Monday 19 August 2019

Charlie McGeever hopes to squeeze a little joy out of run that has brought only relief

Charlie McGeever: ‘Great players always made time and space for themselves’
Charlie McGeever: ‘Great players always made time and space for themselves’

Damian Lawlor

WITH Clonmel Commercials five points down against Newcastlewest in the Munster quarter-final, Charlie McGeever turned to the linesman to enquire how long was left.

Four minutes, he was told.

Even the linesman thought Clonmel's race was run. "That's the nail for ye," he told McGeever when Stephen Kelly pointed for the Limerick side from 40 yards out.

McGeever turned around. "The coffin is not closed yet," he replied.

Against the odds, and the weight of recent history, Clonmel fought back, rattled off six points on the trot and became the first Tipperary team to win a game in the Munster SFC since 2006.

Today, they face St Joseph's Miltown Malbay on home soil again but, despite the winning run, McGeever is perplexed at their season to date.

"We go into a county final and we're six points down with the clock against us. I'm there wondering if we make wholesale changes or just switch one or two things. We go with the latter and it pays off. But there's no joy - just overriding relief.

"Then we play a county under 21 final with nine of the senior team involved. Those lads have had a good week celebrating the senior final and five minutes into the second half we are 11 down. Do we make wholesale changes or just switch one or two things? We do both and we come back to win. Joy? Not really. Relief? Yes.

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"Then there's the Munster quarter-final and Tommy Twomey (Tipp under 21 manager) comes with some great video analysis. He tells us Newcastlewest will attack early, build a lead and then park the bus. We're ready for that but what do we do? We let them tear into us and they have a five-point lead coming down the tracks. From somewhere we get over the line. But the feeling at the end is fecking relief again and nothing else. Because all these are games we should be winning.

"I feel I have aged 20 years in this whole process. Three times recently I have gone into dressing rooms - Moyle Rovers (county final) Loughmore (county under 21 final) and Newcastlewest (Munster quarter-final) with my head bowed, saying sorry lads ye should have won that game. And that's it in a nutshell. From a management point of view how the hell can you enjoy that?

"Then I look over at these young lads celebrating the wins and while I'm ageing all the time they don't have a care in the world.

"Only once have we played through an entire game to form. We're patchy. The bookies have backed us to win all the way, and we'll be favourites again today, but sure it all depends on whether we turn up or not. Or for how long," he adds.

They're at home, which may or may not help. Remarkably, the win over Newcastlewest was the first time that a Commercials senior team had played a senior championship game at their home venue, the Sportsfield, since beating Galbally in 1995. In the 20 years since, they've played south divisional and county championship fixtures at neutral venues. So staying local is a novel experience, one that might have affected the players last time out.

Still, having avoided the Kerry and Cork representatives until a potential Munster final, Commercials simply have to make hay.

"I met Cracker (former Tipp goalkeeper Paul Fitzgerald) the other day and he was saying it was an exciting time for us because we have something that Clonmel would not be known for - pulling games out of the fire. He's right. We are toughing it out but the way the draw has fallen we could be waiting another 10 years for a scenario where the Cork and Kerry teams are on the other side. So from that view, the future is the present. We may never get back here."

With seven championship matches under their belt, McGeever expects today's tussle to be the toughest.

"Miltown will throw everything at us and they'll have a specific game plan," he says. "We'll have opportunities but we'll have to convert them and stop conceding crazy goals like we have been."

Young guns like Kevin Fahy and Seamus Kennedy are leading the way, the real drivers of the momentum. The club was furious, though, when the Tipperary minor hurling final involving two of their players was fixed for yesterday. Jack Kennedy and Ross Peters are key hurlers for St Mary's, and Commercials asked the county board for a postponement of their game, without success, although the weather caused the minor game to be cancelled anyway. McGeever has described the fixtures glut as "overkill, ridiculous and unacceptable".

But in over 20 years of management - in soccer and Gaelic football - he has learned to take such obstacles in his stride and won't become distracted with the issue. He has seen so much over the years across the codes.

Last weekend, for instance, he kept an eye out for an old friend, Ollie Horgan, who led Finn Harps back to the premier division of the league last week. McGeever remembers when Horgan first arrived in the north west, coming up from Salthill. They brought him to Fanad United and the blow-in became the glue that gelled the team together.

McGeever has always fused his love of Gaelic football with a passion for soccer. In 1981, he lined out for Sligo Rovers in the FAI Cup final, which they lost to Dundalk, and then played in the Ulster under 21 football final for Donegal. He was captain and they lost by two points to Monaghan. "My record in finals is just horrible," he laughs.

Two years earlier, having won the FAI Youth Cup with Fanad United, he was contacted by Tottenham Hotspur and went for trial there. When he returned his cruciate went. He tried to play on for the pre-season but lasted three minutes of Sligo Rovers' first game against Bohemians when his knee buckled again.

A highly-rated defender, he was out of the game for a year, missing out on Sligo's FAI Cup breakthrough in 1983.

"I came back to coach at Finn Harps, and decided to have another go at it, playing on one leg basically for about 10 years. I played for Fanad and won the FAI Intermediate Cup, and then Patsy (McGowan) brought me back to Finn Harps." He later took over as manager at Harps and led them to the FAI Cup final in 1999 which took three games to settle before they eventually lost. The following year he left Harps, having spent 20 years in soccer, and his family moved to Clonmel.

There, he spent six years in charge of Clonmel Town. The aim was to win the FAI Junior Cup but they had to settle for reaching the semi-finals in 2011.

Working as a school principal, his roles with the Tipperary minors and Commercials have kept him extremely busy since.

"Sport has been so important," he says. "It was all enhanced by my time at Thomond College because we all came out of there so prepared. It certainly was scientific ahead of its time."

Yet, he's not convinced that such professionalism has actually made for better sporting spectacles. "Is sport better for all this attention and expertise? No. All sorts of skills have been lost over the years across the codes. One thing this obsessional preparation has created is to take away space on the playing fields of rugby, soccer and the GAA. People are now so much fitter and stronger that there is no space that can't be covered.

"Traditionally, great players always made time and space for themselves and that is what made them special; they had an ability to kill a ball and go from there. But there is just no space around anymore for players like that because opponents are so organised.

"Would players like Gareth Edwards or Maurice Fitzgerald be able to show their true worth in the modern era? I'm not so sure. These days we applaud a rugby player if he makes a break of five yards and gains some ground. That's how low our expectations are.

"The first thing we were shown in college in Thomond was a video of that famous try the Barbarians scored against the All Blacks. PJ Smith showed it to us and he said very little else. My God did it get us thinking, though. And we're a long way off that free spirit type of fare now."

Like so many other coaches of his era, Charlie McGeever has had to react and adapt. He's not done too badly. And he's not finished by a long shot.

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