Eugene McGee was a trendsetter

SHOW OF RESPECT: The Mayo team stand for a minute’s silence in memory of the late Eugene McGee ahead of Sunday’s Connacht SFC quarter-final against New Yorkat Gaelic Park. McGee famously led Offaly to All-Ireland glory in 1982. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Before our time, we’re reliably informed there were GAA journalists considered dedicated followers of fashion. When the press box was populated by the Trillby and not the often unsightly Bermuda; when the windsor knot was the fastener of choice, not Velcro.

Those days have long since passed as much as some of the brands remain. In the case of younger colleagues vainly attempting to be down with the kids, it’s Farah shirts, not Farah trousers and Lyle and Scott has jumped off the golf course as Fred Perry did the tennis court.

Sartorial elegance has made way for functionality and reminders of our inadequacy are all too frequent. It was all in jest but at the launch of a GAA/GPA menswear sponsorship deal a few years ago former director general Páraic Duffy remarked the yarns the media told were more embellished than the ones they wore. Then there was a senior member of the Fourth Estate who upon gazing upon the evening attire of his 20-something acolytes on a recent All-Stars trip referred to them as “tramps”.

Five years ago, the Gaelic Writers Association (GWA) held their first of four consecutive annual awards dinners in Copper Face Jacks.

Generously hosted by proprietor and well-known GAA supporter Cathal Jackson, the events were rip-roaring affairs except for the fashion faux pas made by us organisers on that 2014 invite.

Now, “dress code: formal” to us style illiterates meant a dress or suit but to Eugene McGee it quite rightly meant something else. Into Jackson’s Hotel he stepped resplendent, wearing a tuxedo and bow tie.

Apologies were soon extended to him for the confusion or any embarrassment but he waved them off instantly. For someone who for decades ran the risk of offending others, it was wholly appropriate that he wasn’t upset easy.

McGee had been heavily involved in the revival of the GWA in the late 2000s. Keen to ensure the GAA media had a collective voice and their conditions of work did not deteriorate, he was a regular at AGMs and put forward motions. For many of the rest of us, it was heartening to see such enthusiasm in a leader in our field as it was startling that genuine GAA royalty was so much on our side. But then McGee was rarely on the side of the establishment, his service to the GAA more valuable aiming in than pointing out.

As former GAA president Liam O’Neill explained in yesterday’s Irish Examiner, it was McGee’s utter independence which appealed to him most when he appointed the Longford man as head of the Football Review Committee (FRC) in 2011. After delivering the black card in Gaelic football, O’Neill admitted his regret McGee wasn’t retained by the GAA in some sphere although spearheading the fight against cynicism in the game was quite the calling card.

There may come a time in the near future where we are all thinking again about McGee. No, not in the sense that somebody like James Horan or Peter Keane joins him, Liam Sheedy, and the small cast of managers who have prevented five-in-a-rows. Rather, the FRC’s proposals for restructuring the GAA calendar year.

While some of their recommendations like lowering the minor grade to U17 and finishing the Allianz Football League earlier eventually became reality, other remains on the shelf like giving ultimate fixtures power to the Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC), reshaping the provinces to synchronise the entire football Championship and playing at least one club championship game a month over the summer. Such foresight may rub off on the powers-that-be as they review the fixtures crisis in the coming months.

Looking at Ray McManus’ captivating photograph of McGee adjusting his collar as he assuredly walked out onto the Croke Park pitch from the old dressing room tunnel before the start of the 1982 All-Ireland final, it’s difficult not to consider the coolness of the then Offaly manager.

McGee was no James Dean and he would baulk at the idea of being considered an icon but he was a trailblazer in his profession as he was on the sideline, becoming the first of only two outside managers to guide a county to the Sam Maguire Cup.

The fearlessness with which he wrote about Gaelic games and those who administered it was an inspiration to all GAA writers. So often did he stand as a spokesperson for rural GAA and all its sensibilities.

His tone and delivery was akin to that of a chiding father but then he was acutely aware of how precious the subject matter was, how the amateur ethos and Gaelic football was being eroded and how they all had to be protected.

For all his withering words, few ever questioned his passion for the game or the organisation. Such was his gift. Such was his style. Such was his grace.

Email: john.fogarty@examiner.ie

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