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Monday 19 August 2019

Martin Breheny: 'When it came to football, one of the smartest men you'd meet - a competitor and absolute gentleman'

Contribution: Eugene McGee at the launch of the report by the Football Review Committee at Croke Park in 2012. Photo: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE
Contribution: Eugene McGee at the launch of the report by the Football Review Committee at Croke Park in 2012. Photo: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Mick O'Dwyer doesn't even pause when asked to sum up the Eugene McGee he knew from their managerial jousting days with Kerry and Offaly.

"An unbelievable competitor, determined beyond belief. And he got his team playing that way. They always kept going," said O'Dwyer.

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Like the rest of the GAA world, he was shocked to learn of McGee's sudden death at the age of 77.

Their rivalry in the early 1980s fascinated the football world, with the advantage swinging towards to O'Dwyer and Kerry for two years before the dramatic switch to McGee and Offaly in one of the most remarkable All-Ireland finals in history.

Much of the focus on the 1982 final and the end of Kerry's five-in-a-row dream has always been on Séamus Darby's dramatic late goal, but there was a whole lot more to Offaly's win than a smash-and-grab raid.

The sheer persistence which Offaly had shown under McGee - they lost to Kerry in 1980 (All-Ireland semi-final) and 1981 (final) - marked them as a special group, men who refused to take no for answer.

O'Dwyer believes McGee was hugely instrumental in instilling that unyielding drive in a squad that he built carefully over several seasons.

"When it came to football, he was one of the smartest men you'd ever meet. A great competitor, but an absolute gentleman off the pitch. He wanted his teams to play with a certain style. He cared how the game was played. And that continued long after his manager's days were over. He was always thinking of ways to make the game better," said O'Dwyer.

The mutual respect was underlined when McGee invited O'Dwyer to launch his book, 'The GAA In My Time.'

Unlike O'Dwyer, who enjoyed a brilliant playing career with Kerry, McGee never played inter-county football. "I could scarcely kick a football when I was growing up," he wrote in his autobiography. He was, however, fascinated by managing and coaching, areas which were becoming increasingly prominent in the GAA in the 1970s.

His opportunities arose with UCD, where he served as club secretary and later as manager. The mid-1970s was a time of re-awakening for Dublin football as Kevin Heffernan led the blue revolution after several years of dismal failure.

'Heffo' and McGee would later preside over some great Dublin-Offaly battles, with the power shift eventually swinging to the midlands in 1980.

It's a little known fact that McGee actually managed Dublin, having been pressed into service with the U-21s in 1972.

With typical self-deprecation, he explained many years later that "there were very few candidates for the job, maybe even none at all". It was a short campaign as the Dublin team, which featured future senior stars Robbie Kelleher, Anton O'Toole and David Hickey, lost a first-round Leinster game to Meath by three points.

McGee enjoyed more fruitful times with UCD, who he led to All-Ireland glory in 1974 and 1985, as well as to seven Sigerson Cup titles between 1968 and 1979. Those successes attracted attention in Offaly and while there was some opposition in the county to looking to Longford for a manager, the more far-sighted decision-makers decided he was the right man for the job.

His tenure was a slow burner, but then Offaly were competing with a great Dublin team, who beat them narrowly in 1978 and 1979.

All changed in 1980, when Offaly ended Dublin's six-year provincial dominance with a two-point win in the final.

"Three years of hard work went into the result," said McGee afterwards.

Just as it took Offaly a few years to figure out the Dublin puzzle, they had to wait two more seasons before finally landing the All-Ireland title.

The 1982 win over Kerry was the pinnacle of McGee's career, which also took him to Cavan for a period in the 1980s. He managed the Irish International Rules team in 1987 and 1990, presiding over a 2-1 series win in Australia.

Away from the pitch and his journalistic endeavours with the Irish Independent, 'Evening Herald', 'Longford Leader' and more over many years, his other big contribution to the GAA was as chairman of the Football Review Committee in 2012-13. Its deliberations resulted in the introduction of the 'black card' sanction for cynical fouling, which McGee described as "a great day for Gaelic football".

Irish Independent

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