The late Sean Heavin is third from the left in the back row prior to Westmeath drawing with Mayo in Cusack Park in a National Football League game in October 1972.

Sean Heavin RIP – footballer and gentleman par excellence

Picking ‘teams of my lifetime’ is a hobby that many sports-lovers enjoy, the difficulty often being to update the selection as years go by and new stars emerge.

Yours truly has followed Westmeath hurling and football teams passionately for six decades since childhood. However, there were three footballers who proudly plied their trade in maroon and white, in what were generally dismal times for the Lake County when I was a youngster, who were set in stone on my Westmeath ‘team of my lifetime’, and no amount of success (thankfully, belatedly achieved this millennium) and a range of class players paraded in successful times would remove their position on my side.

My unmovable triumvirate were the late Mick Carley (at midfield), the recently deceased Georgie Keane (in attack), and Sean Heavin (an imperious centre half back), who sadly passed away last week, aged just 73.

As a 13-year-old, I first saw Sean playing football for the county he served with such distinction in a league match in Castleblayney in November 1969. We often talked about that game over the years, generally in the company of his lovely wife Mary.

Naturally, as a teenager I was dependent on my late father driving me to games, but I never missed a home game in Cusack Park even as a child. He had not been an underage star and the Monaghan clash was Sean’s second game as a county senior (Armagh a fortnight earlier in Lurgan had been his debut). However, I immediately picked out a quality player in the 19-year-old from Moate - indeed, still a teenager himself!

Frustratingly, the last National League match that Westmeath had played prior to Sean’s debut was arguably our most high profile ever, a tremendous display against the full-strength All-Ireland champions-in-waiting from Kerry in the semi-final. However, as we all know, that fantastic 1968/69 winter/spring campaign failed to generate any championship breakthrough.

Indeed, I decided to torture myself last week by looking up details of a horror show exit in the Leinster quarter-final loss 54 years ago to the All-Ireland finalists-in-waiting from Offaly. Westmeath trailed 3-11 to 0-3 at the break as all of us, young and old, looked on in shock in Croke Park, just seven weeks after witnessing the aforementioned heroics against the Kingdom at the same venue.

Unsurprisingly, Sean was an ever-present for Westmeath in championship action from 1970 to 1978 inclusive. However, this barren period yielded just 11 games, with a noteworthy win against Laois (preceding a very respectable showing in a rematch with Offaly) and pretty much a ‘gimme’ against Kilkenny in 1975 the only two victories recorded.

It is interesting to read Sean’s take on all this in a Hogan Stand interview in 2005: “We didn’t even win an O’Byrne Cup. Every year, we had high hopes of doing well in the championship, but more often than not we were left disappointed. I played under several different managers, but apart from the odd first round win, we had nothing to cheer about.”

However, the 1970s and early 1980s provided Sean with a plethora of glory days at club level with Moate. A 32-year gap was bridged with Flanagan Cup success in 1975, and the title was retained the following year, and regained in both 1978 and 1983, all with Sean donning the number 6 jersey (the only win since was in 1997 with ‘All Whites’ added to the club name).

The mid-1970s side also fared very well in the Leinster club SFC. Three fabulous games against Laois kingpins St Joseph’s immediately spring to mind, with one of the latter’s stars Kieran Brennan summing up Sean to me last week as “a great one”.

In the aforementioned Hogan Stand interview, Sean recalled: “From the time I first came on the scene with Moate, we had a physically strong team, but I suppose we didn’t add flair to it until the mid-1970s when the players from the successful Carmelite College teams started to filter through.” Indeed, tributes from his club colleagues, from home and abroad, were as sincere as they were plentiful on in recent days.

Thankfully, his invaluable role as a selector with Luke Dempsey’s all-conquering Westmeath U21 teams in the late 1990s, and hugely progressive senior teams in the early noughties, brought Sean outstanding memories. Indeed, Luke and umpteen players from that glorious era were in attendance last Friday despite the inclement weather in Moate. To put that turnaround in perspective, our senior team played eight championship matches alone in 2001 – a stark contrast with the gloomy stat above about his own playing career.

Sadly, the Delaney Cup never made its way down the N4 with Sean as selector, but he was ecstatic when it did so in 2004, as he reflected 18 years ago: “I was thrilled, it was great to see it happen. A lot of people were probably thinking that I was feeling a bit envious towards the whole thing, but that couldn’t be any further from the truth.

"While it is a big regret of mine that we didn’t win a Leinster title during my time as a selector, I was part of a management team that had three years at it and that is long enough for anyone. Páidí Ó Sé definitely brought something extra to the set-up.”

There was a sombre mood among the huge throngs who queued in the rain to pay their respects to Sean in his beloved Moate last Friday night, albeit interspersed with tales of great displays in both all-white and maroon and white. A former colleague of his said to me at the door of Flynn’s funeral home: “There haven’t been many better centre half backs in Westmeath.” I instantly replied: “There have been none, and more importantly, I would struggle to name a finer all-round gentleman.”

His beloved wife Mary, their daughters Carol, Deirdre and Sinéad, and siblings Marian, Padraig and Seamus, can be immensely proud of the high esteem in which he was held in football, work and community circles.

Sean became a hero of mine on that cold winter afternoon in Castleblayney in 1969. Hand on heart, he remained so until the day he died. And he will always be a hero to me. May he rest in peace.