Wednesday 22 May 2019

Even Dub legends cannot wave a magic wand in Wicklow

Foran, O'Leary and Magee have found that all is not rosy in the Garden County

TIME FOR CHANGE: Former Wicklow manager, Johnny Magee, says the current system does not really help less successful counties. Photo: Sportsfile
TIME FOR CHANGE: Former Wicklow manager, Johnny Magee, says the current system does not really help less successful counties. Photo: Sportsfile

Part of the Pale and yet poles apart. Some of them even talk with Dublin accents, but the diehards who have soldiered in the Wicklow GAA trenches speak a different language.

The lingo of low expectation.

This Sunday in Portlaoise, Dublin set out in pursuit of a record eighth Leinster SFC crown in-a-row. They've won 12 of the last 13; their opponents are one half of a select duo (Fermanagh being the other) never to have won a provincial senior football championship title.

And yet, vague hope springs eternal. In the past three decades, three decorated Dubs have made the short hop south to manage Wicklow: Dave Foran in the mid-90s, John O'Leary in the early noughties, Johnny Magee for a three-year stint ending last summer.

There have been flickers of promise, notably for Foran in year two (1996) when they won the O'Byrne Cup and gained promotion from Division 4.

O'Leary harboured even bigger dreams for his mother's native county, arriving with a long-term goal of a Leinster or league title within five years … the goalkeeping legend was gone after two.


But perhaps the most famous quote uttered by a Dub who managed Wicklow came from Magee. "I'm not bleeding Dumbledore," he remarked, at the end of the 2015 league, having watched Wicklow lose at home to London.

Did he ever regret his foray into the world of Harry Potter?

"Listen, it doesn't bother me. I was being pretty honest," he now tells The Herald.

But it deserves to be taken in its full context instead of turned into a glib headline. Magee was explaining how he could not "wave a magic wand" to replace the plethora of players he had lost that year to retirement, injury or unavailability.

The new boss had agreed to a round of local league fixtures if Wicklow weren't in the promotion hunt. Thus, a significant cohort who started against London had played for their clubs the previous evening.

In return, he would have unimpeded access to his squad ahead of their Leinster SFC opener against Meath.

"Because of the poor condition that the players were in, I said I needed six weeks," he recalls.

The flak that followed didn't bother him because of the "bigger picture"; as it turned out, they only succumbed to Meath by four points in Navan.

Magee had spent the previous year as a selector under Harry Murphy. Sadly, his first SFC defeat as No 1 would be the first of six on the spin; just one, his swansong qualifier against Laois, was played in Aughrim.

Maybe that explains his fervent belief that Sunday's date with his native county should not be in neutral Portlaoise.


"I know there are 7,000 Parnell Park (ticket) holders," he accepts, "but surely a compromise … the Leinster Council says 'Okay, the match is going to Aughrim, for those people who are going to miss out from a Dublin supporter's point of view, ticket holders, we're reimbursing you for the tickets for the next round'. It would be a great promotion for Wicklow, to bring the All-Ireland champions down to Aughrim.

"Or else why play it in O'Moore Park? If you asked any of the Wicklow lads, would they like to play it in Croke Park … I guarantee you they'd say yes. Most of them have not played in Croke Park yet."

Magee is now back at the club coalface with Kilmacud. Harking back to his Wicklow days, he concedes that getting all the best players on board, every year, was a headache.

"Anyone who did commit was always fully committed to the cause. Unfortunately, some players just couldn't commit. It's a huge commitment for a couple of games in the summer," he laments.

He wonders if playing for a Dub was an issue for some, but quickly adds: "I'd like to think that wouldn't be the case!"


Moreover, Wicklow's plight is not unique. "There's a huge amount of turnover of players - not just in Wicklow, in a lot of other counties," he says. "For me, the best competition for them is the league."

So what's the solution?

"The lads just want to play football. I understand some of the grievances, why some counties don't want a 'B' championship … there's a lot of ill-will towards it because of what happened with the Tommy Murphy Cup.

"If it's a second-tier competition, it would have to be respectful and help teams to develop and get to that next level. Whether you have the final as the curtain-raiser to the All-Ireland final."

The status quo for the Wicklows and Leitrims and Waterfords of this world - training so hard for two or three games, maximum, then no football for six months - is to "no one's benefit, and it doesn't happen in any other sport."

Whereas a competition that guaranteed six games in summer time would facilitate progression.

His Wicklow journey may be over but Magee was thrilled by their ambush of Offaly. He gave a league debut to Leaving Cert student Mark Jackson, Wicklow's point-scoring, penalty-saving hero 11 days ago. Darragh Fitzgerald, the sub who scored their goal against Offaly, made his SFC debut against Louth last summer.

"Delighted for the lads," he says, albeit "disappointed at all the negativity surrounding what happened with Offaly … I really thought it took away from Wicklow winning their first Leinster championship match in five years."

A second one might have to wait.

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