Sport Camogie

Tuesday 24 October 2017

Gospel according to John still resonates

Through personal tragedies on both sides, Davis shares a special bond with his players

John Davis: ‘The way I look at it if the girls hit form, no problem. If four or five of them don’t, we’ll be in trouble’. Photo: Oisin Keniry/INPHO
John Davis: ‘The way I look at it if the girls hit form, no problem. If four or five of them don’t, we’ll be in trouble’. Photo: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Daragh Ó Conchúir

John Davis has enjoyed success almost everywhere he has spread his gospel, but it is unlikely that he has derived as much satisfaction anywhere as he has during his decade-long stint as manager of the Meath camogie team.

There are no signs of the players getting bored with the ever-present Westmeath native or that, at 69, he is a relic whose doctrine has no place in the modern era.

Six players remain from the team that won the All-Ireland junior 'A' title in 2008. There are a few more survivors from the outfit that garnered the premier junior crown four years later. With a smattering of fresh blood from the victorious minor 'B' squad of 2015, they now find themselves back at Croke Park for the Liberty Insurance All-Ireland intermediate decider.

The bond between players and manager is obvious. Davis cherishes it, emphasising the importance of sport as much more than a means of exercise. There are a few among them who have known personal difficulty and camogie proved a vital distraction, outlet and balm.

Former dual player Christine O'Brien, a three-time ladies' football All-Star who is still playing club camogie at 44, is games development administrator of Meath GAA and a vital member of this team's coaching staff. Her husband died of lung cancer in 2009 when their third child was just three months old.

Experienced player Kristina Troy's parents have both been battling illness this year. Just as O'Brien did last month, she spoke in the build-up to today's big game about how helpful camogie has been during difficult times.

Davis has endured his own tragedy.

"Nine years ago, my son Derek died. He got a brain tumour when he was 26, died when he was 30. The girls really stood by me. Then 14 months ago my wife Teresa died.

"We're a group that's there together a long while and the day we were playing Down in the league - it was before the hurlers were out in the replayed final of the Christy Ring Cup - and the girls wanted to cancel as my wife was buried that day but I said no, that I'd rather they'd go, enjoy the game and get used to Croke Park in case we ever get back. And now they are. They didn't want to do it but I knew my wife would rather they'd go. They were all in tears, they stood by me and that's what sport is about."

They would do anything for him; and he for them.

Davis was well known as a successful hurling coach when appointed to his current post. A native of Brownstown in Westmeath, he brought them to three senior championships - the first two as a player/manager. He also guided Castlepollard to a pair of titles.

He had a short spell in charge of the county team before decamping across the border to Meath where he had an enduring impact over nine years, bringing them to All-Ireland senior 'B' glory in 1993. Three years later, they pushed an Offaly team at the peak of its powers to six points in the Leinster Championship. They had already taken the Faithful's scalp in the league. Seven days after that famous triumph, they accounted for Wexford.

"We had a challenge against Oulart-The Ballagh last week and Martin Storey, who is their manager, said supporters spat in his face and in Liam Griffin's face coming off the field when we beat them. 'After that,' he said to me, 'we went in and had a meeting. No disrespect to Meath but we made our minds up that day and went on and won the All-Ireland'."

Even indirectly, Davis was working the oracle, it seems.

Just like the other Gaelic codes, the commitment required to participate in inter-county camogie has spiralled during his 10 years. A county board with vision and work ethic has overseen significant development, building on the achievements of Davis's charges.

"There's an awful lot of work being done within the county at underage now, from the 14s, 15s, 16s and minors. I think we had two 14s and two 16s teams out this year. That's the great thing about it. That's what's going to bring it on."

Thomas Duignan, who was with him when he was in charge of Meath hurlers, is involved at developmental level and asked him to keep an eye on the under 14s one night.

"I went down and looked at the 14s and there was five or six of them there who you could nearly throw into the team straight away only they were so young. They were that good. I couldn't believe it. If they get a few years, the way they're being looked after, they'll be very good.

"And winning the leagues and getting to Croke Park, these young girls are seeing there's a chance there. In Kilkenny, everybody wants to play senior hurling for the county. If you can get that in Meath camogie - it's hard to promote it because the club level wouldn't be very strong but a strong county team will promote it and get the youngsters interested."

They are hamstrung at times by a lack of funding, however, meaning that they cannot afford to use the state-of-the-art facilities at the Meath GAA Dunganny centre of excellence.

"All we're trying to do is keep camogie going. Drumree have been very good to us, giving us their pitches, the hall and the all-weather. It has been a very big help to us. It's hard on the county board but I never ask for expenses or anything. I just do it for the love of it. We've won a lot of things over the years, gone from Division 4 to Division 1 in the league, we got the junior 'A' and the premier junior but this would be the one you'd really want."

Playing against the best teams in the land in Division 1 this year was historic but, more importantly, it was beneficial too. And it has whetted the appetite for playing senior championship. "We played Galway below in Galway. We were going very well up to half-time and then sure they brought in three All-Stars."

He chuckles but make no mistake, he is not afraid of a steep learning curve. Moving from Division 4 to 1 and from junior 'A' to within an hour of senior, it is clear his players aren't either. Standing between them and the coveted top-tier spot are Cork.

"They have to be favourites because they were there last year and unlucky not to win. A lot of them are training with the seniors and they're very experienced. They have experience with the manager (Paudie Murray) but it'll be hard. You never know what's going to happen. We played them in the group and there was only a point in it but they had travelled three hours on a bus.

"The way I look at it if the girls hit form, no problem. If four or five of them don't, we'll be in trouble. All I want for them is to perform to their ability, to show people around the country but really to show the people of Meath, many of whom will never have seen them before, whether they're there or watching on television, just how good they are.

"It probably will be an emotional day for me but it's about the girls. Most of them have been with me so long it would be lovely for them to get one of these medals because there's nothing to say you'd ever get back."

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