Thursday 19 April 2018

A mighty loss for the nation

Martin Breheny GAA Editor

In response to the familiar greeting, much beloved of so many people, Dermot Earley always gave the same answer. "How're things, Dermot?" "Mighty. Mighty altogether." It could be on your way into Newbridge for an O'Byrne Cup game in dreary January or outside Croke Park on All-Ireland final day -- everything was mighty as far as he was concerned.

Dermot, who died on Wednesday at the age of 62, probably didn't realise that it was a description generally believed to be a perfect fit for his powerful shoulders. He had that kind of presence whether in military uniform, a tracksuit or casual gear.

Apart from his devotion to family, Dermot's life revolved around the Army and the GAA. It was as if they had taken over his spirit to make him the person he became throughout a lifetime of service to both organisations

Each fed into the other. The discipline of Army life ensured that, irrespective of what attempts were made to provoke him on the football fields, they produced no results, other than frustration for the opponent who knew deep down that he had lost the battle.

So, on the one occasion at either club or county level that Dermot was sent off, it caused him great distress. It happened in Croke Park in a Roscommon-Dublin National League game in 1975 and was viewed as a very harsh call by the referee.

What disappointed Dermot most was that he had even come close to putting himself in a position where the referee might consider sending him off. Good discipline was everything to him and he regarded being sent off as a stain. Nobody else saw it that way, but he took no consolation from that.

Nor would he have been enamoured with being regarded as one of the best footballers never to win an All-Ireland senior medal. It's an illustrious list, but Dermot would not have liked the idea of being feted for missing out on the big prize. That was not in keeping with his winning mentality.

Nobody expended more energy or effort in trying to make the dream come true for Roscommon than the man who, as a kid growing up in Gorthaganny, took his first football to bed with him in case some thief tried to spirit it away in the dead of night.

Two incidents from Roscommon's pursuit of the All-Ireland title during the 1977-82 period said much about Dermot's approach to the game. Late in the 1977 All-Ireland semi-final, as he lined up a '50' for what might have been the winning point, an Armagh official ran across his eyeline, passing some remark as he went.

Dermot kicked poorly, the game ended level and Armagh won the replay. There was an outcry over what was perceived as bad sportsmanship by Armagh, but Dermot ignored the fuss, pointing out that gamesmanship had nothing whatsoever to do with his faulty kick. Opting for rationale rather than indignation, he explained what had happened: "I should have approached the kick from an angle rather than a straight line. That's why I kicked so badly."

It was a perfect example of him taking personal responsibility, rather than seeking excuses. The missed kick was down to him, nobody else. In the 1980 All-Ireland final against Kerry, Roscommon galloped into a five-point lead early on, but ended up losing by three points.

Once again, Dermot looked inwards (this time at the team as a whole) for the reason for the defeat.

"We should have been more positive after we opened up that early lead. We had our chance but didn't take it," he said.

To him, life on and off the pitch was about taking personal responsibility. It was certainly no surprise to people in the GAA community to see his army career progress so spectacularly to a point where he was eventually appointed Chief of Staff. He had grown quite accustomed to meeting former players from around the country who, aware of his advancement up the Army ranks, would ask: "Dermot, when are you getting the big job?"

The response was always the same -- a wagging finger and a hearty laugh. His eventual appointment as Chief of Staff was a source of immense pride in the Association that one of their own had been chosen for such a high-profile and responsible position.

The involvement and success of the young Earleys in the sporting arena brought great fulfilment to Dermot and his wife, Mary, ever-present by his side at all games, great and small. There was a lovely cutaway TV shot of the proud parents in Croke Park during the 1998 All-Ireland final after Dermot junior scored a goal for Kildare against Galway.

It looked as if he was on his way to achieving something that eluded his father but Galway recovered to win the game. Shortly afterwards, Dermot senior was on a radio programme and the generosity of spirit he showed towards Galway, who, it must be said, thwarted him quite often during his own playing days, was typical of him.

When it came to sport, it was all about the next game, the next opportunity and the next challenge. He had been involved in Gaelic football all his life as player, manager and administrator, but never sought to live in the past or dwell on his own achievements.

I recall asking him in an interview in 2004 how modern-day Gaelic football compared to his days as a player. It's quite common for former players to glorify the past, but Dermot asserted that the game was better nowadays.

His comments about the psyche of modern-day players underlined his belief in younger people.

"They are better at handling pressure than we were. They are part of a more confident, adventurous generation, which helps them to cope with the challenges really well," he said.

Then, as if setting himself a challenge which, unfortunately, not even he could take on, he remarked: "I'd like to be able to play in the modern game to see would my abilities come up to the mark."

We all know the answer to that.

Irish Independent

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