'Blunt, down-to-earth and 100pc honourable' - Eugene McGee remembered

Sunday, 5th May, 2019 6:54pm

'Blunt, down-to-earth and 100pc honourable' - Eugene McGee remembered

Eugene McGee (left) during his time as Cavan manager.

Paul Fitzpatrick looks back on the life and career of the inimitable Eugene McGee.

On the Tuesday evening before the 1982 All-Ireland SFC final, there was a new man togged out at the Offaly team's training session. David Walsh, the Irish Press journalist, was in town to write a feature on the Faithful.

Walsh, a gifted writer, wanted to do "something special" for that weekend's edition. It helped, no doubt, that Offaly manager Eugene McGee was himself a well-known Gaelic games scribe and was open to whatever Walsh would suggest.

Three decades later, in an interview with the Sunday Independent, McGee recalled what happened next.

"I said, 'Look, if you want to come down and tog out and behave as if you're an Offaly player, that's okay'," McGee told journalist Paul Kimmage.

"And that's what happened. He came down to Ballycommon and trained with the team and was there for the team talk afterwards. But you couldn't imagine that happening today... There's a huge contrast to how managers behave now with the secrecy and all that sh*te."

The story summed up McGee, whose sudden and untimely passing last Sunday shocked and saddened the Gaelic games world. He was bold, ballsy, ambitious and totally dismissive of the bullsh*t industry which now surrounds the inter-county game.

Most people involved in GAA journalism will have had some connection with McGee, who was involved in it since the 1960s. I have my own McGee story.

Six years ago, I wrote a book about Cavan's 1947 All-Ireland success in the Polo Grounds. It was published by Ballpoint Press, owned by PJ Cunningham, an Offaly native and former Sports Editor of the Irish Independent.

In the final couple of weeks before the book went to print, PJ suggested that we ask McGee to pen a foreword. I emailed Eugene the draft and a few days later, got a text from PJ.

“McGee is going to call you,” he said. I didn't know what to expect.

A few minutes later, the phone rang. It was Eugene and we spent about 20 minutes discussing the book and football in general. Contrary to his reputation as gruff and straight-to-the-point – and he was certainly those things – he could not have been warmer towards me, wishing me well and later devoting a column in the Indo to the book, which gave it a priceless boost.

Because when McGee spoke, GAA people listened, particularly in rural areas. He was a straight talker and did not suffer fools gladly, traits which stood to him both in football management – first with UCD and later with Offaly – and in business.

Away from sport, McGee was a visionary journalist who had a gift for understanding the local community. Under his direction, the Longford Leader thrived and, in the end, he sold it for a reported £10 million.

He later made a deep contribution to football through his column in the Indo, required reading on Monday mornings, and as chairman of the Football Review Committee.

McGee is best-known for managing Offaly to the 1982 All-Ireland, stopping Kerry's 'drive for five' in the final, but his second coming as an inter-county manager was here in Cavan, where he was appointed to look after the senior team in September, 1984. He had been headhunted for the role by his friend, then-county board chairman Phil Brady from Arva, and was the unanimous choice of both the county executive and the clubs, and it was no wonder.

Less than two years had passed since he had led Offaly to that most famous success. There was a huge wave of optimism in Cavan when he took charge, with The Anglo-Celt noting that “this is the first time that the county has sought outside help to attempt to avoid the slide into total football oblivion”.

In hindsight, that was a gross exaggeration given that Cavan had been in the Ulster final, losing narrowly to Donegal, the year before but such was the standard the supporters still set for the team that there was a mood of despondency around their chances, especially as the 1970s were the first decade in which Cavan failed to win an Ulster senior title.

Against that backdrop, McGee – a proven winner and man born within a stone's throw of the county boundary - was viewed as a Messiah. Before he spoke to the delegates that night, he was granted a standing ovation.

Cavan made progress in his four seasons in charge, came close but the breakthrough didn't happen and he moved on but he always kept close ties with the county and was a regular visitor to Kingspan Breffni.

Interestingly, in his address on the night he took the reins here, McGee had remarked that he would “treat each player on the Cavan panel as if he is my own brother”. That was more than an idle comment. McGee's older brother, Fr Phil, had been a famous man in his own right, a founder of Moyne Community School and a driving force for football in the area whom his brother admired and adored in equal measure.

Fr Phil died from a heart attack aged 47 in 1975. Nine years earlier, McGee had lost a sister, Alice, to a freak accident in Dublin at just 27. Those tragic events shaped the man he became.

“The big positive,” he wrote in his memoir, “is that we can be inspired by such events and they can influence our lives thereafter.”

During McGee's time as Cavan manager, the Leader brand extended into this county as a rival to the Celt. Cub reporters such as RTE's Ciaran Mullooly and sports journo Kevin Óg Carney, of this parish, were given their break by McGee on the paper, which was tabloid in size and full of colourful articles to take on the more traditional mainstay that was the Celt.

Another youngster whom McGee 'discovered' was Damien O'Reilly, currently a long-established RTE agricultural correspondent. Damien had grown up in Dublin of Cavan stock and wrote to McGee asking for a work experience placement, to which he agreed.

In his first week, the teenager drew on the stats he had been collating for years and had his first by-line.

“Beside the piece,” O'Reilly wrote years later, “McGee wrote an editorial and described my article as 'excellently researched'.

“A week or two later, I met him in person for the first time. He had this habit of not looking at you when he spoke to you. He was a straight down the line sort of man. He stood with his back to the wall and hands tapping the radiator behind his legs and looking down at his feet, he said: “You have a great aptitude”.

“Then he added something about “being mad in the head” to want to be a journalist. But it’s a snapshot in time which I remember and which gave me a great boost.

“I ended up staying the summer and on my last Friday, when the envelope with all the pay cheques arrived into the Farnham Street office of the Cavan Leader from head office in Longford, I recall the receptionist Ann Donoghue shouting excitedly down the corridor that there was one for me too.

“I opened it up. And there it was handwritten. Pay Damien O’Reilly, £100. Signed, Eugene McGee. I photocopied it for posterity. It is probably in a box in the attic of my parents' house today.”

Later, when Damien began work in Montrose, McGee heard him reading out the farm news and commented “That's RTE for you, getting a fella from Castleknock to talk about bullocks and heifers.”

He was famous for dry one-liners such as that. Mullooly quoted another on Twitter today; after meeting McGee at a funeral recently, his former boss observed “All the big guns are here”.

“He revelled in hitting you with the killer line of comic and caustic humour and turned on his heels,” said Mullooly, who described his mentor as “blunt, down-to-earth and 100pc honourable”.

Unfortunately, the next major GAA gathering on the agenda in north Longford will now be Eugene's own funeral, which will be, without doubt, one of the largest gatherings of the various Gaelic games tribes ever to be seen in the area.

Not just County Longford but the entire country has lost a unique and truly brilliant man. Our sympathies to his wife Marian and children Linda and Conor and his many friends and neighbours.


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