Mick O'brien's midas touch
November 27, 2011
In 1961 Mick O'Brien trained the Walterstown team which won that year's Meath JFC and 50 years later he was still along the sidelines with the Blacks. During the last half century the man from Johnstown has contributed enormously to the GAA in the Royal County. By Noel Coogan.
Although a member of Meath's All-Ireland winning squad in 1967, Mick gained more satisfaction from his coaching achievements of guiding his club and county to success and also served as Meath Juvenile Football Board secretary and a Leinster Council delegate.
A member of a very strong GAA family with all of his brothers, Sean, the late Aidan, Dermot, Oliver and Eamonn, keenly involved, Mick initially became interested through his father, Kit.
"My father never played but he was very interested and went to a lot of games with Ted Oakes, with whom he worked. That's how I got interested and I remember going to my first game, the replayed 1948 All-Ireland junior hurling final at Pairc Tailteann in which Meath beat London.
"My first visit to Croke Park was in 1953 to see Louth beat Meath in the Leinster championship. The biggest thrill for me that day was seeing Micheal O'Hehir in the commentary box," Mick recalled.
Mick O'Brien started playing football when in the De La Salle School in Navan. "I learned a lot there, Brothers Celestine and Anthony were great men for football, I lived with two uncles in the town, the late Tom and Brendan, who still lives on the Trim Road. There were no underage football in Johnstown at the time and I was on an under-13 towns league winning team in 1955," he said.
"I also played minor football with Salles - there was no parish rule for that grade at the time. Then I went to St Finian's, Mullingar in September, 1956, Finian's was a strong football college at time and a lot of Meath lads went there," O'Brien added.
In 1960 he was on the Finian's team which won the Leinster senior title with a final victory over St Mel's of Longford. Other Meath players who shared in the success were Frank Carty, Brian Smyth and Tom Mulvaney from Skryne, Jim Delaney (Longwood) and Jim Farrelly (Oldcastle).
"After beating Limerick CBS in an All-Ireland semi-final clash we were defeated by a very strong St Jarlath's, Tuam side in the Hogan Cup final in Athlone. Jarlath's had future inter-county stars in lads like Johnny Geraghty, Enda Colleran, Pat Donnellan and John Morley but they still only beat us by three points, " recalled Mick.
Mick O'Brien was a school teacher for many years and joined St Patrick's Training College in Drumcondra in the autumn of 1961. He recalled playing his first adult game with Walterstown in the summer of 1960.
"It was a tournament game against Seneschalstown in Seneschalstown. We won out that tournament and another in Slane. That was the beginning of the upsurge and we won the junior championship the following year.
The names of some of the teams participating in the JFC 50 years ago make for interesting reading now. Names like Boyerstown, Lougher, The Commons, Fourknocks, Rossin, Gibbstown and Martry.
In the '61 Junior B FC final Walterstown met Dunboyne, who had the great Brian Smyth in the forwards, and won by 0-10 to 1-4. In those years the A and B winners met to decide the outright junior championship and the Blacks met Ratoath in the overall decider.
Mick O'Brien had gained experience of training teams under Fr Jim Deignan at St Finian's and took charge of the Walterstown junior side in the summer of 1960. He recalled team-mate Bernard McCluskey taking over when after he went to St Pat's.
The 1961 JFC final was played at Pairc Tailteann on November 26th and Mick O'Brien experienced frustration on the day when missing a bus from Dublin to Navan. He walked from Drumcondra to the Navan side of Dunboyne and after having no luck hitching, he got the next bus which would not arrive in Navan until after three o'clock.
In his Walterstown history book, 'Perseverance Brings Success,' O'Brien wrote: "As I got off the bus at Market Square, the heavens opened. When I arrived at Pairc Tailteann I was drenched to the skin. While togging out in the dressing-room, the late George Duffy kept me informed of the happenings on the pitch and the news was good. The Blacks were leading and playing well. I replaced Jack Quinn and went in at left corner-forward."
The Walterstown team with an average age of only 21 years scored a decisive 0-10 to 0-1 victory to bring the club its first ever championship title with Paddy Barry having the distinction of receiving the Royal Meath Association Cup from county chairman Fr Packie Tully. Mick O'Brien described the occasion as a great day for Nicky Bowens, secretary at the time who stood by the club through thick and thin.
A reunion of members of that team took place in 2011 but sadly seven of the panel, Paddy and Richie Barry, Ciaran Browne, Tom McMahon, Christy McCabe, Aidan O'Brien and Michael Fitzpatrick, had passed away.
Walterstown did not take long to win the intermediate title, gaining promotion to the senior ranks at only the third attempt with a final victory over Kilmainhamwood in 1964. Mick O'Brien missed out on that success as he played with Colmcille Gaels in '64 and '65 while teaching in Kells.
"I went back to Walterstown in 1966 and have no regrets about missing out on the '64 success, I never cared much about medals," he said.
As a player, Mick had the disappointment of being on two Walterstown losing teams in SFC finals, being well beaten by Colmcille Gaels in the 1968 final and again by Summerhill in '76.
He had a short but successful inter-county, the high points being the 1967 triumph and the famous trip to Australia the following spring. He won Leinster medals in '62 and '64 and was a member of the senior panel in 1966.
In 1967 Mick O'Brien was Meath's right full-forward throughout the Leinster championship which culminated in a narrow final victory over Offaly. However, he lost out to Paddy Mulvaney for the All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo and the final against Cork.
"I had no complaints about being dropped from the team. I was not playing well and felt I was out of position, I was better suited to the half-forward line. But it was very good to be part of an All-Ireland winning squad," he said.
Meath played five games in Australia and won all five. Mick O'Brien was one of four players to figure in all the games and he found the net in two games. In the summer of that year he was a substitute as Longford relieved Meath of their provincial and All-Ireland titles in Mullingar on the way to winning their one and only provincial senior title and did not wear the green and gold again.
Mick O'Brien has gained more satisfaction from coaching than playing over the years. He attended the first ever Gaelic football coaching course run by Joe Lennon at Gormanston in the '60s with other notables like Jim McKeever, Dessie Ferguson and Cavan's Jim McDonnell also strongly involved.
In 1968 there was a very significant success for the future of Walterstown football a Johnstown team, trained by Mick O'Brien, won the county under-14 championship, just four years after a juvenile section was formed. They defeated Kilcloon in a replayed final with Eamonn O'Brien the captain and other future senior stars, Gerry and Christy Reynolds on the successful team.
"The setting up of the juvenile section laid the foundation for all the successes enjoyed by the club in the following years," said Mick. He was at the helm for the SFC triumphs in 1978, 1980 and the three-in-a-row from '82 to 84. His playing involvement with the senior team had ceased before the first annexation of the Keegan Cup but he was on three more championship winning sides before retiring in 1983.
In 1977 the Blacks captured a first adult championship title in 13 years when taking junior 2 honours with a final victory over Longwood. O'Brien was at full-forward with future senior stars such as Eamonn Barry, Frank O'Sullivan, Martin Shiels and Gerry Cooney among his team-mates.
As well as triumphing in the SFC for the first time, Walterstown also won the junior A and under-21 championships in 1978 for a glorious treble success.. Mick was again in the number 14 jersey as St Mary's were defeated in the replayed junior A final and he was part of another junior 2 victory in 1980 when Martinstown-Athboy were the losing finalists.
Before coaching Walterstown to the annexation of the Keegan Cup for the first time when denying Summerhill a five-in-a-row, Mick O'Brien had made a name for himself on the inter-county front, being in charge of the Meath team which scored a sensational victory over reigning All-Ireland champions Dublin in the 1975 National League final
That year Mick had the satisfaction of seeing two younger brothers, Oliver and Eamonn, being in the forward division which was inspirationally led by Ken Rennicks. The '75 team was captained by Ronan Giles and included three members of the 1967 All-Ireland winning team, Jack Quinn, Pat Reynolds and Mattie Kerrigan.
In each of the next two years Mick's Meath went tantalisingly close to defeating the Dubs in the Leinster finals and following the 1977 loss, Paddy Downey of the Irish Times wrote that it was more a case of Meath losing than Dublin winning!
"Not winning a Leinster title as a coach is my biggest regret. There were a number of players in those years who deserved a Leinster success but it was not to be. It would have been great to win one but maybe we did not have enough scoring power. While it was great to win the National League, helping my club to win their first senior championship was an even better feeling, "said O'Brien.
Mick returned to the sidelines with the Walterstown senior team in 2010 - along with John McCarthy and Neil Reynolds - and after the Blacks had won just one championship game in the previous three years, they reached the quarter-finals in each of the next two campaigns.
After first going Down Under in 1968, he developed a love affair with Australia and made the long trip there for the 10th time last autumn to coincide with the International Rules games.
O'Brien has made many friends from various Irish counties in Australia and has shown admirable courage to make five more long trips after recovering from a serious illness suffered there in 2001. As well as the games and meeting old friends, he enjoys attending big race meetings and seeing feature events like the Melbourne Cup, the Cox Plate and the Victoria Derby.
Mick O'Brien was a familiar figure at county board meetings for many years, having first attended in the early '60s in Navan's CYMS Hall, now the Community Centre on Navan's Trimgate Street.
He served as secretary of the Juvenile Board from 1964 to '76, under chairmen Tommy Mooney, Patsy McLoughlin and Paddy Curley, and was a Leinster Council delegate from 1986 to 2001.
Mick rates Fintan Ginnity as the best county chairman during his time attending meetings with Colm Cromwell described as "a great GAA man." However, his number one Meath official was the late Peter McDermott, who became a close friend during the last 25 years and was "a very interesting man who could talk with so great knowledge on so many topics, especially Gaelic football."
The veteran Walterstown clubman has achieved a lot over the decades. He has been a man of many parts and another contribution has been the compiling of valuable history books. Apart from the Walterstown club history, he also wrote 'The Struggle for Pairc Tailteann' and the 'Loyal and Royal' county volume.
O'Brien is a man who was never afraid to speak his mind on different matters and his opinions were always worth listening to. He feels that club players are not nearly as committed nowadays as they were 20 to 30 years ago and the standards have dropped as a result.
"At inter-county level there is too much emphasis on keeping possession with players generally not confident enough to kick the ball. I would like to see a rule brought in to make it compulsory for all kick-outs to go beyond the 45-metre line.
"The introduction of the mark, also a rule allowing players knocked to the ground to hit the ball away with the hand from the ground and that all free-kicks be taken off the ground so as to cut down on stealing metres are changes well worth considering," he said.
Mick feels that the GAA is not doing enough to provide games for young players on a regular basis. "With other sports battling for young players, we need to put our best foot forward. Also I think it is not right to have kids playing 15-a-side games until they are over 12, games with five, seven or nine on teams are more suitable for younger players," he opined.
O'Brien is not too despondent about Meath's future football fortunes. "Meath were in slump periods before and rose up again. Success comes in cycles and our turn will come again," he remarked.
Finally, Mick O'Brien's GAA wishes for the future. "I'd like to see Walterstown remain competitive in the SFC although it will be difficult with players emigrating. Hopefully Meath can win the county's eighth All-Ireland senior title sooner than later.
"The next wish is to see a proper stadium in Navan, a 20,000 all-seated stadium, something which may be difficult to achieve in the immediate future in the present economic climate. The final hope is to see all clubs in Meath with good underage coaches - the present situation leaves a lot to be desired," he concluded.
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