Sunday 25 August 2019

A man ahead of his time who got the better of the best the game has seen

Eugene McGee was an independent voice in an increasingly bland world

Eugene McGee’s family at his funeral last Thursday: son Conor, daughter-in-law Saoirse, wife Marian and daughter Linda. Photo: Damian Eagers
Eugene McGee’s family at his funeral last Thursday: son Conor, daughter-in-law Saoirse, wife Marian and daughter Linda. Photo: Damian Eagers
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

I was a little surprised at the reaction to Eugene McGee's passing last weekend. Surprised in a nice way, that is, because I feared his achievements might have faded from the collective memory. It was good to see that people remember and appreciate his contribution to the GAA, to rural Ireland and to society.

When I started in UCD in 1975 he was already a legendary figure who had almost single-handedly overseen unprecedented success. Two Dublin championships were followed by All-Ireland club championships and there were three Sigerson Cups in a row already in the bag. The big rivalry in Dublin was with St Vincent's who had dominated Dublin club football since the 1950s.

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After winning the two previous finals, UCD felt they were not getting fair play in 1975 when the Dublin final was fixed in the middle of exams. UCD, or Eugene McGee, refused to play. The championship was awarded to Vincent's after the usual round of meetings and appeals. It really grated with McGee.

Dublin finals at that time were played early in the year so there was no interference with the county team in the championship, which sounds a bit archaic now. Anyway, I was playing the following year when the two heavyweights again met in the final. The atmosphere around these games was a bit toxic and Kevin Heffernan and Eugene McGee had little time for each other in those days, even if the passage of time mellowed their relationship.

The rivalry between the two men spanned a decade at club and county level, and the same happened with Mick O'Dwyer when Offaly and Kerry were the two best teams in the country. In each case McGee eventually got the better of two giants of the managerial world, even if it was fleeting success in some cases.

The St Vincent's supporters at the time called us 'The League of Nations', which was entirely correct as almost every player on our team was playing county football at the time. Vincent's won that final in '76. McGee looked on the Dublin championship as an entry system into the All-Ireland series. Similarly, he viewed winning a Leinster championship with Offaly as a means of getting to the All-Ireland semi-final. He always had his eye on the big prize.

His record of winning six Sigerson Cups from eight finals in a row will hardly ever be equalled as there are more teams now. Back in the 1970s, it was a test of the fittest and the thickest, as well as a test of football. The quarter-final was played on a Friday, the semi-final on Saturday and the final on Sunday - for whoever was still standing.

McGee was a bit ahead of his time in terms of preparation. Food was an important part of it. Forty years ago students did not eat too well and with UCD there was always the occasional steak before games. It reminded me of a message that our old sponsor and great friend, Noel Keating, wrote on a pack of meat which was delivered to Meath players 30 years ago. "If a man is going to make love or war he had better have some red meat in his stomach". Eugene McGee had a similar belief a lot earlier, even if the nutritionists would frown on it now. With so much change in this area perhaps red meat might be back in fashion soon.

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Meetings before games often took place in his flat in Ranelagh. You needed to be there very early to get a chair and most were seated on the floor. I think the word Spartan would be the phrase nowadays. There were no apartments then and a student's life in a Dublin flat during their college days was based on sheer necessity.

Meetings were a time to analyse the opposition, there was even an attempt at video work but everybody knew their job. He created a band of brothers. Inclusiveness and diversity together and nobody was spared McGee's barbed comments with the most cutting and witty reserved for those of high profile.

One year, before the Sigerson Cup in February, Tony McManus from Roscommon, Tommy Murphy from Wicklow and myself were selected to play for our provinces in the Railway Cup. It was a big deal for us. At a team meeting McGee congratulated us. Then there was a pause and he added, "it is an even bigger achievement as they all come from weak counties."

His route into management was not through any committee decision. He was there and eventually fell into the job as there was nobody else to run the show. He never really played football, he wouldn't get a kick in a horse box, but he did play for UCD once in a Dublin league game when there were only 14 players. He didn't last long, the referee took offence to some of his ongoing, disparaging comments and he was sent off. It created a few problems, as a long suspension meant nobody to run the team. Anyway, it was sorted. The person sent off was not Eugene McGee in the report.

Those years of colleges football were some of my most enjoyable. The team was run on a shoestring, a few footballs, one set of jerseys, an array of transport methods - none of them very luxurious - and a one-man management team. Gerry Dinneen joined him later and Paddy McDonnell was pressed into service as a driver, but McGee ran the team and players who went on to win every major award in the game, and they liked and respected his methods.

Training was with the ball and he was using conditioned games before the phrase was even heard of. He drove a Fiat Mirafiori and you would hear him coming miles away, always in a hurry, emitting the noise of a jet engine and the car full of parking tickets.

As a journalist, he was an independent voice in an increasingly bland, politically correct world. He spared nobody and even those who he was close to were not given an easy ride in newspaper columns. Gerry McEntee and myself got plenty of stick when Meath were close to the top - and we got on very well with him. At times I felt like raising it but then he would ring with some rant on some other football topic and I would not bother.

When he took over The Longford Leader newspaper he put the boot in when he thought fit. Politicians or any other sacred cows were fair game. He was not interested in popularity and his gruff, dogmatic exterior did not lend itself to a very wide circle of acquaintances. Yet he was kind and loyal, a man who loved his family, county, country, the GAA and had an obvious social conscience.

Two priests played an important part in Eugene McGee's GAA voyage. His brother Phil was chairman of the Longford County Board at a time in the 1960s when they won a National League and a Leinster championship, when the GAA was more democratic in terms of titles. Fr Phil, who died very young, was a big influence. Later on, Fr Seán Heaney, who was board chairman in Offaly, invited him to take over the team and, most importantly, stuck by him when the knives were out after the first year when they lost to Wexford.

That journey led to that famous game and infamous goal in Croke Park four years later.

While Eugene was a strident critic of some aspects of the GAA, he was also a passionate advocate and served on various committees in Croke Park, most notably the playing rules review which introduced the black card. We did not agree on this as my view was that a player could now get a black card for a simple trip while another could take the head off someone and get a yellow.

He argued his considered views in a must-read column in the Irish Independent, which provided the plain GAA people with a highly respected columnist, one who people bought the paper to read. There are few actual GAA columnists, most are ghost written, and I like to think that at least some people buy this paper in part to read what Joe Brolly and myself actually write. McGee had a command and eye for the simplicities of clubs, in particular, which appealed to a huge audience.

He will be missed. He belonged to an era which was dominated by heavyweights of the GAA management world - Kevin Heffernan, Mick O'Dwyer, Seán Boylan and Eugene McGee. His influence through the written word was of equal significance. Most of all, though, he will be missed by his family: Marian, Conor and Linda. Our deepest sympathies to them.

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