Monday 22 January 2018

Eugene McGee: Paul Barden - a GAA hero and a great

GAA icons such as the Longford man feed the hunger of next generation to emulate them

Paul Barden’s humility and demeanour, even on his greatest days with Longford, were exemplary and are his greatest legacy
Paul Barden’s humility and demeanour, even on his greatest days with Longford, were exemplary and are his greatest legacy
Eugene McGee

Eugene McGee

When Paul Barden announced his retirement from county football this week, it was more than just another long-serving player hanging up his boots and disappearing from the inter-county radar. In a county like Longford, and probably 16 others like it, a player like Paul Barden is much more than a mere footballer.

There are so few players of the calibre of a Paul Barden in one of these counties that he essentially represents the Longford football team in a personal capacity both in his own county and throughout the rest of the country.

So whenever people like myself visit other parts of Ireland and Gaelic football forms part of the discussion, the name of Paul Barden will automatically surface even to people who have never actually seen him play for Longford.

In effect, he is Longford because in the GAA we tend to rate county teams in the bottom half of the 32 counties largely by the reputation of their most famous player. So for then past 15 years Barden has been the brand name of Longford football.

Colossal

That's why his loss now is so colossal because we do not have another player to compare with him at present and so our county team becomes largely an anonymous bunch of ordinary players even if they will usually be competitive at their own level and occasionally above that in Qualifiers.

But the man who has pushed Longford into the conversation of GAA activity around Ireland is gone and Longford people feel somewhat bereft as a result.

I have known and watched Paul Barden since he played for Longford in the Fr Manning Cup (U-16) competition about 1997. One of the great thrills of county football, especially in less successful counties like Longford, is to see a brilliant young player emerging at that age and then following his progression to reach standards that would match leading players in Kerry, Dublin, Cork, Tyrone or Mayo.

This is the dream that inspires youngsters to emulate and old-timers to reminisce about former great individual players over the years who played the same role as Barden has done in his career - players who gave their county pride and occasional glory through their own personal brilliance.

Smaller counties in the GAA over the decades have always produced men like Paul Barden but, sadly, never enough of them at the same time to achieve something big on the national stage.

Packie McGarty was such a man who inspired Leitrim to four successive Connacht finals against Galway in the late 1960s, losing them all. Mick Carley of Westmeath, John Galvin (Limerick), Mattie Forde (Wexford), Peter McGinnitty (Fermanagh), Paddy Keenan (Louth), Kevin O'Brien (Wicklow) and many others who never even won a provincial medal.

Thankfully, there has been the odd exception whereby outstanding players from less advantaged counties did achieve national recognition such as Declan Browne from Tipperary who collected two All Star Awards.

And mention of All Stars reminds me that this is one of the greatest setbacks that a player like Paul Barden and others like him have to endure. There have been several examples where All Star awards have been granted to far lesser players than Paul and similar players from non-successful counties.

When the All Stars scheme started back in the early '70s more attention was given to the merits of players from such counties which saw Andy McCallion (1971) from Antrim, Paddy Moriarty (1972) then unknown from Armagh and Ollie Crinnigan (1978) of Kildare among others all get All Stars without exposure to the closing stages of the All-Ireland series, something which is very rare today.

Monitoring

There should certainly be scope for monitoring leading county players from February to September based on some sort of points basis so that the Paul Bardens of this world get All Star recognition such as on the two occasions that he was beaten to the honour by All-Ireland winning players that year.

Like all great players, I have known it was not just his football ability that set Paul Barden apart. He was a model player with regard to keeping himself in top physical shape, was an exemplary sportsman on the field and when he had spare time, he liked nothing better that coaching underage players from his native parish of Clonguish and never charged his club a euro for travel expenses.

The demeanour of a player and how he behaves on and off the playing field is often the decisive factor in how the GAA public measure great players and remembers them because some are no great adornment to the game other than playing it.

Paul's demeanour and his humility, even on great days when he electrified Longford supporters with his brilliance, were certainly exemplary and will remain his greatest legacy.

Venerable Sigerson Cup competition has been damaged by objections

The Sigerson Cup has a long and cherished history going back to 1910 and is the second oldest competition in the GAA. 

Therefore it is upsetting to see the carry-on last week when two third level colleges were thrown out of the Sigerson for allegedly fielding illegal players.

IT Sligo and Queens University both lost out in objections to each other about player eligibility and while there are still more appeals pending, I believe this behaviour is always totally alien to Sigerson or Fitzgibbon games going back the years.

In those times the games were always played a with a unique brand of sportsmanship that rarely bothered about rules, regulations or red tape but simply played the games and accepted the results as they fell.

There was one infamous occasion in the early seventies when UCC objected to a UCD player, Benny Gaughran from Louth, because he was studying for a Diploma in European Law, then a new qualification for EC purposes.

The objection was upheld and UCC went on to lose the final to Queens after the Cork lads had - supposedly - celebrated the night before, assuming they were out of the competition!

In recent years the Sigerson has been damaged by a bevy of objections and appeals far removed from what the spirit of that great competition has always stood for.

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