By PJ Cunningham
How ironic that in a five-in-a-row season which kicked off in London and New York last Sunday that we should lose one of the great figures surroundings the 1982 final, which saw Offaly sensationally stop Kerry’s ‘High Five’ bid thanks to Seamus Darby’s late, late goal at Croke Park.
The brains behind the winners that September Sunday was the manager Eugene McGee, a man who never kicked a ball in anger himself but ended up plotting one of the greatest upsets in Gaelic football history.
McGee translated his magnificent seven Sigerson Cup wins with University College Dublin (UCD) on the college circuit into that glorious Sam Maguire victory 37 years ago – ensuring his place in history would loom large thanks to this great deed of leadership against the all-conquering Mick O’Dwyer Kingdom outfit.
The Longford man though was much more than a one-trick pony in the GAA – he was a leading journalist who helped form opinion among his vast readership across a number of newspaper titles over a number of decades
Unlike those who often only preach, McGee was also a rule-maker as he led committees which brought in two of the most important systems to govern the modern game – the backdoor playing structure and the controversial ‘black card’ guidelines with the express view of outlawing cynical play in football.
He was proud to win the 1990 series on a 2-1 basis, adding to his series of accomplishments.
Once he succeeded in sporting achievements, the UCD graduate turned his hand to business and as well as writing ground-breaking weekly columns at various times for the Sunday Press, Sunday Tribune, Evening Herald and latterly the Irish Independent, he became the editor, co-owner and CEO of the Longford Leader, which was reputedly sold for over €9 million in 2002.
Eugene’s time in Offaly saw him meet his future wife, Marian, a sister of Tomas and Liam O’Connor from the All Ireland winning Offaly team of ’82. They were blessed with two wonderful children, Conor and Linda.
Loyalty was the one virtue Eugene sought and gave as the cornerstone of his friendships. I knew him for over 40 years, initially as an Offaly panellist myself in the seventies, and later as a sport editor working with him through various newspapers.
Given his decency and genuine class as a person, I am happy to count him among one of my dearest friends since that time.
We undertook many projects together but undoubtedly one of the best was in the editing and publishing of his book five years ago – ‘The GAA In My Time’ which looked at half a century of his life both within and outside the GAA.
Our families became very close over the years and the sadness of his passing was all the more palpable as my wife and I were at his son’s wedding on Saturday evening. What no one there foresaw was his sudden death in the early hours of Sunday morning.
The news of his passing shook Ireland and indeed the globe where Irish people congregate as word filtered out on Sunday morning.
He was truly a legend of his time and the tributes which poured in from all sides proved something I had always known since first meeting him – that above all else Eugene McGee touched people in every strata of Irish life.
Ar Dheis De go raibh a anam.
Ruislip drama leaves London feeling empty
In Spring, a young man’s fancy likely turns to thoughts of love but in summer, it’s the championship that supersedes all emotions for Irish sports lovers the world over.
On Sunday, London and New York had the distinction of hosting the first two salvoes into the 2019 series by welcoming Galway and Mayo respectively to Ruislip and the Bronx.
The fact that neither home side was successful in winning the match is hardly relevant, though it must be said London put up a really good performance.
What mattered more was the Irish people living in exile were able to experience first hand the start of the race for the Sam Maguire.
These matches are ‘finals’ in themselves. Indeed, I believe the GAA should put up cups in both London and New York for these games so that in the case of the home teams, they are also playing for something more tangible than gallant losers’ tags.
And no, I am not forgetting how London got to a Connacht final six seasons ago after 30 years of trying or how Mayo escaped by the skin of their teeth after extra-time in 2011 on a 0-19 to 2-10 score-line.
However, this summer I am expecting both Galway and Mayo to be big players in the business end of a championship that will either see Dublin complete an unprecedented five-in-a-row or fail a la Kerry in 1982.
As I said a few weeks ago, Galway have the potential if their management team overcomes their own inferiority complexes to stage a real battle at bringing Sam back West of the Shannon for the first time since they themselves last won the cherished vessel in 2001, when they hammered Meath by 0-17 to 0-8.
With a plethora of young lads blooded in the league and a number of top players like Damian Comer and Pádraig Conroy returning from injury, they have sufficient arrows in their quiver to hit the bulls-eye.
Mind you, they didn’t cover themselves in glory against London on Sunday but then most teams will find Ruislip a hard place to go to – and Galway will be the better for living through such a hard opening challenge.
Like the Tribesmen, Mayo have uncovered good young additions to their squad in the likes of Matthew Ruane, Fionn McDonagh, Ciaran Treacy and Michael Plunkett. Tom Parsons is also making rapid progress.
Manager James Horan has a veritable cornucopia of talent at his disposal.
I think we saw the intent in Gaelic Park on Sunday night where it was evident players were playing for places. They did what good teams do – they killed off any hope of an upset early and then proceeded to build on their work.
Meanwhile, Dublin will do what Dublin do best at this time of year – disappear off the radar. They will emerge to use Leinster as a training ground to hone their sights for the ‘Big 8’ and subsequent big battles.
Right now, they are the team to beat and with the first week of the championship over, the five-in-a-row is theirs to lose.