Friday 23 August 2019

Eamonn Sweeeney: 'McGee was his own man and a Gaelic games great'

Mastermind of Offaly's '82 triumph mixed acute intelligence with ability to think outside the box

Eugene McGee pictured in 2015. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Eugene McGee pictured in 2015. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Eamonn Sweeeney

Eugene McGee's steering of Offaly to the 1982 All-Ireland title was one of the greatest managerial achievements in Gaelic football history. It's also one of the most fondly remembered. His team's victory over an apparently invincible Kerry may well be the most famous of all GAA upsets.

In the popular imagination, it all boils down to Séamus Darby nudging, fielding, turning, shooting and jumping for joy. But it took six years of hard work for McGee and Offaly to get to that moment.

Seamus Darby’s goal against Kerry in 1982
Seamus Darby’s goal against Kerry in 1982

Before they could even challenge the Kingdom, Offaly had to overthrow a Dublin side who won six Leinster titles in a row. They lost to the Dubs twice before finally prevailing.

It may be no coincidence that McGee's side followed the same sequence before dethroning Kerry. Their march to the top was based on an ability to learn from setbacks.

This required a keen analytical intelligence at the helm. Offaly had the right man in charge. Few possessed the same ability to read the essential elements of a game as the great Longford man. When Offaly finally toppled Kerry the team looked as if it had been specifically constructed for the task. Key decisions made by McGee got them over the line.

In 1981 Richie Connor's outstanding play at centre half-back had been rewarded with an All-Star. A year later he lined out at centre half-forward to curb the influence of Kerry's powerful No 6 Tim Kennelly. Sean Lowry, an All-Star full-forward in 1979, journeyed in the opposite direction. Hurling star Liam Currams was transformed into an outstanding football wing-back.

The Mayo players stand for a minute’s silence in memory of McGee before last night’s game in New York. Photo: Sportsfile
The Mayo players stand for a minute’s silence in memory of McGee before last night’s game in New York. Photo: Sportsfile

It was a gamble to play 19-year-old Pádraig Dunne at midfield in the 1981 final, but he had an outstanding game and his partnership with Tomás Connor a year later prevented the peerless duo of Jack O'Shea and Sean Walsh from enjoying their usual edge.

McGee's willingness to take a chance was perhaps most evident in his use of Seamus Darby. He hadn't even been on the county panel at the start of the campaign, but when Darby excelled at club level, McGee selected him for the Leinster final against Dublin and he got a Man of the Match performance.

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Darby missed the semi-final through injury and in the final McGee held the forward in reserve before introducing him at exactly the right time.

Intelligence had also defined McGee as a manager when he brought UCD to two All-Ireland club titles and seven Sigerson Cups. That record made him an obvious candidate for inter-county management, yet his career with Offaly got off to a rocky start with a shock defeat by Wexford in the 1977 Leinster Championship.

A year later it became apparent something special was stirring in the midlands when a Dublin team seeking a hat-trick of All-Irelands only squeezed past Offaly by three points, thanks largely to the introduction of Kevin Moran, on summer sabbatical from Manchester United.

Notice had been served.

One year later Offaly went closer still. Leading by five points against a 14-man Dublin they looked home and hosed before being undone by a monumental midfield display from Brian Mullins and a late Bernard Brogan goal.

It had been the kind of defeat which suggests a team has lost its chance, but Offaly regrouped, finally got past Dublin in the 1980 Leinster final and met Kerry in that year's All-Ireland semi.

They lost by five points, but put down a significant marker by scoring 4-10, the biggest total any team would ever amass against Mick O'Dwyer's outfit.

The following year the two teams met in the final. Offaly curbed the Kerry attack for long stretches, dominated at midfield but misfired up front. Late on, Kerry began a move on their own end-line which ended with Jack O'Shea scoring the clinching goal.

It was Gaelic football's version of the Carlos Alberto goal in the 1970 World Cup final and seemed to sum up the futility of Offaly's quest. They had played well but lost by seven points. Kerry appeared unstoppable.

Not even the current Dublin side possesses the aura of invincibility which surrounded the Kingdom then. It took a special manager to motivate a team for a third crack at them.

Yet Offaly persisted and even when four points down with time running out in 1982 never lost faith. McGee's personality had something to do with that.

His intelligence was accompanied by considerable obduracy. If ever someone deserved the epitaph, 'he was his own man', it was Eugene McGee.

Wisdom

That independence of spirit was obvious in the columns he wrote for this paper on Mondays, which were notable for both tactical astuteness and a reluctance to accept conventional wisdom over the evidence of his own eyes.

Those qualities made him essential reading. They also made him an ideal head of the GAA's Football Review Committee.

Refusing to accept that the game's move in the direction of negativity was an inevitable evolution, McGee strove to bring in measures which would favour a more adventurous approach.

Under a deceptively gruff exterior beat the heart of a football romantic. Other pretenders to the crown had focussed on curbing Kerry by physical means. McGee's Offaly took them on at their own positive, free-flowing game and the result was an unforgettable final with a perfect finale.

In a hundred years from now, climate change permitting, people will still be watching that ball from Liam O'Connor going into Darby and the perfect shot going over the head of Charlie Nelligan and under the crossbar. They can thank Eugene McGee for making it all possible.

He was a great man.

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