Prior to his departure for Old Trafford, Kevin Moran is presented with a watch by Mullingar native Barry O'Callaghan.

Moran more tales of a codebreaking legend

My first time to see Kevin Moran playing Gaelic football left no impression whatever on me, but the second time certainly did.

Let me clarify. I was on the same pitch as him for the first sighting. Well almost, as a never-likely-to-be-used sub for the St Finian’s, Mullingar senior team when we were comfortably dumped out of the Leinster championship by Drimnagh Castle in Navan in 1973. Indeed, I only know that he played in that game because I checked back the archives and he was one of a hairy crew from the Dublin school (‘short back and sides’ was compulsory in my alma mater) who played that day, and he took the frees.

The second match is crystal clear – the scorching summer sunshine of 1976 being the only thing which obscured my view – when he played out of position as centre half forward in the absence of injured captain and playmaker Tony Hanahoe as All-Ireland champions-in-waiting Dublin mauled Longford in the Leinster SFC in Cusack Park. Suffice it to say that I immediately identified a phenomenal player, even surrounded by a plethora of phenomenal players.

The next time I saw him was face-to-face as a fellow employee/trainee accountant in the Northumberland Rd, Dublin office of Oliver Freaney RIP (a former Dublin legend). When I said I was from Mullingar, he asked: “Is that in Offaly?” Ouch! However, a long chat last week with my boyhood friend Barry O’Callaghan (son of the late former Westmeath County Board chairman Dinny and his wife Marcie, nee Wallace, who left Columb Barracks with their large family in 1970 following an Army transfer to Dublin), I was assured that Kevin (unlike, dare I say, many Dubs) was familiar with life outside the Pale – his Leitrim-born father died when he was in his early teens – and would have only been winding me up. I was wound up for 47 years until Barry clarified this!

Barry knew/still knows Kevin better than most, as a successful soccer teammate with both UCD (Barry was a central midfielder and captain of the Ronnie Nolan-managed Collingwood Cup winners in 1975 with Kevin playing as right-sided midfielder) and Pegasus (alongside his older brother John O’Callaghan on the UCD graduate side which eliminated Home Farm before putting Dundalk to the pin of their collar in the 1977 FAI Cup). Following RTÉ’s superb programme, ‘Kevin Moran: Codebreaker’ eight days ago, I decided to pick Barry’s brain – all that family had brains to burn – about the man who revolutionised the role of the Gaelic football centre half back before dramatically switching codes, in the process becoming a hugely-respected central defender for both Manchester United and the Republic of Ireland.

Kevin was a majestic number 6 for Heffo’s wonderful two in-a-row Sam Maguire Cup winners in 1976 and 1977. Yours truly happens to think that his omission from the All Star team in the latter year was a thundering disgrace - a term used in late 1976 close to the former O’Callaghan home in Mullingar and with dramatic consequences! A few short months after the Dubs’ demolition of Armagh (whose Paddy Moriarty took ‘Kevin’s place’ on the All Stars), I was in a pub in Dublin reading the Evening Press (always bought for the incomparable Con Houlihan’s column) and was astonished to read that, on the advice of legendary scout Billy Behan, the Old Trafford club was signing Kevin.

Indeed, among the memorabilia in Barry’s archive is a copy of the ‘goodwill gesture’ cheque (note the signatures of Matt Busby and Les Olive thereon) for £250 paid to Pegasus. In this regard, Barry also confirmed that another sum (approximately £500) was garnered by Pegasus manager Kevin Kenny from his Manchester United counterpart Dave Sexton (“a lovely, lovely man” according to Kenny) when they met by chance in the National Art Gallery on a day that United were playing a friendly in Dublin. You couldn’t make it up! A cheap ‘transfer fee’ for one of the bravest players ever to tog out in the Theatre of Dreams, or any ‘theatre’ for that matter.

On the ‘bravery’ theme, many photos of Kevin in sky blue, red, and green jerseys feature a bloodstained and/or bandaged head. Estimates of the number of stitches he needed because of his unrivalled bravery vary from colleague to colleague in both codes. “Kevin was made of teak, he was fearless, and he read the game brilliantly,” Barry opined about his former teammate who appeared in a variety of positions for UCD and Pegasus. Hence the genius of Behan in identifying a far-from-tall potential centre-half who made it at the top level of the game, possessing “the temperament and ability to play in England” (Barry’s words). The Mullingar native – and he is proud of same, confessing to having been tearful when watching Westmeath winning the Delaney Cup in 2004 in Croke Park – recalled Kevin joining his former colleagues when home on holidays from Manchester and stressed that his professional career “had made him into an athlete who could now just glide by us”.

Yours truly, an Ordinary Joe of a soccer player, felt that Kevin would not last long in the English league and it seems that this was a view shared by many with a better knowledge of the game. Indeed, reading some cuttings from Pegasus’ aforementioned cup run in 1977, reporters never picked him out as being a particularly special player. However, Barry suspected that “Kevin’s bottle, intelligence, strength, and stamina” would all stand him in good stead, allied to the fact that he had performed consistently well as a Gaelic footballer in front of big crowds in high-pressure scenarios. A significant turning point came when Sexton pitted him in training against the fearsome Scottish centre forward Joe Jordan - whose missing teeth I always felt added to his menacing presence - and the young Dubliner gave as good as he got. This was something that Sexton himself spoke about later. The test was passed, and the rest is history. A history superbly relayed in RTÉ’s must-watch-again documentary.

I have been a longstanding attendee of Irish internationals (even before Big Jack made it a ‘sexy’ pastime). Back in Kevin’s prime under Ireland’s favourite Englishman, I belatedly told a friend who made the regular Mullingar-Dublin journey with me for the matches in Dalymount Park and later Lansdowne Rd, that I had worked very briefly with Kevin, and he suggested, “For the craic, you should reintroduce yourself to him again sometime and ask him what he did after Freaney’s!”

Despite Barry emphasising that Kevin “is a good fellow to this day, with no airs or graces”, I think I could have ended up in stitches!