Friday 24 May 2019

Eugene McGee's final interview: 'I think Dublin will do it but I'd be worried if I was Jim Gavin. I'd be very worried'

Eugene McGee and Jim Gavin (left)
Eugene McGee and Jim Gavin (left)

Frank Roche

FOR a man supposedly famous for his straight-talking to the point of bluntness, Eugene McGee was in loquacious form when we met in Ballymahon just a month ago.

The transcript extended to well over 3,500 words – and that merely comprised the official ‘interview’, focusing on the one event that dominated his multi-layered life story like no other.

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We were there to talk about the 1982 All-Ireland SFC final: the five-in-a-row that never happened, thanks to Offaly’s chutzpah and the shrewd management of their Longford leader.

Writing this now, it seems hard to fathom that McGee is no longer with us. He seemed in relatively fine fettle; in fact, it never even crossed my mind that here was a man in his late 70s.

For many years I had shared a variety of press boxes with him; several times our seats high up in the new Hogan Stand were side by side.

You’d never hear him boast about the heroics he had overseen on the old Croke Park pitch far below. That wasn’t his style.

But when I phoned last month, seeking his words of wisdom for a five-in-a-row feature to coincide with the launch of this year’s football championship, he instantly agreed. And when we met up a few days later, he was generous to a fault with his time and his recollections of the most famous All-Ireland final of them all.

There is an added poignancy that he passed away suddenly early last Sunday week - the very day that kickstarted the 2019 championship, in faraway London and New York.

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Many expect that this year’s campaign will culminate in Dublin winning their fifth consecutive All-Ireland – the same tantalising target that eluded Mick O’Dwyer’s Kerry in 1982.

I was particularly keen to discuss how the hype and pressure of five-in-a-row impacted on that ’82 final. As manager of the underdogs, McGee was not a direct witness to the mania sweeping Kerry, reflected in the records and T-shirts and suffocating expectation of supporters.

But he was a razor-sharp observer; he could see the signs. He also knew a lot of Kerry people, having shared a Dublin flat for three years with John O’Keeffe, and understood the Kerry ethos "probably more than most".

In his role as Offaly manager, he "hardly ever mentioned five-in-a-row at all", instead concentrating on "our merits and their merits" … but I suspect he was quite happy to witness the unfolding narrative of Kerry as shoo-ins for Sam.

As he recalled, the five-in-a-row talk "overshadowed everything. And I mean, Offaly were an afterthought because very few people genuinely thought we’d be able to beat them, especially with Kerry going for something they’d never achieved before, that they were going to produce something special for it.

"Unfortunately for Kerry it got to the whole population of Kerry - it swamped the county."

Mick O’Dwyer’s fears were reflected in his reaction on the Thursday before the final to a hawker selling five-in-a-row t-shirts outside Kerry training in Fitzgerald Stadium.

"Micko lost the plot," Mikey Sheehy recalled, speaking to The Herald for our championship supplement last week.

And yet his Offaly counterpart – himself a man of the media – was not in the business of suffocating publicity or dimming the spotlight on his own dressing-room.

He recalled how sports journalist David Walsh, then of the Sunday Tribune, was invited down to partake in an Offaly training session on the Tuesday night before the final.

"He togged out – he probably didn’t do the fitness training, but he did everything else," McGee explained.

"(He) listened to what I said after the training, in the dressing room, exactly as a player, and walked out, no comment from me at all … it just shows you the difference now between media coverage, I mean, you wouldn’t get within an ass’s roar. And it didn’t do any harm, obviously."

That cameo underlined McGee’s generosity of spirit. It was also reflective of a very different era.

"It’s important to stress, top-class GAA was quite simple that time," he pointed out. "Simple in the best, positive sense. It wasn’t high pressure.

"You didn’t have any army of psychiatrists and psychologists running around the place. You didn’t have 50 journalists writing GAA, you’d about ten … so it was low-key. 

"From Offaly’s point of view, the day-to-day life was very low-key. We trained two or three times a week; I wasn’t resident in Offaly, I only came down for training sessions. Most of the players were resident, but it was mundane enough.

"And of course, Offaly’s prestige had jumped and their self-belief had jumped because they’d won the hurling the year before. That was an extraordinary achievement. 

"Then, people forget as well, they’d won two All-Irelands ten years earlier. People forget that Séamus Darby won an All-Ireland ten years earlier. And Seán Lowry. And (Martin) Furlong.

"So, there was an ethos of success in Offaly which hadn’t been there before and will never be there again. It’s just that period."

A special era, perhaps, but many will argue that Offaly football would never have achieved its crowning glory without the input of their manager.

McGee reckoned he had studied Kerry "far more intensely" than O’Dwyer had studied Offaly – for the valid reason that Micko didn’t have to, Kerry were so good.

That Kerry team, in their pomp, were ravenous and ruthless. Offaly had played them at numerous pitch-openers and tournament games, and "invariably there’d be a minimum of five goals scored, if not six.

"Furlong used to be getting as thick as a bull, every match, because it was the same story."

Then they all-but-repeated the dose with 4-15 (to Offaly’s 4-10) in the 1980 All-Ireland semi-final.

But then in the 1981 final, when Kerry made it four on the spin with a seven-point win over the Faithful, "there were no goals scored by the star forward line and only one by the midfielders (Jack O’Shea) ... 99.9 per cent of the GAA population didn’t notice that at all."

But someone did. A manager whose name will forever be linked to the five-in-a-row that never was.

And while we were on the subject, I asked him for his opinion on whether the current Dublin team could reach a destination that eluded Kerry 37 years ago.

McGee could see the many pitfalls facing Jim Gavin’s history-chasers. Ultimately, though, he was swayed to believe Dublin will make history.

"I think they will do it," he said, "because he has the manpower to do it as well. Ah, they’ve enough variation in their game.  

"Now, he has made an art of winning All-Irelands by tight margins," he expanded. "They’ve covered everything that’s ever been done in football, all the options, all the tactics - they’ve dealt with them all. In summary, the record of Dublin this last four or five years is outstanding. The fact they won the matches tight, to me it’s a badge of honour really, more than if they won them easily."

"I don’t know would Offaly have been rated as high-risk for Kerry," he mused, harking back to ’82. "There’s nobody going to be high-risk to beat Dublin this year. Even Mayo, I don’t think, unless Mayo burn the place up ... so, it’s hard to see.

"But I’d be worried if I was Gavin. I would really be worried, because a good few of the players are over the 30 mark, for a start. And motivation is their problem now. When you win four, if it wasn’t a magical figure it would be just another All-Ireland."

On a more positive note, he added: "It’s a big challenge for Jim Gavin, there’s no doubt about that. I’d say he’s well able to ride the challenge because he’s a highly intelligent man … he’s above the ordinary, he’s not an ordinary Joe Soap."

If Dublin are to be stopped, who did he view as the county most likely to 'do an Offaly' on them? "You’d have to say Mayo because our path was fairly similar to Mayo," he surmised, reflecting on Offaly’s incremental climb to the summit.

And what of his old rivals from the south?

Watching Kerry in the recent Allianz League final, they had appeared to his eye 'too immature to win a national title'. But this was 'understandable', given their youth.

"They have three or four players to stitch in ... it could make a big difference," he went on. "If it was a Dublin/Kerry final, the willpower behind Kerry people would be colossal, psychologically. And half of the Kerry people are in Dublin. It would be one of the great finals of all time." 

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