the game down to its bare bones and work from there. Simplify it. And no distractions. Like interviews.
Healy wasn’t in Glengarriff long before a knock came at his door changed his life.
‘A couple of U16s came to the door and asked me to coach them. I said fine. Glengarriff had never won an underage competition before, and in the first year we won the Beara championship. That team went on to win a county junior B in 1999,’ he said, and his coaching adventure was underway.
Ever since he was a kid, Healy was a student of the game. At Scoil Náisuinta Baile Bhuirne, he was introduced to ‘blackboard football’ before games when he was in second class playing on the school team.
He would spend hours most days with his brother Gerard and cousins Dan, Sean and Paddy above in the Haggard playing football.
At Coláiste Iosagáin he was taught by All-Ireland winning Kerry footballers Mickey Ned O’Sullivan and, for one year, Pat Spillane.
Football was a huge part of Healy’s life growing up, and having packed in the playing side in his late 20s – injuries weren’t kind to him over the years – it was time to give something back.
Glengarriff GAA opened the door to football management, and he enjoyed it. Successful spells at O’Donovan Rossa and then his home club saw Cork boss Conor Counihan come calling. Six years there, he came out the other side still hungry for more.
Another season back in Skibbereen. Then a year in Killarney with Dr Crokes which allowed him to compare and contrast his home county and those cute Kerry hoors and their plamásing. One difference jumps out at Healy,
‘The biggest distinction between football in Kerry and football in Cork is that it seems to be a tougher type of football in Kerry. The reason being is the way that it’s refereed,’ he explained.
‘In Kerry, if there is a doubt about the foul, they let the game play on. If it’s a foul, it’s a foul, but if there’s a doubt they let the game flow. That works well and I am in favour of that.
‘Here in Cork, when there’s a doubt we blow the whistle. Against a tougher type of football that could come against you. If there was tougher football in Cork, it prepares players better for championship football and for playing with their county.’
‘All good things must come to an end, Peadar,’ I finish up, before asking him is an All-Ireland title tilt realistic this season?
By now, he’s back at the table, more comfortable than before, but his guard – pardon the pun – is still up. It’s his day job after all. He has a good poker face. It goes with the territory.
‘Only one team can win the All-Ireland. Only one team can win the Munster championship. Only one team can win the national league. Only one team can win the McGrath Cup,’ he said.
‘Cork have seven football All-Irelands. That’s one every 20 years. Conor Counihan won an All-Ireland, the first since 1990.
‘People can give our about the style of play of that team and they can say that Cork should have achieved more, but they forget there were some other very good teams at the time – that Kerry team in the 2009 final wasn’t bad, was it?
‘Conor took a team from Division 2 to win an All-Ireland, three Division 1 national leagues and three Munster finals – that’s not a bad achievement.’
Healy knows what expected of him as Cork manager, and he knows there’s pressure on him to deliver, as the county seeks to reverse its recent slide.
The league will be used to experiment ahead of the Munster championship – Cork await the winners of the quarter-final between Clare and Tipperary.
Kerry are on the other side. Another possible Munster final in Killarney where Cork have struggled in recent times is on the cards. That’s when Healy will be judged.
Question is what mood will the great Micko be in the end of that game ….