Obituary: All-Ireland winning Down captain and coaching guru, Joe Lennon

Footballer, teacher, trailblazer - we remember All-Ireland winning captain Joe Lennon

Down legend Joe Lennon meets then President of Ireland Mary McAleese at Áras an Uachtaráin in 2009. Picture: Cathal Noonan

The mid-to-late 1950s was a period of flux unlike any seen before or since in Ulster football.

In 1956, Tyrone lifted the Anglo-Celt Cup for the first time; the following year, they retained it and in 1958, Derry captured their debut title.

The next year, though, brought the greatest sea-change of the lot. Down arrived and football would never be the same again.

The Mourne men’s first Ulster title was achieved with an astonishing 2-16 to 0-7 win over Cavan which The Irish Press described as “thoroughly deserved, utterly convincing and wonderfully popular”.

The GAA world almost spun off its axis, delirious Down supporters among the 30,000-strong crowd scaling the goalposts in celebration.

At midfield for the Mourne men was Joe Lennon, aged 25 and in his sixth season on the team. Little did anyone know that one of the great GAA journeys was only just beginning.

Joseph Francis Lennon, who died last week aged 81, was a man of the world, in every sense. At every turn in his life story were remarkable feats and interesting titbits. His wife, for instance, is a direct descendant of the Bronte sisters. In 1968, Lennon, All-Ireland winning captain, donated the ball from the final to the famine appeal for Biafra.

Born in Poyntzpass, Co. Armagh, he moved with his family to Aghaderg, Co. Down aged 11.

He began his working life in a betting office before qualifying as a meteorologist, his work taking him to the Isle of Man, the Shetlands and the Persian Gulf, where he spent two years recording data on the upper atmosphere.

There was an itch he needed to scratch, though, and soon he relocated to Lancashire to train as a maths, science and PE teacher. From there, he went to Loughborough University and his eyes were opened; soon Lennon the coach was born.

By 1959, he had taken up a teaching post in Kidderminster but recalled flying home to play with Down “30 to 40 times per year” during his time in the UK West Midlands.

Down would retain the Ulster title in 1960, going on to win their first All-Ireland with an eight-point win over Kerry in the final.

And in 1961, they repeated the feat.

Down’s remarkable rise — they were the first GAA team to wear tracksuits and pioneered advanced training methods and tactics based on dashing forward play — caught the imagination of the sporting public and they smashed big-game attendance records as they went.

As Brendan MacLua wrote in Gaelic Weekly News in 1968, when Down were on the eve of their third All-Ireland (only Lennon, Dan McCartan, Sean O’Neill, and Paddy Doherty played in all three): “Yes, Down broke down all the barriers — shattered them, and in doing so re-channeled the whole reservoir of quality football.”

They broke new ground and inspired a new, confident breed of Down footballer. From having won nothing — ever — the county went on to win 12 Ulster titles and five All-Irelands in 35 years. The darkened, secluded world of elite Gaelic games, in the ‘Six Counties’ and elsewhere, had been illuminated.

“Joe was like a patriarchal figure to that group,” stated Colm McAlarney last week, who followed him in the red and black.

“We were young players coming in sharing a dressing room with our heroes from when we were children. I was 12 when Down made that historic breakthrough in 1960 so all those players, the trailblazers as I call them, were our heroes.”

They were the thinking man’s team and Lennon, who would captain the 1968 side at 34, was the thinking man’s football icon.

Coming from a small farm (“15 acres of medium land and 15 more of bad land” as he recalled himself) and having learned football in its most primitive form — one of his earliest memories was of his father taking sideline throws, which were out-lawed in 1945 – Lennon set out to change the game.

His first book, the seminal Coaching Gaelic Football For Champions, came out in 1964 and was based on his Loughborough thesis. A teacher at the Franciscan College in Gormanston named Fr Louis Brennan read it and was so impressed that he wrote to Lennon and invited him to run a summer course.

So Lennon, along with his brother John, Derry’s Jim McKeever and Cavan’s Jim McDonnell, devised an exhaustive programme and wrote to every county board in Ireland inviting them to send representatives. Thirty-one did, and the notion of coaching in Gaelic games had arrived.

Not that it was readily accepted at central level. The GAA, mired in conservatism and fearful of change, were afraid coaching would foster professionalism and a backlash ensued.

“I was cynically referred to as the high priest — the bishop of coaching. In those days, the annual reports of GAA county secretaries had much more clout than now and for the next 10 to 12 years, they invariably condemned coaching,” Lennon recalled in 1997.

McDonnell, who first met Lennon when they played against each other as minors in 1952 and lined out against him in five Ulster finals, as well as alongside him in the Railway Cup, remembers it well.

“I don’t think it was approved of by the authorities at the time,” says McDonnell. “Joe asked Jim McKeever and myself to give him a hand and it took off. It covered the various skills and went into great detail. Alf Murray was president at the time and they were sceptical about it, it wasn’t the done thing. I remember [Kerry great] Jackie Lyne labelled us, disparagingly, something like the Gormanston professors!”

But the courses persevered and, by the turn of the following decade, the gospel had spread; soon, the entire association was converted.

By then, Lennon had taken up a full-time position in the north Meath school and published his second tome, this one entitled Fitness For Gaelic Football. He threw himself into training teams in Gormanston, guiding them to three Leinster senior titles and a first Hogan Cup success in 1973 with a team featuring future Kerry great Ogie Moran.

In 1980, he took over the Down senior footballers and managed them, the following year, to the Ulster title. Such was Lennon’s standing in the game that he regularly appeared as an analyst on RTÉ’s The Sunday Game, also contributing frequently to newspapers and always, it seems now, ahead of the curve. Many of his theories were uncannily prescient. In that 1997 interview for the book The Voice From The Sideline, he suggested that the square ball rule needed to be amended or scrapped, that all footballers should be required to wear gumshields and hurlers helmets — all of which came to pass, 15 years and more later.

And Lennon had long railed against what he felt was an anti-football agenda, whereby the game was criticised while hurling was showered in universal praise. He pointed out that over 97% of the rules are common to both sports.

“Therefore,” he posited, “if the football rules are deficient, the hurling rules must likewise be deficient.”

He also believed referees should be professional and that the provincial pre-season competitions should be sidelined, changes which could yet materialise.

Lennon never stopped learning, and teaching, either. In 2000, he was awarded a PhD for his work Towards A Philosophy For Legislation in Gaelic Games.

Of all his former colleagues who paid tribute on his passing, perhaps O’Neill summed it up best.

“Joe,” he said, “did all he could to get the very best out of himself. That was just the kind of man he was.”

A fitting epitaph for one of great trailblazers.

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