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A captain who put his team above all

In an interview in the lead up to yesterday's Heineken Cup match at the RDS, Leinster and Ireland number eight, Jamie Heaslip spoke about managing a team. "There's no point dictating to people -- you work with them and you have more success, I think. In anything in life, you build up loyalty and someone will go above and beyond the call of duty for you."

These words were very apposite in the week when this paper lost its charismatic leader, Aengus Fanning.

Aengus wanted to be a winner every Sunday. Losing hurt. He drove himself, but led his staff. When he strolled out of his office into the newsroom that housed his team, and stood up on a desk -- as he often did -- and called for attention, you knew that the message would be positive. He loved introducing good news. On one occasion he actually sang.

Even if a colleague was moving on to another post, or another paper, he would be effusive in his praise. But more often that not it was about circulation figures, about the numbers that measured success and failure. And as they were generally kind to him, reflecting the pre-eminent position of the paper for the vast majority of years he was editor, he simply spoke of the outstanding work of all who contributed. He was the ultimate team player.

I first met him in April of 1988, for lunch. One hour, one course, one question. And when I moved to Abbey Street after 29 years with the Press group, it took me a few months to settle. What carried me through that time, and for the ensuing 18 years, was the enthusiasm that Aengus brought to our relationship.

One of the first problems I had concerned the dog results which were not making the country edition on time, or on a regular basis. Aengus responded. He got the managing director Joe Hayes to accompany me to the Caseroom where new procedures were laid down. The message was loud and clear from on high: everything was possible.

Not that there weren't moments of disquiet. On one occasion a conversation in his office was going quickly downhill, to the extent that the telephone was picked up and sent crashing to the ground. Having retreated, with some haste, to my desk, the phone rang. 'Adhamhnán, what did you think of that?' he inquired in his soft, lilting Kerry tone. Where Aengus showed great strength and purpose was in recruiting writers. Give him a name, provide reasons why the person would add a new dimension to the sports pages, and his backing would be total. Even if he had some reservations, he always came up with the required finance.

One such case was a meeting we had with the former Irish rugby international and manager, the late Mick Doyle. Would he like to do a weekly column for the paper? He was enthusiastically receptive but there was a significant stumbling block; his fee. I was hugely concerned. Not Aengus, though. 'I'll look after it, Adhamhnán. You make all the other arrangements'. And into the night he went, no doubt wondering once again how the hell he was going to balance the books.

What Aengus brought to the Sunday Independent in terms of flair and quality, he also brought to his sporting activities, particularly Gaelic football. Mick O'Dwyer spoke to me last week in glowing terms of the Kerry minor who had the talent to be an outstanding senior player, but subsequently switched his attention to rugby, playing with UCC and Tralee. However, it was cricket that beguiled him. There was a flurry of interest in his early days in Tralee on a home-made wicket, but as the years went by he became a serious student of all aspects of the game, making regular trips to England for Test matches, feasting on the outstanding array of literature that honours the game and, finally, arriving at the moment which must have ranked highly in his list of outstanding personal achievements.

Although well into his fifties, he decided to put together his own cricket team. Called the Sunday Independent Cricket Society, the talent available to him within the newspaper was somewhat meagre, so he went out to the highways and byways to give it a stronger core, and succeeded in attracting a number of players from the subcontinent. So, together with an in-house contingent, the team went into action through succeeding summers with many talented guests, among them Namal, Raj, Rahul and Ram.

The Sunday venues ranged from Headfort School in Meath to Mount Juliet in Kilkenny, with our Patriarch insisting that winning was everything. He provided all the equipment, but not being blessed with a watch that kept good time, matches were often delayed before his open-topped car arrived overflowing with players and equipment.

Entrusted with the captaincy on one occasion, I took the slightly unorthodox decision of putting the opposition in to bat, but Aengus quickly appraised me of my folly. However, within an hour, and seven of the opposition dismissed for 50-something, I was looking forward to post-match vindication; that is, until the game took a dramatic turn. I never got to lead the side again.

More Geoff Boycott under pressure than Kevin O'Brien in full flow, the editor was a wicket-taker in almost every match; as a fielder, always in the deep, he never refused to answer his phone during a game.

It was on the Monday after the All-Ireland football final in September, seated outside Insomnia, his sub-office in Blackrock, that I last spoke to Aengus. The disappointment of Kerry throwing away a 'game that was won' didn't sit too well with him, but was balanced somewhat by the fact that Dublin had got a monkey off their back.

He also spoke of the dark days that followed treatment when he in lay in bed without the inclination or the ability to read a paper, when he despaired of regaining good health. Yet, those moments of recollection were quickly cast aside. "You know," he said, "there is nothing as strong as the will to live."

Within minutes of parting, our paths crossed again, fleetingly. He had come out from the Central Café, dressed immaculately in hat, long coat and red scarf, carrying a brown bag. He held it up, and called to me across the road. "Chips," he said, "a man must eat."

He was smiling, and so was I.

Adhamhnán O'Sullivan was Sunday Independent sports editor from 1988 to 2006

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