Tuesday 21 May 2019

A great manager - but more importantly, a great man

His innovative approach was matched by his old-fashioned decency

Eugene McGee: ‘He undertook countless deeds of altruism, many of which his wife Marian only heard of for the first time during the past week’. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Eugene McGee: ‘He undertook countless deeds of altruism, many of which his wife Marian only heard of for the first time during the past week’. Photo: Gerry Mooney

PJ Cunningham

Eugene McGee was a serious man and its antithesis at the same time. While he could never be cast as a court jester, he had a natural drollness about him that was both amusing and endearing once you got the hang of his offbeat sense of humour.

Not everyone 'got' him. He was a box of paradoxes. This invariably drew different reactions from people who knew him on disparate levels. For instance if you took him at face value, you might see a gruff and self-absorbed figure. Indeed he was even known to walk with his head down and often passed members of his own family on the streets of Longford without seeing them.

On the training field, though, he came to life, and each night you got the benefit of those absent-minded walks through the sheer variety he put into his sessions. He was a good man-manager, and I should know - he allowed me 'drop' myself off the Offaly panel without realising I was the author of my own exit.

After playing under 21 with the county in the late '70s, I was called up to the senior squad, and after a number of months training and playing in-house matches, he beckoned me aside one evening as we were making our way off the O'Connor Park pitch.

"Which foot do you kick with?" he asked.

For a second I wondered if he thought I was a bit of a Tony McTague - good on both sides - but before my mind got carried away any further, he went on: "We better start improving one of them fairly soon."

Before long I'd had something of an epiphany and when I suggested that maybe I could go back to my club in Clara and work on improving both feet, he showed remarkable ingenuity in making a token protest while ensuring I didn't alter my decision.

You'd seldom see him in bad humour on training nights unless there were low numbers at a session. Invariably that would turn into a tough night for those who did turn up. He'd run you around the field, have players carrying each other in turns and end with a never-ending series of sprints.

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As his brother-in-law Tomas O'Connor recalled in Longford on Wednesday, at one particular session he was still fuming at the poor turnout when he reached the final section, the sprints. "Right put your front foot on the line," he barked out like a sergeant major.

Usually, if anyone queried his directions, it would lead to further murderous drills but on this occasion, up piped a man who generally preferred the eloquence of silence. "Which one is my front foot, Eugene?" asked the quiet-spoken Matt Connor.

There was a moment's silence . . . then, realising he had given an unclear command, Eugene's face broke into that infectious smile of his. As the ripples of laughter among the players grew up and down the line from him, he had no alternative but to blow his whistle and end the session. Never had a happier bunch left a GAA training ground. It was nights like those that bonded that Offaly group into an unbreakable unit . . . and that night Eugene was happy to see it done at his own expense.

That was him all right: he was serious, yet humour was at the heart of who he was and who he wanted to be. In the same way, the mask of gruffness was a contradiction of the man beneath. He was above all a kind man, blessed with old-fashioned decency. He undertook countless deeds of altruism, many of which his wife Marian only heard of for the first time during the past week.

Where the fashionable thing for people who do well in life, as he did, is to create foundations and publicly aid some cause or other, Eugene's modus operandi was to care discreetly for those who had come to him in their hour of need. And it wasn't just a case of giving money. Sometimes thoughts and time are a greater currency.

Colin Kelly, the former Louth footballer and manager, recalled how he was surprised to receive a letter from Eugene after he had broken his leg, telling him, among other things, how he rated him as one of the finest players in the game and to work hard to get back playing soon.

We never saw much of this kinder side and there was a reason: he preferred to hide it. He was more comfortable with his public persona - the plain-speaking journalist with strong convictions on GAA topics that carried more weight in the corridors of Croke Park than any other writer in his time.

Mindful that he didn't have a background as a player, he was forced to compensate by thinking outside the box. While he never, particularly in Offaly's case, eschewed the importance of the county's feared physical reputation and will to win, he supplemented these features with exhaustive research from America and Britain's top teams to gain every possible advantage.

When Amazon was still only a river in South America, he was acquiring a surfeit of books and pamphlets on how to maximize fitness as well as how to develop team psychology. Like the old saying goes, the harder he worked, the luckier his teams seem to get.

From the first time he spoke with Fr Sean Heaney, the Offaly chairman, and John Dowling, the secretary (both would become his valued friends), he had set his sights on restoring the county's glory. He educated himself at every turn to give himself an edge over Mick O'Dwyer and Kevin Heffernan, who between them had a stranglehold on the All-Ireland for Kerry and Dublin respectively.

He never forgot the '79 Leinster final and how his own inactivity on the line that day allowed Dublin to snatch victory at the death. In the 1980 provincial final, after an abject half against the Dubs, he oversaw 12 changes at half-time, which altered the course of the game and paved the way for a two-point win. This was the game when he went from thinking he might to genuinely believing that he could go all the way. To do that required making judgement calls and more often than not, he got those right.

Certainly he was tested as Offaly set out on their journey in '82. Johnny Mooney had gone to America, Richie Connor was struggling with a knee injury, and Eugene needed a Plan B for the forward line. He recognised that Mooney, one of the game's great natural talents, was vital if they were to have any chance of winning, so he struck a deal that if he was back in time to prepare for the All-Ireland semi-final, he could rejoin the panel. All this before a ball was kicked in Leinster.

Similarly when Connor, his on-field lieutenant, was hobbling in training with cartilage problems, McGee made the decision that Offaly could beat Dublin without him, but not Kerry, and held him back. The Walsh Island man was the heartbeat of the team and such a move was fraught with danger but it worked out. So too did the recall of Seamus Darby. He was a revelation in the Leinster final, scoring 1-3 as Offaly breezed to a nine-point win against Dublin.

As fate would have it, the Rhode forward suffered a hamstring tear at the end of that game which kept him out of the All-Ireland semi-final against Galway. This, in turn, allowed Mooney to show his array of talent, so much so that Darby had to be content with a place on the bench for the final.

Each action the manager took on this journey had a knock-on reaction. Leinster final - Darby back, Connor gone; All-Ireland semi-final - Mooney back, Darby gone. All-Ireland final - Mooney and Richie back and you-know-who waiting in the wings.

When Darby emerged onto the Croke Park turf in the late afternoon of Sunday, September 19, 1982 to score the most talked-about goal in the history of the GAA and destroy Kerry's five-in-a-row dreams, McGee could rightly have taken all the credit for how he had planned that year. Instead when it came to writing his memoirs, The GAA In My Time, five years ago, the opening page elevated the key moment in the preparation for that day of days to the speech that his centre-back Seanie Lowry delivered moments before they left the dressing-room to face Kerry. As the publisher of his book, I queried why he didn't stick with his own role in the '82 win? "It's your book after all," I suggested.

He responded simply: "We needed everything to win that day - planning, luck and whatever else might come our way. Lowry's speech was that something else, he distilled the right emotion and encouragement in such an understated way that I could see it making an immediate difference in the team's resolve. I can't honestly say I thought we would definitely win as the players ran out but after what Seanie said, I knew our chances of victory had gone up significantly."

That same humility was again apparent when Eugene radically changed his lifestyle to become the family man. In return for guiding Offaly to victory, the county granted him its own maid Marian, the sister of Liam (RIP) and Tomas O'Connor, full-back and midfield respectively on the winning team.

He would later claim that Marian was the key to the Eugene that we came to know over the past 35 years. Her influence allowed his qualities to bloom; she raised him up to be the best version of himself that he could be.

However, once his son Conor and daughter Linda came along, he finished as Cavan manager then turned down offers from other counties so he could devote time to his family, to be the best father he could be. As Conor referenced in his eulogy in St Mel's Cathedral, Longford on Thursday, never once did Eugene put anything before him and his sister.

Last Saturday was the last full day Eugene spent on this earth - it was Conor's wedding day. After attending the ceremony, he was unable to make the father of the groom speech but was well enough to be present at the end of meal and for the speeches. These acted as a tonic for him.

He got great joy out of seeing how Linda- whose speech he had typed - deliberately ad-lib a section to include Conor's friend, Alan Madden. Enjoying her 'McGee stubbornness' in this instance, he said aloud proudly: "Stick to the script, Linda."

Those years Eugene had invested in his two children were paid back with interest as Conor and his wife Saoirse's wonderful words left him a happy man.

He had passed on the baton to the next generation, and though death was only a few hours away, the consolation was that he had been given enough precious time so that he could witness - after his own wedding - the most important day in his life.

They came from every corner of the country to Longford town to pay their respects last week - five hours at his waking and funeral service. It was a source of great comfort to his grieving family.

From the time the hearse and following cars stopped at the site of his parents' home in Aughnacliffe, which he donated to St Christopher's, and then moved on to be greeted outside the church by a line of members from his beloved Colmcille GAA club, there was a change of mood and a palpable sense of community that only rural Ireland can deliver.

The man who brought a historic All-Ireland to a fellow midland county and put his own place on the map through his role as an eminent journalist and GAA committee chairman, was finally back in the bosom of McGee country.

As his Offaly captain Richie Connor and half-back and family friend Liam Currams joined his son Conor, and business partner and friend Michael Dolan in lowering him into the north Longford earth at the adjoining graveyard, a great sense of peace and acceptance permeated as he rested alongside his parents, loving brothers, Fr Phil and Páid, and his sisters Alice and Kathleen.

The man who never forgot his Longford roots in his writings was now back where he belonged - among his own.

Ar dheis De go raibh a anam.

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