Saturday 23 March 2019

'It was totally unjust on Stephen Cluxton' - Billy Morgan on All Star controversy and a lifetime with Nemo Rangers

Nemo Rangers and Cork have always been at the heart of Billy Morgan's career in the game

This afternoon, Billy Morgan will be watching Nemo take on Dr Crokes. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
This afternoon, Billy Morgan will be watching Nemo take on Dr Crokes. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

In 1982 Billy Morgan went to New York with his wife Mary and sons Brian and Alan where he spent the best part of four years.

Before he left, his club Nemo Rangers hosted a special event celebrating his achievements. There was a review of a glittering career modelled on This is Your Life and the club pavilion was jammed with players and ex-players and mentors and well wishers. The Lord Mayor attended. Jimmy Barry Murphy joined the numerous others offering tributes. Morgan had played his last match for Cork the previous year, a National League tie against Dublin at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Half the age he is now, he already had hero status.

Less than ten years before he had become the first Cork man since 1945 to be presented with the Sam Maguire. The same year Nemo Rangers won the first of a record seven All-Ireland club titles, defeating St Vincent's in a replayed final, he was named the Texaco Footballer of the Year, still the only goalkeeper to achieve that distinction.

Through it all, Nemo remained his anchor, and still does. He won his first county championship as a player in 1972 and managed the team that won the club's last All-Ireland in 2003.

It is ten years since he finished managing Cork but even as recently as this year the idea of Morgan returning to manage the county had support. Since ending his ties to the Cork team he has spent his time managing UCC and the intermediate footballers in Nemo. But, at 72, he has adjusted to a more sedentary life. He's a spectator most of the time. Today he'll be in the stand watching Nemo take on Dr Crokes in the Munster club final.

It all winds back to your club in the end. Morgan has been fortunate to remain with the club he grew up with, that moulded him and which he influenced in a great many ways. He enjoys telling a story for which he has been mercilessly slagged from time to time. In a way it is a parable about the GAA itself. Some years ago Nemo Rangers underwent a major redevelopment of its premises and introduced new staff and a restaurant with an eye to fine dining. The Nemo crest was embroidered on the napkins. They were going high end.

Billy Morgan shakes hands with Liam Sammon before the 1973 All-Ireland
final. Photo: Connolly Collection/Sportsfile
Billy Morgan shakes hands with Liam Sammon before the 1973 All-Ireland final. Photo: Connolly Collection/Sportsfile

"When we were doing up the clubhouse that time there were some people who had high-faulting ideas," he says, "and they brought in a manageress. And she was told to run the place like a five-star hotel. I was told there was a letter for me behind the desk. So I went up to the club and this lady said, 'and who would you be sir?' In an English accent. Well that didn't last long - the five-star hotel idea - because we were losing money hand over fist. It came up at an agm that we were losing 30 grand a month or something like that."

Billy Morgan being asked for his name in the Nemo clubhouse was a signal that something had been lost along the way, well intentioned though the idea to upgrade may have been. Nemo Rangers is the most successful football club in Cork with the most familiar football figure in Cork football in its midst. The club's strength is in how grounded it has managed to remain in spite of roaring success. It hasn't been about the trophies fundamentally. In that respect Morgan is the perfect embodiment of its core beliefs and values.

Most who have played for Nemo, even at the highest level, stay within the club and contribute something in return. They find that they do so without much persuasion. "That is quite true," says Morgan. "Steven (O'Brien) went in and Larry Kavanagh and Joe Kavanagh. They're involved with the senior team. Colin Corkery was a few years ago. Dinny Allen was in charge of the hurling team. Jimmy Kerrigan, funny enough, did the training with him. The senior players, when they finish playing senior, drop down to intermediate and even as low as junior B.

"Of course it is a closely-knit club and we've been called clannish at times. You do have people coming back. Tony Nation is looking after the under 15s and under 16s at the moment. Sean Hayes, even though he is involved with Cork, the under 21s in recent years and now the seniors, he was involved with the minors last year."

Clannish has connotations of insularity but Morgan sees only positive aspects. He remembers growing up in the 1950s and heading down to the club where the kids played table tennis, pool and rings and how those relationships matured and lasted a lifetime.

"Frank Cogan (former Nemo and county player) supplied the phrase that you'd never see a Nemo man on his own," says Morgan. "And you wouldn't. They'd go to the pictures together, holidays, whatever, and to this day that has followed on. I notice with the young fellas now, they are a different generation and they stick around together. And long may it continue."

Morgan played up to around 50, winning a junior league with his two sons, with one of those, Brian, eventually manning the Nemo goal like his father. "He started out the field, he went in goals by accident really. He was playing junior and the juniors were stuck for a goalkeeper and he went in. Now, he loved playing in goal. So he graduated then to the intermediate team. And then on to the senior team and he actually captained Nemo to win one county (and Munster title in 2010). And Alan, the other fella, he played up to a year ago.

"I remember he (Brian) did play in goal at under 12 level. But I didn't want him playing in goal because I didn't want him compared to me. To be putting pressure on him. I regret that now. He didn't go back into goal until his mid to late 20s and he was a very good goalkeeper. If he had played in goal since a young fella he would have played senior with Cork. He had a very good kick-out, what I didn't have. I used to slag (former Cork half-back) Jimmy Kerrigan that he'd never have been heard of but for the fact that I couldn't kick the ball long."

Billy Morgan celebraters Nemo’s All-Ireland victory in 2003. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Billy Morgan celebraters Nemo’s All-Ireland victory in 2003. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Indicative of the changes that have swept over Gaelic football since Morgan's playing days is the fact that one of the best goalkeepers of his time had a weak kick-out. Now a strong restart is an essential part of a goalkeeper's repertoire. "I get slagged about Stephen Cluxton," says Morgan, in a nod to the most celebrated kick-out exponent of all time, "in that people tell me I was doing the same because I was going short, but because I had to."

On that subject he was surprised that Cluxton did not win this year's All Star award. "I thought it was totally unjust on Stephen Cluxton. I mean (David) Clarke is a very good goalie but Cluxton is head and shoulders above everybody. I couldn't believe it when he wasn't picked."

Morgan has undoubtedly been a confrontational figure. Though soft-spoken and gentle in private, the sporting arena often saw him lose his cool. He fell out with people yet he remains, even among those with whom he encountered conflict, admired for the service given to club and county. And his disinterest in managing elsewhere or following the money trail has also endeared him to many.

"I couldn't understand coaching a team that would be in opposition to Cork or Nemo," he explains. "And I couldn't understand going into a dressing room and holding up a jersey or the colours of other counties or clubs and thinking it meant the same thing to me. I have had offers from counties. The only county I might have managed was Galway because I am half-Galway, my parents were from Galway (from Mullagh). I was half sounded out for the Galway job, I said no. Afterwards I was wondering about (the possibility of accepting) it."

He spent a year in the late 1990s as an advisor with the Wicklow footballers when Niall Rennick was manager but the long drive drained him and he still found the experience to be slightly unnatural. "There was no chance they were going to meet Cork. My heart wasn't in it really. And they were nice fellas."

He has no issue with managers being paid because of the time involved. But he is no fan of mercenaries, talking off the record of one inter-county manager he sees as being motivated by money with an increasing portfolio of geographically dispersed teams under his belt.

Morgan coached Cork when they won the National Football League in 1980 while still a player, but his two management spells in charge of the county were the main episodes in the second chapter of his career. When he returned from the US he took on the job determined to break the stranglehold of Kerry in Munster. Kerry had won 11 of the previous 12 Munster titles but under Morgan Cork conquered the province at the first attempt in 1987. From there they held control of Munster until 1991, winning back-to-back All-Irelands along the way. Controversy erupted when Morgan's reappointment was opposed for the '91 season. He had adversaries on the county board but such was the outcry that followed that they eventually relented and he was reinstated.

With his confrontational style, it was no surprise that he sailed close to the wind many times. The roots of his troubles with board officers go back to the Three Stripes Affair in 1977 when the footballers insisted on wearing adidas gear then outlawed under GAA rules for not being of Irish manufacture. The most prominent officer throughout Morgan's life has been Frank Murphy, the long-running secretary whom he has known since childhood. Yet while they had their differences, a level of mutual respect remained.

"I have a lot of time for Frank Murphy," he states. "He has done a lot of good things. People don't realise. He doesn't publicise them either. I had a working relationship with him." He tells of advice he got when dealing with Murphy: don't go asking can you do something, tell him you are doing it; don't show weakness. "I fought my corner with Frank and found him OK."

He relates a time the footballers' physical trainer Teddy Owens and himself decided they needed to spend money on a weights training programme. They identified one in UCD which would cost €30,000 and put the proposal to Murphy and some leading executives.

"So he said, 'no, Jesus! Thirty grand! Can't ye do this yourselves?' Then he said he would have to put it to the executives on the board. So we sat down with the executives and there was this smart-ass board member who thought he was ridiculing us, sucking up to Frank. Then Frank asked us what do we get for 30 grand? We told him and he went, 'yeah OK . . .' and then he backed us."

Being angsty with executives is not a good way to ensure a long management term and despite his success the move against him in '91 wouldn't have come as a shock. He knew he had opponents in positions of influence. He recalls a 12-point document produced at the time in the case against him continuing, including incidents where players were unruly on weekends away, some alleged to have trashed a hotel room, and where he was deemed to have been socialising too much with the players.

Another charge followed a run-in with a high-ranking county board man over a request for a small amount of money for gym training. "He rang me one night and I was actually helping my young fella with his homework, and it wasn't going so well, and then I went and picked up the phone and there is this fella talking about the 25 quid (a week). You know, I said, it is a vital part of training and all this. He said, 'can't you do it yourself?' I said, 'weight training is fairly specialised', I wasn't expert enough in it. He kept going on and on and I said, 'look, don't worry about it, I'll pay it myself' - and I said 'go fuck yourself' and hung up the phone."

They reached the All-Ireland final in 1993 and lost the next two All-Ireland semi-finals before he pulled out. In 2003, after a poor season which saw Cork defeated by Limerick in Munster and by Roscommon in the first round of the qualifiers, he returned. "At that stage Cork football was at a very low ebb. I had a bunch of selectors with me and our intention was to give it two years and at the end of that two years that we would leave Cork in a better place." He stayed for four, leading them to another All-Ireland final in '07, losing to Kerry.

Having made his frustration known over Cork's poor form in recent years, Morgan is more positive about what lies ahead. He feels Ronan McCarthy, who took over recently, will do well and bring about improvement and greater consistency.

His most unusual offer was when he was asked to manage Cork City in 2008 after the departure of Alan Mathews. "Tom Coughlan rang me up, he was chairman of Cork City at the time, and I met him and he offered me a job. I remember saying to him, if I take this job I'll need a coach. He mentioned Jeff Kenna. I didn't take it anyway."

Most of his wars have been fought at this stage and most of his matches played. Semi-retired, and recently home from a month-long trip to Spain with his wife, he has UCC to keep him busy through the winter months. On Thursday they defeated NUIG in a higher education senior league semi-final in Limerick. Soon he will be looking to add to their Sigerson collection. "The season is nice and short," he says appreciatively.

"We were five points down and won by seven," he said on Friday of the previous day's win with UCC. The buzz in his voice spoke volumes.




Ulster SFC final

Slaughtneil v Cavan Gaels

Athletic Grounds 3.0

Cavan Gaels have scored 20 goals in 28 games, and if they look less accomplished in the art of putting the ball over the bar so far the goals have compensated for that shortcoming. They include the five that doomed Derrygonnelly in the Ulster semi-final replay last weekend, three supplied by Paul O’Connor (pictured) in the full-forward line.

Goals may not bail them out today. Slaughtneil, 14 clean sheets in their last 16 games, won’t concede five and may well concede none at all. What then? Cavan Gaels will hope to make it as difficult as possible for their prized opponents who are seeking their third Ulster win in the last four seasons. But they will have to produce a season’s best to win.  

Remarkable to think that this is the first Cavan appearance in an Ulster club final since Bailieboro lost to Mullaghbawn in 1995. Last time Cavan Gaels were this deep was in 1977. Unless they suffer an alarming drop in focus Slaughtneil will retain the title they regained last year and move a step closer to St Patrick’s Day.

Verdict: Slaughtneil


Connacht club SFC final

Castlebar Mitchels v Corofin

Tuam Stadium, 2.0 (TG4)

This marks the fourth meeting of these clubs in recent years that started in 2013 with Castlebar’s surprise win in Tuam. Two years ago they had a memorable win over the reigning All-Ireland champions in the Connacht final, but lost in the semi-finals last year after extra-time.

They have shown that they have Corofin’s measure but the loss of seasoned campaigners in Richie Feeney and Tom Cunniffe will have weakened them. Neither have they been playing well. They come in as outsiders but still a dangerous threat to a Corofin team hoping to rekindle the magic that led them to All-Ireland glory in 2015. 

Corofin are looking for a fifth provincial title win in ten years, Castlebar a third in five. A win for Corofin will put them clear on the roll of honour with eight overall.

Verdict: Corofin


Munster club SFC final

Nemo Rangers v Dr Crokes

Páirc Uí Rinn, 2.0

Dr Crokes have supplanted Nemo as the leading force in Munster club football since the Cork club won their last provincial title in 2010, beating Crokes in the final. Crokes responded by winning the next three provincial titles, and four in all. They are warm favourites to make it five today, in spite of the annoyance of losing a toss for home venue.

Crokes have been in impressive form and winning matches comfortably. They’ve conceded only one goal in seven championship games, the only blip being against South Kerry in the county final.

Nemo were careless when letting St Finbarr’s back into their county final, blowing an eight-point lead which led to a replay, before seeing another lead almost evaporate in their second meeting. Luke Connolly, Paul Kerrigan and Barry O’Driscoll are capable forwards but Crokes have more talent around the field, better form, and greater experience. It should be sufficient. 

Verdict: Dr Crokes


Leinster club SFC semi-finals

Rathnew v Moorefield

Aughrim, 2.0

A sensational win for Rathnew over St Vincent’s in the quarter-finals places them in the spotlight as they bid to reach the provincial final for the first time since being crowned champions in 2001.

Moorefield conquered Leinster in 2006 but haven’t been back in a final in the meantime. They have former county players including Daryl Flynn, David Whyte, Kevin Murnaghan, Eanna O’Connor and Ronan Sweeney in their ranks and talented young players like defender Mark Dempsey and midfielder Aaron Masterson.

They have the football, and the prospect of a physical match won’t daunt them, having survived the county win over Celbridge after being reduced to 13 men. Rathnew include the experienced James Stafford at midfield and Leighton Glynn in attack and a spirit that is hard to break. But Vincent’s will be a hard act to follow.

Verdict: Moorefield.


St Loman’s v Simonstown Gaels

Mullingar, 2.0

Not too often a Westmeath team is favoured to beat a Meath rival. Shane O’Rourke, Brian Conlon, Sean Tobin and Seamus Kenny are some of the better known players in a visiting team known for a strong work ethic and good defence.

Their recent win over Starlights was the first win by a Meath club in Leinster since 2013 and the county last reached the provincial summit in 2002. They face an obvious threat from John Heslin, with Paul Sharry another Loman’s will be relying on. They also include Offaly’s Ken Casey, having a fine year at corner-forward.

Potential weaknesses for the home team include the full-back line and a lack oflack height at midfield.

Verdict: Simonstown Gaels

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