Saturday 16 December 2017

Earley leaves lasting legacy

Eamonn Sweeney

There was always something special about the man from Gorthaganny. There was something special about the way he roamed from one end of the field to the other all through the game, his unrivalled athleticism and stamina marking him as a man apart.

Something special about the way he leaped to fetch high ball, so that though he was a bare six feet tall he often seemed to grow three or four inches bigger in the heat of battle, like some hero from Celtic legend. Something special about the expansive way he played the game, the way he thought nothing of taking on three or four opponents while in possession, the comfortable way he held the ball in his hand, the impression he always gave of having time and space. Nobody else was quite like Dermot Earley.

For those of us who grew up in the West of Ireland in the '70s, Dermot Earley was a kind of living legend. He seemed to embody his county to such an extent that he wasn't so much Roscommon's star player as a kind of physical manifestation of a plucky county's footballing spirit.

Earley was a larger-than-life figure, one of those rare charismatic performers who assume heroic status without consciously trying to do so. His phenomenal fitness made him a player who would have prospered in today's game, but there was also something old-fashioned about him, something redolent of an earlier more Corinthian era. His obvious relish for honest physical contest and the sheer enjoyment of the game that radiated from him made him seem like a figure from an earlier age, a counterpart of one of the great athlete/footballers who thrived in the infancy of the association.

Above all, he was famous for the lack of meanness in his character. Earley was as tough as they come but he never struck a dirty belt. It was as though -- and his brother, Paul, and son, Dermot, share this trait -- he didn't see the point of such carry-on. Nobility is a word that sums up Dermot Earley as well as any other.

He seemed to have been marked for greatness from the start. At the age of 15, he was a county minor, three years later, in 1966, he played minor, under 21 and senior football for Roscommon. The word was that a really special player had emerged at Michael Glaveys, the club from the Ballinlough, Cloonfad and Granlahan areas founded by Dermot's father, Peadar, a national school teacher, in 1956.

Young Earley first came to national prominence in 1966 as a member of the Roscommon under-21 team that reached the All-Ireland final against Kildare. Roscommon were such outsiders that Irish Independent GAA correspondent John D Hickey said that a victory for the Connacht side would be, "the eighth wonder of the world". Kildare had 11 members of the team, the likes of Pat Dunny, Ollie Crinnigan and Tommy Carew, that had beaten Cork by eight points in the previous year's final, Roscommon had scraped through by 2-2 to 0-5 in the semi-final against Donegal.

Entering the final quarter, Roscommon were trailing by six points when they decided to move Earley from centre half-forward to midfield. Earley, still a minor, inspired his team to a comeback that saw them prevail by 2-10 to 1-12.

The boy wonder came onto the scene at a singularly unpropitious time for Roscommon football. Since reaching the All-Ireland final in 1962, the Rossies had been on the slide to such an extent that they were playing Division 4 football and had slipped behind Sligo and Leitrim in the provincial pecking order.

He still managed to make his mark, starring at centre half-back in 1968 when Roscommon held Galway to a draw in the Connacht semi-final before losing the replay. And he really emerged as a top-class footballer the following year when giving a man-of-the-match performance at midfield as Connacht defeated Munster 1-12 to 0-6 in the final of the Railway Cup, the last time the province won the competition.

Progress with his county was slow. In 1970, Roscommon reached a first Connacht final in eight years only to be hammered 2-15 to 1-8 by Galway. Earley, magnificent in the shock semi-final victory over Mayo, learned that the older dogs still had a few tricks as he was outplayed by veteran midfielder Pat Donnellan.

Two years later, he starred as Roscommon overcame Galway in the semi-final and scored 1-2 in a dominant midfield performance when Mayo were beaten 5-8 to 3-10 in Castlebar to give Earley his first provincial title. He stood out in the All-Ireland semi-final, contributing 1-3 even as Kerry beat Roscommon 1-22 to 1-12.

By 1974, Earley on top form was an irresistible force. He gave one of his greatest performances in that year's National League semi-final replay against Sligo, completely dominating midfield in the second half and scoring 11 points, two from play, as Roscommon won by 0-16 to 0-10. And he was equally commanding in the decider against Kerry, as Roscommon seemed set for their first national title in 40 years when leading by 0-9 to 0-6 with seconds left before John Egan popped up with a last-gasp equaliser for the Kingdom. Kerry won the replay and Galway annihilated Roscommon in the Connacht final. Earley won his first All-Star but he seemed to be destined for a frustrating career as an outstanding player on a team some way short of top class. In 1976, when Galway beat Roscommon again, he missed the championship due to commitments with the United Nations in the Middle East.

Yet, as the county's great figurehead closed in on 30, he finally found a team worthy of his talents. The Roscommon team of 1977-1980 was one of the best outfits never to win an All-Ireland. It had Pat Lindsay, Tom Heneghan, Harry Keegan, Danny Murray and Tony McManus. And it had Dermot Earley at the peak of his powers.

A Connacht title in 1977 was followed by an agonising All-Ireland semi-final defeat against Armagh, Roscommon threw away a seven-point lead with 16 minutes to go in the drawn game and lost the replay 0-15 to 0-14. There's little doubt that Dublin would have hammered Roscommon as they hammered Armagh in the final that year. But the experience of playing in a decider could have proved crucial in the future.

A year later came another Earley tour de force, an almost single-handed demolition of the Galway midfield as an injury-hit Roscommon won the Connacht final 2-7 to 0-9. But an All-Ireland semi-final loss to Kerry, 3-11 to 0-8, seemed to show that the Connacht kingpins were a long way off the standard set by Mick O'Dwyer's great team and their Dublin rivals.

The year when Roscommon announced themselves as serious challengers to the 'big two' was 1979. Perhaps the greatest of all Earley shows came in the league final of that year. He ruled midfield and inspired Roscommon to a 0-15 to 1-3 win over a Cork team who were regularly lauded at the time as the number two team in the country behind Kerry. That a Rebel forward-line containing Dinny Allen, Jimmy Barry-Murphy and Declan Barron was held to four scores speaks volumes about the level Roscommon were now operating at.

It was perhaps Earley's finest year and he shone again in the All-Ireland semi-final, achieving the enormous feat of outplaying Brian Mullins at midfield. Roscommon threw the game away by kicking chance after chance into the welcoming hands of Paddy Cullen. The Dubs squeezed through, 0-14 to 1-10, and once again the Connacht champions had passed up a chance of September experience.

The county had never before won a hat-trick of provincial titles but the four-in-a-row of 1980 was greeted as merely a means to an end. Earley ruled supreme at midfield as Mayo were put to the sword by 14 points in the Connacht final. In the semi-final, he was the inspiration behind a second-half comeback, which saw Roscommon score 2-13 to defeat Armagh by 2-20 to 3-11. They were heading for the All-Ireland final to play the greatest team in football history. No one outside the county gave them a chance. Roscommon people couldn't see how their team could lose. It would be the perfect consummation of Dermot Earley's career.

The worth of that Roscommon team is greatly underestimated. They had improved steadily for four years and probably no one other than Kerry could have denied them the Sam Maguire that year. Had they come along a decade later, they would have won a couple of All-Irelands. On the big day they fell just short, losing by 1-9 to 1-6 in a final excoriated for its lack of open football and hugely physical nature.

History is written by the winners so Roscommon were labelled a dirty team and blamed for the way the match degenerated into a foul-ridden shambles. That's one way of looking at it. But Roscommon people will suggest that the 41-23 free count in favour of Kerry can be read another way and point out that their team led 1-2 to no score after 12 minutes before the roughhousing got started in earnest. It doesn't matter now. Had Roscommon been there in 1979, they might have had the experience to bring them through in 1980.

No one blamed Earley for the mean-spirited nature of the game. He had a great duel with Jack O'Shea, a younger player in the same mould, and played very well. But there would be no All-Ireland. Dermot Earley would take his place alongside Tommy Murphy, Kevin Armstrong, Bill Delaney, Mickey Kearins and James Nallen as a truly great player whose failure to win the game's top honour would impart a bittersweet flavour to his career.

It was downhill for Roscommon after that. The following year Sligo dumped them out of the Connacht championship in the first round. Yet I can remember being at that game and seeing Earley take on half the Sligo defence to score a great individual goal as the game slipped away from Roscommon. He must have known that day that his hopes of a Sam Maguire had disappeared for good but he kept plugging while his younger team-mates, crushed by the disappointment of the previous September, crumbled.

There was a symmetry to Dermot Earley's inter-county career. He ended it as he had started it, an outstanding performer in a struggling team. As Roscommon returned to obscurity, I was in secondary school in Boyle. Time and again someone would say that they'd been to watch a disappointing Roscommon performance over the weekend. "And do you know who our best player was?" "Who?" "Dermot Earley, and he's ancient." Which he was, in the way that a man in his 30s is to teenagers.

His career ended in a way which said a lot about the kind of man Dermot Earley was. In 1985, Roscommon surprised everyone by defeating a Galway side who had won the three previous Connacht titles, 1-14 to 1-12 in the semi-final in Tuam. Earley went off eight minutes from time with a fractured jaw and was apparently out of the final.

He confounded medical opinion by recovering in time for the decider. Mayo beat Roscommon well but the great man kept his end up and scored five points from centre half-forward. Afterwards, he announced his retirement. After two decades, his Roscommon adventure was over.

And now he's gone. But then again, a man like Dermot Earley is never gone. Because whenever there's a Connacht championship game in the Hyde Park, in Castlebar, in Tuam, in Pearse Stadium or Carrick-on-Shannon or Markievicz Park, he'll be there. Whenever any team in the Roscommon colours takes the field, he'll be there. And wherever Roscommon men gather to talk about football, he'll be there too.

Because, when I was a young lad in Sligo, one thing I knew for sure was that you couldn't have Roscommon without Dermot Earley.

You still can't.

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