Players of the Faithful

By John Scally

This year marks the 40th anniversary of perhaps the most famous match in the history of the GAA. The late Eugene McGee brought Offaly back to the top table after Kevin Heffernan’s Dublin had reigned supreme in Leinster for years.

Eugene McGee had come to prominence with an all-conquering UCD side that proved their greatness by winning back-to-back All-Irelands in 1974 and 1975. There he learned much about management in his jousts with the legendary Kevin Heffernan. On a damp evening a few years before he left us Eugene recalled his triumphs for me.

“Kevin Heffernan and I had many a run on in the sidelines, first when I was with UCD and he was with Vincent’s, then when I was with Offaly and he was with Dublin. We didn’t like each other very much back then, because we were both competing for the same titles and we both wanted to win very badly and he was a huge obstacle to me and I was a threat to him. That said I always had great regard for Kevin and what he did for the GAA in Dublin.

I think it would be fair to say that he was very hostile in football terms to anybody who he regarded as a threat to his ability as a manager. We became closer after we left the inter-county scene and were no longer a threat to each other. I would regard Kevin as one of the greatest GAA people I have ever met and when he passed away, I felt genuinely very sad but privileged to have fought, and won, many battles against such a warrior down the years.”

“Managers feed off the kind of hostility Kevin and I had on the sideline. The exception is Seán Boylan. He genuinely respects opponents and never bases his approach to big matches on personalised animosity. It’s impossible to dislike Sean, let alone hate him. I’m glad he wasn’t around in my day!”

Like Ger Loughnane in Clare getting the Offaly job in the first place was one of his biggest challenges. There were four hurdles to be jumped. He was not from Offaly. He had no pedigree as a player. Even worse he was a journalist! Some of the Offaly legends from the All-Ireland winning teams of 1971 and 1972 fancied their chances of succeeding their team mate ‘The iron man from Rhode’ Paddy McCormack.

Enter a man of vision, foresight and bold moral courage. In 1976 the new county chairman Fr Seán Heaney knew intuitively that radical surgery rather than a band-aid solution was necessary if Offaly football was going to scale the summit again. They had just been relegated to Division Two and had lost emphatically to Meath by nine points in the Leinster Championship. Their glory days looked like they were consigned to the dustbin of history. Fr Seán persuaded McGee to take over the reins.

The appointment was far from universally welcomed. By 1980, McGee led Offaly to a Leinster final, in which they were beaten by Dublin. But the county board delegates hadn’t taken to McGee. They attacked him covertly by insisting that he appoint four more selectors. During one match in Cork, the team manager stood on the line while the selectors sat in the stands. When he sought to make a change, McGee had to run up the steps for consultation and a vote.

It was obvious to all and sundry that he was being publicly undermined. In response, for a big tournament game, McGee selected the team himself and didn’t tell the selectors anything. He informed them, ‘That’s the team we’re playing.’ Fortunately for him they won. That night, the four selectors wrote to Fr Heaney telling him they could not work with McGee. For the second time Fr Seán had the courage of his convictions and swam against the prevailing tide. The following morning, each selector found a brief note through their postboxes thanking them for their services. History would vindicate the man who today continues to minister to his flock in Tullamore but away from the sometimes shark-infested waters of GAA politics.

It’s Five in a Row

McGee would reward the faith placed in him and masterminded perhaps the most famous All-Ireland win in history in 1982. The team had been building nicely though. After defeating Dublin in the 1980 Leinster final they contested a thrilling All-Ireland semi-final. In a match played at ferocious pace that generated a feast of scores Kerry came out on top by 4-15 to 4-10. An astounding statistic from the game is that all of Offaly’s scores came from just two players, Gerry Carroll who got 2-1 and the extraordinary genius of Matt Connor who scored 2-9.

The second installment came in 1981 in a tight match in the All-Ireland final. The Kingdom won their four-in-a-row because of the goal of the year which saw six Kerry players handling the ball in a sweeping move which culminated in Jack O’Shea unleashing a rocket of a shot. An indication of the confidence in Kerry of winning the All-Ireland in 1982 came a few weeks before the match of the team’s victory song, ‘It’s Five in a Row’.

The late Páidí Ó’Sé once recalled his memories of the game for me: “It was a massive disappointment to lose in ’82 and a memory that has never left me because we were minutes away from immortality. We had plenty of chances to win the game but we became too defensive when we went four points up and this allowed Offaly back into the game. People say if Jimmy Deenihan was in there the famous Seamus Darby goal wouldn’t have got in and they were right. Jimmy knew how to “put manners” on anyone. I think it was a bigger deal for our supporters than for us. I think we were the better team but the result said otherwise. Fair play to them and if ever a footballer deserved to win an All-Ireland it was Matt Connor.

“The first half was open and it was a very good game of football. During the second half it started raining fairly heavily and the game deteriorated a good bit. Kerry dominated for a long time and Offaly were lucky enough to stay with us. Martin Furlong’s penalty save from the normally lethal Mike Sheehy was very important. If we had scored that, I don’t think they would have come back. The rest is history. They were four points down and got two frees to put them two points behind. Then a long ball came to Seamus Darby and he banged it into the net. All Croke Park went wild but there was still a minute and a half left in the game and they had to hold on with all their might.”

The closest time I ever saw Eugene McGee come close to glowing was when I asked him to describe Seamus Darby’s goal. We sat as the night closed in around us: “I’m sure it is probably a false memory but when I think of it now over 30 years later I remember everything slowing down and the ball smashing into the net and because it was a wet day there was a shower of raindrops. I was never so happy to see raindrops.”

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