Monday 26 August 2019

Colm Keys: 'For a generation of followers, McGee was weather vane for topics of the day'

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Eugene McGee: Administrators were always drawn to his wise counsel. Photo: Sportsfile
Eugene McGee: Administrators were always drawn to his wise counsel. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

A few weeks ago as ambassador, Eugene McGee spoke at an event organised by the Longford GAA health and well-being committee on the positive effects of ageing and reflected on how the Association had, as the GAA's community and health manager Colin Regan recalled yesterday, infused meaning and belonging to his life. It was entirely appropriate and yet somewhat ironic that a unit of the GAA would call on the All-Ireland-winning manager to guest at something like it, given the stinging critiques he was capable of delivering throughout a media career that stretched more than half a century.

As a columnist, he didn't spare the GAA when it came to what he felt were misguided policy decisions or trends in Gaelic football which he deemed adverse to the spirit and spectacle of the game.

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But somehow criticism seemed to land easier on GAA administrators when it came from his pen, 'friendly fire' that didn't have the same penetrating impact as it would from another source.

The meaning and belonging that he spoke of in Longford just a few weeks ago permeated through his copy and comment. There was always a note of concern attached to what he wrote or said because he cared.

If criticism did sting it didn't influence decisions by a succession of GAA presidents to appoint him to key roles, International Rules manager in 1987 and 1990 and a member of two committees that put him front and centre of the two most significant changes in Gaelic football over the last two decades, the introduction of the qualifiers in 2001 and the introduction of the black card in 2013 when he was chairman of the Football Review Committee that also proposed rebalancing the provincial championships so that each would have eight teams.

That never went to post but it still said something of his standing that administrators were drawn to his counsel on such matters.

For a generation of GAA followers, he was a weather vane for the topics of the day.

And nowhere was the pulse checked more forensically than in those columns he devoted to conversations he had with a fictional character called Larry McGann that had the effect of a 'stock take' at the end of each year.

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Larry McGann was a creation of Eugene's mind who began life in the Sunday Tribune and continued to live through the pages of the Herald and Irish Independent.

Eugene would essentially play devil's advocate to Larry's hardline, conservative views, using him as a barometer for change and progression, much of which the long-serving secretary and Board delegate of Knocknavanna Gaels disagreed with.

From the advent of technology and new training methods to managerial payments and the opening up of Croke Park, Larry's voice was a dissenting one.

Larry was of his time but time wasn't bothered to wait for him. For some in administration reading the dialogue had an almost biographical feel to it. There was a touch of prophecy about some of what he had to say through the prism of Eugene's columns. This from 2013 chimes with perhaps the most pressing current issue.

"I'll tell you one thing that annoys me and people of my age who only watch games now. For most of the summer months the clubs in our county are left without championship matches for weeks or even months at a time.

"Now, when I was playing, we always looked forward to having a club game every three or four weeks in summertime and all the people of the parish looked forward to that.

"Nowadays, we never know when the next club game will be and I see a lot of the games played off in a rush from September to November.

"Mark my words, the GAA will pay a high price for that neglect of club games if they don't change their ways."

There are still Larry McGanns at large and somewhere lurks a little of Larry in everyone.

Eugene carries the distinction of being the first manager to win All-Ireland club and county titles (only Billy Morgan and Pat O'Shea have done it since) and the first 'outside' manager (John O'Mahony with Galway is the only other) to win an All-Ireland title and, of course, these will dominate his legacy.

But how he captured the GAA and how he understood it through a few generations will always loom large.

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