Saturday 25 November 2017

Eugene McGee: Larry shoots from the hip

Knocknavanna hero warns of high price to pay for leaving clubs out in cold

The GAA player's love of his club is captured in this picture of Castlebar Mitchels goalkeeper Ciaran Naughton during this year's Mayo SFC final. DAVID MAHER/SPORTSFILE
The GAA player's love of his club is captured in this picture of Castlebar Mitchels goalkeeper Ciaran Naughton during this year's Mayo SFC final. DAVID MAHER/SPORTSFILE
Eugene McGee

Eugene McGee

My old friend Larry McGann, that GAA stalwart from the Knocknavanna Gaels club, used to be as regular a visitor to our house as Santa Claus himself at Christmas time until last year when he had to get two hip replacements in the space of a couple of months

That left him unable to drive for a while, so he had to miss out last Christmas. But now he’s back – as good as new as he says himself – and he turned up this week complete with a fine goose which has been Larry’s annual Christmas gift for a lifetime.

Somehow I always thought there was more to Larry’s annual visitations than just generosity, because it gave him the chance to spend a few hours delving into his lifetime passion for Gaelic games.

Known everywhere as the man who ran the Knocknavanna Gaels club for the best part of 50 years as player and official, Larry stays very much in touch with GAA affairs, even though he now holds only the honorary title of club president along with the local parish priest.

I knew when he arrived that he was bursting to get going and the recent FRC proposals were grist to his mill.

“It was a bit of a shock at first to see that that FRC crowd wanted to change the four provinces after 140 years of the GAA doing grand as things were,” he said.

Sense

“But it was only when a few of us got talking at the local card game a few nights ago that we agreed there was some sense to having four groups of eight instead of 12, nine and two sixes.

“Sure at least it means all counties start from the same position and will have to play the same number of games to win a provincial or All-Ireland title. Munster and Connacht got away with murder for years with handy runs into the closing stages.

“But I wonder if Westmeath or Longford end up winning a Connacht final will they be as happy as if it was a Leinster title they had won,” he asked.

I told Larry not to worry as, between them, those two counties have managed to win the Leinster title only twice in 139 years and would be very happy to take a home the Nestor Cup as Connacht champions any time.

But I knew Larry’s real GAA attachment was to Knocknavanna Gaels, so I wondered how things were going there now.

“Not good, not good at all, I’m afraid,” was the sharp reply. “I’m glad I am not running things anymore because the place is gone to hell since I got out. It’s all about money now.

“Every year some clown is appointed team manager – usually a failed former player from some other club – and he has to get €120 every night he turns up for training and the same for matches.

“And that’s all good cash as well. Sure, that uses up all the weekly bingo profits straight away.

“And do you realise this,” said Larry as he took off his coat to get stuck into his subject, “all these lads are doing is something called strength and conditioning at training or S&C as they call it.

“Lifting weights, climbing up ropes and all sorts of yokes like that, just copying the top county teams, I am told.

“But when I watch the Knocknavanna junior team playing – we were relegated last year, you know – all I can see is lads running all over the place like headless chickens and passing the ball two or three yards to another lad running beside him.

“But don’t ask any of them to try scoring a point from 40 metres or even half that distance. ‘Possession lads, keep possession,’ is all I ever hear the manager shouting from the sideline. No wonder they hardly every score more than 10 points in a game.”

I wasn’t thinking straight when, to help Larry settle down, I said: “You’ll have a drop of something for the Christmas, Larry.

Too late I remembered that Larry still wears the Pioneer pin he and nearly all of his team-mates were presented with by Monsignor McCarthy back in 1960 with pride and there followed a sharp short sermon on the damage ‘the drink’ was doing to players in Knocknavanna Gaels.

But Larry still enjoys, indeed lives for, the GAA and is largely happy with what he sees.

“I saw where some crowd brought out a report last week that GAA games were way behind other sports in participation. Where in God’s name did they get that rubbish?

“Sure there are GAA clubs in every parish in Ireland and, even in a junior club like Knocknavanna, it is the GAA that keeps the people going in these tough times.

“We have men’s and women’s teams and the children nowadays all get proper coaching, not like when we were playing.

“And, what’s more, the GAA club does a lot of great work in the parish other than just organising football. So, I have no worries about the real strength of the Association no matter what that crowd in Dublin are saying.

“And, anyway, they seem to be counting five-a-side soccer teams in the figures and sure even the Knocknavanna Gaels lads all play that stuff as well,” claimed Larry with gusto.

“But 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.

“Knocknavanna Gaels always meant more to me and my team-mates than the county team. The junior club championship medal I won in 1966 was as good as any All-Ireland medal.”

With that, he thanked us for the tea and headed off home.

“The two new hips have made me into a new man. I feel I could even play for Knocknavanna again with a bit of training – old style training.

“A happy Christmas to you and to all the people who have to read that auld column of yours every Monday!”

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