Death of Dermot Earley
‘He gained so much honour, respect in a glorious career that it counts as a far greater legacy than a medal locked away in some dusty drawer’
FORMER Galway midfielder Billy Joyce tells a story of his first encounter with Dermot Earley, which encapsulates the quality of sportsmanship that ran through everything Earley did during a 20-year career with Roscommon.
It was the summer of 1969 and, although still only 21 years old, Earley was already a household name, having established himself as a senior inter-county and interprovincial star.
Joyce was on the Galway U-21 team and some weeks before the Connacht final, John 'Tull' Dunne -- then 'Mr Football' in the county -- came to him and said: "You'll be marking a young fella who's as good as anything I've ever seen. Get ready for him."
Conscious of the challenge which lay ahead, Joyce trained on 22 successive evenings for the big clash with Earley and did extremely well against him in a game that finished level. Roscommon won the replay after extra-time and, as a forlorn Joyce sat on the pitch afterwards, he was joined by Earley.
"He sat down beside me, said we should have won the game and chatted on about it and little things that had gone on. It wasn't just idle talk and I knew straight away there was something fierce genuine about him.
"As he got up to walk away, he turned and said with a smile on his face, 'By the way, I don't want to see you in a Galway jersey ever again'."
It was the start of a 15-year playing rivalry and a friendship which lasted ever since. The warmth and affection with which Joyce speaks of Earley is reflected all over the country but then he made a big impression on everybody he met on and off the field.
Having served his time as player, manager and administrator at various times with the Michael Glavey's club, Roscommon, Sarsfields (Newbridge) and Kildare, he maintained a huge interest in young people.
Despite his busy Army schedule in recent years, he would always take time out to address parents at Sarsfields, especially those interested in helping out as coaches. By way of impressing the need to master every skill, he usually told the story of how his father, Peadar, a founder of Michael Glavey's in the 1950s, had a cunning method of encouraging his son to practise.
He would promise to join Dermot for a kickaround in the garden once he could kick the ball properly with his weaker left foot, which prompted long hours of work out in the fields. He would always impress to young and old alike how important it was to practise the kicking skills of the game with both feet. His talks would inevitably end with the need to respect young talent: "Mol an Oige agus Tiocfaidh Si."
It's rare for any player to have earned such widespread and genuine respect nationally, but then Earley was the consummate sportsman. There wasn't a mean sinew in his body and even when faced with cynical opposition, he regarded good discipline as a matter of honour.
Unsurprisingly then, he was very upset when, for the only time in his career, he was harshly dismissed in a NFL game against Dublin in 1975. He was distraught, but could see the funny side of it later when a dispute arose over whether he was eligible to travel with the All Stars because of the dismissal.
As the GAA considered the situation, he received a telegram from John Kerry O'Donnell -- the top power broker in New York GAA. Addressed to 'Dermot Earley, Croke Park, Dublin' it read: "Cordial invitation hereby extended to Dermot Earley to travel with the All Stars. All expenses paid by me. Red-blooded men always welcome in Gaelic Park."
Almost every reference to Earley mentions him as one of the best players who never won an All-Ireland senior medal, and while he was deeply disappointed to have missed out -- especially in 1980 -- it in no way detracted from the majesty of what he achieved.
While the All-Ireland medal may have eluded him, he gained so much honour, respect and admiration in a glorious career --both on and off the field -- that it counts as a far greater legacy than a medal locked away in some dusty drawer.