Tuesday 16 January 2018

'It's just the way I am, my DNA' - Quiet man Burns has Down making plenty of noise in Ulster

4 July 2017; Down manager Eamonn Burns poses for a portrait after a press conference at Russell Gaelic Union GAA Club in Downpatrick, Co Down. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
4 July 2017; Down manager Eamonn Burns poses for a portrait after a press conference at Russell Gaelic Union GAA Club in Downpatrick, Co Down. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Declan Bogue

THE journalists hanging around the Pairc Esler dressing rooms were kept late on a Saturday night and - full disclosure time - getting a little antsy as they awaited the home manager to come out and offer his thoughts after they were hammered in front of the Setanta TV cameras by Donegal.

It was Eamonn Burns' first league game, a bit of a disaster, and he wasn't in much mood for talking. So he gave the impression it was costing him a rate of a pound per word.

And from that moment, to now, with Burns taking Down to the Ulster final, it has dawned on a growing number that we know virtually nothing of the Newcastle man, save for his occupation as a teacher and his role in winning two All-Irelands as a player skilful, athletic midfielder.

There are few managers that simply don't 'play the game' as he can. 

Last Friday at the Ulster Council launch of the final in the Armagh City Hotel, he was in relaxed form as the question was put to him. Is he really that reticent?

"I wouldn't seek the limelight or glorification. It's just the way I am, my DNA, I seek to do things quietly and keep things ticking over," he replied.

He is married to Sinead Mullan, a daughter of Brian of Ballerin, who played for Derry in the 1958 All-Ireland final. Her mother, Madge Rainey, captained Antrim to an All-Ireland camogie title in 1956 and played until into her '60s.

"She says she is a Down woman, but I have to take her word for it," grins Burns.

The two have two sons, Cathal (18) and Thomas (15) who attend St Louis' in Kilkeel, and while he says the current run is "exciting for them," he reminds us that, "You could imagine when they were going to school in February and March when we weren't going great, they might have got a bit of stick."

As a player, his former manager Pete McGrath describes Burns as, "Very low-maintenance. Eamonn certainly was one of the quiet men. In saying that, he certainly was a good communicator when he needed."

He adds, "There are some players who are high maintenance all the time just by their nature and their personality and even the way they play the game. In Eamonn's case he got on with it, he was here to train, here to work hard and do the best we can, to realise the potential on any given day."

As a team mate, Gregory McCartan had a unique insight. Though he was to later partner him in midfield, he had an early introduction.

"When I was 14, Eamonn taught me in school. He was an RE teacher in St Mary's. It didn't work out too well for him, that one!" recalls the Castlewellan man.

"He comes across as very quiet, and he is a very quiet man but he was one determined player, I can tell you," says McCartan.

"He has had 18 months of hard press and whatever else. But he was one determined boy I can tell you. A really fit fella, he looked after himself, (had) a great physique and he was quite outgoing when you got to know him.

"He was never much of a media man anyway. You had Greg (Blaney), DJ (Kane), Ross (Carr) got more media attention whereas Eamonn just went about his business."

In the 1991 All-Ireland final, Burns was set up by Greg Blaney for two points, sliced beautifully over the bar with the outside of the right boot.

"He was a fantastic player," McCartan bubbles.

"Sometimes, other players get the plaudits and that day he kicked two amazing points, both on the run, both outside of the boot and it was the sort of kick I would have remembered playing with him for. He was the outside of a boot kind, hitting points and passes with that."

During the winter, Aidan Carr was trying to make his mind up whether to return to the county panel or not. Becoming a father was one of the issues he had to weigh up, but as he reveals, "Eamonn was great and said ‘whatever you need, let me know’. He trusts me enough to know I wouldn’t take the piss."

Carr's father Ross and Burns have a strong relationship going back to their playing days. Aidan was also familiar in a football sense with Burns when he served as a selector under James McCartan's management.

When the criticism got hot and heavy, the way he handled it wasn't lost on the players inside the bubble.

"It was a tough situation he came into, didn't get easier as the year went on. As much as the players should have taken responsibility for what went on, he took the flak," recalls Carr.

"Any of the interviews, the first thing I noticed was he was mentioning himself, taking the flak away from the players. He didn't really have to do that and he got a lot of stick from Down people, from non Down people, the press."

Still. In this age of 'the manager', when every success and failure is attached to the figurehead of the group, Burns still seems an unlikely one.

But if we are to listen to Pete McGrath, maybe he had his eye on this all along.

"I do remember Eamonn and I doing some kind of an interview in my first year in Newcastle before we played Dublin in a National League match," recalls McGrath.

"I forget the context of it, but I always remember that day. They asked Eamonn about his career to date and could he ever see himself managing his county and he said he would.

"I am not saying he then went out of his way to publicise himself or put himself up there are a would-be manager, but certainly he was a man who would have confidence in himself."

And here he is, taking his place on the same sideline as Mickey Harte. Leading Down to an Ulster final.

In his own unfussy way.

Belfast Telegraph

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