Saturday 18 November 2017

'I'm astounded by the passion he has for football. His interest never waned'

Gerry McEntee's fierce work ethic has made him a treasure in two counties, writes John O'Brien

MOCKY Regan stood outside the chapel and surveyed the sea of familiar faces. It was Thursday morning and the funeral of Liam Creavin, the former secretary of the Meath County Board, had drawn them together again. All the heroes and cherished friends of his past: Hayes, O'Rourke, Lyons, Harnan, Flynn, Beggy, Stafford. Mocky scanned the faces and marvelled at how kind the passing years had been to them.

A few months earlier, they had assembled in Seán Boylan's house in Dunboyne. It was a measure, Mocky thought, of how tight that bunch had been and its grim resolve never to drift apart. At the gathering they talked about how next year would mark the 25th anniversary of their first All-Ireland and a tentative accord was reached that something would be done -- a golf outing, a foreign trip -- to honour the achievement.

And whether through prompting or his own natural inclination, it came to pass that Gerry McEntee would take a lead role in the planning. To the group nothing would have felt more natural or appropriate. McEntee possessed a celebrated disdain for poor organisation and the casual disregard for small details. Who better to have at the other end of a phone line, moving things forward, sharpening appetites? It would be like old times.

As team masseur under Boylan, Mocky cherished all his friendships with the players, but finds it hard to think of McEntee and not recall something special. "You have to remember Gerry was there for years before we came along. He'd tell you about the day they played Clare in the league in front of 11 people and 20,000 seagulls. He went from that to 80,000 in Croke Park. He saw it all."

Even now, two decades on, the reverence in which McEntee is held is extraordinary. To Jack O'Shea, he is "a born winner, full of steel." To Bernard Flynn he is "a special man, an all-round great human being." Declan Darcy played under McEntee at St Brigid's and was subsequently a selector alongside him too. "You meet people in your life who make a difference to you," he says. "Mickey Quinn was one and Gerry McEntee was another."

Paddy Clarke was McEntee's co-manager when St Brigid's won the Dublin title in 2003 and Meath trainer when McEntee first appeared on the scene in the mid-1970s. "I'd say there are half a dozen special people I've met through football," Clarke says. "Dermot Earley and Seán Boylan would be two of them. And Gerry would be another. He'd be up there with them."

As a pupil at St Finian's and a student at UCD, McEntee hadn't dazzled many with his footballing ability, but Clarke's earliest memory is of a handy full-forward who, on his day, was capable of racking up a few scores. At the time, though, Meath had a shortage of hard-working midfielders and McEntee was shunted back to fill the vacuum. On the odd occasion they even tried him at full-back. Wherever he went, Clarke never heard him once complain.

"Gerry was always happy to sacrifice himself for Meath football," says Clarke. "For the greater cause. I don't know if he felt he could have been a flamboyant forward in the early part of his career, but he tapered his game to suit the needs of the team. For Gerry, everything revolved around the team ethic. And wherever he goes it still does."

That is how they remember him. The ultimate team player. A leader of leaders. As a medical student in Newcastle and Minnesota, they watched him fly back and forth for games and, knowing the brutal nature of the career path he had chosen, they marvelled at how well he coped. Bernard Flynn says he put football before everything. "He did that. Guys would have seen that and respected it."

The passion that drove him is easy to explain. Colm O'Rourke tells of the day in 1981 when Tony McEntee barged into the dressing room to berate the Meath selectors after a game. Other days they would spot him behind the stand during the closing minutes, overcome by anxiety and excitement and that combination of hardness and softness, well that was his son Gerry too.

He played hard, of course, and took defeat and personal slights badly. Flynn could tell you of the night McEntee could not contain his anger after being dropped for the 1991 Leinster final. Or of the day he cleared a table of drinks in a pub in Mayo after a dismal league performance. Yet he was also the player they saw breaking down in tears the morning after the 1991 All-Ireland final. The game elicited such emotional extremes from him. That's how much it mattered.

The 1991 final was his last game for Meath and Flynn doubts whether McEntee ever truly recovered from that setback. He hated losing and it hurt more if he suspected they had left something on the field behind him. St Brigid's defeat to An Ghaeltacht in the 2003 All-Ireland club semi-final was another dark day. "It killed him," Flynn says of that three-point defeat. "It absolutely killed him."

Clarke remembers how primed St Brigid's had been that day, how meticulously the build-up had gone, only for confusion to reign over the pre-match warm-up with the result that the St Brigid's players were left stewing in the dressing-room -- "like caged tigers" -- for longer than they needed to be and he has no doubt it contributed to their defeat. Such a logistical mishap would have cut McEntee to the bone.

As a manager, McEntee is regarded as a perfectionist, fussy about details, a quality likely incorporated from his professional career. As a surgeon, he is said to be a demanding taskmaster, never suffering fools gladly, yet with a keen interest in young doctors and the progression of their careers. As a teacher, students might bristle at the crudeness of his approach, but ultimately they acknowledge his contribution and, in football, many of his players would say the same thing.

With McEntee nothing is done half-baked. In the Mater he takes an interest in all aspects of hospital life, even helping out with the football team, and at St Brigid's his title of director of football hints at a role that is hands-on and all-embracing. In 2008, he managed the club as well as the Dublin minors. When Brigid's won the junior title and reached the intermediate final last year, McEntee had a hand in both camps. He works with the under 21s as well as the seniors.

Last Sunday you would have seen him in Lucan, patrolling the sideline as the Brigid's minors contested the B county final. A finger in so many pies yet nobody would suggest he is less than fully committed to any of the jobs he takes on. "Some evenings he'd be at the club at five to coach the minors," says Kevin Kilmurray, a former St Brigid's manager, "and then he'd go straight to the seniors. Maybe it's the nature of his job but Gerry doesn't really have a 24-hour clock. Whatever needs to be done, he does it."

Flynn long ago stopped wondering how McEntee could combine such a stress-inducing job with his burning passion for football. It was simply in him, never a burden. "We were at a charity golf function a while back and Gerry got talking to Darragh ó Sé and it was fascinating to listen to them. Gerry loves meeting top players. He loves talking about the game. It's a release valve from the professional world he's involved in. He'd be lost without it."

As a manager, McEntee's greatest strength lies in dealing with players on a one-to-one basis. In 2003, he had Clarke to look after training and, this year, Mark Byrne is with him to fulfill that role. McEntee can be hard on players -- the absent Declan Lally could attest to that -- but few would argue he is anything but fair and they are mostly willing to follow him. "He demands total commitment," says Kilmurray. "And if he doesn't get it, you're gone. It's his way or no way. He doesn't do U-turns."

Clarke looks at the team that face Westmeath champions Garrycastle in today's Leinster final. A fine group of footballers, he thinks, but not nearly as talented or flamboyant as the 2003 vintage. And that would suit McEntee just fine. Clarke watched them play eight weeks out of nine, eking out victories on bad pitches in the closing minutes through their fitness and will to win. As if McEntee had created a team in his own likeness, almost.

"They're more a Meath team than a Dublin team," Clarke smiles. "But I'd say he's never been happier. He has a team that would warm his heart. Nothing flash, just a hard-working group of lads and as honest as the day is long. That would suit Gerry to a tee."

If there is a mystery about him, it is that his undoubted ability to lead hasn't yet been translated to the senior inter-county sphere. Over the years Brian Cody has invited McEntee to address the Kilkenny hurlers on several occasions and that relationship is a compelling measure of how highly McEntee is rated among those at the top. "I'd love to see him as an inter-county manager," says Kilmurray. "To me, he'd be in the Mick O'Dwyer, Kieran McGeeney mould. Just exactly what Meath need at the moment."

In his native county the progress of McEntee in Dublin elicits strong views. They see him managing the Dublin minors, guiding St Brigid's to the cusp of Leinster glory, occasionally offering incisive opinions on the structures of Dublin football and they see a man who, to all intents and purposes, has worked himself into the fabric of Dublin football while Meath's need has never seemed greater.

"I'd love nothing better than to see him involved with Meath," says Flynn. "I've spent so many hundreds of hours on the phone to him and still, to this day, in his mid 50s, I'm astounded by the passion he has for football. His interest never waned even when he wasn't involved. If anything, it's grown over the past few years. And I do believe that as a person, as a Meathman, a part of him would love to be involved. But the set-up would have to be right, that's the big question."

For now he is of St Brigid's with his heart and steely glare set on an All-Ireland club title. Garrycastle will test them in Tullamore today but, knowing his old comrade, Flynn has little doubt McEntee's sights would be aimed higher. "I think the only thing on Gerry's mind this year is winning the All-Ireland. Anything less at the end of the season and he'll be bitterly disappointed."

For the born winner, nothing less will do.

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