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11 Nov

LiveGaelic Legends – Pat Spillane

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Posted by Eamon Donoghue in LiveGaelic Legends | Nov 2013

Arguably the greatest Gaelic Footballer of all time. Nine All-Star awards and eight All-Ireland medals in an inter-county career that glittered three decades. Not to mention being the first ever athlete within our shores to successfully return from a cruciate ligament injury. And throw in a twenty-five year media career that’s still going strong.

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The signs were there from the start for a young Pat Spillane, with a family steeped in footballing tradition. His father Tom had won a Munster title with Kerry in 1948 while a number of his uncles had represented the county with distinction over the years.

“Well there was expectation always that you’d play with Kerry as well but you know that’s the thing about football in Kerry. Tradition and families and the love of the sport, particularly if you have success, moves from generation to generation. There’s an expectation that you would be as good as your father or whoever, so good or bad there was added pressure.”

Pat played alongside his brothers Mike and Tom throughout both his club and county career. Between them they hold 23 All-Ireland football medals in Minor, under 21 and Senior grades, a record that has yet to be matched.

It’s funny because when we were at home we’d never talk football. We’d be playing in an All-Ireland final tomorrow and it would hardly be a topic of conversation. Sometimes we fought like cat and dog on the field but that was it and once the game was over we’d be back to palsy walsys.

“But we’d give each other a lot of abuse, particularly in club matches. But that little twenty or thirty seconds in a little family huddle after an All-Ireland final and Jesus that was a special moment. That was like winning the lotto. Because you knew you were doing your family proud.”

As close as they were; team mates and brothers, there was never a need to have one another’s backs on the field:

“I don’t think any of us ever got a yellow card. I’d be 99 per cent sure we never got involved in a fight so there would be no need to be looking out for each other.”

Spillane’s first experience of playing in Croke Park came in 1972 during his time studying in St Brendan’s, Kilarney. He captained the side in a nine point loss against St Patricks, Cavan in the Al-Ireland College’s final.

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“First of all it gave us a taste for the big time, and we played in an All-Ireland final in Croke Park.”

“The fact we were beaten, and that we never won anything at minor level with the county, it probably gave you an extra motivation to do better. Defeat motivates you. And those defeats certainly motivated us to raise the bar higher.”

Spillane lined out on that school’s team alongside another Kerry great- Paudi O Se. Yet like most school and underage teams, those who stood out back then did not all necessarily make the transition to senior football.

“Absolutely. There were just as skilful players. There was a player called Larry O’Donoghue from Kilarney, who died since, playing centre field with myself. And he was some player. A really gifted player. He was playing a colleges game, a challenge game as a seventeen year-old for St Brendan’s, and we played Kerry seniors in a challenge game. And he beat Mick O’Connell in fielding.”

We were lucky, myself and Paudi we got the breaks. Perhaps the other lads didn’t have the same drive or ambition, or maybe they didn’t get the breaks. A lot of it is luck and a lot of it is being in the right place at the right time, and of course staying injury free.

Pat went on from St Brendan’s to study PE Teaching in Thomond College. Where he had four of the most impactful years on his career.

“It was unbelievable. We trained lived and prepared like professionals. We were ahead of our times . Our training was the most modern in Ireland. We did video analysis, and tactics, and weights, ten years before it was even heard of. It was just the best couple of years and the closest to becoming a profesional footballer.”

Pat went on to captain his Univesity to an All Ireland Club championship in 1977. But despite his own successes he remains sceptical of the impact University teams have on the club championshis.

“If you were only marginally better than the rest than maybe you could improve standards but we were no benefit to the Limerick championship or Limerick football.”

Spillane’s time with St Thomand’s nonetheless would never compare to the thrill he got from playing with his club Templenoe- where he won a Junior county championship in 1975.

“Club is completely different. College is a fleeting four years. Six months a year and that’s it. Club is birth to death; you go to school, you socialise , you could never replicate the club success with anything else. Club is the ultimate.”

Pat lined out in the u21 All-Ireland final against Dublin in 1975. His first All-Ireland decider for the Kingdom, he picked up his first medal in an eight point win.

“Did I think we’d domiante fooball between us for the next eight to ten years, no probably not. But they were on the decline and we were on the rise I think.”

“But I think the first training session we had with the Kerry u21’s was the Wednesday before the All-Ireland final. Because all our team were either with the All-ireland minor team or the All-Ireland senior team.”

While Spillane will go down as one of the greatest players of all time, it’s no surprise that his manager for much of that time was the most successful football manager in the history of the game. Mick O’Dwyer.

“What did he do differently? Nothing. Well no, ok, Hefferenan brought fitness to a new level in 74′ and Micko brought it to a whole new level in 75′. His tactics were no different to any other manager.”

“But the big difference and the key to O’Dwyer’s success was man management and making you believe you were the best. Making you believe you were the best left-half forward in the country.”

“In his ten All-Ireland finals, and in all his dressing room speeches. Two things. He never mentioned the oppostion and he never mentioned the opposition’s star player and how to stop him.”

“Jeez he made you feel really really important and really good. There was always positive feedback. It’s simplistic but it worked.”

Spillane summarised the rather unique motivating factors that O’Dwyer recognised for himself and his Kerry team-mates:

“Belief. That’s the impact he had on my game. And always raising the bar. He knew medals weren’t our motivation, after we had one it was just an accumalation. It was about making sure we got rewards and holidays, and both got bigger and bigger and bigger.”

Considering the successful career that Spillane had, it’s no surprise that he could only narrow down his most memorable All-Ireland Final, to three.

“75′ because it was my first. 84′ because I thought I’d ever play football again with my injuries. And 86 because it was my best ever final.”

Six of the ten finals the Templenoe legend played in were against bitter rivals Dublin. With Spillane finding himself on the winning side on all but one occasion.

“Brilliant and you know the more razzmatazz and the more colour and the more shouting from the hill and the more it inspired you to play even better.”

“And the best thing about it was they were the nicest fellas you could ever meet. We battled on the field and the minute it finished we socialsed afterwards. The one county that to this day we still get on with, and stay in touch with and have the craic with.”

Picking the standout player he faced in a generation packed with legends brought up a number of famous names. Yet for Spillane one man stood out.

“Matt Connor was a genius. He was the one that stood out really. Dublin had players on a great team and we had a great team but he was the one.”

“The hardest games I ever played though were Kerry training sessions. Marking Paudi O Se. That was skin and hair and once you survived that you’d survive anything.”

For many Pat came before his time. A hard running wing-forward at a time when the rest of the pack were patrolling the 45-yard line.

I suppose if you look at Paul Flynn it’s no difference, only in the big matches I’d probably score more. I was ferociously fit. It was all of the cuff. I did my own thing. In fairness to Mick O’Dwyer he gave me the licence to roam. I did my own thing, away I went.

“The worry I have with the majority of wing forwards is that they see themselves as more defenders and linkmen. The bottom line is a forward is a forward is a forward. And a forward’s main job is to score. And I think I always scored in the big matches.”

However Pat’s career wasn’t entirely a combo of high after high. In 1981 he injured his cruciate ligament.

“After we lost the five in a row (1982) I went to England to look after my cruciate ligament because I was the first person from Ireland to come back playing football from a cruciate injury. So no one in Ireland was doing the operation.”

“I went to a guy in Cambridge who was one of the top guys in the world at the time and he had just done David Hay who was a Celtic player back then. So I went over here and my uncle was a priest and the Chaplin at Glasgow Celtic so we had contacts over there. Now days it’s a common injury and they’re back in six to eight months.”

It didn’t take Spillane long after his retirement to get back involved in the game. He has established himself as a GAA Pundit over the past two decades. Where his often controversial views have entertained the nation well after his skills on the field were no longer doing so.

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“Just after I retired in 91′ they asked me. The Sunday World were first and I haven’t missed a Sunday there since October 91, 22 years. Probably as a result some time a few months later RTE asked me, and I’ve been with them since.”

“Anyone who knows me knows I’d be opinionated at the best of times and I’d call a spade a spade. So you know the comments I make on the tele or on the paper are the same comments I’d make in a bar, or on the side line, or the street.”

“I can’t complain. I always said the ultimate in your life is to get paid for your hobby. A soccer player, comedian, singer. And the next best thing is to get paid for talking or writing about your hobby. So it’s great.”

Amazingly, Pat Spillane has been at the centre of Gaelic football for almost half a century now. And there is no sign of his reign ending any time soon.

“Sport was my life and sport has always been my life. Full stop. Not a day still goes by that I wouldn’t be at a match or in the fields thinking about it.”

“I just aspired to train hard, and if at first you don’t succeed try and try again. And I wouldn’t have been that naturally gifted but God by the time I was finished I’d have been the fittest. I trained and trained and trained and trained, and thankfully it paid off.”

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