Sport Gaelic Football

Friday 19 September 2014

THE MAVERICK MANAGER

Dermot Crowe

Published 14/01/2007 | 00:11

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TODAY David Beggy will make the short trip from his home in Navan to the GAA grounds in Leixlip, the fourth club to lure him into management since a serious knee injury ended his Meath playing career in 1995. Beggy the football boss, how times have changed.

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He introduced himself at a challenge match in Walterstown in 1986, arriving on a motorbike, with no inter-county experience at minor or under-21, his early sporting life more inclined towards rugby.

Though somewhat of an outcast, he quickly blended in. Within three weeks he had won a Leinster championship, feasting with players who had fasted a lot longer and were more grounded in the Gaelic tradition. Before Boylan's call, Beggy had never been to a Meath game and hadn't seen them play on television. The previous year he was midfield with Joe Cassells when Navan O'Mahony's won the championship, but it did little to diminish the impression of a misfit.

Wildly energetic, unpredictable on the ball, he jumped the queue ahead of more technically gifted players. He had virtues that Boylan, capable of thinking outside the box, spotted or felt were worth taking a gamble on. Suddenly, Meath had discovered a player who could torment defenders with wicked pace and unrelenting momentum while his breezy personality greatly lightened the mood, which did them no harm at all.

All he has learned in the time since, the exposure to so many wonderful players, had to be hugely beneficial to anyone with management ambitions, but it just didn't seem like Beggy's natural field of interest.

"I suppose I smiled my way through playing football," he begins to explain. "I'm a little more serious now, but I went through walls to get to a ball and I never gave up, I was hyper-ventilating after a game I'd put in so much effort. Then I'd go out that night and have me fun with the lads, and I could let it go and move on, play the guitar the night after. While I was doing it, it was the centre of my life.

"You find your own tune, your own way and if that works for you I'm not going to interfere with it. The biggest thing I got out of coaching was the ability Seán (Boylan) had to know what made a fella tick. The ability to understand people, to manage people; everyone is different."

Talk to most Meath players from that era now and they are unequivocal about Beggy's value to the team. As a player he won two All-Stars, despite spending two years in Scotland which meant he had to commute and train on his own for long spells. On top of that, he mixed football with rugby, lining out in winter for Blackrock and representing Leinster. In 1995, in a challenge game against Tyrone, his cruciate snapped and he never made it back. He was 28.

Colm O'Rourke says he had "massive time for him" and Bernard Flynn maintained that Beggy "added a whole new dimension" to the Meath team. O'Rourke also claims that he "never hid" which as GAA tributes go is right up there with the most respected traits. Where his current coaching adventure leads to he's not sure - Beggy's not a big planner. That's the way he played: attack and be damned. It was off the cuff, a flat rejection of rehearsal.

If he had something to say in his early playing days, though, he kept it to himself. "When I started playing my opinion was irrelevant in the Meath camp. I had no right to voice any opinion on anything, because I wasn't a traditional Gaelic footballer. I was surrounded by these legends who I didn't know because I didn't follow Meath football at the time. But I knew pretty much (that) my opinion was totally irrelevant.

"They would certainly have their opinions and they'd be very dour and very serious and I'd be very different. There would be an impression of me as happy-go-lucky which, yeah, possibly at the time, but my football was very serious and I was very serious when I was on the pitch. But you had to have this aura about you, (pulls a serious face): 'oh, it's Gaelic football, it's very fucking serious'".

Was it intimidating? "I wouldn't call it intimidation. Just these Meath boys had no interest in what I was saying. Absolutely none. I'm not their standard footballer. It would be a waste of time, it would be 'shut up Beggy, what would you know?' I always said to myself I'd do my talking on the field."

And he did. In 1990, he won his second All-Star but Meath lost the All-Ireland final to Cork. The Meath minor team that won the All-Ireland and the defeated seniors were staying in the same hotel. "They (the minors) were jubilant. And it was 'come in Jinksy and have a bit of crack,' you know, about ten o'clock at night. I went over and had a pint with them, started an oul sing-song, but one of the senior players in the Meath team came over and effed me out of it, (saying) we just lost an All-Ireland.

The Meath boys had no interest in what I was saying. Absolutely none. It would be 'shut up Beggy, what would you know?'

"I was fully aware we'd lost an All-Ireland and I was as depressed as the next fella. But you'd a group of young fellas who were probably feeling very awkward because they had won an All-Ireland and felt they couldn't celebrate because we'd lost. So I was kind of giving them the signal that it was ok, ye deserve yer win. I remember crying my eyes out up the stairs and Joe Cassells going after me and I said 'the bollocks is after saying I don't care about winning or losing'."

He had not observed the rituals of mourning.

"I liked them, they were grand lads, and we get on very well now. But at the time I was a thorn in their side really, just didn't suit, but they got used to it and they enjoyed what I did on the football field. It worked out well in the end."

The stuffy etiquette wasn't allowed subdue his personality. "There is this feeling about Gaelic football, that it's a cultural decision in life, (that) it creates an identity but it has surpassed all that now, it's a sport. You have snobs in rugby, you have snobs in Gaelic. You have that hierarchical type stuff in Gaelic football. I'm not going into names but it's fairly obvious, 'sure what would you know about it, you're not a Gaelic man, your wife is not in Macra na Feirme' or whatever, but you know where I'm coming from? That cultural thing which is a load of shite at this stage."

That may be harsh but there is some truth in what he says, as his experience testifies. The GAA world he played in was extremely homogenised. It was like they couldn't trust him fully. And maybe that was understandable. Even on the field, where it mattered, Beggy never looked at ease on the ball and when shooting for points he didn't have any of the calm assurance of O'Rourke or Flynn or Brian Stafford. Beggy's most effective scoring methodology involved a direct run on goal, getting close enough to the target to drill the ball over in a straight line. Curling it over, using the outside of the boot, the fancy stuff was off limits.

Yet he popped up for vital scores and his importance to the team went way beyond raising flags. He scored a goal in the four-match epic with Dublin and the point that closed off the series. Not to forget the dispossession which led to PJ Gillic's equalising point at the end of the first game. Without that industry there would be no 1991 saga and the revolution it started, popularising the game to unprecedented levels, would have taken a little longer.

In his first championship he scored 1-2, against Carlow, and the opening point against Dublin in '86, which set the standard for the day's play. But there always seemed to be a caveat. "I remember one or two of the players were interviewed and saying when I scored that point it was like, 'these are only the Dubs, we'd feared them before, then Beggy ran half way down the pitch, got hit in a tackle, got up and stuck it over the bar'. But that was a fleeting moment, it went back to just being Beggy again, shut up to fuck. If I meet them now, they'd appreciate what I did and I appreciate what they did. I think at the time, every time I played I had to prove something."

In Navan he grew up close to the rugby pitch, so the game had a big influence on him, but he loved any sport and took them all seriously: soccer, athletics, Gaelic football, rugby. Eventually he was good enough to play for Blackrock which he enjoyed because they bucked the prevailing trends.

"Rugby was dour in those days, it was dreadful, it was watching paint dry, and I found it much harder to take at that stage than Gaelic football because it was ten-man rugby and there was an inordinate amount of snobbery on how to play the game. God forbid if you did try to express yourself at that stage. Like, Simon Geoghegan came along and it started to open up a little bit.

"But I got into a Blackrock team, Brendan Mullin was in it, Niall Woods, Alain Rolland, Alan McGowan, Martin Ridge, and we could pass a ball and it was just, I went to play rugby with Leinster one season and there was more passion in the sole of my shoe, it was just dreadful

Christ, a rugby team that could express themselves. We should have won the AIL and we didn't. Garryowen and Shannon beat us, one year after another. That group of lads had the passion. I went to play with Leinster one particular season and there was more passion in the sole of my shoe, it was just dreadful."

For a while he shared a house with Eddie O'Sullivan. He's picked up a good deal from him too and the success that has come O'Sullivan's way doesn't surprise him.

His own first taste of management came while he was injured in 1995. A friend asked him to take charge of Tinahely in Wicklow. He got a kick out of it and brought a lot of knowledge but soon discovered how tough the job can be.

In a championship match, struggling badly at midfield, the selectors turned to Beggy for inspiration.

"And I couldn't do anything, I hadn't a clue how to sort this out at all. I could see we were getting roasted but I couldn't see what I could do about it. I would have had ideas about how one should play and the spirit you should play with and what should be in your mind but the actual tactical thing, I wasn't reared in the game as such. I was looking at the sky.

"I remember thinking at the time there was nobody on that pitch I could have put on to sort it out, I remember saying I can do nothing about it. It's not there. I came up with no alternative, it's like this boat is going down lads, I can do nothing about it. That made me realise I'd an awful lot to learn about the game."

Learn he did. A few years ago he took St Vincent's, Ardcath, to a junior title for the first time in decades before managing Slane, with less success, last season. Slane were relegated but a dire response to training made regression inevitable. Some nights there were half a dozen present and with a wife and three young kids, Beggy knows it was time that could have been better spent.

He's seen other bad days. Towards the end of his Meath reign, Boylan had Beggy as a selector and he witnessed the empire crumbling. Leixlip was too persuasive to ignore though. He's been warmed by the response.

There were always two David Beggys. One, less widely appreciated, is a serious and driven character who lived with Eamonn Heery and survived to tell the tale. "(Heery was) hard as nails. If you were hurt you wouldn't let him know you were hurt, you would never lie down. It was just the intensity, when I'd look at Eamonn he'd have a raw intensity in his eyes, he'd be quiet with intensity."

The other, more celebrated, version is the mischievous, light-hearted spirit that still exists, mercifully. O'Rourke taught him in St Pat's, Navan, but when the student made the rapid transition to the ranks of the finest Meath team of all time, he wasn't overawed by the company.

"I remember one occasion we were drinking in the Skylon Hotel and O'Rourke handed me fifty quid and I hadn't seen one of those, (he) told me to go up and buy the lads a drink. And I went up and bought everybody in the pub a drink and came back with about two pence change, that was a serious round in those days."

He grins at the cheek of it, putting one over on a legend like that. So why is he still here now? "I ended up loving the game," he says. "I came to love it."

He leaves the coffee shop near the Hill of Tara, lights up a smoke, then disappears into the day.

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