Philly 'the ultimate team player'
TWO weeks ago, the Leitrim senior footballers trudged off the Gaelic Grounds pitch chastened by a 16-point beating at the hands of Limerick. Silence descended on the dressing room as the players came to terms with the heavy defeat. They were down, but they were together and the prospect of meeting, and beating, Roscommon in the Connacht championship rallied them.
Last Tuesday, they gathered again, this time in the mortuary at Beaumont Hospital to bring home one of their own. Just 15 days earlier, Philly McGuinness had shared that sombre dressing room, but after seven years of committed service it proved to be his last game for the county.
Heartbroken, the players stood around their young team-mate trying to take in his tragic death following a freak accident in a club game.
The whole weekend had been a blur; word spread on Sunday evening that he'd taken an accidental knock playing for Mohill against Melvin Gaels in a league match and the prognosis wasn't good. Philly's brothers, Michael and John, were also on the field. The three had shared a golden family moment in 2006 when they all played vital roles in Mohill's historic senior championship triumph over St Mary's, the club's first since 1971.
When it became obvious that the youngest brother wouldn't recover consciousness, the game was abandoned and an ambulance rushed Philly to Sligo General Hospital. From there he was airlifted to Dublin's Beaumont Hospital. He passed away a day later.
"It would bring a tear to the eye but do your heart good to see all the Leitrim lads gathered around Philly in the mortuary," says former manager Dessie Dolan, who spent four years with the side. "Every one of the panel, every single last one of them, went to that mortuary. It was a heart-warming sight in a time of terrible tragedy, I can tell you. Philly was just a real decent lad.
"He was an ever-present in my team and in the current regime too. I always considered him a bit of an Eric Cantona in that he had incredible skill and could do almost anything when you least expected it. He had some outstanding games for me, he had serious skill and vision too, but more importantly he was a sound guy and a real character. Always looking for a bit of fun or devilment."
Typically, the GAA community was quick to rally around the family. Croke Park have already begun talks with the Leitrim board to commemorate Philly's contribution to Gaelic football. Meanwhile, the board's website posted a slide show last week of McGuinness in the county colours.
On Tuesday, the Leitrim County Board opened a book of condolence on its website and within hours, messages had been posted from more than 40 countries. Meanwhile, a tribute page on Facebook received over 5,000 posts from supporters and friends who paid tribute to the 26-year-old man who also played hurling for Leitrim.
He represented his province in a 2001 U17 International Rules series in Australia, played senior inter-county football for seven years and also represented his county in the National Hurling League.
Last week, his peers described him as the "ultimate team player". There can surely be no greater compliment. It seemed like he crammed more into 26 years than most of us do into a lifetime.