herald

Wednesday 17 July 2019

McGee's seat in the lore of GAA

Sad passing of a giant who kept the Faith to KO Kerry drive for five

Offaly manager Eugene McGee makes his way onto the pitch before the start of the 1982 All-Ireland football final against Kerry at Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile
Offaly manager Eugene McGee makes his way onto the pitch before the start of the 1982 All-Ireland football final against Kerry at Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile

Eugene McGee was a straight-talking man of many fascinating facets. He was a giant of Irish journalism, though he'd probably frown at you for saying so. Yet that will not be his most lasting legacy.

Rather, he will be remembered forever as the Gaelic football manager who, in 1982, helped to slay Goliath: the great Kerry team that everyone presumed would complete the sport's first ever five-in-a-row.

Yesterday morning came the profoundly sad news that McGee, who was in his late 70s, had passed away suddenly overnight following a family event.

His death has been mourned throughout the GAA, most poignantly in his native Longford and his adopted Offaly.

It came as a particular jolt to this reporter, who had met the man only two-and-a-half weeks previously.

Feature

I had phoned seeking an interview for a five-in-a-row feature, tied in with The Herald's upcoming GAA championship magazine ... not alone was McGee more than willing to help but immediately suggested we meet in person.

Willing to give up his time, doubtless to answer the same questions he had faced countless times before over the past 37 years.

We chatted over lunch in Ballymahon for an hour and more - about newspaper gossip and, on the record, about 1982. The context, of course, was Dublin's looming quest this summer to succeed where Mick O'Dwyer's Kerry had come up tantalisingly short.

At one stage, a local interrupted with an apology to shake his hand and say hello.

Later, McGee confided: "I'm surprised that man there now didn't start talking to me about '82. That's what usually happens me. Right up to this day ... I've had that at least every month since '82."

I wondered if he ever got fed up with it all, conscious that I was doing the very same thing.

"Look, it's the little badge of honour," he replied. "Now bear in mind, I never was a player. I was never a player really. But anyway, I digress."

Maybe not a player but a man of so many other achievements. Long-time football commentator with myriad newspapers - as a columnist with the Sunday Press, Irish Press, Sunday Tribune, Evening Herald and, most recently and for many years, the Irish Independent.

Just as significant, if not as widely known, was his involvement at the coalface of local journalism. For many years he served as editor and also managing director of the Longford Leader, helping to modernise and revitalise the paper after a long and damaging strike.

In that, and other guises, he was a voice for rural Ireland and a champion of the underdog.

Yet it was as manager of the ultimate underdog - Offaly - that he secured a permanent place in GAA history.

McGee had first appeared on the managerial radar when leading UCD to Dublin and Leinster success and then back-to-back All-Ireland club football titles in 1974 and '75.

History-making

He was appointed Offaly boss in 1976 at a time when Dublin lorded over Leinster and beyond, ironically after taking over from the history-making Offaly team of the early '70s.

Gradually, this son of Colmcille in north Longford transformed his adopted Faithful back into a major force. They won a hat-trick of Leinster titles, starting in 1980.

Yet, for all the genius of Matt Connor, no one expected McGee to derail Mick O'Dwye r's drive for five.

As the man himself reflected in that recent interview: "Kerry were invincible to the outside world. A lot of genuine people would be hoping that Offaly wouldn't be slaughtered, because of the urge to win the five-in-a-row. Like, if Kerry won that by ten points, nobody would be complaining because it was a special event, it was a once-in-a-lifetime event. But the once-in-a-lifetime event probably got to Kerry."

In the weeks leading up to a final forever remembered for Séamus Darby's dramatic match-winning goal, McGee retained a "strong belief". And that extended to his own dressing-room: "We never got the feeling in the last two or three weeks, before the match, that we couldn't win. Never."

McGee subsequently managed Cavan, in the mid to late-80s, and also Ireland in International Rules (then under the Compromise Rules label), leading the tourists to victory on Australian soil in 1990.

In later decades he remained in the spotlight, not just for his frank and forthright newspaper columns, but also for his occasional high-profile forays into GAA administration.

Approaching the new millennium, he was involved in the Football Development Committee (FDC) whose radical proposals, while unsuccessful, ultimately paved the way for the introduction of All-Ireland football qualifiers in 2001.

More recently, he chaired the Football Review Committee (FRC) that championed the introduction of the black card rule.

Imprint

In summary, be it in his various roles as journalist, author, manager, administrator, he left an indelible imprint not just on the GAA but on Irish life.

"Eugene McGee was a giant of Gaelic football," said GAA president John Horan in a tribute yesterday.

"Like Mick O'Dwyer and Kevin Heffernan, with whom he shared so many sideline battle of wits, Eugene was considered a man ahead of his time and responsible for creating a new era of popularity for the game in the '70s and '80s."

The president went on: "He was passionate about rural Ireland and of the important role that GAA clubs have to play in supporting these communities. Indeed, he was only recently assisting our Community and Health department in an ambassadorial role for an event in Longford."

At this sad time, sympathy is extended to his wife Marian, daughter Linda, son Conor and many friends.

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